Race recap: Fight For Air Climb, January 25th, 2015

“Hey you, get off of my cloud!” The top floors of the U.S. Bancorp Tower were bathed in fog on race morning. (Joe Dudman photo)

Over 300 people took to the stairs of the U.S. Bancorp Tower (aka “Big Pink”) in downtown Portland on Sunday, January 25th for the Fight For Air Climb, a fundraiser for the American Lung Association.

Having been intrigued by stair climbs in the past, yet never having tried one, I decided that this was the year to give it a shot. As the day approached, the prospect of running up 40 flights of stairs seemed both exciting and ominous.

On the one hand, I had two main worries that nagged at me: coming down with a dry throat and a hacking cough in the warm, stuffy indoor air, and feeling my legs become as dead and heavy as oaken wagon wheels at the end of the Oregon Trail. I imagined both of these things happening before I even reached the halfway point.

On the other hand, this was a brand new kind of event for me, so what did it matter if I got tired and fell off the pace? It was going to be a fun and novel adventure, regardless of how fast I made it to the top, so why worry about it? I should just enjoy the experience.

On the third hand (yes, many things in life have three “hands”!), any time I toe the line at a timed event with a set course, I can’t help but be competitive, which brought me back to “hand one”: Yes, this was probably going to be hard and painful!

Leading to race day, the race director sent out a steady stream of helpful and encouraging emails, including some very sage advice for the unique event. Two items in particular stood out to me: Chewing gum to help alleviate the dry throat problem and wearing gloves and using the handrails to pull yourself along in addition to simply running up the steps. Both of these tips proved invaluable!

The ground floor lobby of the tower was buzzing with activity when I arrived to check in. Venders’ and sponsors’ tables lined the hallway, and volunteers helped answer questions. There were stickers for your shirt available for honoring loved ones, and posters to sign too.

While I recognized a couple familiar runners, for the most part the stair climb seemed to attract a slightly different crowd. There were lots of teams of CrossFit type athletes with powerful thighs the size of tree trunks, whose age group was probably determined by counting the rings. Many of them did special “stair climbing” stretching exercises and wore what looked like custom “stair climbing” gloves.

Remembering the advice from the emails, I broke out some “Run Gum” I had received in a race packet some time ago and began to chew. I rarely chew gum, but I made an exception for the sake of fending off the dreaded indoor runner’s hack. I also donned a pair of running gloves for use on the handrails.

As start time approached, we lined up single file near Stairwell A, and then set off in 12-second intervals. Suddenly it was my turn to go. I had no idea how to pace it, and I began by taking two steps at a time while pulling on the handrails. I quickly realized this wasn’t going to be so bad, although I soon downgraded to one step at a time.

The flights “flew” by (get it?), and I was surprised how quickly the floor numbers increased. I varied my stride occasionally to give my legs muscles some relief, and took a few quick breaths as I pivoted on the landings between charges up the steps. Every few flights I looked up to see what floor I was on, and soon I was halfway there on the 21st floor, where the “course” leveled off for a few steps as the stairwell shifted to another shaft.

While I was getting tired, I realized that the gum had done the trick, and my fears of a dry throat had been unfounded. And my “wagon wheels” still felt like they were just leaving St. Louis. Soon I was counting down the final 10 floors, then I saw a brightly lit hallway and the finish mat! I staggered down the hall to the welcome of friendly volunteers (who slapped an “I did it” sticker on my bib number), grabbed a cup of water, and reclined next to the elevators to catch my breath and exchange notes with other climbers.

After a few minutes I shared a well-earned elevator ride back down to the lobby with some of my fellow climbers. I had done it, and it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was a LOT of fun. It was one of those events that leaves you walking around with a big smile on your face, tired, but basking in a sense of accomplishment.

Participants emerge from the elevators on the 1st Floor and prepare to tackle another ascent of “Big Pink”. (Joe Dudman photo)

Of course, most participants opted for more than 40 floors, and they headed to Stairwell B to begin their next ascent. Each time they reached the top they earned another “I did it” sticker, and as the morning continued a constant stream of climbers emerged from the down elevators with a growing accumulation of stickers on their chests (some as many as five!)

The enthusiasm of the participants was amazing, and it was a fantastic event. My only quibble was the wait for the awards ceremony, which occurred after the final participant completed the last climb. While that makes sense, it would have been nice to have preliminary results posted in real time so people could check their standing, and see if they were in the running for an award. This would have been especially useful for those who did the shorter events. As it was, there was 5 to 10 minutes of climbing, followed by over two-and-a-half hours of waiting for the awards. An early awards ceremony or a later start time for the shorter events are two possible solutions.

Other than that, the Fight For Air Climb was a blast, and I’m already setting aside my gum and gloves for next year’s edition!

For complete results click HERE.

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