Race It: Cystic Fibrosis Climb Milwaukee

Many runners incorporate stair climbing into their training at some point. Perhaps a few sprints up the Lake Park staircase or maybe the stairs from the Oak Leaf Trail to Prospect. But how about racing up 47 floors with 94 flights of steps? Our quads hurt just thinking about it!

You can try it out next week at the 27th annual CF Climb Milwaukee stair climb race. Below, event coordinator, Julie Nilson, and MKE stair climber, Josh Jackett, tell us about this year’s event and why local runners should consider racing it!

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Can you start by giving us an overview of the race?

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is proud to announce its 27th year of “going vertical” to defeat cystic fibrosis (CF). CF Climb Milwaukee will be held on Thursday, November 10 at the US Bank Building – the tallest building in Milwaukee! Once participants reach the top, they will have the opportunity to enjoy amazing panoramic views of downtown Milwaukee before heading down to our post-climb celebration, complete with food donated by Downtown Kitchen, drinks, entertainment and awards!

What makes this event unique?

We are the longest standing stair climb in the Milwaukee area – 2016 will mark our 27th annual! Stair climbs are unique, fun and provide a new opportunity to challenge yourself!

Who can participate in this race?

Anyone! Participants range from young to old, elite to getting-in-shape, police officers to firefighters (in full gear!). Relay teams are available for first timers who want to start slow.

Where is the race held? How does the event work? What are the different types of categories a racer can enter?

US Bank Building – Galleria Level

777 E Wisconsin Avenue

Milwaukee, WI 53202

The schedule of events for Thursday, November 10 is as follows:

5:30-6:15pm: Check In & Registration
6:20pm: Start for Fire/Police Individuals & Teams
6:30pm: Start for Corporate Teams
6:40pm: Start for Individuals
6:50pm: Start for Combined-Time Teams
7:00pm: Start for Relay Teams
6:45-9:00pm: Survivor Party!

The participant categories are as follows:

  • Individual (Racer or Walker) – Individual climbs 47 floors, timed
  • Fire/Police Individual – Individual climbs 47 floors wearing full gear*, timed
  • Relay Team – 3 individuals climb 1/3 of the way up tagging off in relay fashion, timed
  • Combined-Time Team – Unlimited number of individuals climb 47 floors each, timed. The top three times of each team are used to qualify for awards.
  • Fire/Police Team – Unlimited number of individuals climb 47 floors each wearing full gear*, timed. The top three times of each team are used to qualify for awards
  • Corporate Team – Up to 20 individuals climb 47 floors each, timed. The top three times of each team are used to qualify for awards.

Are there overall and/or age group prizes awarded?

Yes! Overall, age/ gender and team prizes are awarded.

What do participants get with their race entry?

A t-shirt, cinch bag and dinner/beverages during our post-climb reception – the survivor party!

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Tell us a bit about the nonprofit partner – how does the race benefit this organization?

The CF Foundation is the world’s leader in the search for a cure for cystic fibrosis, and nearly every CF-specific drug available today was made possible with our financial support. We are a donor-funded, 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is fully accredited by the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance program.

The mission of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is to cure cystic fibrosis and to provide all people with the disease the opportunity to lead full, productive lives by funding research and drug development, promoting individualized treatment and ensuring access to high-quality, specialized care.

And now let’s hear from a local veteran stair climb racer, Josh Jackett!

How did you get into stair climb races?

Before I started stair climbing, I first started running in 2011 as a means of staying in shape. The next year, in 2012, I ran my first 5K and I loved it. Over the course of the rest of the year, I started running more and more races.

Late that same year, a longtime family friend suffered an aneurysm and a subsequent series of strokes. She bounced around a few hospitals and rehab centers before ultimately receiving tremendous treatment at the rehabilitation center that puts on the yearly SkyRise Chicago—a 103-story stair climb to the top of Willis (Sears) Tower. In January 2013, following her treatment, one of her daughters posted something on Facebook saying she and her other siblings were looking to form a team later on that year as a way to support that organization for how they’d helped her mom.

I figured I liked running in races, so why not try racing up a building? About a week after that Facebook post, I learned about a Milwaukee climb in March at the US Bank Center downtown. Since Willis Tower is more than double the height of the Milwaukee building, I decided it would probably be wise to try the local climb first to see if I’d actually even like scaling the entirety of a building’s stairs.

The second I crossed the finish line, I was hooked. For as much as I loved running in road races, crossing the finish line at the top of a building was the most rewarding race experience I’d encountered. It’s not too scenic in a stairwell, but the view from a skyscraper’s observation deck more than makes up for it. I’ve now done more than 20 climbs across the country.

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What are some of the bigger stair climb events held around the Milwaukee area? Are these types of races common around this area?

Stair climbs aren’t too common in general. There are only about 250 to 300 stair climbs per year throughout the entire US; however, if you’re into stair climbing, Milwaukee’s a good place to be. Not including stadium climbs, there are two local climbs each year, plus six not too far away in Chicago. There are also another dozen or so within about a 6-hour drive radius.

Like nearly all climbs throughout the country, both Milwaukee climbs are primarily charity fundraising events. Each March, the American Lung Association in Wisconsin holds its Fight For Air Climb, which offers participants a single climb (one time up) or a “power hour” (climb to the top as many times as you can in an hour). Then, each November the Wisconsin Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation puts on this particular climb, CF Climb Milwaukee, which offers only a single climb. Both events utilize the same building—the 47-story US Bank Center.

How is training for a stair climb event different from training for a running event?

Not everyone trains the same, and stair climbing does attract a cross-section of endurance athletes and fitness fanatics from varying disciplines—runners, cyclists, triathletes, CrossFitters—but I’ve met a decent number of runners who’ve transitioned well into stair climbing. Some of the best climbers I’ve met come from running backgrounds, in fact. Running is my main activity, too, so I train for stair climbing primarily through running. This isn’t the same for every runner who does climbs, but personally, I run four days per week—which includes a hard workout run and a long run—but I do supplement my run training with some higher-intensity workouts, including weightlifting, plyometrics, actual stairwell training, and Jacobs Ladder workouts. High intensity work is important, as it prepares your body and mind for a climb. I also treat stair races much the same as I treat running events by periodizing my training (base phase, intensity buildup, race taper).

Are there any running skills that transfer over to stair climb races?

A good cardio base, running economy and muscular endurance in your legs (particularly the quads) are the primary things that transfer over. Anyone can participate in a stair climb, but because those are things runners gain by running, they tend to have a head start over many others who try out a climb.

It also helps to know your body. Runners put themselves through a lot of physical stress, so they tend to know what their bodies can handle. The stair experience is different, but listening to what you’ve learned about your body through running can help your effort throughout a climb.

Also, pacing! I personally still have tons of work to do when it comes to this—even in my road races—but proper pacing up dozens of stories of stairs is vital to a solid climb.

What tips & strategies do you recommend for first-time stair climb racers?

Not everyone trying a climb out for the first time is going for a fast time. That’s probably a wiser approach to a first climb. But, basically, if you’re trying to finish the fastest you can, some things you can do include double-stepping, using the railings to help pull yourself up, not actually running up the stairs, not starting too fast, and not stopping until you reach the top.

Good, efficient stair climbing is more like a power hike than a run. Even though the race is shorter in duration than most runs of any distance, your body’s demand for oxygen is much higher pushing yourself upward than it is propelling yourself forward. You’re doing a lot of the former and a little of the latter in a stair climb. Running up the stairs, or even simply climbing too fast, especially early on in a race will cause you to burn out or blow up pretty quickly and really badly.

Do not be afraid to use the railings to save some energy in your legs. Your upper body may wear down a little, but you’ll have spared your legs, which will help you finish. It’s also of note that if you can land no more than one foot on each landing to pivot onto the next flight, it’ll help save time, too. Some people take it easy on the landings as mini-breaks and tend to lose time that way.

As for double-stepping, it does require more power, strength, and muscular endurance, but if you can do it the whole way up, you’re cutting the number of strides it takes to reach the top in half. To me, double-stepping in a stair race is the equivalent of running in a road race, where single-stepping a stair climb is like walking a road race. I’ve also heard it said that single-stepping a stair race “is like being stuck in first gear.”

Specifically for this event – what types of things should racers consider to help them plan their race?

First, get there early and get check-in out of the way. Make sure you do a warm-up. It’s important in running, but between the range of motion in play and the oxygen you’ll use, getting your muscles activated and your body warm will help a lot. Save some for the climb, though, of course.

Also, judging from my own personal race results, as well as other runners I’ve encountered who’ve climbed the US Bank Center’s stairs, if you have a good balance of leg strength and endurance, and you execute well, your finishing time will optimally be around the per-mile pace you might typically do a 10K in. For instance, if you usually run a 55-minute 10K, you *should* be able to climb the US Bank Center in around 8:50-ish.

This doesn’t mean you will, especially your first time out—usually it takes some experience understanding the effort required in a stair race to reach that mark or better. Plus, some runners are more imbalanced toward endurance and less toward strength/power/muscular endurance, which might negatively affect them reaching that mark. It might be a good starting point to come up with a pacing strategy, though. Maybe figure out a target time around your 10K per-mile pace, possibly a tad slower to be safe, then break the race down into chunks, aiming to be at certain floors by certain times. Or, if you’re a “by effort” road racer, try that out here, too. Just don’t start too fast; it’ll feel easy until it doesn’t.

Is there any race etiquette or rules that people should keep in mind at a stair climb race?

Among those who climb regularly and/or competitively, the key pieces of etiquette center around climbing unimpeded (i.e., not having to pass anyone). Stairwells are only so wide, so races tend to release participants in waves—often based on how fast climbers are—and within those waves, climbers go one at a time, every few seconds.

No race is perfect at arranging start waves, but often within those waves, climbers sort of self-seed themselves at the start line in order of who thinks they’ll be the fastest down to who thinks they’ll be the slowest. “Fitness profiling” at the start line isn’t an exact science either, and it’s not always possible, so more important than that is letting faster climbers PASS ON THE INSIDE. Some climb events have it backwards and suggest that faster climbers pass on the outside, but even at those events I’d still recommend trying to pass on the inside.

Everyone should try to climb along the inside railing (the side where you turn). Some people who want a slow, leisurely climb might stay to the outside, which is fine. But at the US Bank Center, the inside is the right side, as every turn to the top is a right turn. Climbing on the inside is the most efficient way to climb, as, distance-wise, it’s the shortest path to the finish line. If someone faster than you is approaching you from behind, it takes far less energy for you to step out of the way for a second to let them pass than it is for them to step around you and try to pass. It creates extra distance for them to travel. In some situations, you might not be aware of someone approaching from behind. So, for ease of things, be alert and courteous. If you’re about to pass someone, let them know your intent; if you’re about to be passed, step aside and let them go.

Any other comments?

I can’t tell you how many fellow runners I’ve met who are wary/leery of trying a stair climb. It’s not necessarily easy, but I think more runners would enjoy it than they think. Also, if nothing else, stair climbing is a fantastic way to cross-train for running, especially for those hilly courses. I work with a running coach who likens it to an exaggerated form of hill running. It builds tremendous leg strength, it improves your running economy, and it helps your mental toughness. Plus, you can’t beat the view at the top.

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Julie and Josh! There’s still time to register for this year’s CF Climb Milwaukee. To learn more about the race or to register, visit the race website.

Keep Running MKE – you’re doing great!

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