The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championship

really wanted one of those days where everything just clicked. Don’t we all hope for that at every race? I didn’t have that – not even close – but I still had an amazing time at this race and as usual learned a lot! The course was everything people described it to be (almost). There was plenty of climbing which meant plenty of descending. The course was completely runnable. The views were absolutely stunning. The only thing I did not expect were the stairs – so many stairs! We talk about the stairs at Cayuga Trails 50 because they definitely stand out at that race. I couldn’t help but wonder if TNF 50 had an equal amount of them. They were wooden railroad ties, and not as steep as Cayuga, but there were so many of them. Up and down. I actually enjoyed them for most of the race – at least going up.

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Stairs and more stairs. Photo: TNFECS

It was a very chilly start for me – leaving the hotel at 3 am the air felt perfect but once we got to Marin Headlands it felt considerably cooler. Luckily The North Face supplies fire pits at all of their races. I squeezed into one and up against the guy next to me. He apologized and gave me room to get closer to the fire before I explained to him that I was invading his personal space to share his body heat, after which he thoughtfully obliged J I was regretting my decision to leave my arm sleeves back at the hotel. I was regretting my decision to skip buying a pair of throw-away gloves the day before. I arrived in CA on Thursday feeling like I was hit by a train. I had one day to pull it together and an easy detour to buy some gloves while I was out seemed too daunting a task. Everything would be better once the sun came up.

I felt oddly relaxed leading up to the start. I’ll chalk that up to feeling like I had properly prepared for this race. As the first wave was moved up to the start line I was looking for people I knew in the crowd to position myself with but it was dark and there was so much bustling energy I couldn’t figure out who was who. I was happy to see a fellow PA runner Jonathan Lantz next to me and it was comforting to know that he was going to be on the course with me today. Fellow Strong Hearts Vegan Power teammate Ellie Pell was with me as well ready to tackle her first 50 miler.

The start command was shouted and we shot off into the darkness. It wasn’t long before I noticed Magda in the lead group of women so I settled myself in behind that pack to get a feel for how things would go. The pace felt really comfortable for those opening miles even as we went up and over the first climb of the day. The lead group of us shot right past an early turn and luckily the field behind us started shouting. It felt like Black Rock 25k déjà vu as we corrected ourselves and quickly tried to get back in front of the pack. As we hit that first descent that’s where I realized my weakness – the lead women were bombing down the hill while I was trying to stay conservative – it was only mile 4! I was able to catch back up as we bypassed the first aid station but once we started that second climb they began to pull away and I thought it would be best to let them go. Time to run my race.

After dropping into Tennessee Valley I grabbed a cup of water and finally felt like I was settling in. However I was still really cold. It was difficult to eat because I had no feeling in my fingers, but what bothered me more was my legs – especially my hamstrings and quads – feeling cold, stiff, and tight. I found myself focusing on how much better I would feel if I would’ve worn capris. I kept telling myself that once the sun came up I would warm up and everything would feel better. It was still pitch black and sunrise seemed so far away. I was being a big baby and spending too much time thinking about things that were out of my control.

The best I felt all day was miles 10-15. I was sitting in 8th at the time but as we started the long climb to Cardiac my legs were again feeling so tight and weren’t cooperating. I knew I needed to grind out this 9 mile climb to McKennan Gulch where I could turn around and get some relief with the descent.

I had dropped 3 spots to 11th by the time we hit Cardiac and as simple as that math was I was so mentally frustrated I thought I was lucky if I was in top 20. Don’t ask me how I couldn’t pay attention to something so simple – it shows that my head was not in the game. The high point was seeing the lead men come through between Cardiac and McKennan. Zach Miller was out front moving like a freight train and I was super-excited to see him doing his thing. We both cheered for each other and he encouraged me by saying I was “up there” and then shouted “Go PA” as he made the turn heading down to Stinson Beach. Pennsylvania pride is strong! Existing in my negative head space I laughed to myself about his “up there” remark thinking he was trying to be nice.

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No more headlamp!

Frustration ran deeper as I hit the turnaround and made my way back down to Stinson Beach. This should’ve been a spot where I could open it up a bit and make up for that long uphill trudge. But I didn’t feel any better. Again my legs weren’t cooperating – the sun was up and I was still cold. I couldn’t shake this stiff feeling and my mental state worsened as I realized I was only halfway through the race feeling this terrible. There was no way I was going to give up but I started to have that talk with myself that this would be a race that I just need to finish.

On this out-and-back section I got to see some familiar faces which helped to elevate my mood. Karen Holland, Leah Maher who I only met that morning but is also from PA, and Anne Bouchard whom I raced with at TNF Toronto. Everyone was smiling and looking strong and I used that energy.

I was anticipating seeing my new friend Sandy who was crewing me at mile 29.4. I looked at my watch and realized I would be getting in right around the time I told him to be there and he had to take a shuttle which I know can be unreliable. I kept my hopes high that I would see him but on Friday I was already mentally preparing myself for the possibility of not getting my hydration and nutrition at mile 29.4. I rolled into the aid station at 9:06 and Sandy was nowhere to be found. I spent way too long standing around hoping he would magically appear – my backup plan thrown totally out the window due to my mental state. Finally I realized I had to move on so I slowly filled my bottles with water, grabbed a chunk of banana, and went on my way. Out of the way of the aid station I took another break to properly hack up all of the fluid in my lungs and clear my nose which I had only been half-successful doing while running. I looked up to see a poor, innocent bystander hiking towards me as she asked with concern “are you okay?” Sorry lady – no one deserved to see that.

It was a short run to the Cardiac aid station so I got my head together and realized that I would need another plan for electrolytes and nutrition now that I did not have my stash. I also had the attitude of “I’ll eat and drink whatever the f*ck I want because it doesn’t matter anymore.” I was a ray of sunshine. I arrived at Cardiac and grabbed a cup of Coke – yes Coke – and chased it with another chunk of banana because nothing else looked good to me and I remembered how bananas saved me in Switzerland last year. In a matter of minutes I felt a rush of life come into me. Huh. I guess it’s true what they say about that nasty, poisonous, rocket fuel. My whole damn attitude was turning around and at one point I actually yelled out “Coke” in an effort to praise my new-found savior. We dropped into Muir Woods and the beautiful redwoods. It was invigorating. We were now on the course with the 50k runners and I was definitely utilizing their energy. It was great to have people around and people to pass since I had been on my own for so long. Then I passed a familiar face – Team USA (duathlon) teammate Elizabeth Sponagle was tackling her first 50k and she looked great. I was so excited to see her as I was bounding down the trails with my new-found energy.

Not too long after that I heard a loud scream of “NOO!” up ahead and I see the guy that I had been running near for most of the day hiking back up the hill. He said we were on the wrong course but I was sure we were going the right way and told him the same even though I had stopped in fear that we had done something wrong. 50k runners confirmed for us that we were heading in the right direction so we started up again. He said to me “you’re my beacon of light – every time I think something is going wrong I turn around and see you there and know everything is okay.” I appreciated his kind words but laughed and told him that wasn’t the wisest plan. He doesn’t know my track record.

I recalled what one of my training partners texted me before the race: “Remember the race doesn’t start til 35!” I wanted to respond “It’s TNF50 – the race starts when the gun goes off” but I knew what he meant. And I remembered it now because at mile 35 I was finally starting to feel like I could race. Just at that moment I came across a spectator who told me I was in 11th. Who is this lunatic who doesn’t know how to count? I shouted back a very skeptical “what?!?” and he confirmed that the 10th place female passed through about 10 minutes ago. I said “well…damn!” and thanked him for this info which was the first I received regarding my placement the whole day. Into the next aid station I grabbed another cup of coke, another bite of banana, and a handful of Clif Bloks to ensure I was getting enough calories.

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The climb from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley

I was looking forward to reaching Tennessee Valley as I was sure Sandy would be there this time with my bottle of go-go juice to get me through the final 10k. I had one more climb to tackle before that point and then only one more left in the race after that. The downhills were starting to hurt more and more so once you reached the top of the climb you wanted to celebrate only to realize the real pain was about to set in. I could see Tennessee Valley and the huge crowd awaiting as I made my way down and worried about how I would find Sandy. As I approached the aid station my head was swiveling back and forth along the crowd that lined the road only to see Sandy standing right in front of me, arms waving with bottles in hand. I was so happy to see him and he spouted so much encouragement. I wanted to hug him but there was no time to linger. I gave him my vest and grabbed my hand-held before hitting the aid table for another piece of banana and heading up the final climb.

I caught up to Jonathan at the aid station and was really excited to be with him for this final push. As we were hiking this climb I turned around and was certain I saw another female with an orange bib. Panic set in. I held my position for over 20 miles and I wasn’t about to give it up in the last 10k. I turned around one more time to confirm she was there and it certainly looked as if she was. I made two decisions: 1) I would not turn around again for the rest of the race – I would go as hard as I could, and 2) I was going to get up this last climb through equal parts running and hiking. Being the obsessive counter that I am I started a 25 x 8-count cycle of running/hiking until I made it to the top. Another painful downhill but knowing it was the final descent I pushed a little harder. Again we could see far ahead on the course to where the trail leveled out so I focused on that spot – knowing that once I reached the bottom I could open it up.

With about 2.5 miles to go I could hear someone coming up on me. Then I could tell it was a female. Another moment of self-defeat as I thought “I can’t believe I let this happen”. As she pulled alongside me I looked over to see her bright-colored bib and told her “great job” even though I didn’t recognize her. That’s when she said “I’m a relay and I can barely catch you – you’re so inspiring!” Her bib was red, not orange! Phew! She had a strong pace and I was determined to stay with her so that’s exactly what I did. I ran alongside her for those final miles with her encouraging me the whole way – she was so awesome! She said I was inspiring but really she was the one who inspired me. She was in her own race yet she dedicated herself to pushing me those last miles talking me through it the whole way.

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Coming into the finish

I hadn’t looked at my watch in quite some time so when I rounded the corner to the finish line I was happy to see that I had met my goal of finishing under 8 hours. I gave my finishing partner a hug and thanked her for her kindness. I wanted to quickly grab my bag so I could get my phone to capture Ellie’s finish and as I was exiting Sandy was waiting to congratulate me. It was so awesome to have him there. Turns out getting my bag was quite the ordeal so sadly I missed Ellie’s finish as she came hobbling over to me crying tears of happiness after executing an amazing race – placing 15th in that field at her first 50 miler ever!

Of course since the race ended my mind has been in a constant state of ‘what I did wrong – what I need to do better’. But that’s how we grow right? It was a great experience to be racing such a strong field of competitors on a truly enjoyable course. The weather was perfect and I finished without any battle wounds or injuries so I couldn’t ask for anything more. Onto the next one!

There are some people I need to thank for making this race a positive experience:

Scott Field of Keystone Bodywork who spends countless hours keeping my body tuned and making sure everything is firing properly. Even though I swear at him a lot and wonder what I’ve done to make him hurt me so, I know that his thumbs and elbows are giving me love.

Jay Friedman my steadfast training partner who never missed a track or hill workout. Even on those dark sub-freezing mornings he was there to pull me along and keep me in check. Oh and hey, he’s in the running for RunUltra Blogger of the Year so vote for him here!

Sandy Naidu who offered up his Saturday to a complete stranger by crewing for me at the race. I’m so happy I got to meet and spend some time with such an awesome person and I will definitely take him up on his offer to crew me again in the future! And of course I have to thank Jonathan Levitt for bringing the two of us together.

Canada – you threw one crazy post-race party the weekend before my race which sharpened my endurance skills, challenged my ability to roll with things that aren’t part of the plan, and probably gave me the nasty cold I had to deal with going into this race 😉

And finally Topo Athletic for providing me with the shoes that kept my feet happy all year long. Yet another race without a single blister or any pain in my feet. A special thank you to Kristine David who, when the replacement shoes I needed for this race were not available in my size, sent me her own personal brand-spanking-new shoes so that I had a fresh pair for race day. Now that’s service!

Results: 11th Overall Female, 7:47:53

Gear: Topo MT2 shoes, Ultimate Direction TO Race Vest 3.0
Nutrition: Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer, BeetElite, Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix, Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration, Skratch Labs Fruit Drops, Huma gels, Larabar Bites, Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer, Vega Sport Recovery Accelerator…and of course Coca Cola and bananas 🙂

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The magical, mystical Blue Mountains

I’m going to have to apologize up front. I went into this race with the full intention of actually paying attention to the course so that I could provide an accurate description for those who would consider making the well-worth-it trek to the Georgian Bay in Ontario for this North Face Endurance Challenge. However as usual I was lost in my own little wonderland of racing and would have a very hard time recounting what I encountered at any given point in the race. Except for maybe the last 3 miles where around each corner – surprise – let’s climb up the ski slope some more! And then descending the face of the mountain one last time – using every ounce of energy to not come tumbling down. But let’s back it up a little.

The Prep
Friday morning I drove from Syracuse to the Blue Mountain region and I was immediately enchanted by this place. Beautiful rolling terrain, windmills, fields of wild flowers, unicorns. Yes, I’m certain there were unicorns in this picturesque fairy tale land. It had been over a month since my last ultra and to say I was amped to race is an understatement. Once I saw where I would be racing my excitement grew ten-fold. I checked in to my hotel at 6 and heated up my good ol’ pre-race curry while I sat in bed with my course guide fanned out around me. It was time for a cram session! Looped courses make it easy to strategize but this course had no rhyme or reason. At this point all I knew is that I wanted to beat last year’s winning time which was 5:46. So let’s shoot for 5:30!

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I had the course map, the elevation profile, and the aid station-to-aid station detailed course description in front of me and came up with my plan. I rehearsed the plan over and over in my head. I considered writing it down on my arm – sure I would forget. Nah – I hammered it into my brain – I was ready.

The next morning brought gorgeous sunny skies and perfect temps to start the day. Obviously, I was in magicland! As I lined up at the start I met Anne Bouchard and she definitely looked strong – I needed to watch out for her. Since there was going to be a lot of climbing in the first few miles my plan was to go out easy – always my biggest challenge. Since I was sure Anne was right there with me I hit the first mile at 7:40 and reminded myself, repeatedly, of my plan. And this is about the point where I cannot tell you much about the course.

The Course
Let’s just say it was a steady mix of running across the exposed slopes, running up ski trails, running down ski trails, hopping off ski trails into extremely twisty turny single-track trails through the woods – going up, going down. There were some sections of stone access roads, dirt roads – long straight roads where you could see yet another climb ahead of you. Around mile 7 there was a small cheering section ahead with signs as we made a right turn. When you see a sign that says “Make this hill your bitch” you know you’re in trouble. There were even some sections of paved roads which were nice for opening up your stride a bit. In some of the wooded sections the trail was so soft and the trees were so tall you felt like a small spec floating along. There were some rocky sections, roots, wooden bridges – but not a very technical course. We crossed one small stream, twice. I loved the mix.

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The Company
I can’t tell you exactly where I linked up with Matt – it was very early on in the race. I also can’t tell you who came upon whom. But we seemed to fall into sync with each other as we traded on and off leading and we began to chat. His goal was 5:30. Perfect! It was a great distraction as I realized by mile 5 or so that my “rehearsed” plan of how the course was to play out did not at all match what I was experiencing. I don’t know how to explain it really – as the race went on I realized that I actually had no clue of what I would encounter at each chunk of mileage so I threw my plan out the window and just raced! The other perk of running with Matt is that he had pretty extensive knowledge of the course. There was a long section running through very tall grass. My tick-phobia was kicking in big time.

Me: Matt, do you have a tick problem here?
Matt: A what?
Me: Where I’m from I could expect at least 20 ticks on me at this point.
Matt: I’ve never had a tick. Found one on my dog once.

Once?!? This truly is a magical place! No ticks! As a matter of fact, I don’t recall there being any bugs at all. When we reached the halfway point I looked at my watch and asked “the 2nd half is easier than the 1st half right?” He responded with a resounding “yes”. We were well ahead of 5:30 pace and this got me pumped.

img_4897-1Matt and I ran alone for quite some time before Tarzan caught us. Okay his name is Anthony – something I did not know until I looked him up in the results – so during the race he was Tarzan. He was very built for an ultra runner, and the fact that he was shirtless accentuated this. After he passed I was mesmerized by his calf muscles. He was also full of positive energy which made me want to hang on to him. He would occasionally let out a loud whoop, or start clapping, or yell back at us “you guys are doing great – keep it up!” This guy was great! It was also his first 50k – he was obviously having a blast. His goal was top 10 and I was sure he had it in the bag. For a while the 3 of us ran together but they tended to linger at the aid stations when I was prepared to breeze through quickly. I felt a little guilty about this but without any knowledge of where the next female was I had to race my own race. I actually thought about asking for some info at an aid station but decided I didn’t want to know. I’d rather keep racing scared the way I like it.

With about 9 miles to go I took off at the aid station and was feeling really strong so I started to push. This was also sparked by looking at my watch and realizing that sub-5 hours was surely going to happen. On an undulating forest trail I heard that loud shout from Tarzan in the distance and I returned the call. When he caught up to me I could tell that although we were both running strong, we were both struggling with the distance between aid stations in the last few miles. By now the heat was turned up and although there was aid stations o-plenty they seemed so far away. And we were now back on the ski slope with a lot of sun exposure. I kept thinking to myself it would all be downhill from here. Wrong! There were a good 5-6 climbs in the last 3.5 miles. Just when you thought there is no way there can be another climb, you made a right turn into another wall. This was taking it out of me and soon Tarzan was out of view.

I hit that last aid station with one mile to go – the steep downhill… Almost as steep as Loon Mountain’s Upper Walking Boss. After running it at mile 6 of the race I knew what I was in for and tried to hammer down it to the best of my ability. Seeing Tarzan pass a runner on the descent made me want to get one last pass too. And right near the bottom I got it. From there it’s a short shot across the mountain to the finish line. I crossed in 4:46:17 – 1st female and 8th overall.

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The Hoopla
I have not experienced such a lively finish line outside of World Championship races. A long line of spectators screaming and ringing cowbells made the finish feel amazing! And then of course there was the award ceremony which seemed more like a concert. The crowd was packed tight and deep making it hard for the award winners to get to the stage. We quickly learned what this was about – November Project was in full force at this race as there was a marathon relay event. The top 3 overall males and females were brought up for each event. As their name was announced the crowd would chant their name. Once the podium shots were taken the “crowd surf” chant started and every one of us answered the call. It was a unique experience to end an amazing race day. North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario, I love you. I’m pretty damn sure we’ll meet again.

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I may have said it once but I’ll say it again – The North Face Endurance Challenge sure knows how to host a top-notch race event. I’m glad I discovered this race series and can’t wait for the Championship event in December!

P.S. Good luck to Anne who will be heading to UTMB to race CCC – my goal for next year!

Tune-up race – NYCRUNS Central Park Half Marathon

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Last weekend I ventured to NYC to run a tune-up race prior to my marathon (which is now only 2 weeks away!!). Also to obtain the elite qualifying time I needed for that marathon. Did I run time I needed? Yes. Did I run the time I wanted? No. But hey, that’s what tune-up races are for – to see where your fitness is and what improvements need to be made. Yes, I am celebrating a win, however the greater experience I got from this race lies in what I take away from it. As with any race, you learn.

This race took place, as you can infer by the name, in Central Park. The half marathon consisted of 3 loops – each one slightly different from the last. As much as I studied the course map I was nervous about making an error. However the signage for each loop was easy to read and understand, the volunteers and course marshals were on top of directing you appropriately, and I had the added benefit of the lead female cyclist riding alongside me throughout the entire race. Not only would she tell me whenever an aid station was near, but she would also ride ahead to each intersection that she could stop and make sure she was directing me to the appropriate loop. She was awesome!
nycruns courseI started at a conservative pace (what?!?) and held a fairly consistent pace throughout the race. This is not my racing style – I tend to go out too hard and hang on for dear life. It’s what has always worked for me. Sometimes I like to experiment with “doing it right” – or at least doing what other people preach is right. Today was one of those days. At the start line I chatted with a man who had arrived from London 2 days prior and decided to do this race while he was in town. We talked about our time goals and I gave him my A and B goals. He then asked if I was going to “go for it”. I told him it depended on how I felt. While there was no need to put it all out there it would’ve been nice to test myself. But…I definitely wasn’t feeling it and I certainly didn’t go for it. I felt controlled the whole race, but not strong enough to push it. It was a good way to start the season 🙂

Photo: NYCRUNS

Photo: NYCRUNS

This was the first race in my Topo Tribute’s. Verdict: I love them. They are super-lightweight, extremely breathable, and provide the perfect amount of protection for the ride. Basically, I did not even notice my shoes at all, which is exactly what I want in a zero drop racing flat. If you want to read a comprehensive review of the Tribute, check out this one.

TOPOKLINE20 for 20% off

TOPOKLINE20 for 20% off

NYCRuns put on a great race. It was well-organized, well-staffed, and they provided nice swag along with a post-race spread including lots of fresh fruit that you don’t normally see at races. Berries and grapes? Yes please!

And now some work to do before my next race…

6 minutes, 4 seconds

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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

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.

Training
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.

Race Day
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)

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.