Aon Center Stair Climb

For the first time in more than 10 years I found myself a visitor rather than a resident of the great city of Los Angeles. Mark Trahanovsky and his company, West Coast Labels had generously offered to fly me out to L.A. to compete in the final tower race of the season – a 62 storey, 858 foot climb to the top of the Aon Center. This race is the second in the successful Climb California series, which raises money for the American Lung Association.

Being the last race of the season (tower racing season starts in October and ends in April for some odd reason), I knew that the competition would be intense. The best stair runners in the country would all want to mark the end of their season with a victory in L.A.

Among the elite field were 2006 Sears Tower winner Jesse Berg out of Chicago and 2006 US Bank Tower winner Tommy Coleman ouf of Cardiff, CA. These men placed 6th and 5th respectively at the unofficial world stair climbing championships at the Empire State Building and are considered the best stair racers in the country. This was going to be a great race.

I met Mark Trahanovsky at a 5k race in Los Angeles in the early spring of 2007. We had talked briefly about the Running Raw Project and went our separate ways. Mark became very interested in Running Raw and became a regular visitor to the site. After a very extensive knee surgery last year, Mark was told that he would not be able to run again. That’s when he read about my knee injuries and how I got into tower racing as a way to train while injured. Mark also discovered that he had little to no knee pain when going up stairs and began to train for his first stair race at the US Bank Tower in October of 2007. Well, Mark is now hooked. He’s done 7 tower races around the country in the short time since October and is on the board of directors for the Climb California race up the Aon Center. Mark wanted this inaugural race to be a big success, so he brought in the best racers, inspired local TV personalities to race and did a great job of advertising the event. It was an action packed adventure for sure. Mark also set me up with a pair of Vibram 5 Fingers for the race. If you’ve never seen these shoes, you have to check them out. Wearing them is like being barefoot without the worry of something sharp puncturing your foot.

During my warmup I bumped into Tommy Coleman and Jesse Berg. We shared a few words and wished each other luck. Tommy had mentioned to me that we had to arrange our starting lineup so that the three of us were not near each other in the stairwell. He didn’t want one of us breathing down his neck and he didn’t want to try and catch one of us in front of him and ruin his pace. I agreed. I wanted to run my own race and not be focused on another. In a tower race, if you start too quickly, your race is over long before you ever reach the top. Once your legs begin to fail there is no recovering and your race quickly falls apart. Tommy was to go first, with Jesse 20 seconds behind him and me 20 seconds behind Jesse. Which should have been enough time for us not to see each other in the stairs considering our similar abilities.

As we lined up, other racers commented on Tommy’s brand new Nike Mayflys and my bright red Vibram 5 Fingers, both of which I would highly recommend for the sport of tower racing. When the horn sounded, Tommy burst through the door as the first competitor in the stair well. Racers were going off every 10 seconds, with times being calculated by timing chips attached to our shoes. Jesse was third into the tower, I was a nervous 5th. My friend Jeff Dinkin, who I met while training for the US Bank Tower race this past September started right before Jesse, but his chances of doing well were stripped away in a pretty severe bike accident the week before. Jeff was to do the entire race using only his legs, as a dislocated shoulder and severe road rash prevented him from pulling on the railings.

I entered the stairwell like a rocket. It was not an all out sprint, but I was moving pretty quickly. My recent stair climb successes and my increase in training and fitness prompted me to put the hammer down early and see how long I could sustain the pace. It only took a few floors to catch the racer that had started 10 seconds in front of me. In another 10 floors I caught up to Jeff, who was feeling the effort of his leg only venture. We shared some words of encouragement and I hammered on to catch up to the footsteps I could hear just a floor above me. The sign on the door read “20th Floor” when I caught up to the next racer. He was moving at a decent pace so I tucked in behind him for a moment before attempting to overtake him. As I looked up to make my move I noticed that the racer I was about to pass was none other than Jesse Berg. A bolt of fear shot through my body, my stomach turned and I could feel my face redden. I had made up 20 seconds on the 6th fastest stair climber in the world in only 20 floors. I was going WAY TOO FAST. Well, that’s the thought that shot through my head and initiated the fear cycle that was now cascading through my body. I decided to just latch on to Jesse and hold on to the top. That strategy had worked for me this fall when I beat Jesse by 3 seconds at the US Bank Tower (the only time I’ve beaten him), but I didn’t make up a 20 second gap in that race. If I could stay with him to the top I would beat him by a huge 20 second margin.

The floors flew by despite the fact that they were the tallest floors of any building I’ve run in. Jesse had picked up the pace when I had latched onto him. He had probably thought (as I did) that I had gone out way to fast, and that if he picked up the pace he could exhaust me and lose me. When we reached the 52nd floor, an exhausted Jesse put the hammer down and picked up the pace for the final 10 floors. I tried to stay with him, but I was done. Jesse quickly moved ahead of me. I could only hope that he didn’t have enough in him to make up the 20 second gap in 10 floors. I reached the 61st floor and made my best effort to “sprint” the final floor knowing full well that my body could barely move at this point. When I hit the 62nd floor I looked for the finish line, but there was none. We were to finish on the roof. Even though this building technically only has 62 floors, the roof would be considered the 63rd floor. Those last two flights of stairs took forever. I had already given everything I had and now I felt cheated by this extra floor. Dejected and beaten, I walked up the final flight of stairs and walked across the finish line. I was spent.

Had I known in the race that I would finish in 2nd place, only 2 seconds behind Tommy Coleman, and 5 seconds ahead of Jesse Berg, I might have treated that last floor differently. Those two seconds were easily given away as I did my walk of defeat up the final floor of the building. Despite the feeling of failure that would later come over me, I was quite pleased to have been 2 seconds behind the legend Tommy Coleman. Not only have I never beaten Tommy in a stair climb, but up until this point I had never been within 40 seconds of him. My performance today was very promising. As this journey continues, I’m learning more and more about training and remaining injury free, both of which are helping me consistently improve even as I age. Running Raw is officially in the big leagues now.

Here is a video of the race:

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