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Stadium Stair Race

November, 2014

The Race

The Stadium Stair Race took place at Patersons Stadium, the home of Australian rules football in Western Australia. There were three distances offered: a mini, half or full climb. I chose the full climb, 5800 steps (up and down combined). The course started with a one kilometre run around the outside of the stadium, a nice warm-up to the main event. Once inside, runners (or climbers) were required to follow a path up and down the steps between rows of seats, all the way around the bottom and the top levels. The race finished with a sprint onto the oval. The event supported people living with Multiple Sclerosis, the third time I had participated in an event raising funds for this population. This was the first year the race was held.

The Lead Up

I had competed in two stair climbs previously, both held in stairwells that extended from the bottom to the top of tall buildings. I had finished quite well in both of those events, in fact so well that I had been invited to stair climbing events in Australia as an elite. (I didn't accept these offers, due to costs of travel and not having the confidence that I could actually be competitive amongst other elite stair climbers.) I saw the Stadium Stair Race advertised online and I knew it would be a different sort of challenge, one that I was eager to attempt.

 

I didn't do a lot of specific training for this event. I had run a marathon two months earlier, and I was now in the middle of triathlon training. I believed that I had the required cardiovascular fitness to complete the event, but I had no idea about my strength or speed - would my legs survive the beating, would they turn to rubber and fail on me, how long would it take for my muscles to push me up and down all those stairs? All these questions and more continually ran through my head.

 

Stairs weren't a part of my life. There were no stairs at home or at work, my local shopping centre was one level, nowhere I visited often had steps for me to practise on. My runs were usually on the roads around my house, which included some short, steep hills that would take no longer than a minute to summit. The best I could do was get on the step machine at the gym, but I found this so boring that I only lasted five minutes before I gave up. The next best thing was heading out to a nearby hill to complete five minute hill repeats. It wasn't exactly the same as stair-climbing, but it would have to do.

 

On only one occasion did I make an effort to find a staircase worth training on. Close to the city was a set of stairs popular with exercise fanatics before and after work. 242 concrete steps took climbers directly up to the top of a hill, which offered views across the city centre and Swan River. It wasn't easy, it wasn't fun but it was definitely what I needed. I lost count of how many repeats I completed. I made plans to return, but never did.

 

Other than these workouts there were plenty of squats and lunges, in the hopes that I would have enough leg strength to sustain me for the race and not turn to jelly. My cycling training would also assist in developing power in my quads. I felt nervous as the day approached, but quietly confident that I had trained enough to finish the course.   

Race Day

This race had the distinct difference of commencing at 4pm. Why an afternoon start, I had no idea. I felt lost all day, like I should be doing something to help me prepare for what lay ahead, but I didn't know what. Usually I was asleep in the hours before an event.

 

I turned up about an hour early and hung around with everyone else outside the stadium. I warmed up a little with light jogging and dynamic stretches, eager to get going so my nerves would disappear. Eventually the countdown began, the siren blew, and off we went. 

 

I enjoyed the lap around the stadium, getting the blood flowing into my legs before I asked miracles of them. I didn't worry about who was in front or behind me, I just wanted to run at my own pace. Before I knew it we were running into the stadium and facing our first set of stairs.

 

The thing about stairs at football grounds are that they are fairly shallow. It was easy to climb them two at a time, reducing the number of steps I needed to take. Each row wasn't too long, causing the transitions between up and down to come around quickly. The stairwells were also narrow, making it difficult to pass people when needed. I had to shout out to the person in front of me if I wanted to overtake. I made sure to move aside if I felt someone behind me, knowing how frustrating it was to be stuck behind a slower person.

 

The stairs seemed to pass by quickly. This was possibly due to concentrating hard on not tripping up while moving as fast as I could. Every time I looked up I was surprised at how much of the ground I had already covered. Don't get me wrong, my legs and my lungs were burning, but it was nice to see progress.

 

After almost 15 minutes I had completed the lap of the lower level; now it was time to finish off the top. Up a longer set of stairs to the next level and then it started all over again: up, down, up, down. I thought I would be dreaming about steps that night. 

 

There was the occasional aid station placed around the course, offering water to participants. Although it was a hot day, I was sweating profusely and my throat was dry, I tried to go without any hydration as long as I could. All the volunteers were wonderful, calling out encouraging words. It was part way around the top level that one man said to me, "First female, well done!" Um, what? I was the first female? I didn't believe him, thought he must have missed a few people passing earlier. I continued running my own race, slightly excited by the possibility that I was leading at that moment.

 

A couple of aid stations later, it came again. "You're the first woman, keep going!" Two people couldn't be wrong, could they? Did I skip a section of the course to illegally take the lead? I had followed the men in front of me, so I was sure that wasn't a possibility. I couldn't wait to finish the race to tell my husband that I was in the lead for part of it. I had never won a race before and I couldn't imagine that changing today.

 

When the top section was finally finished and I had pushed as hard as I could go, I was ready to head to the finish line. Except that I didn't. I ran down the steps to the bottom level to be sent by the marshall back out on the course. I didn't understand - I had already run this part, why was I doing it again? I questioned the runner behind me. "Yeah, it's two laps." he said. What? I had to do this all over again? I had given almost everything to get to this point, and I was only halfway. I had no idea if I could make it around again, but at that moment I didn't have a choice. I was going to find out not only how physically strong I was, but also how mentally strong I could be.

Training wherever I could.

So around I went again, all the way around the bottom level and all the way around the top. All my muscles were screaming at me but I refused to slow down. I was repeatedly informed of my first place status, which gave me the incentive to push on. I had no idea how far behind the next woman was - it could have been 10 seconds or 10 minutes. I wasn't willing to slow down to find out.

 

After finally completing the second loop of the entire stadium I couldn't wait to see the finish. I descended the stairs back down to the lower section and followed the marshall's instructions through the maze of the interior concourse. I followed the runners around me, down another set of stairs and out to the seating area. For some reason the course markings were leading us up and down the stairs. Again. Was I on a third loop? Others around me started asking questions, stopping to look around. There were about a dozen of us in this section of the stadium, all with quizzical looks on our face. We were heading away from the finish line; we knew this wasn't right. As if in unison we all turned around and reversed our steps, trying to figure out where we went wrong. 

 

I looked around and noticed several women were in this group of runners. Now that we had turned around, they were in front of me. A few men around me didn't want to backtrack all the way back to the concourse, so we jumped over a couple of fences and sprinted across the field towards the finish line. Yes, this was cheating, but we all felt cheated by being sent off in the wrong direction. Panic set in as I realised my dreams of winning a race were quickly fading.

 

As I crossed the line my heart sank. Several women had already finished, proudly wearing their medals and waiting for their friends to come in. Even cutting the course at the end wasn't enough to make up for the several minutes lost starting the third lap. I was devastated. I contemplated pleading my case to the race director, but I didn't think it would make a difference. Sometimes events don't pan out the way you expect and you just have to accept the outcome.

 

I discovered later that I was the fifth woman across the line. It would have been nice to say I had won but I was there for the challenge of the stair race, not for a podium position. I was extremely happy with how I had performed, pushing my body to its limits and not backing down. I discovered that my legs were stronger than I had anticipated, and that being mentally focused was essential in getting across the finish.

 

A couple of days later I sent an email to the event organiser, explaining how several of us were sent in the wrong direction by the marshall and how this led to some of us missing out on prizes. Apparently I wasn't the only one to contact the company. I received a quick response, with a heart-felt apology, an explanation of how things would be changed for next year (including the addition of signage at intersections, which would have been nice) and free entry into another stair climbing event they ran. I thanked them but declined the offer. The point of the email wasn't to receive freebies, it was to help improve the race for next time. 

 

I haven't participated in stair-climbing events since, although I am open to the idea. Looking at the race website a couple of years later I noticed that the route has changed significantly - hopefully this means less confusion for marshalls and runners alike. 

Lessons Learned

  • Read the event information prior to starting the race. This seems logical, but somehow I had missed the part where I was required to run TWO laps of the entire stadium, not one. 5800 steps was an arbitrary number when I had never participated in an event like this before, so studying the course map was essential. Pacing and hydration rely heavily on knowing the route and how long you think you will be out there. Plus finding out I had to complete double the expected distance really messed with my mental preparation. 

  • There's more to races than winning or losing. Even though I was crushed not to come away with my first win, I still really enjoyed the day and was proud of how well I performed in the event.

  • Maybe my first two stair-climbing races weren't flukes - apparently I am a strong stair climber. 

  • The are ways to train for stair races other than climbing stairs. Hill repeats, running, cycling, gym workouts and bodyweight exercises all helped to develop the strength and stamina necessary to face a challenge such as this one.

  • It was nice to try something different. Throwing some variety into the race schedule helped to increase my motivation to exercise, allowed me to add cross-training into my week and kept things interesting. I hoped the power I had built into my legs would carryover into my triathlon preparation, giving me some much needed assistance in the cycling leg.

  • Things can and will go wrong in races. There is no point getting hung up about them. Accept what happens, learn from your mistakes and take away the positives.