My First Third Place Medal at a Stair Race! (Steeltown Stair Climb Race Recap)

Four minutes and fifty-two seconds. It only took four minutes and fifty seconds to accomplish something I’ve never accomplished before: My first age group podium finish at a stair race!

I’ll get into all the juicy details in a bit. First, let me back up a few hundred steps. On Saturday, I competed in the Steeltown Stair Climb, a stair race in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada that benefited The Lung Association. It was my second race in Canada – after the CN Tower race in April – and my third international race!

Hamilton is only a four-hour drive from my home in the Detroit suburbs, but I had barely heard of it before my visit. Hamilton is a big deal! Over half a million people live there, and it’s the tenth-largest city in Canada. (Take that, Saskatoon!) I spent less than a day there, but what I saw was really lovely: a vibrant downtown, beautiful neighborhoods, and friendly, warm, welcoming people.

The city has an delightful skyline, overlooking the western edge of Lake Ontario. The race was held in the third tallest building in town, called 100 King Street West, which is also its address.

At 25 stories and 487 steps, it’s actually one of the shorter buildings I’ve raced up, but a shorter race isn’t necessarily an easier race – it’s just one that ends sooner.

The lobby of the building connects to Jackson Square, an indoor shopping mall that takes up an entire huge block. A few other towers connect to the mall, including the hotel I stayed at, so I didn’t even have to go outside to get to the race.

The race didn’t start until 10am, which is later than most races, so I was able to sleep in a little bit. I appreciated that, since I didn’t arrive in Hamilton until 10pm the night before, and I was tired after a full day of work and a four-hour drive.

The staging area – where the registration tables were, and so on – was at a restaurant in the mall called The Honest Lawyer, and there were comfortable booths and tables to lounge at before and after the race. A trainer from a local Orangetheory Fitness led a warm-up in the middle of the mall. Shortly before 10am, we were led over to the lobby of 100 King Street West.

This is the second race I’ve done in Canada, and, like the CN Tower race, this event didn’t use bibs. Instead, I wore a numbered wristband with a timing chip that I had to press against a foam mat, that looked like a thick mousepad, at both the start and finish lines. I had good ol’ lucky number 012. I wore it on my right wrist, because I wear a watch on my left wrist.

A lot of skyscraper races start in an out-of-the-way stairwell. The three skyscrapers I’ve raced in Los Angeles had their start lines at an unmarked door, outside, around back, and the Willis Tower race I did last weekend started in the basement. So I really enjoyed that this race started smack in the middle of the building’s vaulted main lobby, on beautiful granite floors, right next to the main security desk.

I might have been the only American at this race, although it’s possible that a few others came from western New York (Buffalo is only about an hour away). But the only people I knew at the event were two racers from Mexico: Arturo and Alejandra, who I met at a stadium race in Chicago in September. They were part of a group of five Mexican athletes who came to Hamilton for this race, and I met the other three, Oswaldo, Janeth, and Jair before the race. They are a very talented and dedicated group of athletes, and a really fun group to hang out with.

The Mexicans were the first to enter the stairwell, and organizers let one athlete enter every 60 seconds. That’s a huge gap between racers. Most races stagger people one every 10 or 20 seconds, maybe 30 seconds at the most.  I was the sixth person to enter the stairwell, and I entered at 10:06.

Because of the huge intervals between racers, I didn’t see a single person in the stairwell during the entire race. No one passed me, and I didn’t pass anyone. There were no water stations, no volunteers, no paramedics on standby, no cheerleaders. It was eerily silent.

The first few flights were pretty standard: eight or so steps per flight, all left turns. Once we cleared the lobby and got into the office floors, the stairs changed, and went to one long flight per floor. There’s a wall going up the center, so all the turns are blind. You can’t see what’s coming until you actually turn the corner.  You also can’t use the handrail on the turn, because the handrail doesn’t wrap around the wall.

The stairs are narrow. They’re narrow enough to easily use both handrails, except there aren’t two. There’s only one, on the inner wall. I had to brace myself against the outer wall a bunch of times, especially after turns. The outer wall had a popcorn stucco or plaster finish. The floor numbers were hard to see, on a side wall, and on the smaller side, which is nice, because I don’t like to constantly be reminded of how many flights are left.

A 25-story stair race is a sprint, plain and simple. My strategy was to go hard, the whole way. The transition from two flights per floor to one threw me for a loop, but I was able to get into a new rhythm pretty quickly, and then it was back to grinding my way to the top.

The top came quickly. Most of the race was a blur, and then, all of a sudden, I turned a corner and saw, at the top of the next flight, an open door. I was gasping for air by this point, but I hurdled myself up the final flight, pressed my wrist against the foam mat just outside the door, and turned to find a place to collapse. I didn’t get far, though, because the guy manning the finish line yelled out “Wrong wrist!” I had pressed my watch, on my left wrist, against the mat, and not the wristband with the timing chip. Damnit! I quickly pressed my right wrist against the mat. I probably lost two or three seconds because of that mistake, but I’m grateful that guy was paying attention, because otherwise my time would probably still be accumulating!

I leaned against a wall and slid down it, until my butt on was on the ground, and just relaxed. Everything ached, my heart rate was pounding, and I could gulping down as much air as I could. I knew, from this feeling, that I had pushed myself as much as I could. The race was a success, regardless of my time. I had done what I came to Hamilton to do.

Even though everything was hurting, I was happy that nothing felt out of the ordinary. I had pulled my muscle in my thigh a couple weeks earlier, and I had been taking it easy while I healed. I was hopeful that this race wouldn’t aggravate that injury, and it hadn’t. Once my heart and lungs recovered, and the achiness left my body, I felt fine. Better than fine.

Time to enjoy the views!

I stuck around for the awards, after everyone had finished climbing, and was surprised to hear my name called. My time of 4:52 resulted in 3rd place in my division (Men 39-49)! This was my first ever podium finish during a stair race. (Earlier this year, I won my first podium medal at a 10K, which was also exciting.) I came in 11th place overall – another awesome stat!

My medal is pretty freakin’ cool.

There’s a big qualifier regarding my 3rd place age group finish. Climbers were separated into a few different categories. This race attracted a lot of firefighters, and they were separated into their own category. There was also a big group of pre-service firefighters, who are men and women going through a firefighter-specific college program, and they were separated out into their own category, too. So, my 3rd place age group finish (and 11th overall) was in the ‘civilian’ category. But that’s keep that our little secret, shall we?

My Mexican friends kicked butt. They had five of the top six finishes at the race.

Oswaldo, on the left, won the whole thing, finishing in 2:27 (!) – about twice as fast as me. And Janeth won among women, and 4th overall, with an amazing time of 3:15. Jair, who’s next to me, came in 2nd overall, with a time of 2:54.

Arturo came in 3rd overall, finishing 5 seconds slower than Jair. And Alejandra was the 2nd place woman (6th overall). My third place age group finish was behind Jair and Arturo, so I’m in great company!

The Towerrunning Mexico team brought me a present, which was very kind. I love it. It’s a hand-painted skull, which now has a new home on my dresser in my bedroom. What did I bring them? I’m sorry to share that I didn’t bring them anything. Or, as they say in Mexico, ¡nada!

I was feeling excited and good after the race, so I made a couple stops on my way out of town… to climb more stairs! Hamilton has some incredible public stairways… and I’m going to share them in my next post.

Keep it up, David!

A huge thanks to Amy, who single-handedly made a very generous donation to The Lung Association on my behalf so that I could participate in this race. I’ve been friends with Amy for, oh, about 17 years, and I’m so thankful for her support! 

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