I always get some interesting replies to my social media posts when I mention that I’m planning on doing a stair climb. Aside from good luck wishes, there are questions about how hard stair climbs are are or how long they take to finish and comments that say things like “wow, that’s crazy – I could never do something like that!” What really makes this interesting though is that the majority of these comments come from other runners. The reason this is so surprising to me is because truthfully, any experienced runner can probably do a stair climb. Climbing stairs works different muscles in your legs compared to running (which gives it the added benefit of making stair climbs a perfect cross training activity), but as far as overall effort goes, doing a 100 floor stair climb is roughly equivalent to running a 5K. So if you’re a runner and you’re on the fence about doing one of these, my advice would be to go for it – you’ll love it!
Hustle up the Hancock is a climb to the top of the John Hancock Center in downtown Chicago. The Hancock Center is not the tallest building in Chicago but it’s observatory on the 94th floor is one of the best ways to see the city from above. Climbers have a choice of climbing the full 94 floors or doing a 52 floor half climb but both climbs finish in the observatory (or 360 Chicago as it’s now called) which offers amazing views of the Chicago skyline and the lakefront.
2015 was my fifth year in a row doing Hustle Up the Hancock. I’m not usually a big fan of doing the same races over and over again, but I have some personal reasons for doing this one every year. All proceeds from the climb go to the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, which is a not for profit organization whose mission is to promote healthy lungs and fight lung disease through advocacy and education. This is a cause that’s really important to me because my mom passed away from a combination of COPD and Congestive Heart Failure in 2004. She spent the last year of her life on oxygen and had to make several trips to the emergency room because she had so much difficulty breathing. So I have a special place in my heart for any organization that supports lung health or lung disease research and I’m hopeful that in the future there will be new treatments available to help people with conditions like my mom’s live longer and fuller lives.
Hustle up the Hancock has a lot in common with a regular road race, but there are also some key differences. Runners start in waves just like any big marathon or half marathon, but for safety reasons (can’t have thousands of people in a stairwell at the same time), the waves are a lot more spread out than a road race and it takes most of the day to get everyone across the start line. No need to worry about getting there early and standing around for hours though – every race bib has an approximate start time and you only need to show up about in time for your scheduled start. The full climb only takes about 20 minutes, so there also shouldn’t be any worries about starting later in the day either. Add in some extra time to get back downstairs after the climb and maybe hang out at the after party for a little bit, and you should probably plan on being there for about 2 1/2 hours.
The approximate start times are 15 minutes apart. Start times are assigned randomly, but climbers can also register as a team if there’s a group of people who want to start at the same time and do the climb together. Everyone in the lower level of the Hancock building and takes an escalator up to the first floor about 10-15 minutes before their start time (or people doing the half climb take an elevator up to the 42nd floor and start from there). Race officials at the start lines let climbers go one at a time about 15 seconds apart. There are mats at the start and finish lines and the climb is chip timed the same way most road races are.
Once you’re in the stairwell, the climb itself is pretty straightforward – run up a flight of about 10 stairs, get to a landing, turn and run up the next flight of stairs, etc… all the way to the top of the building. There’s enough space on the landings for climbers to stop and take a break if they start to feel tired or feel winded. There are also motivational posters hanging on the walls in the stairwells and some of the floors have volunteers standing in the landings cheering on the climbers and handing out water bottles.
Climbers will occasionally pass each other in the stairwell but because of the way the start times are staggered, chances are that you’ll never be on the same floor with more than one or two other climbers at the same time and there’s always plenty of room in the stairwell. After crossing the finish line, climbers get water, bananas and medals and are treated to stunning views of Chicago that make the climb totally worth doing by themselves.
The medals are always really nice. They’re high quality and have a design that features the Hancock Building on them along with the RHAMC logo and the name of the event. Interestingly enough, a lot of other stair climbs around Chicago don’t have finishers medals at all, so it’s nice to get one for Hustle up the Hancock. If I had to change one thing about this event though, it would be to give different medals to the full and half climbers (or maybe the same medal with different colors, etc…). Right now everyone gets the same medal regardless of whether they did the full or the half climb.
Tips and Tricks for Hustle up the Hancock
Here are a few tips for anyone that’s never done a stair climb before but is interested in giving this one (or any other stair climb) a try:
The biggest issue I’ve ever had during a climb had nothing to do with my legs or knees getting sore or feeling tired or winded or anything like that. My biggest issue was starting to feel a bit dizzy from going in so many circles on my way up. If you think about the way a stairwell is laid out, you go up a set of stairs and then turn and go up the next set in the opposite direction, then turn again, etc…. If you do this fast and keep doing it repeatedly and also hug the corners really tightly, then by the time you get about halfway into the climb, you’re going to start to feel like you’ve spent the last 10 minutes spinning around really fast. This is totally normal and doesn’t last very long. I also noticed that moving to the right side of the stairs and slowing down for a floor or two helps to get rid of this sensation.
The climb itself only takes about 20 minutes but depending on when your start time is, getting back down can take close to 45 minutes because the lines for the elevators wrap all the way around the top of the building. The Hancock Building has the fastest elevators in the world but there are a finite number of them and each elevator can only carry so many people at once. Standing in line for this long is really not as bad as it sounds though because the line forms along the windows, so you’ll get close up views from all four sides of the building and plenty of great photo opportunities while you’re waiting.
If you’re planning on driving to Hustle up the Hancock, you can park in the official Hancock Center garage… but you’ll probably have to wait in line to get to the garage and then wait in line again to get out of it after you get in your car. I’ve had a lot more luck parking in the Water Tower Place garage across the street and the prices are roughly the same.
Even though it’s cold outside, the stairwell is warm, and you’ll warm up quickly once you get moving, so plan on wearing a pair of shorts and a short sleeve shirt for the climb. There’s a gear check at the Hilton around the corner (where the after party is) and a coat check at the bottom floor of the Hancock building. I’ve never used the gear check but the lines for the coat check always seem to be ridiculously long so I usually just leave everything in my car and hang onto my keys during the climb. The downside to doing this is that since the climb is in February, if you take this advice and also take my advice about parking in the garage across the street, then since Hustle up the Hancock is usually in the middle of February, you’ll most likely find yourself having to cross the street outside in bitterly cold temperatures with nothing on besides what you’re planning on wearing for the climb. The convenience of not having to wait in three different lines is well worth it though.
Hustle up the Hancock After Party
After climbers make their way back downstairs, there’s an after party across the street inside the Hilton. Climbers are more than welcome to hang out with their friends and family in the observatory after they finish too (if you want to do this, there are opportunities to buy guest passes in advance so keep an eye on the official emails that get sent out about the climb). If you have some extra time beyond that though, the after party is definitely worth checking out. You can get your official finishing time there and there’s also music, free samples, food, beer and advertisements for other races in the area. It’s kind of like a race expo that’s just held after the event instead of before it.
I was happy to run into a few friends that I wasn’t expecting to see at Hustle up the Hancock this year (I also got to see Senator Mark Kirk who did the climb this year too). Stair climbs are a lot of fun and offer breathtaking views at the finish line. This particular one is also for a great cause that’s near and dear to me, so I’m hoping that as time goes on, more and more runners will decide to give Hustle up the Hancock a try. Like I said, you won’t be disappointed!