There’s really no good reason anyone should be doing this.
I stood at the X on the RFID-chip-enabled timing carpet getting ready to climb a 36-floor, 780 step building not one time, not two times, but three times.
“5…” The starter said, “4… 3…” I felt my insides clench. “2… 1…” I clicked the start button on my watch.
I lifted my right foot up two steps, grabbed the handrail with my left hand, lifted my left foot and placed it two more steps, prepared to double-step the whole way up.
My thighs felt like wet concrete from the nerves. My feet felt like they weren’t ready for a set of stairs, let alone my first steps in life. They felt like stumps. No toes. Just stumps. But here I went.
It’s the end of, and what I hope is the beginning of, a process of mild, incremental improvements made over the course of five years. It’s tackling an event that got in my bones as a kid and then I left behind for 25 years. It’s a midlife comeuppance, but not quite a crisis, like Boomers before me. It’s being alive. It’s knowing, perhaps for one last time, before it’s too late to know.
It’s about blooming late.
This all started in the fall of 2014, a few years after what I call my “Welcome-to-midlife injury.” I was in reasonably good shape at the time and decided to bound up the stairs when I heard, from outside and inside my body, my right calf POP.
The injury put me on the shelf completely for a few weeks and when I went back to running, the calf would tighten up, feel like it was going to tear even worse, and the pain wouldn’t subside. It was as if someone had sewn a horizontal stitch through the middle of my calf. The injury robbed me of my joy of running and I found myself slowly backing off running while slowly putting on weight.
My exercise habits changed, but my eating habits didn’t change with it. It’s not unusual, those who say such things say.
So, with a two-month old daughter at home, this unhealthy 38 year-old one-time average-athlete-of-a-man with tissue damage in his calf, a total cholesterol of around 300, borderline hypertensive-level blood pressure, a BMI of 27ish, had finally had enough.
I turned to my wife and said, “I’m going for a run.”
My first steps felt like I was a seal hopping on its tail—the fat bouncing up and down my body, weighing me down, and I was not moving very far on each push off.
I made it about a block doing this thing I came to call “shufflejogging” before my right calf was so tight I could barely move. I stopped to stretch it. Then, I shufflejogged another block or so and had to stretch it again. I made it to the end of my street, maybe another ½ mile, where I had to stretch my calf yet again. I turned back, my body already feeling the strain of the run, stretching my calf again in the same spots before returning home.
It was a mess. I was a mess. But it felt great.
Looking back, perhaps I deserved the injury.
For years, I had been burning both ends of the candle. I had been working crazy-weird hours for far too long and living like a perpetual 22 year-old throughout my late 20s through my mid-30s. I was childless and had no real responsibilities to anyone besides work and found myself out on the town too many nights a week. The nights I wasn’t out, I was staying up too late, having drinks on my own, and then was exercising pretty heavily. I also wasn’t getting enough sleep.
In retrospect, it’s sort of amazing I hadn’t been injured before my calf went pop.
I was using all the freedom I had in the world to do whatever I wanted, and then the one thing that truly brought me a feeling of freedom—running—was taken away from me. And so here I was, trying to shufflejog my way to freedom.
After that first run, I started running more, but nothing too seriously. My calf was constantly on the verge of cramping or feeling like it was going to tear again, limiting me to running 20-25 minutes at a time with some regularity if I stopped to stretch along the way. To stretch, I used a wooden electricity pole at the same spot each run on the way out and the way back. You had to watch where you placed your hands because there were a thousand staples stuck to the pole, built up from decades of lost dog and garage sale flyers.
I often wondered if my neighbors saw me stretching and wondered what my sad, bloated self was doing out here and is he trying to push the light pole over?
My fitness goal was modest, though, and I had to learn not to care what others thought. I just wanted to get back into a little bit of shape, take it slowly and, most importantly, not get injured again.
It took months of shufflejogging before I no longer had to stop to stretch my calf on a run. Instead, I had to stretch multiple times a day when I wasn’t running. My calf was a source of constant upkeep and is still a point of concern to this day.
About a year after my first run, I was feeling nervy and signed up for a 5K. The farthest I had run to that point was a little more than two miles. I was deeply concerned I wouldn’t make the full distance without needing to walk. I remember worrying aloud about it to a co-worker at the time.
She was supportive.
It was nice of her.
I showed up at the race and, nervous as I was, started slowly and shuffled my way through it, finishing somewhere around 35 minutes. I tried to finish with a closing sprint. I felt like I was flying, but from the outside I probably resembled a seal doing a butterfly stroke across a pool of jello.
I didn’t come in last place, though, which was not something I was exactly expecting, but was a relief and a small source of feel-good energy. Still, it was certainly depressing to be this out of shape and I wanted to tighten the screws a little bit.
For the first time since I started running again, the race gave me a measuring stick of where I was physically compared to others. Sure, just by completing a 5K in my late 30s put me in slightly better shape than the average midwestern American male and while I knew I would never win a race in even my best shape—I’m not that guy— the results gave me some resemblance of aim.
“That guy is 68 years-old,” I’d think to myself. “How did he beat me? Surely I can beat him. That woman is my age and beat me by 3 minutes, surely I can beat her. How can I be in better shape? How did I let myself get in such poor shape?”
I would study everyone’s times and imagine shaving a minute or two off my own time. I’d calculate the pace I’d need to run to do it. I’d fantasize about taking an ever bigger chunk off my time and see where it would place me. I would visualize being a respectable runner, about being in the middle of the pack. I’d then figure out what pace I would want to hit and wonder what I had to do to get there.
Rather than motivating me, though, that thought exercise would often leave me depressed about how much I would have to change, who I was, and ultimately, who I was not.
I am lazy. I work hard at my job, sure, because that’s the thing to do in America. But, I’ve never been the laser-focused person who achieved, achieved, achieved. I’m not great at seeing things through. For example, throughout primary school, I was more interested in figuring out exactly how much work I had to do to get a certain GPA rather than just doing the work and getting a truly good GPA. You could call me an achieving slacker. I did enough to get by, stay in the game, and make my parents happy-ish, but never really went after it.
This trait baffles my wife.
I was a partier as well, which started fairly early on in high school. I ran track in 8th grade, 9th grade, and my junior year, but by the time my senior year rolled around, knowing I wasn’t going to the Olympics and having already been accepted to college, I developed a world-class case of Senioritis that lasted well beyond high school. I didn’t run track my senior year and watched my teammates win the State Championship in the 4×400—an event where I was on the fringe of being good enough to have been on that squad. In retrospect, disappointing.
My partying habits stayed with me, like a long tail dragging through the mud. It’s not unusual. But, I couldn’t figure out how to shake the habits. And, a great deal of the time, I loved it. My life was built around these habits. My friends, my social life, my roommates, even my job to some extent. That’s why many addicts can’t stay clean—their whole lives are built around their use of whatever drug they prefer—friends, family, social life, etc.
Knowing all this about myself, the idea of a whole life shift to get in killer shape just seemed like a setup for failure. What did seem doable, though, was making an incremental change or two. Lose some weight, add an extra day of running. Run a few minutes longer on my runs. That felt like a small change I could handle. After that, I could see how I would fare in races.
Keep it modest, I’d tell myself.
To get motivated, I started looking for 5Ks to run on trails. As I had run trails in my 20s and really missed it, I went with that plan. Signing up for races gave me something to work towards to keep me on some sort of training track because I didn’t want to totally embarrass myself, essentially. In anticipation of the race, I’d again study the results from previous years.
“That guy is my age. He finished in 9-minute miles. He finished 150th out of 250 people. Can I do that? Where would that place me in my age group? Can I get in the top 5?”
Once the race was through, more often than not, I’d land somewhere in the back half of runners, after the good runners and before the absolute worst runners. I was modestly better overall in that my runs felt better and I had more energy in general, but I was consistently placing around what I called, “The Front of the Back”.
I started looking at more and more results from races to see where I would or could finish and I began to notice a pattern in the finishing times. Not counting the elite runners who would kill everyone and the total laggards who were just walking the course, there were essentially three groups of finishing times with observable breakpoints where there wouldn’t be as many finishers.
It looked something like this:
The leaders: The top 5%-15% or so of finishers who you’d say to yourself, “Those are good athletes. Whether they’re underachieving or overachieving for their individual ability, they are good.” These are the guys and gals who were winning or placing near the top of deep, competitive age groups (i.e. ages 18-49).
After the leaders, the cluster of similar times would spread out a bit and drop before the times condensed and clustered again around another group of runners:
The middle of the pack: These are the middle ~40% who are either good athletes in poorer shape, decent athletes in good shape, or middling-to-poor athletes in the best shape they could possibly be in. This pack is where most mortal runners reside. This is the group the race directors depend on to show up in droves to keep an event worthy of having.
And then again, the cluster of similar finishing times would spread out and drop before the times condensed again around another group of runners:
The back of the pack: The back 20-30% who are either poor athletes in decent shape, good athletes in terrible shape, or middling athletes in middling shape.
The back of the pack was my jam for a long time. I was finishing toward the front of this pack—“The Front of the Back”—but it was still the back of the pack. No mildly serious runner would ever take me or my training very seriously. To them, at least I was “doing something.”
The thing about the results patterns is they are particularly true for local races where there is no qualifying time for entry. Whether it was a road race, trail race, a duathlon/triathlon, or a competitive stairclimb, it didn’t matter: There were elites, there was the front pack, middle, back, and then the last finishers.
In matrix form, it looks something like this:
What this matrix represents in practical terms is it’s easier to move up within a pack than it is to move up a whole pack. Within the pack, a 30-second improvement resulted in a considerable jump in the overall standings. But to jump up a whole pack, I needed to take minutes off my finishing time.
The farther up I looked in the standings, I noticed something of a logarithmic difference between my best and the elite’s best. This is because the athletic baseline difference is just too much to overcome by sheer training alone. Elites are elite for a reason.
Married to that algorithmic difference are the diminishing returns to how much exercise it takes relative to improvement in time. I knew that a little more work would give me quite a bit of improved results, but to make a great leap forward, it would take a much larger amount of effort and time that I just didn’t have or wanted to take on. At a certain point, you’re fighting for improvement by inches, not feet or yards. I was looking for feet and yards. Still am, in many ways.
While I would dream about being in the front pack and believed deep-down that I could get there, the effort required and lifestyle change involved to train that heavily was overwhelming to think through. Thinking about moving up within a pack, however, fit perfectly with my personality and desire to eke out more from myself. I could jump up a lot of spots with a small bump in training.
And if I ever were to jump up a whole pack, it would need to be one notch at a time.
It’s important to know that while I do look at the results to see where I place, I try not to get too caught up in where I finish relative to others. Sounds disingenuous, I know. Sure, I would be ecstatic to win my age group, but my goal is to be the best I can be given the constraints of my life and my baseline personality. So, I use the overall results to measure myself, but only as a means to measure myself against my overall potential of what I know I could do if only I had a little more discipline and trained a little bit harder. There’s a difference there.
I also want to see the results to learn about how my training affected my results. Staying in shape keeps me in tune with my true age and my own mortality. To me, that’s a healthy thing. It helps me fight.
If I trained my butt off and came in last place, I have nothing to be ashamed of. The true goal is to be the best I can be given my life, my potential athletic ability, and how much of my potential I use. The results are a guide and benchmark, not a judgment. That’s all.
I kept at running for a couple years, with some lags here and there, and we welcomed a second child in April 2017. That’s when things got dicey. I was 40 years-old, had a newborn, a child not yet three years-old, sleeping very little, a full-time job, drinking too much, running 12-15 miles a week, and just grinding myself into the ground.
In late August, I got really sick and went to the doctor. I was diagnosed with mono, something I’d had as a teenager. I was so physically burnt, mono re-bloomed in my system. Because of mono, I was forced to stop drinking because the virus that causes mono can cause long-term liver and kidney damage if you drink at all while you’re sick. So, I got sober while I convalesced.
It took six weeks to bounce back from mono and, feeling so much better mentally and physically, I stopped drinking and haven’t had a drink since.
But, the mono also took whatever gains I had in running. I was dead flat. I picked up running again, but there was nothing there. I had no verve and no speed.
I muddled along for about six months, and in the fall of 2018, took a break for a while because my hips and back constantly ached. This was mostly as a result of lifting my 18-month-old, 25-pound bowling ball of a son up and down a thousand times a day. That, and he gave me a case of hand-foot-mouth disease.
For the unfamiliar, H-F-M disease is like an old world plague that simply hinders you in all the most important ways, but won’t kill you. You get sores all over your hands, feet, and mouth. I got sores the worst in my throat and the bottom of my feet. To give you a sense of what that felt like in my feet, it was similar to the pins-and-needles feeling you get when your limb “goes asleep”, but the feeling was on max-blast for two weeks. Every step was painful.
Then, in my throat, I had a dozen open sores. Imagine trying to swallow anything with sores all over the inside of your mouth and in your throat. Drinking water hurts so bad, I could barely take it. Heck, just swallowing my own own saliva hurt. I lost about 10-12 pounds in those few weeks. I put it all back on in about the same amount of time.
After all of that, in late 2018, my dad asked me if I wanted to do a stairclimb—the Bop to the Top in downtown Indianapolis. I did a few stairclimbs in the mid-80s as a child and did one in 2016, but they are an incredibly difficult physical challenge. So, I wasn’t exactly stoked to do it, but it gave me something to shoot for.
Stairs are miserable. Most people take the stairs as a necessary evil and that’s it. Everyone’s always winded after two flights.
With joy on his face, Leon looked at his friend, Ron, and said, “Let’s take the stairs.” Ron replied, “You mean, instead of the elevator? Yes!”
Leon never said that to Ron. Because no one says that.
With worry to what was to come race-wise, I started my training. I happened to work in an 11-story building and had access to the stairs, which became a boon. I roped in a naive, young co-worker to do the stairs with me and we started by doing 5 laps once or twice a week. Climb up, elevator down. After a couple weeks, we extended it to 6 laps. Then 7. Then 8, 9, and, occasionally, 10 laps.
I did the Bop and I did OK overall, but placed pretty poorly in my age group. I was still not great because I was coming off of a couple tough years physically. But, something was lit inside me. For the first time, I felt like I was actually doing focused training for an event and, sensing the improvement, wanted to do more. Plus, without drinking, I had more time and energy than I had in years.
For those unfamiliar with competitive stairclimbing (which is most people), climbing stairs is a low-impact activity, high-cardio activity where injuries are uncommon unless you’re really worn down or slip somehow. To boot, stairs give you the cardio burn of running with a weightlifting edge that crushes your lactic threshold because you are lifting yourself constantly against gravity. Stairs are just about the hardest cardio exercise you can do.
Environmentally, stairs are like exercising in your high school detention room. Stairwells are an incredibly spartan environment. There are no windows, no pictures, the walls are typically unpainted concrete or drywall, and they are commonly dirty. Stairwells are the last thing any cleaning crew looks to keep up. With climbing stairs, you have to be OK with process, tedium, and the challenge of just you and the stairs. If the process isn’t enough for you, you’ll quit.
The positive of stairs is you do laps, which gives you the satisfaction of immediate results. After each lap, with a trusty old school stopwatch, I knew exactly how I did and what progress I was making. It’s also easy to compare training sessions. I could see my improvement in my times, and that was energizing. It made me want more.
After a few months of regular stair training and seeing a marked improvement, I wanted to test myself with something more rigorous and googled for more stairclimbs. It turns out that, in the last few years, the American Lung Association has started doing a series of stairclimbs across the country called the Fight For Air Climb. I found an event a few hours from my home in Springfield, Illinois. It was 32 hotel floors, which are shorter than office building floors by a few feet. Going through the event site, I noticed they had an event called the “Ultimate Climber” where you climb the building as many times as you can in one hour. On a desperate whim to see what I had, I got the last spot of 75 entries after someone dropped out.
It felt like fate, if you are wont to believe in such things.
Before the event, I did what I always do: I studied the previous year’s results. Looking through them, I thought I could reasonably finish in the front of the back once again—somewhere around 50th place—and scale the building 5-6 times. I would feel reasonably good about that. (The winner does like 14 laps or something ridiculous.)
To my surprise, I completed eight laps and finished dead middle in the field: 37th out of 75. For the first time since I ran a trail race in my mid-20s, I had surpassed my expectations. And, for the first time, I had moved up a whole pack. I finished in the middle!
(Reasonably judged, I finished closer to the back of the middle as there were some people who signed up who were clearly unprepared for the challenge, but either way, I had done it: I moved up a pack.)
Now that I had moved up a pack, a fear struck me: I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to lose the gains I had made. Something else happened, too. My confidence in completing endurance events went up, however slow I would go. Without meaning to, I had cleared a mental hurdle.
But, most importantly, I didn’t want to lose my precious, hard-earned gains.
As the weather got warmer, I climbed stairs for a while, but wanted to get outside and I ramped up my running. This time, though, thanks to the cardio bump from stairclimbing, I was actually sort of really running.
With my newfound confidence at endurance events, I picked out a few trail races at a distance of 15K (9.3 miles). In terms of difficulty, a 15K on the trails is roughly similar to a half-marathon on the roads, except harder in some ways. I fought severe calf cramps in the first race and did moderately better in a second 15K, leaving me feeling like I had more to give.
My strategy of slowly notching up was finally beginning to pay off.
In the fall, I trained for and ran my first road half-marathon, hoping to clock 9-minute miles. I came in at 8:48 miles with my last mile being the fastest—a 7:50 pace—which is something I didn’t know if I had in me any more, let alone the last mile of a half.
I felt better than I had in at least 15 years. Honestly, I didn’t know I could feel this good again.
A few weeks after the half-marathon, on Thanksgiving weekend, I ran a charity 5K and, based on my half-marathon pace, set a goal of 8:20 miles. I started a little slowly on purpose, aiming for a reverse split. It was a crowded field of about 3000 participants, a little more than half of whom were simply walkers or shufflejoggers.
I surprised myself and ended up running a 7:40 pace, good for 214th place. I was over the moon. I wasn’t the front of the pack, but for this race, this one time, I was front of the middle.
And yet, I still feel like I have more in me. I can feel it in my legs. I can feel it in my heart, in my body.
I have a dessert problem, though. I’m not as light as I should be considering my workout load because I love dessert. One thing that often happens when you drink regularly and then quit is you replace the alcohol with sugar. I have a chocolate habit, to say the least. The sugar intake is only after dinner, but I can kill me some chocolate. Dessert holds me back in some ways, but life is still to be lived, I tell myself.
A couple weeks after the Thanksgiving 5K following some easy weeks to recover, I turned my focus to the stairs. The building I work in now is 14 floors, making it easy to get in some serious stair workouts.
So, as I stand at the bottom of these stairs getting ready to climb this 36-floor building three times, I’m staring at the last five years of my life. I’m staring at years of injury, illness, and shufflejogging. I’m staring at bone-dry sobriety. I’m staring at myself.
I’ve tweaked and tightened my life to get I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since my mid-20s. As I hit another level, I got more motivation. As I had disappointments, I re-thought and re-committed to my approach. I’ve read a ton, studied results, read multiple training programs, and have had some mental and physical breakthroughs.
It’s been pretty incredible so far.
That said, it’s taken me 5 years to get here and many days are a fight. And it’s not like I’m a 150-pound killing machine with my workout regiment. I’m in great cardio shape, but I don’t have a ton of muscle definition and I carry a little too much fat around my waist because I have that dessert problem. My wife says you can see that I’m in shape, though. So, that’s something.
Even with my recent racing success, stairclimbs are just different beasts. For mere mortals like myself, you never quite know what to expect out of yourself. Plus, I’ve never done this event where I climb the building three times. It’s also been nine months since my last stairclimb.
The morning of the event, I’m realistically hoping to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. I don’t want to set my expectations too high for fear of mega-disappointment later. I would feel pretty good finishing in the middle of the pack and anything better than that will feel great.
I know, though, that deep-down I probably won’t be satisfied with a middle-of-the-pack result. My ego tells me I’m a better athlete than middle-of-the-pack. My workouts tell me I should be better than that, but that’s why we do these things: To see where you are versus yourself.
After a lifetime of being blasé about things, I’m starting to get it now. I’m trying to run a reverse split on life, pick up steam as I go, even as the headwinds of life erode my capabilities. I’m not doing it necessarily to beat anyone, I’m doing it because I want to see what I can do. For once.
This stairclimb is a measure of all of that.
I ended up finishing 23rd out of 151 climbers. Third in my age group. All three laps were PRs for me. You could argue I was back of the front pack, but judging by the times, I was firmly in the front of the middle, which feels about right for where I am physically.
The next leap in fitness is the great leap. It’s the hardest thing to do. If I just slowly keep tweaking my approach, I may just get there yet.
Someone I don’t really admire much, but has some wisdom nonetheless, told me once that it’s not important when you bloom, it’s that you bloom. That feels about right. I’m blooming late, which is better than not at all.
I don’t always know why I’m here at these events, but I know now that I am on the verge of maybe finding it. I’ve grown tired of just trying to get away with things. Or working around the problem instead of just solving it. I’m on the verge of making the breakthrough I’ve been slowly angling towards, but I’m not sure exactly how to get there or what to expect if I do.
But I also know now that all this craziness is not about where I am compared to anyone else, it’s about where I am compared to myself. And if I can fulfill that, I’ll have fulfilled something for once.
The next step will be not losing it all, either through injury or fatigue. While all blooms slowly recede, we can stay in bloom longer with a little care. One little notch at a time.