It went by so fast yet it felt harder than any 6 minute race effort in recent memory. 6 minutes and 4 seconds was all it took for me to fall out of love with tower racing. A short but torrid love affair that left me feeling hurt, disgusted, and even deceived. Why did it have to hurt like that?
One Boston Place
Why tower racing?
The Empire State Building Run Up has been on my bucket list for a few years, quietly tucked away in the “something new” category. Every year it pops into my head and then I go online to check it out only to find out the race has already occurred. So this time I was ready. And I was excited. I submitted my lottery entry, marked my calendar for the day the climbers were announced, and planned my training for the event. The training itself was exciting to me. I am not at all bored with my current training but the thought of adding a new element sounded cool to me. Especially since I will be running the Cayuga Trails 50 again this year, and for those of you not familiar with the race, there are a lot of stairs to climb!
At last the big day came and the entrants for the Empire State Building Run Up were posted. My name was not there. I was gutted. I don’t know why I so badly wanted this race – I was super-bummed to not get in. I did something I rarely do – I called in a favor from a friend to see if there was any chance I could slip in through some back door. No go. I knew it wasn’t going to happen this year so I emailed the race director and asked what I needed to do to receive elite entry for 2017. The answer was:
“Next year’s qualifications are not set in stone, but being one of the top 15 ranked women in the U.S. would help.”
And that’s how I ended up in Boston last weekend to attempt my first tower race.
This section will be short and sweet. I didn’t train on stairs nearly as much as I thought I was going to. The best training occurred when I stayed at a hotel in Philly right before the holidays that was similar in height to One Boston Place. I ran from the basement to the top 3 times in a row. It was tough, taxing, and exhilarating! It was also a great learning experience – by the 3rd climb I had a better grasp on pacing and ended up with my fastest split. I came back to New Paltz and suddenly that state-of-the-art stair climbing machine at my gym was not so bad-ass. It did the job to get in some workouts but the top speed was not fast enough for me to put in any real hard efforts. Once you have a taste of climbing actual stairs the hamster wheel doesn’t provide the same experience. Not by a long shot. However I felt that my experience in Philly gave me the confidence I needed to perform well in Boston.
The race starts at 8 a.m. with climbers being sent off in 10 second intervals. My start time was 8:12:15 which gave me time to scope out the start line. It was a quiet check-in during those early hours – there were 1,737 climbers scheduled to start throughout the day so it was going to get quite chaotic. The check-in process was very well-organized and after I went through my race prep it was off to the 39th floor where I would drop my bag before returning to the lobby.
Once my time came to line up in the chute the rest was pretty much a blur. You stand at the start line where a volunteer sends you off 10 seconds after the person in front of you disappears into the stairwell. You wear the timing chip on your wrist and when given the “go” command you simply swipe your wrist across the table as you enter the stairwell and it’s time to start climbing! I ran into the stairwell feeling totally flustered and confused. How hard is it? You find the stairs, which are right in front of you, and you run up them. I was out of my element and, I guess, pretty anxious.
I learned in Philly that looking down at my watch to check my time was not a good option when trying to avoid tripping up the stairs. My goal for this race was to go under 6 minutes but I really wanted to get as close to 5:30 as I could. I set the interval timer on my watch to go off every minute. That way all I had to do is briefly look up to see what floor I was at. If I could climb 8 floors between every interval alarm I was in great shape to meet my goal.
Going into this race I constantly drew upon my climbs in Philly – what it felt like, what worked best, etc. That seemed to have all gone out the window. Within a few short flights I passed the female who started in front of me. Okay, passing was really hard. I don’t even know how to explain it. Once you catch someone you have to find that extra gear to climb past them quickly to avoid being in their way. It is a lot simpler on the bike and while running, but this felt totally different. I also noticed really early on that the air in this stairwell felt entirely different from what I experienced in Philly. I was having a tough time breathing within only seconds of starting. I was hoping that this would even out as the climb progressed. My first interval alarm went off right as I hit the landing of floor 8. Perfect!
But my lungs were burning. Bad. I alternated between climbing a couple of flights taking 2 stairs at a time and using the handrails to utilize some upper body strength to pull myself up the stairs, and then taking one stair at a time so I could “run” them. This seemed to be working well for my legs. The floors were flying by but at the same time I felt like there was no end in sight for the stabbing feeling in my lungs. By the time my 3rd alarm went off I was only at floor 22. This wasn’t too far off my pace but I was only slightly over halfway to floor 41! I was able to pass a few more people along the way – that never got any easier.
When my 4th and 5th alarms went off I didn’t even bother to look at what floor I was on. I felt dizzy and each shallow, labored breath caused searing pain. I could taste that awful acid in my throat. My legs weren’t hurting – why weren’t they hurting? I’m clearly not going hard enough. But I can’t possibly push any harder with this hot knife lodged into my lungs hampering my breathing. I felt like I was in some kind of dream sequence – I was dizzy, my head was throbbing, the lights seemed dimmed and hazy, and even though there were volunteers talking and cheering their voices sounded completely muffled. The only thing I could hear was breathing – not just my own breathing but everyone else who I would come upon. I caught 2 more climbers – 1 right behind the other. I knew I needed to pass them but I needed to sit behind them for just a second or two to muster up the energy to make the pass. At that moment my 6th alarm went off and I realized that we were at the finish line. 6:04.
Across the finish line you stumble into a hallway lined with chairs and volunteers. I was still very dizzy, my head was throbbing, and the sounds still seemed muffled. Bodies were everywhere – like the girl sitting on the floor draped in bags of ice and a puke bucket in front of her. I quickly moved past. Everyone was coughing and trying to catch their breath. I found a spot at the end of the hallway where I crumbled into the corner on the floor. A volunteer was following me and kindly took my timing chip. This area felt suffocating so I grabbed a cup of water and headed down another stairwell to the 39th floor to collect my belongings.
I will spare you the ugly details of the events that took place as I struggled to regain composure. What I will say is for an effort this short, it was one heck of a recovery! At least I wasn’t the only one struggling in the bathroom. During that recovery I tried to come to grips with what just transpired. I was frustrated that my race didn’t go as planned. I wasn’t even paying attention to make my final kick up the last flights like I had practiced. Had I done that I would’ve passed the last 2 competitors and reached by sub-6 goal at least. I couldn’t understand why it felt so different from when I ran the stairs in Philly. I was expecting my legs to tire and my calves to burn. Sure I was expecting to have a hard time breathing. I was expecting my whole body to feel spent by the time I reached the top. I did not expect to have pain so sharp in my chest that it held me back. And fresh legs. Moral of the story: I need to train my lungs. It was a huge positive that my legs felt great and I wasn’t even sore the next day. It was a huge negative that I had a hacking cough and rattling lungs for 2 days after. The running miles I sacrificed for this race really brought me down mentally. I vowed that I would never race a tower again unless I had nothing else in the lineup that would be hindered by it. By now my attitude has softened, at least a little 🙂 Missing workouts is always tough for athletes but once you straighten your head out you forge ahead.
A few hours after the race I was able to determine that I was sitting in 1st place for females and 12th overall. Of course this end result was not final with the time trial start so I was on pins and needles up until the awards ceremony. But alas I was able to hold that position, barely edging out the 2nd place female by a mere 4 seconds! Despite having a rough start in the tower racing world I was happy with my result and it felt great to step outside of my comfort zone and try something new. I have yet to plan my next one but I know there will be more to come!
Sau-Mei Leung (red), Me, Kelly Spencer (2nd)
The Fight For Air Climb participants raise funds to support the mission of the American Lung Association, helping to make a positive impact in the lives of those affected by lung disease.