Race Recap: 2017 Fight For Air Climb

“Big Pink” stands 40 stories tall against a foggy January sky.

I don’t know about you, but there are certain recurring events that seem to “reboot” the year for me. In three short years, The Fight For Air Climb, a stair climb event in The U.S. Bancorp Tower in downtown Portland, has become one of these for me, coming around again quickly and making the years seem to fly by. Before I knew it, it was time once again to get ready to raise donations to the American Lung Association and prepare to scamper up the stairwells of “Big Pink”. It was hard to believe a year had gone by since the last time I mingled with the same friendly and determined crowd, all eager to ascend 20, 40, 80, 120, 160, or (new for the 5th Anniversary edition) 200 flights of stairs. (I’ve always done the 40-floor version, one simple “sprint” up to the top of the building.)

The first year I participated in the climb I had no idea what to expect or how long it would take. Although it wasn’t easy, it took less time than I expected, and went by surprisingly fast. The next year, I was prepared, but even so, my time was only four seconds faster. This year, however, my friend decided to do the climb with me, and in turn she introduced me to her secret stairwell training location, where we could practice running up 20 floors at a time. In the two weeks leading up to the climb, we spent several sessions running two, three, four, and five sets of 20 floors. During our practice sessions, I tried to focus on maintaining my form and concentration, and I was amazed that most of my training times were within a second of each other, no matter how much more tired I became each climb.

Climbers and volunteers fill the ground floor lobby of the U.S. Bancorp building on race morning.

On race morning, the 1st Floor lobby of the U.S. Bancorp Tower was bustling with activity as participants lined up to pick up their numbers, and friendly volunteers handed out donuts, race packets, and T-shirts. Several vendors and sponsors had tables set up and handed out free samples. While I saw a few familiar faces from road racing, there is a distinct community of stair climbers that I recognize from year to year at this event (and also at a similar climb at the Space Needle in Seattle which I participated in in October), and even some stair climb clubs with their own team uniforms. After pinning on our numbers and getting our race shirts, we dropped off our warm clothes at the very efficient bag check area, and stretched and loosened up a little before the start.

After a few final announcements, it was time for the first group of climbers to line up single file outside the stairwell and get ready to set off one at a time in 20-second intervals. Soon, the line had evaporated and it was my turn to go. I dashed through the doorway and bounded up the first few flights two stairs at a time, making sure not to be too gung ho early on and risk burning out partway up the building. The training sessions with my friend gave me confidence in my strength and stamina, but they had also allowed me to refine my technique and learn some helpful strategies. In the past, I had used the handrails to help pull myself up with my hands, but this year I did much less of that (good thing, since I forgot to put on my gloves at the last minute).

A banner near the start gave participants the opportunity to honor loved ones effected by lung disease.

I concentrated on driving my legs forward and in a straight line, pumping my arms, and taking as round a turn at each landing as space allowed in order to maintain momentum and avoid shuffling around the tight corners. I also tried not to look at the floor numbers and psych myself out with the dread of realizing how many floors I had left to go. Though I did catch a glimpse of the floor number a couple times, for the most part this strategy paid off, as I suddenly reached the transitional corridor between stairwells at the 20th floor much earlier than I expected. After that, the second half of the climb seemed to go by very quickly, even though my lungs and legs were protesting quite a bit by that point.

I spiraled around the final flight of stairs and burst into the 41st floor hallway (there is no 13th floor in “Big Pink”), pleased to see that my time was 18 seconds faster than my previous best. The training and experience had paid off! (It should be noted that the winner of the 200 floor division averaged 4:57 per set of 40 floors, exactly 30 seconds faster than my time for one set! No wonder he wins the “long” race every year.) I gratefully accepted a cup of water and sat down next to the elevators to catch my breath and wait for my friend, who had started behind me. She soon appeared and reported a very successful debut. We rode the elevator back down to the lobby, comparing notes with climbers who were just getting started, and planning on multiple sets of 40 floors.

The U.S. Bancorp Tower is so tall, the name and the top floors don’t fit in the same photograph 😀

We spent some time reading the notes on the dedication banner and contributing our own, watched the other participants disembarking from the elevator and heading to the start of their next ascent, and tried some more samples from the sponsors.

The Fight For Air Climb is a fun, challenging, and friendly way to raise money for lung disease research while racing in a unique setting that is nothing like your typical road race. And before I know it, it will be time for the 2018 edition!

For full results, click HERE.

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