The event organizers of the American Lung Association’s Iowa chapter calls the Fight for Air Climb in Des Moines a “vertical mile.” The ALA holds similar events all over the country. I became familiar with this event last year when I volunteered to provide communications support via the Polk County Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Polk ARES is a group of amateur radio operators — often colloquially known as hams — that assists municipal, county, state, and federal agencies with communications in times of disaster, but more commonly assists non-profits with routine communications at their events, like the ALA and the Fight for Air Climb. It’s actually written into the law that amateur radio licensees must participate in public service in exchange for the radio spectrum they are granted. Radio operators are stationed throughout the course and are often partnered with race organizers to pass messages such as injuries, logistical needs, and any other issues that may arise that require immediate attention from event staff.
Last year, I was paired up with the Renee, event coordinator and registration. Around the same time, I was about three months into my health and fitness kick, having lost about 25 pounds at that point by running and eating better (I am now down 80 pounds and maintaining my weight while running, lifting weights, and biking). At the event, I saw people from all walks of life and different fitness levels complete the event and thought that I could do this, too.
March is still in that awkward not-quite-winter-but-not-quite-running-season stage and was having a hard time coming up with a race that wasn’t a cheesy novelty St. Patrick’s Day race. This was the perfect opportunity to register for the Fight for Air Climb as my March race. I opened up a page, paid my $30 registration fee, and posted my fundraising page to raise the required $100, and met my goal within a few hours. Now that others have pledged money, this is for real. No backing out now.
The Ruan Center, left, the Marriott downtown, center, and EMC Insurance, second from right, are the three tallest buildings, in order from most to least tall, in Des Moines’ Fight for Air Climb.
Each ALA chapter’s Fight for Air Climb is set up differently, but the Des Moines event is split between four buildings totaling 93 floors. Just as a comparison, the New York City Fight for Air Climb held at One Penn Plaza is only 55 stories high.
You start out at the EMC Insurance building (371 stairs, 15 floors), move to the Hub Tower (364 stairs, 18 floors), then the newest and tallest addition to the event for 2015, the Ruan Center (637 stairs, 32 floors), and then finish up at the event headquarters, the downtown Marriott (429 stairs, 28 floors). The event is chip-timed with mats placed at the top and bottom of each staircase. We go between the buildings via the skywalk system, and the time spent walking between buildings does not count towards your time. You take the elevators back down to the skywalk level, no need to go down the stairs you just came up on.
I volunteered again this year and had the same assignment with the event coordinator at the registration desk. Once the initial flurry of walk-in registrations, donations, check-ins and change of volunteers died down around 9:30, I left my assignment and headed to the door. Checking in is a breeze since the tables were arranged in a logical manner and ample volunteers were available to check you in and give you your packet and shirt. Then you head over to the chip table, where you sign the waiver and pick up your timing chip. There’s also a gear check across the atrium that is secure and free-of-charge.
Everyone is assigned a “wave” — a specific start time — so everyone doesn’t show up at once and start climbing at once. There were 46 waves this year. Once you reach the start line for each staircase, participants’ starts are spaced out by about 20 seconds to avoid congestion in the stairwells. This worked particularly well as I never had to go more than two abreast when passing someone (or getting passed).
Before I left, I debated whether or not to take my phone and earbuds along with me for the race. I’m glad I didn’t, because it only took around 3-5 minutes to climb to the top of each building. I would have barely been able to finish a single song from start to finish! Each climb felt really short. I remember getting to the top of the first building, a little confused, looking for another staircase, because it seemed so quick. Not that I wasn’t winded — I was a little — but I thought it would take me a lot longer.
The commute between buildings in the skywalk was pretty nice, too, giving you as much time as you needed to catch your breath, get some water, or socialize, but I kept going with very little time spent between the buildings. The skywalks can be pretty confusing, especially to visitors and people that don’t spend much time downtown, but there are plenty of volunteers, signs, and water stops throughout the skywalk route.
Some buildings were harder than others. I found the Hub Tower to be the easiest with brightly-lit stairwells, cool air, and the steps weren’t too deep. The EMC building is a close second for many of the same reasons. The most difficult stairwell, without a doubt, was the Ruan Center. Seemingly never-ending, dingy, narrow stairwells, stale air, and carpet on the steps of some floors which can tire you out in an event like this. Ending up at the Des Moines Club on the top floor and sweating on their fancy furniture is an interesting experience. As for the Marriott, I was in a hurry to use up all of my energy to get to the top, but it did have a nice, wide stairwell and it was neat to see construction workers’ names drawn into the concrete on each floor when the building was built in the 1980s.
One thing I really took note of was all of the encouragement along the route. There were signs on each floor of every building reminding you of why you started or other motivational phrases. There are also volunteers every few floors encouraging you. But all of the participants are very encouraging to other, which is something I did not expect. If you pass someone, you should encourage them. See someone on a landing catching their breath? Encourage them. Tell them they’re doing great. As mentioned before, people from all walks of life and fitness levels are participating.
I was also lucky enough to have my own group of people, um, encouraging me along the route. Maybe it wasn’t as much encouraging as it was smack-talking. As amateur radio operators working the event caught wind that I was on my way to the climb, radio operators started relaying my position to central command. Once I got to the Ruan Center’s start line, where Brad W0ELI was stationed, he turned the radio’s volume so I could hear Tom N0VPR and someone else taking about how I’m pretty good at making “the rest of us” look bad. It was certainly encouraging going into the halfway-point of the race. At the top of the Ruan Center, I stepped out of the staircase and into the Des Moines Club and was greeted by Leila WA0UIG, who had come in from Cedar Rapids to assist with the event and had been listening to the traffic on the radio tracking me.
Going into this race, I didn’t have a goal other than to finish all four buildings. I had no idea what kind of time I could expect. Most veterans didn’t either since the Ruan Center is a new addition to the event this year. With that said, I did not find this race to be hard. I’m not saying it isn’t tough — it certainly is tough — but it was not as difficult as I expected. To give you an idea of my fitness level, I currently run about 15 miles a week at 8:40/mile and bike about 25 miles a week. I did zero preparation for stair climbing, other than considering taking the stairs to my desk at work occasionally, four floors up. I did all of these stairs at my normal stair-climbing pace just as I would going to work or at my apartment building, something I consider to be a faster-than-walking pace. I really was expecting to have to stop on a landing to catch my breath, or catastrophically trip and fall at some point from inattention and/or fatigue, but neither of those happened. I definitely felt the burn in my quads about halfway up the Ruan Center and most of the way up the Marriott.
A look at the Fitbit data
Being the huge wearable data geek that I am, one of the most exciting parts for me was seeing how my Fitbit Surge captured data for a vertical race. At last year’s climb, I saw a lot of Fitbit Force devices and this was about a month after the recall. At that time, the Force was the only device that tracked number of floors climbed and the wearables market wasn’t as crowded. In my observations this year, the device I saw the most was the Garmin Vivosmart followed by the Garmin Vivofit. I saw perhaps one or two Fitbit Charges, and no Fitbit Surges, Microsoft Bands, Nike+ Fuelbands or Jawbone UP24s. Chatter overheard about wearables at this year’s event was also a significant decrease over last year.
EMC Insurance: 470 steps, 37 calories burned, 113 bpm average. Official stats: time 3:22, 15 floors, 371 stairs
Hub Tower: 441 steps, 32 calories burned, 136 bpm. Official stats: time 3:03, 18 floors, 364 stairs
Ruan Center: 780 steps, 69 calories burned, 120 bpm. Official stats: time 5:57, 32 floors, 637 stairs
Marriott downtown: 699 steps, 53 calories burned, 118 bpm. Official stats: time 5:34, 28 floors, 429 stairs
Fitbit’s step counts also includes steps I took on landings and at the top and bottom of each staircases, which explains the difference between “steps taken” and the ALA’s official “stair count” for each building.
And, while the official floor count for the event is 93 floors, my Surge recorded 114 floors by the end of the day. Keep in mind, not only does this include a couple extra floors from taking the stairs up to my apartment, but Fitbit devices use an altimeter to count the approximate number of floors based on atmospheric pressure and assumes each floor is about 10 feet tall. In commercial buildings, floors tend to be a little taller than 10 feet. I sure did rack up a lot of new Fitbit climbing badges that day, including Lighthouse, Skyscraper, Ferris Wheel, and Rollercoaster.
Would I do it again?
This was a challenging but fun event, and money raised goes to a great cause. I would definitely like to do this again and would recommend it to others.