As many of you have already noticed, I love superlatives. How many times over the past three years have you heard me say “It was the toughest race I’ve ever done!”? Well, get ready, you are about to hear it again. The Bisbee 1000 Stair Race was the toughest race I’ve ever done. You are probably thinking that I’m either a drama queen or a thrill seeking, glutton for punishment always looking to up the ante and find the most challenging event possible… perhaps I’m a little of both. But wait, I’m not done with the superlatives yet. The Bisbee 1000 was also the coolest and most interesting race I’ve ever done. The town of Bisbee, AZ is one of the most fun, beautiful, livable and eclectic places I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. The townsfolk are by far the friendliest I’ve ever encountered. In a nutshell, October 18th, 2008 will go down as one as the best days of my life.
I had first heard of the Bisbee 1000 two years ago and ever since I have been fantasizing about competing in it someday. The only deterrent – Bisbee is located in extreme southern Arizona. Quite a trek to make for a single event. I was about to head to Los Angeles for a few weeks, (thanks to the generous support of Mark Trahanovsky and West Coast Labels) when my friend Jeff wrote me an email and mentioned the race… “wouldn’t it be fun to treck over to AZ and do this race?”, “Hell, yes!” I replied, and the beginning of a yearly pilgrimage had begun.
Unlike most stair climb races, which take place in an enclosed stairwell in a skyscraper, the Bisbee 1000 (actually 1,037 stairs) takes place entirely outside on nine different stairways throughout the old mining town of Bisbee. The course snakes 4.4 miles through the narrow, sinuous streets of this Europeanesque village, 5,384 feet above sea level.
Jeff and I arrived in Bisbee the evening before the race to jog the course and see what we were in for. The town quickly charmed us with it’s unique layout and architecture. It reminded me of a rugged Maine coastal town… without the coast. At first glance, the course seemed easier than I had anticpated. The staircases were quite short (73 to 181 stairs), and there were several downhill sections en route that could be used for recovery. I took mental notes of each feature we were to encounter during the race and began to plot strategy. I calculated that if I could maintain a 6:30 per mile pace (which seemed totally reasonable) I could be the first person to break 30 minutes on this course and set a new course record. Considering that I had completed the eleven mile XTERRA Pt. Mugu Race a few weeks earlier at an average 6:13 per mile pace (a race that had nearly 2,000 feet of climbing compared to Bisbee’s 700 foot climb), I was certain that a 6:30 pace would be a peice of cake… No one told me that the cake would be made of lead.
There were so many participants in the race that the organizers broke us up into three waves to aleviate congestion on the narrow and often delapidated stairs. I jumped into the front of the lead wave to scope out the competition. Judging by the look and shape of the other athletes standing at the front of the line, there was a lot of talent here. I had no expectations of placement, I was going to follow the leaders and see how I felt. The first half mile was all downhill and I knew that many racers would be tempted to start too fast. I was going to play it safe… this race was not going to be won on the first set of stairs.
Like a herd of stampeding buffalo, we were off down the hill through town. The pace was comfortable and I wasn’t worried about getting my heart rate too high on the downhill, so I opened up my stride. In a moment I was in the lead, which surprised me. The sound of a single set of footsteps to my right was all that I could hear. Where had everyone gone? Was I breaking my own rules and going too fast? I checked in with my heart rate and it read 165 which is right in range for a good start. Game on.
The first two staircases were shorter and I chose to run them at a good clip. The second place runner was right on my tail and I tried to lose him on the stairs, but it didn’t work. So I ran the flat and somewhat downhill section to the third set of stairs at a very fast pace. I wanted to put as much distance on him as I could on the easy section, hoping to lure him into going out too hard on the stairs to try and make up the gap. The strategy I had devised the night before while walking the course was to take stairway number three at a somewhat easy pace as sets four and five were very quick to follow with little or no recovery. I was going to put it all on the line on set five. Within the first thirty steps, of set three, the racer behind me asked to pass. I obliged and hugged the side of the building next to me. He quickly put distance on me on the stairs. During the short recovery before set four I made up most of the ground on him. Set four saw him blasting up the stairs to try and gap me. I let him. As we approached the top of set four I could see his legs beginning to wobble. Forty feet of recovery before set five (a large set of 181 stairs) and I was passing him. I knew there was a 3/4 mile long downhill recovery before set six so I let out all the stops and flew up the stairs, pulling hard on the railing. A few minutes later as I rounded a switch back on the road I looked up to see where he was. The gap was at least thirty seconds and he was hurting. I never saw him or looked back again. I charged forward and claimed this race.
Changing gears constantly between flat, UP, and downhill running was taking a toll on me. I can’t remember being this consistently nauseous in a race before. It would have been easy to back off the pace, but I was committed to giving it my all. So I took a deep breath into my lower lungs and did my best to relax into the feeling. A quick scan of my body found several points of tension as I ran. I focused on each area and made adjustments to each until I felt smooth, powerful and relaxed.
I rounded a sharp downhill corner and was greeted with the view of a corral of 500 people waiting to begin wave number three. They were seconds away from starting their race and their energy was high. A roar erupted from the crowd as they noticed me barrelling down the hill in their direction. The MC got on the mic and riled them up even more. I must admit, it was really exciting… I was covered in goose bumps as I whipped around the final downhill corner right in front of them and bolted my way to stairway six.
The 6th and 7th set were a blur of uneven steps, brightly colored buildings, folk musicians and tunnels of ivy. It wasn’t until I arrived at set eight that I fully realized how much pain I was in. The 8th stairway was the steepest and one of the longest. I could feel the burn everywhere in my body. The nausea was nearly overwhelming. I thought about walking. Then suddenly my mind became fixated on something else. It was a woman’s voice. She was singing in a very soft and soothing manner. I couldnt see her anywhere, but her song was drifting all around me and through me. It relaxed me. The pain melted away and so did the steps. I was at the top in no time, which is where I discovered her singing behind a tree with her back to me. I never saw her face, but I was grateful for her anonymous generosity.
One more long uphill in the road followed by a mile long downhill and flat section and I was taking my first step up the last staircase. There were cheering fans in the “yards” of every house that I passed going up the stairs. They cheered encouragingly, counting off the number of steps I had left until I reached the top. It was almost like watching the “ball” drop on New Year’s Eve in Time Square. I charged with all my might. My legs were failing quickly as I reached the last step and made a sharp left hand turn on the road. I eyed my watch – 28:35. I knew the final road section to the finish was at least a quarter mile. My hopes of being the first person to break thirty minutes on this course were quickly eroding. I began to sprint. Every muscle in my body was screaming at me, but I ignored their pleas to slow down. Before I knew it, I was wrapping around the back of the art deco City Hall perhaps 100 meters away from the finish. I found another gear and pushed even harder. The round shape of the building concealed the finish line which was actually only 20 meters away and not 100 as I had thought. I rounded the corner and found myself crossing the line at full speed. It caught me by surprise. My battered legs couldn’t break me fast enough and I plowed into and through the metal barricades that separated the finishers from the cheering fans. I was uninjured but confused and startled. I was helped up by a few kind townsfolk and informed that I had broken thirty minutes and the course record. I was amazed. It was the toughest race I’ve ever done. All of the 1,000 plus racers who completed the course are heros in my book.
Two hours later Jeff and I were taking on another equally unique and challenging race called the “Ice Man Competition”. The rules were simple – carry a 10 pound block of ice held by antique ice tongs up 151 stairs as fast as you can. It sounded simple enough, but my legs were in no mood to move with any dexterity. The first race of the day had taken it’s toll on me. Jeff on the other hand had enough in his legs to make two runs at the Iceman stairs. On his second attempt, Jeff put down a very fast time and took 3rd place. I was pleased that we both came away with some victory booty.
The races were over at noon, but It wasn’t until after six before we were able to leave this little gem in the desert. There is an openess and friendliness in Bisbee that is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Every one you meet becomes your friend, and the conversations flow like a gentle river. I’ll be back… again and again and again.
Click HERE for a great post race write up in the Sierra Vista Herald.