Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Oak brook terrace

Two days after returning from the empire state race in new york, i was again heading to a stair race--this one, however, only a ten minute drive from my house. 15, if you count my stopping at starbucks for a mocha.

The building was nice, the lobby well-laid out. I arrived in my gear, but still checked my jacket, which i probably didn't technically need to do, but it was quite chill outside, so even the short walk to my car was a painful one.

There was a little time to kill before the race, because the "ultimate" was still going on. I watched the climbers make up to a dozen trips up the building, and was incredibly impressed. Part of me wished i'd signed up for the ultimate, but another part of me was glad i was only going to be scaling the stairs three times.

I was wearing my shirt from the empire state run-up and it broke the ice with some of the elite climbers i'd seen on facebook and at the top of race results. It was really nice to meet them in person. Soon we lined up, them at the start of the line, me a ways back.

My plan for the race was to go conservative, to shoot for about 4:30, but try to do that for every climb. I wasn't going to win no matter what i did, but i could learn to pace myself. Soon it was my turn, and i headed up the stairs.

The stairwell was very consistent, which i liked. The floors seemed very far apart compared to the empire state building, where a single short series of steps brought you to the next level. I was passing people quickly, trying very hard to maintain a constant pace, one that was challenging, but would not leave me entirely spent and unable to execute a sprint finish or have a good next two climbs.

Before i knew it, the top of the stairs were there. I didn't sprint but the last floor, but it was a long one. At the top i took a minute to catch my breath, but felt good. A few people i'd passed reached the top, and they congratulated me on how fast i'd been going. I thanked them, and asked them about their experiences. When i went downstairs, i saw that my time was 4:45, good for 13th place so far. I saw the elites taking rest, so i emulated them and waited for my legs to fully recover and my breath to return fully to normal.

My second trip up the stairs i felt even better. I knew the staircase and felt really good. I started my sprint with three floors to go, and when i popped through the door, i felt pretty ok, with little need to cool down or rest. Downstairs, i was disappointed that only the first trip's times could be determined at the race. I imagined my time might be a few seconds faster than the first.

I waited about 10 more minutes, and made my third trip up. This time, i decided to follow the precepts of "body mind and sport" and use deep breathing and make the climb a transcendent experience. The staircase had mostly emptied out, so i just breathed slow and deep, kept my eyes up, and thought happy thoughts. I hardly felt the climb at all, and before i knew it, i'd crossed the finish line again. I had no idea what my time might be. It had seemed like a blink, so part of me thought it might have been by far my fastest climb of the day. But based on how i felt, i thought it might have been right in line with the other climbs.

I went downstairs to the refreshment area, and grabbed some water and a banana. I saw the elite climbers sitting at a table, and gingerly walked over, made contact with justin, who i'd already spoken to, and asked if i could sit there. My empire state shirt broke the ice again, and soon i was talking to Jesse Berg, who was the highest american placer at the empire state race, and had won almost every major US race. There was chatting, but i was mostly listening to the guys talk.

Soon, justin brok out his video camera and said he wanted to tape a fun run up the stairs, and jesse looked at me, asking if i wanted to come. I was in shock; i was going to be running the stairs with three of the fastest climbers in the world. I was sure they would drop me almost immediately, but it was also an opportunity not to be missed. We went to the single climb stairwell, they held onto the camera, and two went up, and eric pushed me along to follow.

Faster than i would have imagined possible, i was following them up the steps. The pace seemed crazy; we were zigzagging around slow climbers, flinging ourselves off the rails, really RUNNING the stairs. I didn't even think about what i was doing, merely focused on keeping jesse and justin in my sights, and not slowing down eric, who was on my tail.

At about floor 15, Jesse slowed down and the group resumed a brisk walking pace. I was madly catching my breath, but i couldn't believe it. I had kept up. I knew i wasn't close to these guys, and they had all had a much harder racing day than me, and they were the ones parting the crowd, but for a minute i had kept up.

At about 20, they took off again, and that was it for me. I got out of eric's way and he took off again. Could i have pursued. I don't know. At the time, it wasn't my reflex, and i expect it was because i was too tired to chase at that point. Now, after the fact, i wish i had tried--even if i'd gotten dropped after a few floors, i would have given it my all. I met them at the top, we headed down, and after a bried fist bump, it was home.

I learned later that my times were 4:45 4:47 and 4:57. It had seemed i was getting faster at the time, but really i'd lost a little, especially during my zen run. Exhaustion mattered more than i thought! Still, i was remarkably consistent. I was overjoyed when i first looked at the site to see me listed as 4th place in the triple climb! My time soon dropped to 5th, and the next day i was down to 10th, as, i suppose, timing errors were corrected.

Still, that was an excellent result for me, especially as i was consciously holding something in reserve, and i considered the fun run with the super climbers the best part of the day. This was also the first race where i garnered world cup points; 5.6 points put me precisely nowhere, but i would be happy to be on some sort of list at the end of the year. All in all, a fantastic day!

The race results!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Empire state run-up

I signed up for the empire state building run up on a whim. I knew the odds of my getting in were slight, but that made me want to sign up all the more; i wanted to do the race eventually, and it might take many attempts to get in. So when i actually did get accepted on my first attempt, i wasn't quite ready... There was a moment of unreality before i started making plans and thinking about the race itself. The race was, oddly, a wednesday night, which i was not happy about, both because racing at night is so unusual, and also because i would need to take substantial time off of work. But it was an honor to get in, so I found airfare. Before i booked a room, my wonderful friend Jordana offered to let me stay at her place. She was even taking vacation, so we could play tourist together. What fun!

I learned from reading Tim Van Orden's blog that the race is unusual in that the stairs are organized fire-escape pattern, with a staircase, then a brief span of hallway leading to the next staircase, instead of the typical uninterrupted ascent most high-rise staircases. That accounts for the fact that times at the empire state building are typically slower that times at taller buildings, such as the Hancock or Aon Chicago.

I also learned from Tim's blog that most people run up the stairs, then trudge down the hall to the next staircase. He considers the reverse a better strategy; hold back a little on the stairs so you can move quickly on the flats, where expending the same unit of energy knocks more seconds off your time. I also observed that the race don't end at the top of the stairs, but rather with a run encompassing the periphery of the skydeck. I decided to not only employ tim's strategy ( save energy on the stairs, move quickly on the landings ) but to consciously save a little energy for the run along the deck before the finish line.

The day before the race, we were incredibly active. We saw the giant's victory parade, the 9/11 memorial, ate some great indian food, toured south manhattan, walked the brooklyn bridge, saw the met museum, and walked central park. We put on a large number of walking miles and seemed to climb endless stairs, but i decided not to care. i was going to be a tourist and enjoy my first trip to New York even if it cost me a few seconds on the stairs. It was a wonderful day, and we had some great food!

The day of the race, i was still playing tourist. I visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island with my wonderful host, Jordana. Previous years, i would have tried to laze away the day to save energy, but i decided the best policy was to relax and enjoy myself, and let the race happen. Of course, i knew my pace would be far far from the elite times, and a second here or there might not affect my ranking at all. We did head back "home" a few hours before the race, and popped in to trader joe's. I got their green machine juice to fuel me for the race, and camped out on the couch for about two hours before leaving for the race.

This was my first trip solo on the new york subway, and it showed. I somehow missed my stop, and it took quite a bit of time for me to realize i needed to get out and head back. Fortunately, i'd left a lot of extra time in my schedule, so i made it to the empire state building with plenty of time, but my nerves were getting frazzled. I had also forgotten my green machine juice. I was feeling very off, and now getting some jelly legs before even arriving at the building. I had a 5 hour energy sample in my pocket an advertising person had handed me the day before, so i sipped that until half the bottle was gone and chucked the rest in the garbage. If i had more time, i would have sought out some juice, but i was worried about getting checked in on time, so i headed for the building.

I couldn't see it until i was two blocks away, but when i did, it was really majestic; a classic building, lit orange up top for the new york road runners. The lobby was amazing, gorgeous marble and brass, and doormen in long dapper coats; it felt as if i was walking into the emerald city in the wizard of oz. They directed me to the race lobby, and i arrived to a chaotic scene. It took a long time to get my number, and the gear check line was huge and raggedy; many people were camped out in groups on the floor, and racers didn't seem to know where to go. Also, there didn't appear to be gear bags provided, and i wondered what i was going to do with my jacket and street clothes. Fortunately, someone did come up with bags for the people that "forgot", but it was still more stress.

After that, i found a spot on the floor and talked with people, seeing if anyone nearby had done the race before and had some advice. No one did, so we just chatted for about half an hour before our numbers were called. I was in the 700 group and we lined up in our corrals. I spoke to three people around me, lady in pink, german fellow, and tall lady. They were all serious 5 and 10k runners, but this was the first tower race for any of them. Lady in pink seemed terribly nervous and german guy and i tried to calm her. German guy had a go pro camera strapped to his head, and seemed boisterously happy. Tall woman seemed to feel she didn't belong in the same course with us peons, and she wouldn't have to deal with us once we went through the door. German guy said i was sure to pass him, so i should wave to the camera, and he'd post it to youtube.

Tall lady managed to move ahead in line, but soon enough the remaining three of us were set free, and we ran down the stairs and though the hallways of the empire state building. I was not crazy about running, and on stairs, right before a race, but everyone else was, so there seemed to be little else for it. I was right behind german guy and right in front of lady in pink. They were sending up runners every five seconds, which is very fast, and not what had been announced, so before i knew it, german guy was gone, then it was my turn to head up.

I hit the stairs, doing my best to remember my strategy. Pace myself. I knew the first few floors DIDN'T have the landings, though, so i didn't have flats to save my energy for; therefore i went a little faster on the steps than i was planning to go later. I was happy to see the staircases were rather narrow, so i could grab both railings and pull myself up, which is my preferred technique. I did my best to keep my body upright and my breathing slow and deep.

Lady in pink was close behind me. She was already breathing hard after 3-4 floors. I didn't know what to tell her. Saying to slow down or take it easy would be a condescending jerk thing to say, so i just gave her words of encouragement. I passed a few people and she did too. It was obvious that she was using me as her pacer, and i felt bad if i was making her go too hard, but i had my own race to run. I kept myself at a pace that seemed maintainable for me and kept moving. I dropped her at about floor 15 and didn't see her until after the race.

At about 20, there was a brief jog down a hallway past a water station. I never stop at those and certainly wasn't about to start. There was a substantial crowd of zombified racers in the hallway, and i ran through as fast as i felt safe with people milling about, which wasn't very fast.

After the hall, the stairs with landings began, and i used my plan: slow and steady up the stairs, use both rails, don't pass on the stairs unless really necessary, but move fast on the landings. This was working great, but i was starting to get a gnawing worry. I felt good. Too good, perhaps? Was i going too slow? I was starting to hit some crowds now. There were even large groups doing the slow trudge on the landings that i didn't want to expend a lot of energy running around, so i had to do some passing on the narrow stairs, climbing the outside rail like a rope. Around 40 or so, i passed tall lady, who looked to be in a pretty bad way. Soon i spotted german guy ahead of me. He was moving at a good pace, but was also part of a large group that was filling the staircase and the landing, so it took me a few floors to get an opening to pass the group while sticking to my strategy of conserving energy. I paused passing german guy and it took a moment to get his attention. Soon he recognized me, and we laughed, i mugged into his camera, cheered him on, and resumed passing people.

After i got past that group at about 55, the stairs cleared up a lot. I was able to revert to my plan of climbing the steps at a conservative pace, and jogging briskly on the landings. Now i was able to take in the building and i began to really enjoy myself; there were pretty halls leading away from the stairs, more dapper doomen, and the stairs were always changing, which added a nice variety. There was another water station at 60, and an even longer hall this time. I again put on a burst of speed through the crowd and hit the next staircase.

Before i knew it, i was on 71. It clicked that there were only 15 floors left, and i felt pretty great! I decided to stop saving energy and pick up the pace. Of course, i began hitting more people. No longer conserving energy, i passed on the outside, and shot across the landings. I moved pretty fast, and felt good. I was having fun! This was a fun race! I was smiling and cheering people on and encouraging a lot of pretty spent-looking climbers.

Then i did something i am pretty proud of. I hit 84, and slowed down, remembering that the race didn't end at the top of the stairs, but circled the observation deck. I knew that going slow on the last few floors would only cost me a few seconds, which would probably be repaid with interest on the run around the deck. I slowed down to my slowest pace of the race, focused on taking deep breaths, and pounded my legs with my fists to get them ready.

Finally, i reached the door, and race personnel pointed me to the right. I set foot outside, drinking in the cold wet night air. The sky was a wall of fog, and snowflakes settled against my overheated face as orange light blazed up from below. I set off running on the bricks, going as fast as felt safe on the slightly slick surface. I was moving past many tired runners, and worried i might collide with a wobbly walker, but did my best to give them wide berth and hoped they'd go in a straight line. I rounded the corner and skidded a bit, then saw the finish. I did my best to put on a last burst of speed, and seemingly a second later, crossed the line.

Fanfare? None. Every other race i've done had at least a few people cheering at the end, usually quite a crowd, but there was nothing. I jogged to a stop, and a person directed me to the elevators. That was it. I was back inside. A woman was handing out medals. I tried to accept one in my hand, but she laughed, said "I've seen worse" and insisted on putting it around my neck. I appreciated that; it was a nice touch.

After that, it was down the elevator and back to the lobby where it had all started. There was gatorade, which was highly appreciated, especially as it took them about 25 minutes to find my gear; the numeric labels were tiny and apparently easily missed. Every other race uses large white bags with the numbers written across it in huge bold letters. NYRR needs to adopt this technique, as gear check was a huge mess. I did get to see the people i'd met in line before the race, and we chatted about what a cool experience it had been.

I met a few people in the lobby who i knew from the facebook stair running group, which was really neat. We chatted about the race, and upcoming ones we might meet at again.

And that was it. I left the building feeling good in all possible ways. I was proud of myself for sticking to my strategy, how well the strategy had worked, and for the fact i'd stayed conscious and enjoyed myself for the whole race. Had i left time on the floor? Doubtlessly. I knew for sure i could have gone faster; hardly being tired after 70 floors told me that. I learned later that my time was 16:59, and i suspect that had i gone all out, i could have come close to my 14:29 time i set in the slightly taller Aon. But that would be a number, and what i got were great memories and a precious education. I could come back and do better, and i was ok with that.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Newly inspired

Part of my process to upgrading myself from a couch potato has been carefully tracking everything... Ever bit of food, calorie burned from exercise, a careful journal, etc. I also had a daily planner with recurring events to push me to do things.. Water the plants, take out the garbage, run stair, etc.

But about a week ago, i was thinking about how challenging that's become, and how many major tasks i had on my list, i often couldn't bring myself to do.

After a long session of rumination, i decided to just drop all of it. Don't track my workouts, don't track my food, don't have an endless cycle of recurring daily tasks. I decided if i signed up for another race or two, i could give myself the latitude to do this at least until race season was over.

So, i did it.. It was scary, terrifying even.. But it was fine. Actually, in the ten days since then, i've been much more productive, not less. It seems i had built up a tremendous immunity to being coerced into doing all the things i knew i needed to do.. And when i just let myself flow and asked myself what i should be doing now, that resistance mostly fell away. I got some thing done i've literally been procrastinating for months and months.

So, i'm doing this, at least until race season is over. I have to keep stopping myself, to remind myself that i don't have a list of things to do, that i can just stop, relax, and be in the moment... It's time to flow, people!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

One year to go

Sunday i had my best athletic achievement of my life, 46th place in a race of well over 2200 people. The funny thing is, a few years ago, this would have been unthinkable. I was badly overweight, weak, and my cardiovascular fitness was such that running a block was something i could do only very slowly, if at all.

It's been a steady but very slow progression.. 6 months where i lose a few pounds, a few months were i work on strength a lot and put on 4 pounds, half of it muscle, a couple of months where i hold my weight steady but improve my cardio, etc.

There have been missteps and false starts, such as eight months of a raw diet ( i gained weight, and lost speed and strength ) and periods where i thought yoga along would keep me in shape ( it can't ).

But with my last race, it seems to me that elite ranking is actually attainable. This was a tower race, and i averaged exactly 11 seconds per floor. 10 seconds per floor would have qualified me as an elite athlete, and 9 seconds a floor would have placed me in the top ten.

I'm looking at this from multiple angles:

Weight: 1 weigh 185 and my bodyfat is about 18-19%. That means i have 35 pounds of fat on me. If i lost 20 pounds of fat, i'd weigh 165 and have 9% bodfat, which is a perfectly healthy number. That alone would get me elite ranking. 14.5 ( minutes ) * ( 165 / 185 ) = 12.9 ( minutes ) easily qualifying as elite.

Speed improvement: 9%

Leg strength: My stair climbing muscle chain began to hurt at floor 40 or so. I plan to approach this from multiple angles: Climbing real stairs with a 40 pound weight vest, doing double steps at the gym with the same 40 pound vest, and seeking out exercises that stimulate the same muscles.

speed improvement: 5%

Cardio: i was definitely out of breath at the end of the race, and developed a hacking cough. The gym stair climber didn't seem to work my cardio hard enough; i need to find other ways to get a good cardio burn in. Running is obvious, but i observe many of the best stair climbers are also rowers, cros country skiiers, or cyclists. So, i'm going to add rowing and spinning to my workouts, as well as something resembling CC skiing.

Speed improvement 8%

Pulling strength: pulling oneself up the handrails is a big help for tower racing speed. My arms got tired quickly, and i just used the handrails for guidance. I need to develop more pulling strength. Rowing will help, as various gym pulling machines.

speed improvement: 3%

Technique: i need to work on my turnaround technique and passing techniques. Work on specific exercises for this.

speed improvement: 5% ( there are a lot of turnarounds )

Mental toughness: my brain tends to get fuzzy in these races. To combat this, i need to stop listening to music and defocusing during my hard cardio sessions. Additionally, i need to gut out some tough cardio sessions staying focused, such as spin.

speed improvement: 5%

If all those speed improvements are real, and i think they are, i would have placed 4th in this race, which would be titanic for me.

I almost regret that i have races coming up... I'd like to do the diet i know works for me, and do a low-ish carb warrior diet, which i lose weight quickly on. After the empire state race, i will design a weekly cycle allowing two super HIT cardio sessions.

After race season is over ( mid-march ) my main focus will be on building strength and cutting fat. Hopefully, i can accomplish some of this during race season so i will have a good head start.