It takes a special kind of nutjob to compete in a vertical mile stair race, because the goal is completely nutty: to climb stairs until you reach one mile of vertical gain. It’s a lot of stairs. Think about how the second floor of your house may be 10 feet off the ground, and compare that to the finish line for this race being one mile off the ground. It’s exhausting just to think about, and as someone who accomplished a vertical mile yesterday, I can tell you it’s way more exhausting in real life. So, yea, I guess that makes me a nutjob… but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
There aren’t any staircases that stretch a mile into the sky, so a vertical mile stair race has to happen in a skyscraper, with participants climbing those stairs over and over again.
Which brings us to the venue for this weekend’s vertical mile, First National Tower, in Omaha, Nebraska. With 40 stories, it’s the tallest building in the state, and the tallest between Chicago and Denver. They light it up at night, and you can see it from miles around. It was glowing as I walked over from my hotel at 6:30am on Saturday morning.
There aren’t many vertical mile races in the US. This was my 84th stair race, but only my third vertical mile. The first two were in Dallas, in 2018 and 2019. This Omaha race is called Trek Up The Tower, and it’s a fundraiser, benefiting a local nonprofit called The Wellbeing Partners.
Actually, only a small fraction of those competing in Trek Up The Tower were doing the vertical mile. Nearly 2,000 people competed in the single climb event. But the vertical mile was capped at 50 racers, and I registered early enough to get one of those slots.
Achieving a vertical mile in a 40-story building requires many, many climbs. Ten complete climbs, to be exact, and then a 11th climb to the 17th floor. (Someone did some very specific math!) Organizers came up with a pretty clever system to keep everything organized, using wristbands and bib stickers. I began the climb wearing good ol’ lucky number VM17A on my bib.
I also began the race with a velcro wristband on my right arm, embedded with a timing chip marked ’17A.’
After each climb, they swapped out the wristband for a new one. I wore 17B for my second climb, 17C for my third climb, and so on. They also added a new sticker to my bib, so the final letter on my bib matched. When I got the 17J wristband and the J bib sticker, I knew I had only one more full climb. The 17K wristband and K bib sticker was used for the final partial climb to the finish line on the 17th floor.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up to the starting line, in the lobby. They literally rolled out the red carpet for Trek Up The Tower!
The vertical mile began at 7am, and a pre-race email said not to arrive before 6:45. That irked me, because I typically arrive 45-60 minutes before a race starts. I need time to warm-up and stretch, get mentally prepared, quiet the nerves, and you never know if there will be lines to pick up bibs, drop things off at gear check, or use the restrooms. So I arrived at 6:30, prepared to make a stink if they told me I was early. (No stink was needed.)
I made a decision about strategy very early on, as I was stretching in the lobby. There was plenty of time to complete the mile – 4.5 hours – so I could’ve scheduled some breaks in between climbs, and still finished within the window. But I decided to embrace the event as the true endurance challenge that it is, and just climb, keeping the breaks to an absolute minimum. Plus, I wanted to get as much done in the first hour as possible, because the single climb racers would be starting at 8am, meaning the stairwell was going to get more crowded. It was a little daunting, standing on that red carpet, waiting for my turn to start, knowing that ahead of me was hours of nearly continuous stair climbing!
My first climb up the stairwell was an exploratory mission. It was a new venue, so I just wanted to get a feel for the stairwell, while moving at a moderate clip and not expending too much energy.
The stairwell was full of surprises. There was no consistency in the first eight floors or so: flights with different numbers of steps, landings that alternated between a 90-degree turn and a 180-degree turn. There was a short jog down a hall on the 6th floor. But all the turns were left turns, and there was a good handrail, and I appreciated both those things.
The stairs finally settled into a pattern after the 8th floor, with 24 steps per floor, split between two 12-step flights. The irregularities returned, from the 17th-21st floors, including a jog down a 30-foot hallway on the 18th floor, but then it returned to the same pattern as before, the rest of the way to the top.
I finished my first climb, got my new wristband and bib sticker, grabbed a bottle of water, and headed down the elevator. I drank a little bit after every climb in the lobby, alternating between water and coconut water, and after every third climb, I’d eat two energy chews and swap in a new piece of gum. Apart from being in the elevator, and pausing to gulp down some liquid, I kept moving on my breaks, back to the start line, averaging about 3 minutes from the moment I exited at the top to the moment I reentered in the lobby.
Vertical mile competitors were given priority over single climb competitors, so I got to the cut the line in the lobby, which was really nice, since sometimes the line would stretch all the way down the hall.
I remember thinking, on my second climb, that I had barely scratched the surface of what I would be doing that morning. “I’m only 10% done, and even when I finish this climb, I’ll only be 20% done!” But I kept climbing.
It wasn’t until the third or fourth climb that I realized that race organizers had decorated the stairwell in a way that told a simple, subtle story. This year’s race had a ‘Power Up The Tower’ theme, and everything had a vintage ’80s video game feel: the poster, the t-shirt, the finisher medal. In the stairwell, they had replicated being in a video game, using graphics that they stuck to the walls.
There were coins to collect on the landings. Towards the bottom, they were small piles of coins, barely noticeable above the baseboards…
…but towards the top, there were big piles of coins!
There was also a stair-climbing character, dressed in black but with sweatbands on his arms and head, that would occasionally appear, bounding up the stairs beside you.
In video games, the Final Boss is the last bad guy you have to vanquish before winning the game. In the stairwell, they marked the final two flights with a Final Boss sign.
I found the whole thing to be a very creative and inspired way to liven up a boring, monotonous stairwell. It was a very welcome distraction.
My first batch of tears came in the middle of my fourth climb. I was closing in on 150 stories climbed, and my body was aching, sweat was starting to make my clothes cling to me, and I was starting to get very fatigued. But I wasn’t going to stop, because I knew I couldn’t stop. I’m not a quitter. It’s not even an option. My muscles didn’t feel strong, but I felt strong, and I rode that empowerment to the top of that building, tears rolling down my cheek.
By the seventh climb, I couldn’t even explain how my feet were still moving. I felt a ring of pain around each leg, like someone was tightening belts around my quads, and I simply couldn’t feel anything below that anymore. I remember feeling aches in my fingertips. My entire chest was burning with each inhale. But I couldn’t stop. Every floor brought both pain and joy, and reaching the top after every climb became a victory.
My tenth climb was my last full climb, so I took an extra thirty seconds, at the top, to grab a couple photos. First, of the 40th floor sign, to prove I was there…
…and also a photo of the view, since I wouldn’t be up this high again. Race organizers had taken a big room and roped it off, into a circular track, so people could walk in circles to cool down and stay limber. Luckily, that room had windows, and I did one lap and snapped a picture before heading back down to the lobby. Nebraska for miles!
With ten full climbs under my belt, it was time for my last climb, a partial climb to the 17th floor. Once I finished that, I’d hit my vertical mile of elevation gain, and I could call it a day.
I’d like to say I mustered up some reserves I didn’t know I had, and sprinted those final 17 stories. But I didn’t, because I couldn’t. All I could do was keep moving, and I was fine with that. When I turned the final corner, and saw the doorway with the finish line after one final flight of stairs, I felt the tears coming again. But they never came. I think I had sweated everything out!
There was a guy climbing on that final flight, though, so I tried anything I could to pass him. I almost made it, too, but then he started turning on the landing to keep going, completely blocking my path to the exit door. I literally pushed on his shoulder to keep him from taking another step, and said, “Sorry, I’m finishing,” as I cut him off and stumbled across the finish line, collapsing onto the carpet a few feet beyond.
I did it. I could barely move, and every part of me just radiated pain, but I did it. After a minute or two, I glanced over and saw all four of the finish line volunteers staring at me, unblinking, with a ‘Is he okay?’ look on their faces. One asked how I was doing, and I responded by saying I was good, and that I just needed to lie there for three more days.
A nice volunteer brought me some water, and another volunteer brought me some V8, which I was very excited for, because V8 is super salty, and salt is something you sweat out, and I just sweated for hours. Naturally, this ended up being low-sodium V8. I also got a brief chair massage, with one of those massage guns that kinda looks like a hair dryer.
The room we could hang out in was some sort of employee break room, and I ended up hanging out there for more than a half hour, chatting a lot with a family of five that had all completed the vertical mile. With that, I collected a souvenir towel and travel mug, and was handed my video-game-themed finishers medal.
All told, I spent about 2 hours and 45 minutes completing my vertical mile. But that includes all my elevator and wristband-swapping time, so my official time, which is just my time in the stairwell, is much shorter. I completed a vertical mile in 2 hours, 14 minutes, and 43 seconds!
Here are my individual splits:
- Climb 1: 9:42
- Climb 2: 12:13
- Climb 3: 12:06
- Climb 4: 11:59
- Climb 5: 12:29
- Climb 6: 12:39
- Climb 7: 13:06
- Climb 8: 13:46
- Climb 9: 14:39
- Climb 10: 14:39
- Climb 11 (partial climb, to floor 17): 5:21
There were 33 men that finished the vertical mile, and I came in… second to last! And that’s fine by me! Some other stats:
- First National Tower has 40 stories and 870 steps. During this race, I climbed a total of 417 stories, and over 9,000 steps!
- According to my heart rate monitor watch, I burned over 2,300 calories!
- Trek Up The Tower was my 84th stair race, and my 126th race overall.
- Combine this race with my races in Indianapolis and Oakbrook Terrace, and I’ve climbed 814 stories so far this year… and it’s only mid-February!
- My 2020 race goal is to compete in five stair races in cities where I’ve never competed before, and Omaha is #2, so only three more to go! (Indianapolis was the first.)
One of the things I’m asked, when new people hear about my love for stair racing, is ‘Why?’ Racing in stairwells sounds miserable and grueling… and it is. But… you know what? Completing an event like a vertical mile is a testament to who I am, how committed and focused I can be, and what I can accomplish. I love the challenge, I love the feeling of accomplishment at the top, and, if I’m being honest, I love the bragging rights too, because everyone is impressed (and perplexed) when I explain what I like to do.
But there’s even more to it than that. Somewhere in the middle of this race, I started thinking about all the time I’ve spent, throughout my life, struggling with confidence, questioning my self-worth, and convincing myself that I was never going to be good enough. There’s been times when I would look in a mirror and only see failure. And it makes my heart swell every single time I remember that I rarely feel those things in a stairwell. I race stairs for all the reasons I stated above, but also because it’s a genuine expression of self-love and self-respect.
A stairwell is my safe space, not only from outside pressures, but from the damage that my own brain can sometimes inflict. I love knowing that when I have down cycles and find myself battling depression, I can point to these extreme highs, and cling to the sense of invincibility that these races bring, and remember why I should keep fighting. When the sun finally breaks through the storm clouds of depression, piercing the gray and the fog that sometimes settle into my brain, the first thing they illuminate are a set of stairs. And I know I have what it takes to get to the top. Or, like I did at Trek Up The Tower, get to the top 10.3 times!
Keep it up, David!
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