Monday, September 10, 2012

Thoughts about life, crap, training and stuff - 9/11 Edition

I know it's not September 11th.  It's the 10th.  

However because I spent part of my weekend doing something to pay tribute to the firefighters who gave their lives on 9/11, I am going to make this the Sept. 11th edition of "Thoughts about..."

A few weeks ago, the wife started work at a new gym and one of her co-workers asked her if she and I would be interested in doing a 110 story stairwell climb, for the fallen 9/11 Firefighters.

"Sure, I'll do it" I said.  "Sounds awesome."

As I sit here writing this, let me say that for future purposes I will try to refrain from using the word "awesome" so haphazardly like that.  Especially when I am clueless about what the fuck it is I'm REALLY going to be doing.

"Climbing 110 stories in full fire fighter gear."  she tells me.

"Ok, yeah I'm in."

I gave little thought to this other than letting her know that I could be "jotted down" as a participant for this little shindig.

Tiff reminds me of this Friday night, and she tells me how nervous she is about it.

"Why?" I say.

"Because that shit is going to be hard."

"How hard can it be?" I say.  "It's 110 flights of stairs.  How long does it take to go up a flight of stairs?  Like, 10 seconds?"

"Yeah." she says.

"Ok then.  110 flights times 10 is 1100 seconds." I say, as I break out the calculator.

"Divided by 60 that's 18.3.  20 minutes." I tell her, very smug like.

"Doesn't seem right to me, but whatever." she says, very smug like.

Her smug vs my smug.  We'll see bro.

Saturday comes and we meet at the gym with the other people who are going to be doing this thing as well.  Turns out, there's only going to be six of us.  Myself, Tiff, Summer, Cristi, Tee, and Meagan.  A woman named Amy would be going with us to "snap pics of the carnage".  I can't remember who said that, but my smugness showed back up and gave a hefty "muwahahahaha" evil style laugh about it.  "It's 110 flights.  Big deal."  /smug with a dash of arrogance added 

The next day all of the firefighters from local departments would be doing it.  So on this day, it's just the six of us.

Tiff is still very nervous about this at the gym, though less than before because I assured her it would be over in half an hour.  My assurance was backed up by Summer telling us she did 100 flights of stairs on the stair master in 18 minutes the day before.

"See?" I say, taking another monocle styled sip of the smuggogance concoction I had shaken, but not stirred.  "20 minutes.  Max."

We all drive to downtown KC, where I might add that we were following Amy, who proceeded to drive us the wrong way down a one way street.....TWICE.  She also totally drove like a grandma the rest of the time.  50 MPH in a 70, for example.

After escaping possible head to head collisions on multiple occasions, we found our building and then parked.  It was the Bank Midwest building in downtown KC.  Inside I met the firefighters who would be giving us our equipment, and telling us about the challenge.

Bank Midwest downtown KC
 I would be wearing (mostly) full firefighter gear.  They did not have boots there, so thankfully I was smart enough to wear my best shoes that day.  All the gear adds up to around 50 pounds you're carrying, give or take a few I suppose.  Summer was doing the climb in honor of our troops who died in Afghanistan, so she would be wearing BDU's and carrying a 50 pound ruck.  Let me state that Summer is in awesome shape, but she's weighs all of 27 pounds.

Tee and Tiff would not be wearing any gear.  Tiff has an artificial hip, and though she protested at first, she eventually realized that doing the 110 floors with 50 pounds of gear on, with an artificial hip, might not be the best of ideas.

They only had three fire fighter uni's that day so it would be Meagan, Cristi, and myself wearing the gear.

After getting donned up in my gear, I made my way over to the Grandma Angel of Driving Death, aka Amy, so she could snap some pics.  The first thing I noticed was the fact that my legs were too big to really move my knee up.  It was like doing a step up every time I raised my leg.  Seeing as how I am going to be walking up stairs, I realize that each step is going to have added resistance to it from the suit.

"Meh" I think.  "No biggie."  

Here is me just after donning the fire fighter uni.  Still sipping on my cocktail of smuggogance.

As you can see, I had my headphones in and was ready to rock and roll when the guy who helped me get into my gear came over to me and let me know that I shouldn't wear the headphones.

"Why not?"

"Because music is a big motivational tool.  The guys who do the challenge tomorrow won't use it because the guys on 9/11 wouldn't have had music in.  Their motivation was to save those people."

I took my headphones out and put my MP3 player on a table.  Summer and Meagan followed suit.

Before someone makes a remark about how those guys "would have had adrenaline" or this or that, I don't care.  We can sit down and talk about options.  Running into a building that has been hit by a plane, sans music, or doing it in a controlled environment with music.  Which would you prefer?

Thanks for playing.

"You're going to want to get started now." the fireman told me.  "That suit will get hot quick."

He wasn't lying.  It was like being in a slow cook crock pot, and all I was doing at this point was standing around looking awesome.

"How long will this take?" I say, sipping slowly on my drink of smuggogance.

"Generally it takes most people about two hours." he says.

I spill my smuggogance, and look at Tiff.

I can read her mind.  It's saying......"bartender, I'll have a round of that smuggogance that my dip shit husband was having."  

Felt appropriate 

"I told you it would be longer than 20 minutes, you squirrel." she tells me.

"Let's get this show on the road then."  I say, totally ignoring how wrong I was.  

"You will go up 34 floors" the firefighter tells us.  "Then you will ride the elevator back down.  You'll do this 2 more times, then do 7 floors.  Got it?"

We all nodded that we understood, and marched into the stairwell single file to begin the ascent.

We get two floors up, and my biggest mistake in my thinking about all of this hits me.

Flights and floors.

Floors and flights.

110 floors is NOT 110 flights of stairs.  Each floor has two flights of stairs.  I had been using the terms flights and floors in an interchanging manner the whole time, and well, it's not the same thing at ALL.

110 floors is 220 FLIGHTS of stairs.

Fuck me running.  Actually, walking in this instance.  Fuck me walking....slowly....with an oven.

The next thing that happened was even better.  Most people don't know this, but now and again for reasons unknown to me, I get a bit claustrophobic.

So about the 3rd or 4th floor, out of nowhere, it hit me like a ton of bricks.  I can't breathe, I feel trapped, I get light headed, and I look for a door.  I grab the door but oh guess what, it's locked.

"Breathe, Paul" I say to myself.  "Calm yourself.  Eyes down, walk the fucking stairs."

So that's what I did.  In a few minutes I was fine.  Disaster avoided.  I had this vision of myself taking all of my gear off hyperventilating like a bitch, while everyone else continued on.

Was not going to happen.

The inability to overcome fear is the thing that keeps you from doing great things in life.  Fear blinds you.  It steals your breath, and weighs heavy on your shoulders.  Fight or flight, they call it.  It could be that claustrophobic moment in the stairwell, or that moment when someone pulls a gun on you.  To your body, it all feels very similar.  Your vision gets narrow and everything slows down.  Fear grabs you by the throat, and snarls in your face.  It wants to test your mettle.  You can either succumb, and cower to it, or you can grab fear by the throat as well and say "let's do this, mother fucker."

I chose the latter.  On this day, I would also fight his twin brother.  Failure.

The bout of claustrophobia made my breathing and heart rate increase exponentially very early on.  I don't know what my heart rate was after a few flights, but if I had to guess (from measuring it on the treadmill during sprints) I would say it was easily in the 150 BPM range.  My legs were sore from a high volume workout of squats a few days before, so they got heavy very early.  Add in the resistance from the pants, and the going was tough right out of the gate.  Not a good way to start, but life isn't always rainbows and unicorns.  It sure wasn't going to be on this day.

We made up to the 34th floor, and then walked down the hall to the freight elevator, and hit the "down" button.  It took that thing forever to get up to us.  When it did however, it brought with it a nice breeze that made the group give a collective "ahhhhhh".

On the elevator ride down, my demons began to taunt me.  I thought to myself "I'm already exhausted.  How the hell am I going to do that 2 more times and then some?"

These thoughts stayed with me all the way through the second trip.  I was fighting failure every step of the way.  Soon my stomach started to churn.  I wasn't too worried about puking because I've never puked from a workout in my life.  For whatever reason I just don't.  And I've had plenty of hard ass football practices of running non stop sprints in Mississippi summers, and watched guys puke from it.

Truth is, I wish I could have puked, because having my stomach ache the whole time was far worse.  To add to things, I started seeing the "sparklies" and my right ear began to hum to me with that very low level "zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz" buzzing.  This lasted until about 3/4 of the way up the second trip.  Then my hearing in my right ear just went all together.

Two trips down, though.

"Just one more.  You can do this shit." I told myself.

As we stepped off of the elevator, and walked through the lobby the firefighter that helped me with my gear came over to me.

"You ok, bud?" he said.

I nodded.

"Man, you're really hanging in there.  The big guys never finish this thing.  They always fall fast.  One more flight and you're almost done."

Almost done.

We started the third trip, and the exhaustion was clearing setting in with the group.  I looked like a zombie at this point (pics coming), Meagan and Summer weren't looking too hot either (but not quite like the walking dead), and we had to stop for a rest about every other flight of stairs.

At this point, my body was mostly numb.  Not in a Vicodin induced haze kinda way, which is fun, but a beaten with Kendo sticks for 9 hours kinda way.  And I know from experience what that feels like, and it feels like balls.

Did not die, but looked like a zombie.

I was climbing the flights at this point with both hands on the rails and sort of walking and pulling myself at the same time.  I made the mistake of trying to drink water while walking up the stairs, and let me tell you, holding on to the rails takes a hell of a lot of bodyweight off of your legs.  More than you know.  In other words, that was not a good idea and I immediately regretted it.

It felt like an eternity but we finally made the final 34 floors.  We took the freight elevator one more time to the 1st floor to do the final 7 flights.  I expected some kind of surge of energy, knowing I only had to to do 7 more flights to finish.  Since this was a Murphey's Law style day, no such surge happened.  In fact, on the third floor, my left adductor cramped hard and my knee buckled.  Once again, I had this awful vision of myself.  This time I was writhing around cramping in the stairwell....not able to finish the last few flights.

Again, was not going to happen.

I poured another bottled of water over my head and drank the last bit.

We finally emerged at the top of the 7th stairwell and there we stopped to get a group shot.  I thanked Tee for "inviting us all to spend our Saturday doing this" and we all laughed.

We made our way to the elevator and then walked through the lobby and up to a podium for a final few group shots.  I walked gingerly over to the area where I put my gear on earlier that day, and peeled it off.  I then laid on the floor for around 20 minutes before I felt like standing again.

"What time is it?" I asked Tiff.

"1:45." she said.

"So, it took an hour and 45 minutes." I said.

"Mmmm, hmmmm." Tiff said.

So much for "20 minutes".

That evening I spent my time in bed eating steaks and M&M's.  Yes, steaks and M&M's.  Three large bags before it was all over.  That's what I was craving, so I ate it.  Don't ask why this craving would be upon me, I have no clue, but I listen to my body.

Some might have done this, and thought "no big deal."  Good for you.  When you're 250 and only a few weeks out from starting a powerlifting meet cycle you're generally not doing the kind of work to prepare you for this kind of task.  I can only credit my conditioning base that got me through this.  For the last couple of weeks, that has been reduced to very fast walking for 30-40 minutes every morning.  That may not seem like much, but it's enough so that you won't actually die (you will look like you should, however) during an adventure like this.

In the end, regardless of how hard this was, and it ranks top 5 among all the hardest physical things I've ever done, it was still a controlled environment.  I have no idea what it would have felt like for those guy on 9/11, or the firefighters across the country, and the glove, that do this shit on an everyday basis.  I have always respected our Firefighters, but this challenge left me with an entirely new found respect for those guys.

I am actually very thankful to have competed, and completed this challenge.  This was a huge test for me because of all the things I had going against me early on.  I write about overcoming these things all the time, and it's important to walk the walk, if you're going to talk the talk.  Most guys won't admit to a lot of the shit that I do.  Like "wanting to quit" or give in to fear and failure.  I've never claimed to be some demi God, and it actually pisses me off when some guys I know write about how they never deal with these things.

Because it's bullshit.

Fear and failure were in my mind a great deal of the time for that hour and forty-five.  I spent as much time fighting off those two assholes as I did climbing those stairs.  I knew deep down though, I wouldn't quit.  I knew I would pass the hell out before that happened.  I would have felt embarrassed and ashamed.  Embarrassment and shame teamed up with pride and determination and tag teamed to beat the living shit out of fear and failure.

On the ride home, somehow the subject of my dad raising me came up.  He is a Nam vet, retired from the military, and he was also my Scout leader.  He used to take us on 14 mile hikes through Shiloh park, 10 miles hikes through downtown Memphis, and go camping in the woods for the weekend with nothing more than a tent and a knife.  I laughed at what a crazy bastard he is.

"You don't think that is part of what made you the man you are today?" Summer noted.

I paused for a bit, because in honesty, I don't know that I've ever given my dad enough credit for all the hardships he put me through.  Spending entire winters chopping and hauling wood from sun up to sun down when I was still young enough to be wearing Underroos under my coat.  Hunting in the freezing ass cold for hours and hours, football practice AFTER football practice (in other words, after practice, he would drive me home and have me do MORE practice at home, no shit), roofing houses in the middle of summer all day long, and of course beating my ass when I was a shit bird.

So I'd like to say not only thank you to all of the firefighters, military, and everyone else that served on 9/11 and all the 365's that you do, but also to my dad whom I love very much.  For giving me the tools in life that allowed me to pay tribute to them on this day, and to become the man that I have.  You are an awesome man and father.  I am proud that I share blood with you, and that I was lucky enough to have such an awesome man to look up to in my life.  I love you dad.  


  1. Well done mate, would have been interesting to get a before and after bodyweight, wearing that sweat bag would have a pretty insane effect I imagine

  2. "Awesome" can be applied to this post.

  3. Way to go, Paul. Plus, big ups to your lady for doing it with the artificial hip. I am still recovering from artho hip surgery; I can't even imagine walking that many flights right now. It's really impressive to read that she did the challenge, gear or no gear

  4. Excellent write up and congrats on finishing the climb.
    It's amazing the difference wearing the proper gear makes. That vapor barrier means that vital bodily function, sweating to cool yourself off, doesn't count for shit. Then you imagine the guys were carrying hose packs, axes and halligans, spare air bottles, and it's difficult to think how anyone could have made it. Mental toughness and determination the likes we rarely get to see is the only answer.

    Good on ya! definitely something you can hold with pride for the rest of your days.

  5. In the academy we had quite a few guys regularly puking in their masks and such. We had drills part of which would include us with our masks blacked out, bunkers, packs, tools, etc. going through various mazes of tubes and other fun confining spaces with wires and other fun things we would get tangled up in and have to sort ourselves out. I quickly learned that I have a touch of claustrophobia which I learned to control by humming (also conserves air which is key lol). Nice job powering through. Good times...

  6. I live in an apartment block that is 17 floors high and I use the stairs for conditioning. If someone told me to do 110 floors wearing 50 pounds of weight I would have had a look of complete horror. The most I have done is 72 floors and that did NOT include 50 pounds of gear on my back!

    That's some going for anyone let alone someone as big as yourself. Proof that there's no reason to neglect conditioning.

    Hats off to you sir!

  7. Great article Paul. I hear you about the claustrophobia. I'm a firefighter in Texas and part of the training is that your in a very dark, very tight connex box in gear and an airpack. I've literally been shaking before doing this drill as I was scared shitless. But, I talked myself through it and did well. So, I hear you about not be afraid is bullshit. Fire departments around us do this every year and I'll be doing this next year. I was going to use music for the climb, but the mention in your article about how the guys in NY didn't have music that day really hit home with me. Keep up the great work man!

  8. Awesome write-up Paul. I'm in the process of becoming a firefighter myself, and even though I already had an enormous amount of respect for the profession already, this drives it home a little bit more.

  9. Thanks for sharing and remember all those from 9/11 - JeffV

  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughts... made me think of all the selfmade-competitions I had in the past. Too long since I tested my balls and "Walked the walk".
    I couldnt help but grin most of the time reading this... The stuff MY father told me about arrogance sticked with me since ever. Funny, sometimes you recognize very late how ur parents influenced your life.
    Keep on your good work, youve got a least one guy here on good ol germany listening. Helps me stay NOV. Thanks :)

  11. Hell ya you ate some damn M&Ms! I always crave steak and candy after I climb a mountain. Always.
    Your write up was very compelling. Well done and impressive sir.

  12. Paul, good job on the tribute climb! I am a firefighter from Ontario, Canada and I'm curious to hear your thoughts on how you would train if you were a firefighter. I base most of my training on the writings of Wenldler and yourself but would love to know how you would tailor it to my job.


    1. Probably similar to what I did with my military training, with maybe a little less emphasis on the calisthenics. So lots of sprints, some shorter distance stuff (5 K), but still lots of squats, pulls, chins, presses, etc. So not a lot different than I train now, just a little more emphasis on conditioning, but less than I was doing when training to go back into the military.

      Hope that makes sense.

    2. Thanks very much!....sounds like I'm on the right path by just trying to stay NOV. We do a little challenge at work which is as follows: full bunker gear with SCBA and go on air, climb stairs of our hose tower (3 story's) up and down, at bottom pick up 65lb dumbells and do 100ft farmers walk (50 ft out & 50 ft back)...repeat until you have no air left in your bottle.

      Thanks again,

  13. Ending got me right in the feels. Mother fucker. So much kudos to you, but more importantly THEM.

  14. Thank you for this, good on you brother!

  15. Oh my but this made me laugh.. you are hilarious! It was so very entertaining and the overall message was also very inspirational. I did my first 9/11 Stair Climb (as a civilian) in 2013 and I completed my 5th climb yesterday, September 9, 2017. I climb for the same Firefighter every year.. Peter Anthony Vega. I turned 64 this year but will try and do it for as long as I can.. I just climb in gym gear but I have climbed with Firefighters in full gear and can only imagine what they go through.... and what you went through!! lol! Thanks for a great read!