Meditations on climbing the 36 floors of the Pitt Cathedral of Learning

Cathedral of Learning

Tonight I climbed the steps of the 36 accessible floors of the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning for the first time in probably a couple of years. As I mentioned after my last big stair climb, this year’s Fineview Stepathon, I used to do some training here, when preparing for the tortuous annual 35-mile Rachel Carson Trail Challenge held in June, which I did in 2005, 2006, and 2007.

Wikipedia photo

I thought a lot about how my physical fitness took a sharp turn downward in the past five years, and how for the coming new year of 2013 I plan to get back into the shape I was in five years ago, and why that is important.

I’m going to frame my discussion in terms that are used in Charles Duhigg’s fantastic book I just read, “The Power of Habit” (which everyone should read).

Walking to the Cathedral of Learning

I took a short walk from my office at CMU to the Cathedral of Learning. There was a bit of snow and ice on the roads and sidewalks.

I thought about how until the snow fell this week, it was still possible to go running in the trails of Frick Park, one of my favorite things to do.

Except that I basically haven’t been running for two months now. I got “busy”, it got “cold”, and I more or less stopped exercising at all. One thing I learned when over a decade ago I started running and really did acquire a regular daily exercise schedule, is that the benefits of exercise are tremendous, and carry over into all aspects of life, from building endurance to attaining mental balance and sharpness.

Yet, my exercise schedule has more or less fallen apart in the last five years, with some seasonal variation in that in the summer, it’s much easier to just go outside and run or hike.

Beginning the climb

Here’s the ground floor of the Cathedral of Learning, with stairway entrance in sight:

Floor G

Habits and social support

A regular exercise habit starts somewhere. Some kind of decision, some kind of cue. It’s important to get started, and conquer anxiety and excuses. Given that I hadn’t done this stair climb in years, I didn’t really know how I would fare going up. I saw no reason to believe that I couldn’t make it all the way up just once, but I didn’t want to run out of steam. I wanted to be steady and strong.

It’s important not to try to do too much all at once.

Also, social support is really quite important. It turns out that in the past, I had friends who were totally into serious running and hiking and the like. One by one they moved away, and furthermore after I met Abby, my entire life routine changed. To be clear, I’m not “blaming” her presence in my life for my broken exercise routine; I take full responsibility for not adapting fully to circumstances. Nobody said the transition from bachelorhood to marriage was easy. It turns out that Abby is not at all interested in extreme endurance events such as marathons or the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, and helped dissuade me from participating further in such events; but I made the decision with her, of my own free will, feeling that the time and energy spent toward such pursuits would be better spent on other activities instead, now that she was in my life. Every couple has to negotiate these kinds of life changes.

However, what happened to me was that I didn’t fully realize how interconnected all of my exercise-related activities were, such that removing an admittedly unnecessary and extreme part of it had an indirect effect on my motivation and routine for less extreme activities. The goal of participating in the events had somehow become a major motivator in doing things that didn’t necessarily have to require participating in those events. Basically, I had inadvertently created for myself a reward that I depended on.

Also, my cue was broken. My cue used to be to wake up, hop out of bed, and prepare to run or lift weights or something. But I have not been doing that since Abby came into the picture, for various reasons, some of which are no longer even relevant, but the cue was destroyed.

This indirect effect, combined with the addition of a lot more into my life that had formerly not existed (not just time spent with Abby, but also more recent new activities involving taking up playing music and getting into personal computer programming projects and social meetups), served to completely disrupt all of my usual routines, not just the exercise one. Even if I had time and energy to exercise, often I’d find some other thing I “had” to do instead, like practice music or going to a computer programming meetup.

Going up

Warning sign

The famous warning sign about the stairwell not being meant for “exercise or other athletic activity” certainly did not deter people like Danny Chew, who did 101 repetitions in over 17 hours. I’ve never done more than a single repetition.


A rhythm established

To make something a habit, it must be regular and sustainable, in order to build confidence and strength. So I established a simple rhythm going up the steps just one at a time (not two at a time as I used to when I was more fit). One step at a time is much, much easier than two steps at a time. I only did two for the challenge of going fast. Speed is of no concern to me right now.

Here’s a clip of my going between floors 17 and 21. Some guy wearing a CamelBak actually passed me while he was going down; you can hear him but can’t see him in the video:

I used to exercise every morning before eating breakfast. But for the first couple of years with Abby, that routine was broken, because she had no such routine. A lot of the radical changes in one’s life when no longer being alone are, I think, a result of individual differences. If X used to do something, but Y did not, then by default it is easy to slip into a joint routine in which neither do it.

Ironically, relatively recently, Abby did take up semi-regular exercise before breakfast, going out for a walk, in an attempt to encourage me to do likewise with her. But I’m not interested in going for a leisurely walk before breakfast. I want to do something strenuous and then get going with my day. Meanwhile, I had fallen into a pattern of sleeping later and later, which was the real problem.

Two days ago, I resolved on a major life change. I’m going to become a genuine morning person. I woke up spontaneously before 5 AM yesterday, and also today. I have not been ready to launch into a super-early morning exercise program yet, and it is a good idea to change one habit at a time rather than multiple, so I am focusing right now simply on sleeping earlier and waking earlier.

Just a few more floors left

I was pleased that at the rhythm and pace I had chosen, I was going up pretty well, without running out of breath or having to use the handrails for support. I suspect that a couple of things I’ve done in the past couple of years have helped a lot. I know I’ve improved my core strength through doing bodyweight exercises such as pushups, pullups, squats, and lunges. As a result, despite my overall being less fit than years ago, I have better balance and stability, enabling me to activate my glutes rather than lean on my quads when climbing stairs.

Floor 31

Right after the 31st floor, I was amused to see some posters people had put up for the annual Fight for Air Climb. I’ve never done this event, actually. I have to confess that an indoor stair climb is not the most exciting thing in the world for me, and I do the Cathedral of Learning climb mainly when the weather outside is not as good as I like.

Posters for Fight for Air Climb

The top

The 36th floor is the last one accessible. There are a couple more going up, but the door after the 36th floor is locked.

Floor 36

Some night views out the windows on the 36th floor:

Night view

Another night view

I arrived at the 36th floor without any distress. It felt “easy”, even, but then again, I was going slowly and one step at a time. Nevertheless, this gives me confidence. I will continue to do the stair climb this winter. Also, perhaps next time I will do two repetitions, which I’ve never done before.


I enjoyed getting back to exercising and doing the Cathedral of Learning stair climb. I used the time to also reflect on my shortcomings in recent years in sticking to an exercise plan, and to commit to my vision of becoming more fit in 2013 than I was in 2007, one step at a time. And finally, I am taking full responsibility for my slacking: the fact that it happened as a result of taking a new direction in life with Abby is not at all her fault, especially given that she has been trying to get me to start exercising regularly again!

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