Virginia Hilton Race

Guest re-cap by California resident & Virginia native, G.M. Grena:MichaelKarlin_Alexandria2015_lap1

The Mid-Atlantic branch of the American Lung Association (ALA) held its first staircase race in 2014.  They chose the 30-story Hilton Alexandria Mark Center (AMC) hotel in Virginia (just outside DC), though the race only spanned 29 floors
since the top floor has luxury accommodations.  The nice thing about ending on floor #29 is that it has the Capital View Room, suitable for post-race refreshments, looking across the Potomac River to the Washington Monument & of course, the Capitol.

23 participants climbed one lap, while 35 opted for two.  Michael Karlin not only won the latter category with nearly a 2-minute margin, but his 1st-lap time of 2:07 even trumped the winner of the 1-lap race by a solid 16 seconds.  Since I grew up in this area, I felt an obligation to participate in this year’s race, just to see if I could give Michael a little competition.  The only other time we had run the same race was the 2014 Strat, where he beat me by a long minute (64 agonizing seconds to be exact).  But since that occasion, I’ve improved my fitness level (thanks to 10 months of cardiological rehabilitation), & remained optimistic about the possibility of winning one of these less-attended races.

I arrived a day before the event, checked into my room, & immediately did a casual survey climb with my sister.  This was going to be her first officially timed race of any kind, so I wanted to ensure her that she could survive, despite having injured elbows.  It had been more than a decade since she ascended a substantial stairwell, namely the Washington Monument, which has been unavailable to climbers for several years due to concerns of vandalism & safety.  As a side note, The Washington Post recently ran 2 editorials on that subject:

How come we can’t use the stairs at the Washington Monument any more?“>

Stepping out: Tackling the Washington Monument’s stairs the hard way“>

The Hilton AMC stairwell has a firewall separating each flight, posing a small challenge for the U-turns.  Altogether there are 425 solid-concrete 7.2-inch steps from the main-floor lobby (named “L2”) up to #29 for a 255-foot ascent.  Except for the third flight, which has 20 contiguous steps (from level “M3” to #4, rising an even 12 feet), all the others have 15 (each rising an even 9 feet).  The U-turn on “M-3” also has a hidden offset of a few feet on the landing, which can interrupt your pace if you’re not expecting it.  After the initial survey, we went grocery shopping for my dinner & breakfast, then I returned & did several practice climbs to experiment with step patterns.

This year’s participation improved significantly, with 40 climbing only one lap, & 42 climbing two.  Of course that’s great news for ALA, which raised almost $29k in donations, compared with $19k in 2014.  The 2015 race occurred in April instead of June, coinciding with the last day of the annual Cherry Blossom festival (“the nation’s greatest springtime celebration”); but at 9 AM during the opening ceremony of the race, the organizer announced that the start time would be delayed since some registered climbers had not yet arrived due to heavy festival traffic in the vicinity.

Once Michael finally arrived … (!) … we lined up & prepared for take-off.  But the timing company experienced some equipment problems, & asked Michael to cross the starting line several times to test their equipment.  That’s a bad sign, because a reliable company would perform their own test well before the race, rather than interrupt a racer’s focus.  It’s especially easy to do in a hotel, because they could simply carry a bib across the starting line up to the 2nd floor, take an elevator to the next-to-last floor, & carry it across the finish line.  (Note that my day-job is Test Engineering.)

Satisfied that their timing system was working, Michael launched the race, with the rest of us following in 20-second intervals.  Based on our own stop-watches, Michael had clearly beaten me by a comfortable margin.  I had hoped to see our official times before doing the 2nd lap; however, the timing company had more problems, so after a short break congratulating my sister for surviving, we went back down for the 2nd lap.  Here I had an advantage over Michael, because I asked my sister to start a couple minutes ahead of me, & she graciously stepped aside to cheer me on about halfway up when I began to slow down.

In case you’re wondering, the descent time is not figured into this race; personally, I think it would be more interesting & competitive to see a 30-minute window timed for each climber to do as many laps as possible.  There could still be an award for the fastest single lap, so participants wouldn’t have to choose between the 2 categories.

Prior to the awards ceremony, the timings still were unavailable, which was really awkward.  The organizer congratulated the participants who had raised the highest donations, then apologized for not being able to announce the race results.  As it turns out, the finish-line equipment had malfunctioned, but the timing company wisely utilized finish-line photos to manually estimate each climber’s time, & E-mailed the results to us several days later.

Michael had beaten me by a whopping 16 seconds on the 1st lap, establishing a new building record of 2:01.  He had a rough 2nd lap though, so I beat him on that one (with my sister’s help) but only by 2 seconds, enabling him to chalk up another overall victory with a combined time of 4:41compared to my 4:55.  His 2-lap sum from 2014 of 4:35 remains the 2-lap record.  The next closest 2-lap time was by 15-year-old Henry Large with 5:33.  17-year-old Jamie Large had the 3rd-fastest single-lap time of 2:26. watch for those two to become elites in the years ahead!  For perspective, the average single-lap time by all participants was 4:52, & the 2-lap average was 9:46.

Except for the timing-company foibles, it seemed like everyone had a fun time at the event.  As a long-time west-coast resident, I enjoyed meeting some east-coast racers & bonding with Michael.  I’m satisfied that I gave him some competition, & maybe this re-cap will inspire other climbers to join us next year & set new records!

Here are the official results: