Diary of a Competitive Stairclimber

I lasted about three floors before going past my personal “red line.”

I’ve been a competitive stairclimber for about five years. This means I train on a StairMaster pretty much year-round for one or two stairclimb races each year. Races generally start on the ground floor of a skyscraper, and end at the helipad. The Willis Tower race (formerly Sears Tower, in Chicago) finishes on the 103rd floor, where they have crazy observation windows that allow you to step out into “space” outside of the building. [Note to self: next time I compete in the Willis Tower climb, don’t spend the prior day tourist walking with Janet all over Downtown Chicago. Do that after the race!]

Like most sports, there are elite competitors, and then, everyone else. Elite climbers make it to the top in amazing time, often climbing a floor every 8-9 seconds. I’m usually in the top 15-20% of my age group (40-49), with a 12-14 seconds-per-floor pace. Unfortunately, I can’t say my lack of speed is an age thing, since more than a few of the elite climbers are in their mid-40’s.

During my first stairclimb race I was lucky enough to get passed by an elite climber. He had raced earlier in the day, and was taking a “leisurely” training run during my race wave. I took note of his technique as we approached the 40th floor of a 63-floor climb. He took two steps at a time, pulling himself up hand-over-hand on the handrail. He made it look pretty easy as he passed, so I gave it a try.

It was definitely much faster, and got my upper body into the climb. It also meant more muscle groups would need oxygen. I lasted about three floors before going past my personal “red line.” I was forced to stop and catch my breath, before soldiering on with the standard one-step-at-a-time method. I had seen the secret, and knew I’d have to train differently to prepare for the two-at-a-time technique.

People have asked me how I’m able to climb without hurting my knees. Climbing stairs is great for your knees, lower back, and hamstrings. It’s a low-impact, heavily aerobic exercise. We only climb, and never descend. That’s what elevators are for. Climbing creates long and stretching strides, focusing the work onto your muscles and soft tissue, and away from your joints.

Which brings us to today. My fifth year climbing the Aon Tower in Los Angeles, benefitting the American Lung Association. After the question about knees, the next question is some variation of, “Doesn’t it get boring, just climbing stairs? What are you thinking about during a race?” I suppose it’s the same things other endurance athletes think about during their races.

To definitively answer this question, here’s a brain dump of what I was thinking earlier today as I “raced:”

Only three runners in front of me to start. Ten second intervals.

“Good luck on your first race. Do you want to start in front, or behind?” Steven answers that he will take off behind me. I put in my earbuds and fire up my iTunes StairList (thanks to Jennifer for creating this list many years ago).

Ten seconds to start. Remember that I am starting on the 20 minute mark.

I love the quiet just before the start. Go!

Save Ferris! Nice choice, Jennifer!

The start is different than previous years. We entered a different door and hit stairs immediately.

No rhythm for the first 3 or 4 floors, until we get into the main stairwell.

Fifth floor. First person passed.

Two steps at a time. Nice rhythm.

The first ten floors are always the hardest, even though I just did about 20 floors of warm-up before the race.

Tenth floor. Steven is right behind me. Awesome! How cool is it that my son-in-law is running this race with me! He’s gained ten seconds on me already. Stud!

Move to the outside! Why do slower climbers never move to the outside like the instructions say? There goes my nice rhythm.

Back on track. Water stop!

“Sorry, we ran out of cups.” Well, that’s a real mind-f***. It sure is dry in this stairwell! I take a quick swig of water from my hand.

That’s not a very sanitary thing to do. 100’s of climbers are touching these rails, sweating on them, and you just took a swig of water from your hand after using those same rails.

16th floor! Where’s Steven? He must have slowed up.

18th floor! Focus on two-at-a-time.

I wish I hadn’t forgotten my gloves. I’d have better grip on these handrails.

Nice mandolin. Perfect time for a little string quartet music. Nice choice again, Jennifer.

21st floor. One-third done. I wonder how my pace is. I’ve passed a bunch of people.

It would be great if the stairwell would change direction. Turning left over and over is making me dizzy.

Deep breaths. Focus on two-at-a-time. This is comfortable. Passing more people.

30th floor. Nice cheering section. Is that a clapping toy? Cool. It sure is dry in this stairwell. My lungs are burning!

Water stop! Amazing what one Dixie cup of water does. Quick back stretch.

Two-at-a-time. Steady pace.

Takin Care of Business. BTO! Rock on!

1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4. Two-at-a-time still working!

45th floor. This thing is almost over. Look at that crowd of people ahead…all in pink shirts. That’s a big team!

I see an elite runner as I turn. He’s not close enough to pass yet, but he will be in another floor. Just doing a training run…two-at-a-time, of course. There he goes. Stud!

50th floor. Mark Anthony. Not my favorite song right about now. A bit too slow. Two-at-a-time is still working! Awesome. Only 13 more floors!

52nd floor. My lungs are burning. They named this race right. Fight for Air!

Last water stop before the finish. Big crowd here. Only ten floors to go.

1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4. Two-at-a-time still working! Not as fast as the elite guy. I’ll just have to train at a higher level. He’s gone.

59th floor. Only four to go. Two-at-a-time working! Move to the outside! What’s the deal? A whole bunch of people all of a sudden. I wonder if I can get past all of them in four floors.

1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4.

Color change. 61st floor! New direction on the stairwell. Push to the finish!

Last turn. Bright sunlight. Here comes the roof!

Stay focused. Push to the finish. Man, my lungs are burning!

Finish line! Clock minute is 34. What was my start minute? Oh yeah, 20. 14 minutes. Dang it. Slower than last year. Hey, that’s Garth Brooks. The song is almost over.

What a view! First time I can remember it being clear and bright at the finish of this race. Look how clear the Hollywood Sign is.

Next event is in late-September. The US Bank building in Los Angeles. It’s about 75 floors. That event has always conflicted with something else. I plan to climb it this year. Time to ramp up my training. More StairMaster, more trail running, more rope climb, more squats, less ice cream (hey, let’s not get crazy!).

Bring it on!



View from the helipad

Remembering to Breathe

Nearly all sports are the same (at least on one level).

Nearly all sports are the same (at least on one level).  It doesn’t matter if that sport is soccer, baseball, golf, archery, skeet shooting, curling, downhill skiing, long distance running, ice skating, motorcycle racing, or competitive yodeling.

They each start with the same fundamentals:

  • Relax and stay loose
  • Calm your mind
  • Visualize success
  • Bend your knees
  • Don’t forget to breathe.

One could make a case that each of these fundamentals are of equal importance, but my money is on the last one.  Consciously remembering to breathe puts us in the right state of mind to remember the other fundamentals.

We each face challenges on a daily basis.  Some are small, and some are huge (at least from our perspective).  Here’s a strategy for tackling each of them:

  • Relax and stay loose
  • Calm your mind
  • Visualize success
  • Bend your knees
  • Remember to breathe!
%d bloggers like this: