It’s the weekend… time for a stair race! This one was a Power Hour, in a 31-story skyscraper. So the question isn’t ‘How fast did I make it to the top?’ It’s ‘How many times did I climb it in an hour?’
The race was the Fight For Air Climb, put on by and benefiting the Greater Chicago chapter of the American Lung Association. It happened the other weekend in Oakbrook Terrace, a suburb of Chicago, where a 31-story skyscraper rises seemingly out of nowhere, standing out like a sore thumb (or a beacon, if you like your glasses half-full) against acres of parking lots, a giant cemetery, and a whole slew of highways and interchanges.
It was 6:15 AM when I first pulled up to Oakbrook Terrace Tower, and I started feeling some serious Nakatomi Plaza vibes.
Nakatomi Plaza is the skyscraper featured in the classic action film “Die Hard.” Nakatomi Plaza is a fictional name, but the movie was filmed at Fox Plaza in Los Angeles, which I’m very familiar with (even though I’ve never climbed the stairs in it). This building looks nothing like it, but because of the overcast skies and faintest early dawn light, there was definitely an ominous, cinematic feeling going on.
Oakbrook Terrace Tower is on the left, and Nakatomi Plaza/Fox Plaza is on the right.
I had my work set out for me: to climb this building as many times as possible in 60 minutes, stairs up and elevator down. It was my first time competing in this building, and my first Power Hour in about three months, so I was very excited!
And nervous. I was nervous, too, in the usual way that I get nervous before a race. I embrace those nerves, because they’re a reminder that I take these races seriously, and that I want to do my best. Luckily for me, a bunch of my friends were there, so there was plenty of chatting to keep my mind occupied before I entered the stairwell.
We lined up shortly before 7 AM. I was wearing good ol’ lucky number 22 on my bib (as you can see in the first picture). The last few minutes prior to the start of the race was spent explaining some of the rules, with help from Google Translate, to my friends Arturo and Alejandra, who had traveled from Mexico City to compete.
Before I knew it, I was three people away from starting, and that’s when I realized I hadn’t done any of the items on my pre-race checklist: queueing up my music, popping a piece of Big Red gum (to keep my mouth salivating), or prepping my heart rate monitor watch. Oops. I decided the gum would have to wait until before the start of my second climb, but I turned on my bluetooth headphones, started playing some tunes, and was fumbling with my watch when they gave me the go ahead to start climbing. I got my watch started a few seconds late, but that wouldn’t be a huge hindrance.
I’ve done my share of Power Hours, so I knew the drill. Find a steady pace, not too hard, and just climb. Climb and climb and climb and climb. I found my zone pretty early on, and tried to keep moving at that speed.
The stairwell was well-designed for racing. There were 22 steps per floor, split between two 11-step flights, and the race ended with a long 20-step flight up to the finish line.
The stairs were narrow enough that I could use both handrails, although the handrail configuration on the landings made it hard to use the handrail to get a powerful pull to help swing my body around.
I started cramping, in my side, on my second climb, but I didn’t even let it slow me down. I knew that one of two things would happen: it would go away, or the rest of my body would slowly start aching, too, and then the cramp pain wouldn’t stand out at all. I still don’t know which of the two actually ended up happening, I just knew that by the end of my third climb, I didn’t notice the cramp anymore.
I started really feeling the exhaustion in the third climb, and that’s when I was chased up the stairs, nearly the entire way, by a guy that was probably a teenager. Nothing like youth keeping an old fogey like me on my toes!
In addition to generally liking the stairs, this event also had great volunteers helping us out. Two men manned the elevator bank, hitting buttons and pointing to which of the four elevators would be coming next, so I never waited more than a few seconds. There was an army of folks handing out water at the top, which I took after every climb.
Oh! And the elevators opened, in the lobby, mere feet from the entrance of the stairwell, so it was easy to step out of the elevator and be climbing again in less than five seconds. No stumbling down halls or exiting the building to re-enter!
Once the cramp subsided, I went back to feeling as good as I could while simultaneously being completely achy and tired and drenched in sweat. But, before I knew it, I had five climbs under my belt, and I still had time to go!
I looked at my watch during the beginning of my sixth climb and started doing some quick math. (It was actually slow math, because it’s much harder to calculate anything while exerting that much energy.) If I could enter the stairwell a seventh time, before I hit the sixty-minute mark, I could finish that climb and it would count towards my total. That meant I had about 11 minutes to finish this climb and get back to the lobby. I knew my last few climbs were in the eight-to-nine minute range, so I figured it shouldn’t be a problem, but I didn’t let up. I couldn’t take the chance.
Sure enough, I entered the stairwell for a seventh time with about two minutes to go. I was elated to have met that mini-goal, and I was completely pooped. So I slowed down and treated the seventh climb like a victory lap, checking out all the signs and fun facts that the American Lung Association had posted on nearly every landing, and generally just enjoying myself.
I turned on the gas for the final five floors, and crossed the finish line for the seventh and final time, before collapsing into a folding chair and ripping a completely soaked bandanna off my head. I was done.
Here are my times for my seven climbs:
Altogether, I was in the stairwell for 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 23 seconds. Add in the elevator time, and my race lasted almost 1 hour and 10 minutes. I finished in 34th place, out of 66 Power Hour climbers.
The sun was fully up by the time the race was over, but I couldn’t tell at the top of the building, because the race ended in an interior hall, with no access to windows to check out the view. I always feel a bit cheated when this is the case. I had climbed this far, and the view is locked away behind a bunch of doors!
So I returned to the lobby, bummed about the lack of view but overjoyed with the fact that I had just climbed 217 stories and 4,760 steps. I immediately started comparing it to another Power Hour that I did, last November, which was in a 28-story building. I did 7 climbs during that hour, too, but I did 21 more stories this time around, in the same time frame. That’s a huge win!
Oakbrook Terrace Tower has an impressively large piece of sculpture in the lobby, and I’d always catch it in the corner of my eye, while I was waiting around for results to be posted. When I saw it in my periphery, I thought it was a dinosaur skeleton. Was I in a natural history museum?
This building is also the first building I’ve raced in that has a full 25-yard lap pool in the basement. It’s part of a gym that’s down there too, and after racing stairs, jumping in the pool seemed mighty appealing. I didn’t do it, though. Maybe next time.
The Oakbrook Terrace Fight For Air Climb was my 83rd stair race (!) and my 125th race overall (!!).
Even though Oakbrook Terrace is city that I’ve never raced in before, I’m not counting it towards my 2020 goal of racing in five new cities. It’s minutes outside Chicago, and I stayed with my sister, like I do for all my Chicago races, so the trip wasn’t a new experience, even though the race was. I will have plenty of opportunities to reach that goal, though, including at my next race… in 7 days!
On my way out, I saw a sign outside the Oakbrook Terrace Tower, saying that both Sara Lee and Ferrera, the company that owns Keebler, Brach’s, Trolli, and many other cookie and candy brands, have offices in the building. I love the idea that I burned so many calories (over a thousand) passing by offices responsible for putting so many empty calories out in the world.
Keep it up, David!
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