Hello, Willis Tower!
You may know this towering skyscraper as Sears Tower. I know it as the home to the tallest stairwell in the Western Hemisphere and the tallest stair race, too!
SkyRise Chicago, which benefits the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, has a start line two floors below ground, and a finish line on the 103rd floor. There’s 105 floors, and 2,159 steps, in between.
I just realized that I didn’t take a good picture of the building from a few blocks away, like I wanted to do, so this selfie with the Lego Willis Tower at the Lego Store on Michigan Avenue will have to suffice.
This was my third time competing in the Willis Tower, after races in 2014 and 2017, so I knew what to expect: steeper-than-usual stairs, lots of people, and awesome views from the top. But I had to approach this race differently than those prior races, because I was getting over an injury.
I pulled a muscle, deep in my right thigh, less than two weeks before the race, and my leg was tight and stiff, and recovery was slow. I needed this race to help me finish my #40years40races challenge – this was race #38 – so there was no way I was going to skip it. But I also didn’t want to aggravate my leg. I couldn’t jeopardize my involvement in races #39 and #40, and I sure as hell didn’t want to turn that pulled muscle into a more serious, immobilizing condition!
So, during this race, my plan was to go SLOOOOOW. Enjoy myself, and the stairwell, and get to the top, but no racing.
I had signed up for the Elite wave, starting at 7am. (I had registered months before the pulled muscle.) I positioned myself near the very back of that pack. The route to the start line was different than my last visit in 2017, due to construction and renovations in the lobby and public areas, and this year the line snaked through the gift shop.
They were letting one person in the stairwell every 10 seconds, and when I was a minute or two away from starting, I realized I had forgotten my gloves. I wear weightlifting gloves when I climb, because they have a grip surface that makes it so much easier to grab the handrails with sweaty hands. I was going to have to go gloveless this time, though, which was a shame, because I had brought them with me, but forgot to grab them from my bag before I dropped that bag off at gear check. D’oh!
I must’ve really not been in race mode, because I also forgot to use my heart monitor watch, even though it was on my wrist. As a result, I have no heart rate data, nor did I time myself, which I like to do as back-up, in case there are issues with official timing results. D’oh!
Those two oversights didn’t distract me from my main goal for the day: to finish the race without racing. That’s what I kept repeating, in my head, as I moved closer and closer to the start line.
I started up the stairs when it was my turn, and I realized really quickly that not racing was going to be easier than I was expecting. That’s because my injured leg prevented me from double-stepping. I couldn’t lift my leg high enough to take two steps at once – it was too painful. I was going to have to take all 2,159 steps one at a time.
Since I wasn’t racing, I didn’t mind soaking in my surroundings. I moved aside when others needed to pass, thanked the volunteers who were stationed at some of the landings and water stations, and kept going at my own pace.
I had forgotten some of the details of this particular stairwell, but memories came flooding back. A few of the handrails were too close to the walls, making them hard to get my entire hand around. At around the 60th floor, the stairwell changes direction, and after making right turns up until that point, you start making left turns.
I had also forgotten that, at around the 80th floor, the stairwell narrows, meaning it was now possible to use both handrails at once. This was also where the configuration changed, so there were three flights per story, instead of two. All these things would have factored into my performance, had I been racing. But, this time around, all they did was create ‘oh yea!’ moments.
All of a sudden I was closing in on the 100th floor. Only a few more to go! I could hear cheering at the finish line. I resisted the urge to sprint the final few flights, and crossed the finish line at the same methodical, reasonable pace I had maintained the whole time. My buddy Chris captured my saunter over the finish line.
Even though I hadn’t raced, I was still pretty sweaty from 103 floors, and was ready to relax. I didn’t lie down, like I normally do after a race, because I was afraid getting up might be bad for my leg. Instead, I took my medal and a bottle of water and leaned against a railing by a window for a few minutes. Then I enjoyed the view!
The finishers’ medal at this race is always one of my favorites.
One of my favorite things about this race is that it draws racers from all over, so I spent a lot of time at the top chatting with a few dozen of the friends I’ve made at races like this one. I made a few new friends, too!
(I’m in the center, in the very back)
I also checked my time. I finished 103 floors in 32 minutes, 57 seconds. I’m actually pleasantly surprised at my time. I hadn’t set a time goal, but I thought that a more casual climb might result in a 35-40 minute finish.
For comparison’s sake, my fastest time in this building is 25 minutes, 18 seconds. I sacrificed seven and a half minutes (roughly) to save myself from further injury, and it was totally worth it!
Normally I share how I finished compared to the entire field of racers, but I’m not going to do that this time, because I wasn’t racing. Instead, I’m going to relish in the knowledge that, even when I’m not at my best, I can still make it to the top of the tallest stairwell in the country, and push myself a little closer to my #40years40races goal.
Two more races, folks, and nothing’s going to stop me now!
Keep it up, David!
PS. A great big thank you to my donors: Sandee, Anne and Lil, and Gjon. You are the best. Thank you for your help in getting me to this race, and your generous donation to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab on my behalf.
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