My goal for 2020 is to compete in five stair races I’ve never done before, in cities where I’ve never raced before. I’m already 20% done with my goal, because on January 18th, I competed in the 37th annual Bop to the Top in Indianapolis. It’s one of the oldest stair races in the country, in the second-tallest building in Indiana, OneAmerica Tower.
OneAmerica Tower is 38 stories, but the race is 36, with a total of 780 steps. When you register, you can sign up for a Single Climb, or the Triple Step, which is three climbs. I signed up for both. If I’m driving five hours each way to compete, I want to compete as much as I can! Add up the two events, and that’s four climbs up the stairwell. 144 floors. 3,120 steps. But, due to a ridiculously stupid and completely avoidable mistake on my part, I ended up climbing even more than that!
Even though this was my first time competing in Indianapolis, I’ve been there before, and I love it. My most recent trip was a few years back, for a blogging conference, where I explored the city on a bike and delivered an awesome presentation on stair racing (which you can watch right here). It’s a great city, although I didn’t see much of it on this quick trip – I spent about 16 hours here, and a big chunk of that was sleeping at the hotel.
It was a crummy weekend for a visit, that’s for sure. It rained nearly the whole time, and while I didn’t hit any major storms during my 10-hour round-trip drive, the rain started to freeze as I arrived into town, turning my hotel’s parking lot was an ice rink, and making the exterior stairs up to my third floor room very precarious.
Luckily for me, stair racing is done completely indoors, so once I arrived at OneAmerica Tower bright and early that Saturday, I didn’t have to worry about the weather at all. They cleared all the tables and chairs out of a cafeteria area, and that was where we could hang out and get ready, and where the registration tables were. It was on the other side of a courtyard from the actual building, and I loved being able to look out, past the rain, and up to see the skyscraper I was about to climb.
Bop to the Top is a pretty big event: nearly a thousand folks turned out to climb, with the proceeds going to Riley Children’s Hospital. It’s extremely well organized. I was scheduled to begin my Triple Step at 8:55am, and my Single Climb at 10:45am, and the scheduling of my morning meant that I had to adopt a different strategy for this race than I’ve ever used before.
I’ve done plenty of races that involved multiple climbs in a building, but they’ve all been time-based challenges. My last race of 2019, for example, was a Power Hour, where the objective was to climb a 28-story building as many times as possible in 60 minutes. I’ve done quite a few Power Hours, and also races where I had to climb continuously (stairs up, elevator down) for two hours (in San Diego), two-and-a-half hours (in Dallas), and even six hours (in Salt Lake City).
This race was different. I’d be climbing the skyscraper multiple times, but I could take breaks in between, and the breaks could be as long as I wanted, as long as I finished everything by noon or so. That meant that I could be pretty fresh for every climb, and there was no reason why I couldn’t give every climb my absolute all. That also meant I had to be smart with my breaks: I wanted a long enough break to cool down, but not long enough that I had to warm up again. I didn’t quite know how to handle this specific scenario, but I decided to lean on my years of stair racing experience and play it by ear. I figured I’d know when it felt right to go again. I also knew I shouldn’t do anything too relaxing on my breaks – like lying down – because I didn’t want to send any signals to my muscles that it was stopping time.
There were some extra wardrobe-related steps for this race. I wore one bib for my Triple Step…
…and then switched to a new bib for my Single Climb.
In addition, I had to attach a different timing chip to my shoe for each of the four climbs. For the Triple Step, that meant swinging by the registration table before each climb to pick up a new chip, since they wouldn’t give all three of those chips to Triple Steppers at once, just to make sure we wouldn’t mix them up and attach them in the wrong order.
You had to pass through a checkpoint before getting to the base of the stairwell. They assigned bib numbers based on start times, and only let racers with certain bibs pass the checkpoint at certain times, which meant it was nearly impossible to sneak into an earlier wave if you were tired of waiting and wanted to start getting these climbs over with, which it exactly what I wanted to do, and exactly what I wasn’t allowed to do, thanks to their smart and thoughtful system. (Sorry for that run-on sentence!)
I made sure to be at the front of the pack when they started letting the 8:55 crowd towards the start line, and as I was faced by an interesting choice as I entered the lobby: I had two stairwells to choose from!
I knew that by the end of the day, I’d end up doing both, so I started my first climb in stairwell A. They were letting racers start every 20 seconds, and I was excited to get going. Because I was at the front of the pack and immediately got in line, I started my first climb at 8:44am.
My excitement was quickly replaced in the stairwell by another feeling: that I was unprepared. I had taken December off from vigorous exercise, and even though I had been ramping back up into harder workouts for the few weeks prior to the race, I wasn’t in optimal stair racing condition. Heck, I hadn’t even done any stair-specific training for this! Luckily, my base fitness level is pretty strong, so I relied on that to get me up the stairs. I felt clunky and slow and out of practice, but I kept moving as best as I could.
The stairwell was tough, and the building seemed a lot taller than 36 stories. There were 22 steps per floor for most of the way, split between two 11-step flights. It was narrow enough to use both handrails, and the landings were ideal for swift and efficient turns. The 20-second staggering of climbers meant that the stairwells were fairly open, and everyone was paying attention and stepping aside to let me pass, as I did when others passed me. I overheard a guy, later that morning, say that each step in this building was about ½” taller than many other buildings, and while a ½” doesn’t seem like much, it adds up quickly. Those half-inches, over the course of one climb, literally add up to 32.5 additional feet of vertical gain!
I caught up a guy about halfway up my first climb. He let me pass, and then stayed on my heels the rest of the way, and I was grateful for that. My gut reaction, when I’m feeling out of sorts during a race, is to focus on what’s not going my way. Usually I have to fight to stay positive, but not today, because all I could think about what I needed to do to stay ahead of that guy: better turns, more double-stepping, more handrails – all the things I should be doing anyway, but made more important by the thought that if I slip up, this guy, who was 5 steps below me for almost 20 stories, might pass at any minute.
I crossed the finish line on 36th floor feeling exactly the way I should: completely wiped out and barely able to stand up. I stumbled down a hallway, and a volunteer cut the timing chip off my shoe, and then I collapsed in the hall.
There was a room with a big wall of windows, and while it was impressive (despite being overcast and rainy), I vowed to not take any pictures until I was done racing for the morning.
I took the elevator down to the lobby, and was in the mood for more. I let myself cool down, but soon I was in line, for stairwell B, for my second climb of my Triple Step event.
I started this climb at 9:11am. Stairwell B was hardly different than stairwell A. I noticed on this climb that there were a lot of young people at this race. I passed a family that included two young girls (who were probably under 10), and was passed by a number of high schoolers. I learned later that this event is popular among high school track teams looking for a challenge in the off-season. Cool!
I got a little turned around after crossing the finish line, since Stairwell B exited on the 36th floor in a different place than Stairwell A, and found myself collapsed next to the wine rack for the private dining club that takes up half of the floor. Two climbs done!
I knew I had almost an hour and a half before I could start my fourth climb, at 10:45, so I took a big longer of a break before finishing my last climb in my Triple Step event. And since I had now tried both stairwells and didn’t have a preference, I decided to climb in whichever stairwell had the shorter line. So that’s how, at 10:00am on the dot, I found myself beginning my third climb of the morning in stairwell B.
I knew I wanted to finish strong for my Triple Step, so I tried to stay positive and push the pedal to the floor the entire time. I did feel refreshed, thanks to the slightly longer break, but fatigue set it in little sooner than usual. That didn’t surprise me, since I already had 72 floors under my belt before this climb even began. I was starting to get very familiar with the carpet on the 36th floor, since I was ending up on it after every climb!
Even though I had timing chips on my shoe for each of these climbs, I still timed myself on my watch, so I had an idea of my speed and didn’t have to wait for official results to be posted. Sure enough, the official times were pretty close to my watch times, and I was happy with my results:
- Triple Step 1st Climb: 8:55.6
- Triple Step 2nd Climb: 9:02.8
- Triple Step 3rd Climb: 10:01.4
- TOTAL TRIPLE STEP TIME: 27:59.8
That put me in 83rd place, out of 152 Triple Steppers, 20 of whom did not finish all three climbs. That puts me pretty close to the middle of the pack. Usually I finish slightly better than that – in the top third or so – but, as previously mentioned, I’m not in optimal stair racing shape. Plus, the harder the event, the more dedicated athletes there are participating, which always pushes me lower on the results list.
But I wasn’t done racing yet! I still had my Single Climb event, at 10:45, and I decided to challenge myself to make my fourth and final climb the fastest one of the morning. That meant finishing faster than my first climb, which was 8:55.6. I had a good long break to help me prepare and get in the proper positive mindset, and still had time to get a selfie with a woman who was climbing dressed as a shark. I love sharks!
Stairwell A had the shorter line, so I did my Single Climb there, entering the stairwell at 10:49am. I had my favorite songs queued up on my playlist, and tried to put everything out of my mind except for the stairwell in front of me. I tried to make the most of every turn, double-stepped most of it, and kept my eyes down, so I wouldn’t see the floor numbers.
Everything started aching, but I ignored the pain, and pushed through the exhaustion. I remember checking my watch with about 10 stories to go, and realizing, holy crap, I’m on track to reach my goal! And that inspired me to keep pushing, while also screaming out occasionally as a rallying cry for myself.
And then, it was all over. I stumbled across the finish line and stopped my watch. 8:42.4! My fastest climb of the morning by 13 seconds! I had to brace myself against the wall because I was so beat up, but I proudly stuck my shoe in front of the volunteer cutting off the timing chips, and waited for her to snip it.
“It must be your other shoe, hon,” she said, so I stuck my other shoe out. “Did you lose your timing chip? Did it fall off on the stairs?” I looked down, and realized that neither shoe had the chip. I logged my fastest time of the morning, and it wasn’t even official.
Due to the exhaustion, pain, and lack of oxygen to my brain, it took me a couple minutes to figure out what the heck was going on. I laid down and focused on letting my heart rate come down.
There was a chance it could’ve fallen off, but those chips are zip tied on, and zip ties don’t break easily. So I went down to the lobby and went through my stuff, and found it. I had completely forgotten to put it on. What a moron!
After conferring with some friends, I went back to the start line to find someone from the timing company. These races have volunteers jotting down bib numbers and times as people enter and exit the stairwells, as a back-up, so I explained my numbskullery, and asked if they could deduce my time from those notes, or if I could climb the stairwell again, with the chip on. The timing guy looked at me. “Would you want to climb again?” My reply: “I drove here from Metro Detroit. I want to be listed in the results. Sure, I’ll climb again!”
So, at 11:15am, I entered the stairwell for my fifth and final climb. I never regretted, for a second, doing a fifth climb. I wanted to see my name on that results list. But I was not in a good headspace for this climb. I had none of the enthusiasm I had for the fourth climb, and was generally feeling tired and over it. I didn’t give up, but I knew pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be setting any records with this climb.
My official time for that climb was 10:45.5. I replaced my fastest (but unofficial) time with my slowest time of the morning – and that’s the one that’ll be in the official records until the end of time. Naturally.
My slow and official time made me 383rd out of 670. Had my fourth climb been an official climb, it would’ve made me 237th out of 670. Them’s the breaks, kid!
I can put that aside, though, because… hey. I had an incredible morning. I climbed 3,900 steps. I climbed 180 stories. I spent over 46 minutes racing in a stairwell.
And I finally got to really enjoy that view!
Bop to the Top was my 124th race, and my 82nd stair race. Indianapolis is the 31st city I’ve raced in, and, as I said at the beginning of this post, I’m now 20% done with my 2020 goal!
And, in a few short weeks, I’ll be 40% done with my goal!
Keep it up, David!
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