Last year I ran a 5K and as I finished, for the first time in my life as a competitive distance runner, I was recruited. To the seminary stair-climbing team.
This past weekend, I competed in my first stair-climbing team event.
To train for this event, I continued my normal training, but then added stair-climbing workouts. I trained with “Coach” (a professor at the seminary and an avid stair climber) and my team members who I will rename: Captain America, Spartacus, and Prefontaine.
Let’s just say that with Coach, Captain America, Spartacus, and Prefontaine on the team, I was probably recruited for two main reasons: 1) to fill a token co-ed slot, and 2) to bring up the rear.
Our first group training session revealed to me the hidden culture of stair climbing. It was intense. We climbed the forty floors of the downtown Met building three times (some of us more times than that).
The air was so dry in the staircase. It was like deeply inhaling the air of a space heater. I experienced severe cottonmouth by the 7th floor. By the 19th floor, I questioned whether or not stair climbing was a good idea. By the 34th floor, I started to feel lightheaded and angry. By the time I reached the 40th floor door, I could barely open it up. I wobbled around the corner to drape myself over the water fountain. I lapped at the cool water like a long-haired dog in August. The burn in my throat was like none other. After a few moments of checking my vital signs, I followed my team members to the elevators. We road back down to ground level. To do it all over again.
The only thing that made me feel better, were my teammates who looked as beaten as I did (minus Prefontaine – who would have been completely unaffected by the climb, had be been there). Coach recommended drinking milk after the climb. To coat the throat. I only had water. I had an asthmatic cough for three days after.
To “encourage” me, Captain America shared that the stair-climbing race that we were preparing for was one of the worst things he had ever experienced. (Did I mention Captain America is military?) He claimed it was the worst burn you could ever feel in your body and your lungs. He went on to further describe the pain, but I stopped listening. He concluded by admitting that he didn’t recover easily from last year’s race. High-five, Captain. Thanks.
The following stair workouts involved the development of my stair-climbing technique, learning stair-climbing jargon, and generally staying away from Spartacus.
First, if someone told you to race up the stairs, what would you do? Jog up the stairs? Sounds right? Wrong! Prefontaine can sustain a sprint up the stairs, but after one and a half flights, I was raising the white flag. Thirty-eight and a half flights to go? Not gonna happen. I started observing what others were doing. They were using the railings – like slow-mo chimpanzees swinging from branch to branch. Most people were two-stepping the stairs, not one-stepping them. After a few climbs, I resolved to also use the two-step method. The one-step turnover rate was too exhausting.
One guy (our competition), “Mike,” who was a seasoned stair-climber showed us the “grapevine,” which involved using only the inside railing to pull yourself up – hand-over-hand. I tried it for one flight, but it was too hippy and the legwork was too complicated. I am still wondering whether or not Mike’s grapevine approach is a legitimate strategy or a form of sabotage.
Coach refers to climbing stairs as “running” and if he wants to refer to traditional running, he calls it “horizontal running.” Coach is a competitive stair climber, too. He chats it up with the competition. He knows everyone from the event coordinator, to the security guards in the Met, to the top male and female stair climbers. He knows their ages, their times, and the exact time it would take to beat them. He counts every step he climbs in a week, and it figures into the thousands. He and his wife are currently looking for a new home and his number one selling point are the stairs. It’s the first thing he looks for in a home. His real estate agent has recorded it in her notes.
Staying away from Spartacus
For the second stair-climbing practice, we had to use the chapel stairs. Coach created a workout for us that involved running three flights, taking the elevator back down, then running a separate three flights which included one down-the-stairs section.
Spartacus felt like this route wasn’t challenging enough. So he decided to not only climb the stairs, but to do it on only one foot, skipping every other step. (Don’t ask.) All I know is that it wore him out pretty quickly and as I was re-entering the stairwell after fifteen minutes of this, he was coming back down and we cracked heads. (Groan.)
Another practice, we waited for Coach to check us in at the fitness center at the Met. While waiting, Spartacus decided to sit down in the only available chair, but as he sat down, the seat flipped out from under him. He tried to regain his footing, but kept falling and pushing the chair backwards until he was on the ground and the chair slammed against a tower of shelves holding fitness club souvenirs. Empty water bottles spilled to the ground like a pyramid of apples at the grocery store, license plate frames toppled, and we both grabbed at items as they fell. Spartacus unintentionally made workouts a lot more fun.
Race day had a similar feeling to a 5K event. There were bibbed people crowding the lobby floor – stretching, chatting, and preparing for the race. The women’s restroom lines had a typical 30-minute wait. And there were piles of discarded warm-up clothes and water bottles scattered along every wall. Massage tables were set up; local non-for-profit booths lined the hallways; and photo-op spots were set up to have your picture taken pre- or post- race.
The after-party tent located just outside the building promised free bananas, fruit smoothies, sandwiches, soup, and beer. A DJ blared motivational pop music and the atmosphere pumped excitement through the veins.
The main difference between this race and a 5K is that you can’t let all 900 competitors into the stairwell at the same time. So participants lined up in a long chute chronologically according to their bib numbers, starting the race in 10-second intervals throughout the morning. Instead of racing neck-and-neck with your closest competitors (like in a typical road race), you race against the clock, almost completely by yourself. It’s not until after the race that you see how you faired against your competition.
The race itself went by too fast. As I licked my teeth at floor 24, willing the cottonmouth to go away, I grabbed a water that was being handed out by volunteers in the stairwell landing. I could barely swallow it. The water soothed for about 14 seconds as I pushed on. Then I felt my legs start to turn to jello, my throat burned all over again, and then there it was – the 39th floor. Ten seconds later I was running towards the elevator to the finish line. I stepped over Spartacus and gestured weakly to Captain America (Prefontaine had yet to race and Coach had finished an hour ago). The same old water fountain supported me until I could regain strength enough to make it down the hall to grab a water bottle and my complimentary race t-shirt.
Twenty minutes later, I was euphoric. For those of you who haven’t experience a runner’s high, it can be described as the rush of endorphins released during a hard workout, leading to a feeling that is both relaxed and energized. Kind of addicting.
So after the climb was over, I welcomed the newly experienced “climber’s high”. And in that brief state of elation, before the asthmatic cough returned, and before the calf muscles cramped into knots the size of tennis balls, and before the shins ached like pins and needles. It was in that dangerously vulnerable moment that I happily told Coach I would love to climb again next year!