Was Completing My First Stair Race In Over A Year A Terrible Mistake? (Cincinnati Fight For Air Climb Race Recap)

I was woefully under-prepared, and nursing an injured foot. Why did I sign up to race up and down thousands of stairs?

This morning I collapsed on the grass (actually, it was turf), after a job well done, and felt a specific sense of pride that I haven’t felt since February 2020. It’s a mix of accomplishment, exhaustion, pain, and invincibility – and I only experience it when I complete a stair race.

So, the answer to the question at the beginning of this blog post is… Because I love stair races. Period.

This race was the 2021 Cincinatti Fight For Air Climb at the Great American Ball Park, where the Cincinnati Reds play, and was a fundraiser for the American Lung Association. The pandemic pretty much killed (for now) racing in skyscraper stairwells, since it’s hard to socially distance in a stairwell, but races are starting to come back in stadiums, where there are tons of stairs, and it’s open air. My fingers remain crossed that skyscraper events will come back in 2022. We’ll see, but in the meantime, bring on the stadiums! They’re a different sort of animal, because they include both up and down portions, along with a little running from aisle to aisle.

I’ve done stadium races before, probably around 10 of them, but this was my stadium event since my spin through Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago in the fall of 2019. And it was my first stair race of any kind since Trek Up The Tower in Omaha in February 2020.

My stair training evaporated when the pandemic hit a year ago, once all the races I was signed up for began getting cancelled. It was hard to stay motivated when there are no events to work towards! I was still doing a lot of exercising, but it wasn’t stair training. So when I started preparing for this race about six weeks ago, I buckled down and began training on stairs: two StairMaster workouts a week, plus additional leg-centric activities.

That training didn’t last long, before I developed plantar fasciitis in my left foot. I’ve had this before, and it’s incredibly painful, and there’s not much you can do except take good care of your foot (icing it, stretches) and wait for it to heal. But I didn’t want to be inactive, so I pivoted and began using my Classic Cruiser exercise bike exclusively, because biking is no impact and doesn’t involve putting my weight on my foot.

After a couple weeks of that, I started adding in some weight training and cardio on my Bowflex Max Trainer, and my foot was feeling pretty good. Until last weekend, when the plantar fasciitis flared up again, and I resumed using the exercise bike exclusively.

Long story short (or am I too late for that?): I woke up this morning with mild pain in my foot, and decided to follow through with competing in a grueling stair race. I wore my Fight For Air gear from previous events in different cities.

What’s more, my rule is to always sign up for the longest/hardest event, so I was signed up for the Challenge Climb, which was a route through the lower AND upper decks at Great American Ball Park.

The Challenge Climb was first, at 8:30am, with other waves and events stretching until noon. (They spaced everything out to minimize the number of people there at any given point.) I picked up my bib: good ol’ lucky number 119!

I had a few minutes to kill before they let us into the stadium, so I got a selfie with a statue of Mr. Redlegs.

Once we got into the stadium, we gathered (but spaced out) near the start line, and I was able to warm up and stretch on a short staircase that led up to the upper deck, where I got to see the entire course at once.

LOTS OF STAIRS!

I started getting nervous about the possibility that I was going to aggravate my foot with this endeavor and put myself in a much worse place, but I was able to set those nerves aside once I gave myself permission to go as slow as I needed to go. There was no goal other than to finish, and I could take as long as I needed. Based on similar stadiums I’ve raced in (namely Angel Stadium in Anaheim), I figured if I walked the whole thing, I’d probably finish in about an hour.

I guessed there were around 50 people doing the Challenge Climb, and I positioned myself towards the very back of the pack. My friend Tom, from the Chicago suburbs, was there, and it was great seeing a buddy at a race. Tom and I have probably done at least a dozen of the same races. Racing has provided me with an incredible circle of friends from around the country, and I’ve really missed them during this pandemic.

When it was my turn to go, I immediately adopted the plan I had in my head: push it a little harder on the ascents, and use the aisle-to-aisle runs and descents to catch my breath and recover. Most of all, I had to pay attention to my foot.

The start line was near the foul pole in right field, and we ran up and down the aisles until we got to the foul pole in left field. The lower deck isn’t very steep at all, and the steps were so far apart that it was hard to develop a productive gait on them, especially when I was being cautious because of my foot.

Then it was up about eight flights of stairs to the upper deck, which was way more intense. The lower deck had one step per row of seats, but the upper deck had three, so it was much, much steeper. I immediately suffered from my lack of preparation. It was tough to climb at all, starting with the very first upper deck ascent, and there were probably a dozen or so still to come. It was hard to pay attention to my foot because my whole body was soon aching.

The good thing about upper deck course was that the crowd was so sparse by this point that I was able to pull my mask off my nose and bring in more air, and then I’d pull it up when I approached the volunteers that were spaced throughout the course. I was so fatigued and out of it that I had trouble spotting the green arrows that marked the course, and there were a couple times that I realized I had seen an arrow reflected in a glass pane, and I actually had to go the opposite way than I was preparing for. All stadium race organizers should mark their course with an overabundance of arrows and ribbons marking off wrong ways – it’s confusing up there, and more so when you’re depleted and achy. There’s even a chance that I missed a turn and didn’t do an aisle during the most confusing part of the course, where you go back and forth between the middle and upper decks.

But I kept chugging along, and soon I was rounding the corner behind home plate, but in the very top row of the upper deck. I didn’t stop, but I did pull my phone out and take a picture!

There were only a few ascents left when I had two epiphanies that made me feel really good.

  1. The first was that I didn’t entertain, even for a second, the possibility of quitting. I had come all this way, and even though I had a bum foot, I was going to keep moving. I never stopped, and while I ended up walking most of the upper deck, it didn’t matter. Nothing was going to stop me from crossing that finish line.
  2. The other was that I really felt at home during the event, and that was a very pleasant surprise. I’m not a baseball fan, so these iconic stadiums resonate with me solely as stair race venues, and it felt so great to be doing what I love again. The pain, the tiredness, the screaming muscles, the pounding heart – it all felt right. I belonged there. I had thought, going in, that perhaps I wouldn’t take to stair racing again, after so long a hiatus, but the opposite was true. I need these events, and thrive at these events, and it felt so fulfilling to be there.

Those realizations helped push me across the finish line, and even though I could barely walk, I felt incredibly excited and proud. After resting on the ground, I picked up my snazzy medal and took this picture, with the Ohio River in the background (and Kentucky on the other side).

My official time was 38 minutes, 12 seconds – much faster than the 60 minutes I was expecting. I finished 41st out of 59 people, and 22nd out of 31 men. Some other fun facts:

  • I used my Garmin, which said I burned 556 calories, and had an average heart rate of 152, and a maximum heart rate of 189.
  • The race was promoted as having over 4,000 steps, but I don’t have an exact count.
  • My Garmin said I covered 1.46 miles, but it only picked up my location when I was on the upper deck, which isn’t surprising, since it would be hard for a satellite to pick up signals from the lower deck, underneath all that steel and concrete. The map from my Garmin report is pretty fun, though!

The best fun fact of all: this was my 85th Stair Race, and Cincinatti is the 34th city that I’ve done a stair race in! That’s pretty mind-blowing! Oh, and just so everyone knows, I’m already signed up for my 86th, 87th, and 88th races, and one of those will be in a brand-new city as well!

KEEP IT UP, DAVID!

PS. I mentioned earlier that I used my Bowflex Max Trainer and Schwinn Fitness Classic Cruiser to help prepare, and I absolutely need to shout out Bowflex, who sponsored me for this race – and they didn’t even realize they had done so! Bowflex and I had an agreement for them to sponsor some 2019 races, but those got cancelled, so I held on to their sponsorship money and used it to cover costs for this event. Thank you, Bowflex! I’m honored to be associated with such a stellar company, and flattered to represent them.

PPS: Guess what I did as soon as I got back to my hotel? Ice bath for my foot!

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One Response to Was Completing My First Stair Race In Over A Year A Terrible Mistake? (Cincinnati Fight For Air Climb Race Recap)

  1. jensils says:

    way to go!! This past year has been so hard in every way – I am impressed by you willingness to get back out there.

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