Thursday, March 6, 2014

Scale the Strat

Sunday I participated in my first "Scale the Strat" stair race, 1455 stairs up one leg of the Stratosphere tower in Las Vegas. The finish is called the 108th floor, but it is not nearly as high as the 103rd floor of the Willis (Sears) Tower since it is not an occupied building for most of its height (the Stratosphere is a roughly 850 foot climb to Willis's roughly 1350). While this was not the tallest stair race I've done, it was very unique and quite challenging. I can't say I'm entirely satisfied with my 10:48 time, at least it gives me a mark for next time. This race was also the US Stair Racing Championship. I may have finished last in that (I'm not entirely sure, I was 29th American male overall), but it was an honor to have qualified for it by finishing in the top 50 in the US for 2013.

I flew out to Vegas after work on Friday. I knew ahead of time my flight was delayed, so I got a haircut to kill some time. I figured I would have no trouble killing the rest of the time at the airport, but almost everything was closed by 8:30. I got there in time for some dinner; frankly it was lame to watch the place close while people were waiting to order. I wandered around and had some drinks at the few places left open. It was about 10 before we took off, more than two hours later than scheduled. Thanks to gaining time going to the Pacific time zone, we landed around 11. While I did get a little nap on the flight, with a turbulent landing and the late hour, I was a touch irritable on arrival and was not amused by the slot machines in the airport. I took a full shuttle van to my hotel (the Stratosphere), finally getting checked in after midnight.
I woke up at 5 Saturday morning, but fortunately was able to get back to sleep after reading a bit, waking up for good at 7:30. I had a light breakfast and went for a run along Las Vegas Boulevard, going north about 2 miles. On my way back, I saw two runners. At first it was just "oh hey, nice to see other runners," but as we got closer they recognized my West Coast Labels/X-Gym shirt, and I recognized at least one of them from our team dinner in Chicago in November. We kept going our opposite directions, but it was a fun very brief encounter. On my way back, I stopped in to the pawn shop from the "Pawn Stars" TV show. It wasn't nearly as glamorous as it sometimes seems on TV, and the merchandise area doesn't get much screen time, but I picked up a sale t-shirt anyway; I sometimes enjoy the show as a distraction. After a shower, I used my free buffet voucher and stuffed myself to the gills. I needed a good lie-down after so much food, and spent the afternoon in my room doing some work and taking a nap. At 4:30, I went to a party associated with the race on the lounge level of the tower. It was fun to see a lot of my teammates (including Steve and Sherri from the morning run) and some other climbers. The view was pretty awesome from up there, and it was a special treat to see it transition from day to night. It was kind of disorienting, though, as you're looking over the restaurant, where the tables are rotating around the building, and almost straight down to the ground.
My only real quibble with the race, however, was regarding packet pickup. I was under the impression that it would be available at the lounge (I was not alone in this), but they only had bib and chip pickup at the base (and I walked right past it on my way up). Apparently at the Friday night event, they only had t-shirts and no chips. I did get my chip Saturday evening, which I much prefer to having to get it the morning of the race, but I didn't get my t-shirt and goody bag until after I'd finished the race.
A bunch of us went down and had dinner at the diner at the base of the tower. It was a lot of fun getting to know my far-flung "step siblings" a little better. After we all parted, in one of my less wise moves, I decided to use my free ticket to the burlesque show "Pin Up" starting at 10:30 and going until midnight. It was a lot of fun for free, and I figured I would be okay sleep-wise since I had gotten a nap. You only live once.

I woke up at 2:30 and had to stretch my legs; I fell back to sleep quickly and woke up just before my alarm went off at 6:40. I got dressed and had my glamorous breakfast of a muffin and Dr Pepper from a gas station. I wanted a warmup, after not really getting one at my last race, The Big D; rather than go out for a run, I ran up the stairs from my room on 11 to the top of the hotel tower on 24. It was a short run, but my hope was that it would be enough to burn off some of my typical start-line sprintiness and I could have a more evenly paced race. Down by the start area, I saw my teammates again, as well as the other representatives of "Team Texas," Sarah and Scott, who I hadn't seen previously. It was a really nice morning outside, not nearly as cold as the forecast made it seem like it might be. I did some lunges and stretches in the parking lot, along with fellow climbers warming up. A little before 8, the elites lined up outside the fire escape of one leg of the tower (apparently each leg has a staircase). I was not familiar with the start procedure, so it seemed very odd to me when we started going up stairs, but the race had not started. The actual start line was on level 6, where there is a transition in the stairs. Apparently there was a major air pressure difference between the interior of the tower and outside, as there was a strong breeze blowing as we stood waiting to start. Since they were only starting climbers every 30 seconds, and I was toward the back of the "elite" wave, I was standing there a while getting a little chilled. Once I was on deck, it was pretty nice that Bill, the organizer/head of the regional American Lung Association (the event's beneficiary), was there; he asked my name and remembered me from our email interactions. About 8:10, it was my time to go.
As much as I tried not to, I started out way too fast, as always. I'm not sure at what point in the tower it was (less than 1/3 the way), I caught up to David, who had started 30 seconds before me [read his report]. By the time I did, I was already fading, having gone from running two stairs at a time to fast-walking 2-at-a-time. I did not try to pass, already pretty sure that I would never be able to stay ahead of him. I figured that I would basically try to ride his coattails, just keep up his pace, and at least I would beat his time. That lasted for maybe one flight, as he realized that he was behind his intended pace and sped up, while I continued to fade. At some point later, Steve, who had started behind me, was steadily gaining on me; I stepped aside and let him pass, not to be seen again (I remembered passing him at Willis, so I lined up in front of him).
I had a really hard time knowing how high I was- there were signs with "floor" numbers and ones with the height, but I was not thinking well and having both just confused me (also I had trouble working out how those numbers related to the overall height to say how much farther I had). The majority of the climb was unlike any other- the flights were long and there was a cavernous opening to one side. That made for the easiest way for me to tell where I was in the higher section- as the machinery below got smaller and the "ceiling" got closer, I knew I was getting closer to the finish line. After passing through the ceiling, the stairs turned to more a conventional configuration of two flights per story. This section was not obvious, since there were two doors to go through; fortunately these were manned when I arrived and did not have to figure it out for myself. I preferred the shorter flights, and still had enough energy and oxygen for a near-sprint up the last few stories. I even managed something that looks like a smile for the finish line camera, that they were nice enough to print up and hand out at the top. I crossed the mat, grabbed my finisher's medal and a bottle of water, stepped across some strewn-out bodies, and kept moving for a minute to get my heartrate and breathing back under control.
Once folks were back somewhat to normal, there were a lot of "how'd you dos," which in some cases sounded a little more like "did you beat me?" Once times had been exchanged, it was pretty clear Görge from Germany was the overall winner, and Alex and Erika (of WCL, naturally) were the American winners. I stretched, had a banana and OJ, wandered around taking photos, and did a bit of chatting. We all eventually headed down to get a group shot. We got one in the auditorium, which was kind of surreal because they had live feeds from cameras in the stairwell projected on big screens. When we broke up around 9:30, there was a vague plan to meet up for brunch. I showered, checked out, and headed to the buffet. Six of us ate together, and I'm pretty sure we all made the most of the all-you-can-eat; I know I did. I didn't really have a plan for the afternoon until my flight home; as we were leaving, I was invited to join folks on a stair adventure. I was hesitant, since I was wearing jeans and would not have an opportunity to shower before my flight; I was assured it was would be easy and nobody was planning to break a sweat. The plan was to go down the strip and climb the stairs of whatever hotel we could get into.
Our first stop was Circus Circus, where we climbed from 4 to 29. This stairwell rated a D, since it was dingy and we had a hard time getting into it. Second was Encore, a very nice hotel. This was a stairwell unlike any that any of the five of us had seen before- it has a single flight per story, only going one direction such that you have to go across a landing at every level. This stairwell rated an A, since it was unusual, very clean, and we had no trouble getting into it; we climbed from level 5 to 65 (though it does not have floors 40-49). We skipped the Wynn, figuring it would be identical, and moved on to Palazzo, which only rated a C because it was dusty and was either unfinished or had been poorly maintained; we climbed from 7 to 50. Our final stairwell for the day was in the Bellagio, climbing from 6 to 38. This rated a B-; it was a fairly plain stairwell, we had some trouble getting in, but it had intrigue because there was a jog at 30 at which point they went from right-turn to left-turn. We were taking turns leading up the stairwells; Cody led this last one and decided to sprint the last 8 stories. Since we had long since broken the "no sweating" rule, I followed right behind him; Karen was only a few steps back. Maggie [read her recap] and Syd (who is nearly twice my age and beat my by 4 seconds in the Strat race, BTW) followed shortly behind. It was just before 3pm when we got back out to street level, so we stuck around to see the fountain show set to "Singin' in the Rain." Cody, who had major trouble getting in and had basically been traveling all night before the race, took a cab back to the Stratosphere while the rest of us walked the roughly 3 miles. Syd and Karen were staying the night, and parted for their rooms; Maggie and I got pizza before our respective rides to the airport. Again my flight was delayed, so I killed the time in a bar watching the Oscars (those were the only drinks I had while in Vegas; also I didn't gamble, though I considered putting $20 on black on roulette). A woman from the ALA was there, and I chatted with a woman headed to Austin on business. The flight left after 8, and I slept most of the way. Still it was pretty tough getting home after 1am and having to get up for work Monday morning.

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