One week ago, I stumbled across a stair race online. I hadn’t heard about it before. I signed up. It was on a whim, but the race was different and cheap ($15). It was called the Inclinator, and this little race ended up being one of the toughest events I’ve ever done.
The Inclinator event happened at the Stairs on Division, a public stairway going up a hillside in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had never been to these stairs before, but they remind me of countless stairways I used to train on in Los Angeles. This stairway had 145 steps divided between eight flights. Here’s the first half…
…and the second half, as seen from above.
There’s a railing going all the way up the center, and there are outer railings, too, but they’re missing in a few places. The stairway connects a big road called Division with Fairbanks Street, on top of the hill, in a neighborhood called Belknap Lookout. At the top of the stairs is a residential street that ends in a cul-de-sac.
The Inclinator is put on by a local Grand Rapids group called the Old Farts Running Club, and the objective is to race up these stairs 36 times, because that the equivalent of climbing the Manitou Incline, a famous, enormous, mountainside stairway in Colorado Springs. (Check out my pictures from when I climbed the Manitou Incline here!) This year they added an even more intense option, called The Punisher, which is a 50-climb challenge.
I’m not quite sure how they calculated that equivalency. The Manitou Incline has 2,768 steps, but climbing this stairway 36 times totals 5,220 steps. The Manitou Incline has an elevation gain of 2,011 feet, but climbing this stairway 36 times totals a elevation gain of 2,493. Perhaps my Garmin didn’t take an accurate measurement of the gain, or perhaps there’s another method of comparison that I’m not considering?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. I love a good challenge, and 36 climbs is more than just a good challenge.
The even was a very low-key affair, but it was very smoothly run. There were 33 participants, about evenly split between the 36- and 50-climb options. You could show up and start anytime between 7:30 and 9:30am that morning. It wasn’t chip-timed, but they did note everyone’s start and stop times, down to the minute. You went up the right side, and came down the left side. Passing happened on the outside, I think to give slower climbers access to the continuous center rail. Every time you came down the stairs and finished a lap, you shouted out the number written on your arm, and a volunteer marked in on a big board. Often times, they shouted back how many laps you had done.
I arrived at 7am, and was ready to go shortly after. No need to prolong the inevitable! I started my first climb at 7:13am. The first few laps were all about getting familiar with the stairs. They were steep. They were in pretty good shape, but a few had crumbled a bit. Having railings on both sides was great, because I could use both of them to my advantage, but there were a couple spots where the outer rail was missing.
It dawned on me pretty early on that I underprepared for a challenge like this. I had done my first all-stairs workout since arriving in Michigan just last week, and my lack of training on actual stairs was apparent. I felt good going up the stairs, but going down was awful. The pits. I don’t train going down on stairs – it’s difficult, and dangerous, and a majority of the stair races I do only involve going up.
Half of this race, though, was spent going down, and I decided early on to not push myself too hard on the downward parts. I’m never going to finish my #40years40races challenge if I sprain my ankle, break a bone, or tumble to my death.
By the 8th climb, I felt pretty certain I wasn’t going to finish. I felt so terrible, and 36 climbs seemed so far away, and I wasn’t even 1/4 done. That’s when I broke it down and set smaller goals. I intended to take a couple short breaks during this event, and decided my first one would be after 10 climbs. I’d take my other breaks after 20 climbs and 30 climbs.
Thinking about 2 more laps instead of 26 more laps put me in a much better mindset. I polished off my 9th and 10th climb, and took a little breather – five minutes or so – and drank some water. I had been climbing for about 35 minutes.
I found a much better rhythm during my next ten climbs. I was used to the steps, found a pace that was slow but maintainable, and focused on the music I was listening to instead of the agony and exhaustion my body was experiencing.
I took another break after 20 climbs. My friend Melissa had shown up, so we chatted a bit. She came by just to support me and our friend Steve, who was in the midst of competing in The Punisher, and ended up doing 10 climbs herself, just for fun.
I was worried that, after taking a break, I wouldn’t be able to find that rhythm again, but I did, and I kept climbing. The sun was high enough at this point in the morning that it was perched just above the stairs, beaming down right into our eyes, blinding us.
Before I knew it, I had 30 climbs under my belt. I had been climbing for 2 hours and 20 minutes.
I was relieved, when I started climbing again, knowing that I only had six climbs left. Every muscle fiber in my body was achy, and my legs were trembling. My clothes were completely soaked with sweat, and sweat was rolling down my face like I was standing under a faucet. My shoes were so sweaty that liquid squished out with every step, like I had just walked through a puddle.
When I heard the volunteer shout out “35 climbs!” I knew it was time to hustle. I like to end strong, and that meant a sprint up the stairs for my final climb. I pushed myself, switched back to double-stepping (after single-stepping for the prior 25+ climbs), and went for it. I reached the top and had to brace my hands against my knees to stay upright. But I still wasn’t done.
I started my final descent, and decided to sprint down, too. I don’t like racing down stairs, but I was so close to the finish line, so I made an exception. And I wish I hadn’t. About halfway down, I stumbled, or tripped, or something, and I felt my legs give way, and all of a sudden my feet were barely making contact with the steps, and my body was lurching forward….
…But I caught myself. I don’t know how I did it, but I grabbed the handrails and prevented a fall that would surely have been disastrous. A guy was climbing up at that moment and saw everything, and in that moment, when I had a death grip on the railings and I was so terrified I wasn’t even breathing, asked “are you ok?” His words snapped me out of my what-the-hell-just-happened daze, and I nodded, and continued downward, albeit slower than before.
I yelled out my number when I reached the bottom and collapsed on the little grassy area between the sidewalk and the street. I laid down, for the first time in nearly three hours, and propped my feet up against a street sign pole.
It felt so good to be finished. The ground beneath me felt incredible. Someone was asking me what I needed, but I wanted nothing. I just wanted to be horizontal. I just wanted to be still.
I had probably been finished for two minutes before I realized that I hadn’t stopped my watch. When I did stop it, it read 2:50:51. The official timekeeper wasn’t immediately around when I finished, and by the time he got there, another 2+ minutes had passed, so my official time is 2:53, which isn’t true, but I don’t really care. In my mind I finished in 2:48.
For such a small event, this race had some great swag. Finishers of The Inclinator got a hat, a trophy, and a super cool railroad spike (because the Manitou Incline, which inspired the event, was originally a railroad). I’ve done 75+ stair races, and this is only my second trophy! (I earned the first when I raced up the Eiffel Tower.)
I also got a t-shirt for participating, but I had that tucked away in my bag since I got it before the race began.
I’m so proud of my morning at The Inclinator. I had stumbled upon this race a week prior, and all of a sudden I had completed my second-longest race ever. (Longer than the 2.5-hour Dallas Vert Mile, but not as long as the 6-hour OutClimb Cancer event in Salt Lake City.)
Furthermore, I had accomplished this monumental challenge with hardly any race-specific training. I exercise a lot and am in very good shape, and it was because of those fundamentals that I was able to get myself up those stairs so many times. This wasn’t an event I trained months or even weeks for. It was just… a Saturday morning activity. I’m not proud that I didn’t train (which is foolish, more than anything), but completing this challenge was an excellent testimony to my general level of fitness, and I find that inspiring.
I raced up 5,220 steps – and came down 5,220 steps, too. I burned over 2,000 calories. It was my 27th race of the year. Only 13 more to reach my goal!
My day wasn’t over, though. Grand Rapids is about an hour from Michigan’s Adventure, an amusement park that’s been on my bucket list for a while. I love roller coasters, and this is pretty much the only place in Michigan where you can ride them.
I arrived around 11:30am, and spent the next few hours going from coaster to coaster. My two favorites were Thunderhawk, a suspected steel coaster with some nutso inversions…
…and Shivering Timbers, an old-school wooden coaster that’s tall, fast, and with lots of airtime.
After walking around the park (probably a few miles in total), spending hours in various lines, and riding six coasters and the Ferris wheel, I was done being on my feet, and done being outdoors. So I went and had my first actual meal of the day. (I had eaten throughout the day – pre-race and mid-race fuel, post-race snacks, gas station jerky for the drive to the amusement park, and plenty of hydration, but none of it was an actual meal.)
I had gone to a restaurant called Bob Evans after my last amusement park outing, to Cedar Point, last month, and when I saw a Bob Evans a few exits down the highway from Michigan’s Adventure, I decided to keep the tradition going. I ordered their grilled chicken breasts, with broccoli and carrots on the side. It came with two biscuits, but I only ate one.
The devil on one shoulder wanted me to indulge in desserts and fried foods and all sorts of other things I wouldn’t normally get, but the angel on the other shoulder – which eventually won out – encouraged me to capitalize on all the exercise I’ve done and make good food choices like I normally would.
This was a very excellent day.
Keep it up, David!
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