I had no choice but to barefoot climb the Cathedral of Learning

Cathedral of Learning in snow

One week ago I reported on starting an exercise regimen including stair climbing 36 floors of the Cathedral of Learning. Since then, I’ve gone back three times to climb the Cathedral of Learning again. Part of the reason is that Bill was inspired by the report and climbed it himself for the first time, and we decided we should do the Fight for Air Climb this year. Therefore, he’s been going back for more climbing and so have I.

I don’t expect to be regularly doing as much climbing as I happen to have been doing this past week. The other reason I did it was because it got colder and icier and I’m ramping up more slowly with my running, having run only twice in the past week while getting used to the impact again.

Yesterday, while chatting with Bill at the Pittsburgh Ruby users group, he mentioned he was planning today to do two repetitions of the climb for the first time. So I decided to also do two reps for the first time as well, and committed to it.

Things took an interesting turn during my Cathedral of Learning workout today.

The plan

The original plan was simple. I’d head over in my work clothing with my backpack and stash my coat and scarf/hat/gloves into it and do the climb once, and then find a water fountain, hydrate, rest, and then take an elevator down to floor G, then do one more repetition.

I wanted to pace myself so that I would take the same amount of time for both reps. Based on my prior experience with endurance or strength training, I had no desire to use up my energy pointlessly in the first rep and then struggle in the second.

The first rep

I timed myself in order to be able to check my consistency over two reps. Of course, since I’m just starting to build a base, and I’m not going all out, the actual time doesn’t matter.

I encountered problems during the first rep. To tell the truth, these problems had appeared in milder form earlier through the week. The fundamental cause of the problems is that my street shoes I wear to walk in to work in the winter are not really suitable for athletic activity. My feet get sweaty, the non-zero height of the shoe just creates more distance I have to lift my legs, and there is more impact on my needs. Today the front of my right foot also got jammed such that by the time I ended my first rep, I was in actual pain! Plus, I had started blistering.

As soon as I got to floor 36, I took off my shoes and socks and vowed never to wear this particular combination of footwear again for the stair climb.

My time was 9:02.

The rest break

Then I searched for nearby water. My quads were a bit weak as I walked back down from floor 36, one floor at a time, exploring all the open hallways for a water fountain. Curiously, I found one only when I reached floor 31. This was a bit of a surprise for me.

I hit the elevator button to go down, but after minutes, the elevator still had not arrived. For all I knew, the buttons were broken. I walked down to floor 30. There, the elevator button seemed to work.

The second rep

Before the second rep, I stuffed my shoes and socks into my backpack. My right foot was still messed up from the first rep, but I hoped that it would fix itself now that I was shoeless.

I went up at what seemed a similar pace from the first rep. The experience was much easier for me than the first time. After a while, my right foot was completely OK. Also, I didn’t make noises for each step, but was able to land very lightly being barefoot. And my quads never felt sore, probably both because of the decreased leg lifting distance and because of the difference in impact angle. I felt more graceful and efficient.

My time was 8:58, practically the same as for the first rep, so I was happy at my consistency.


After my poor experience during my first rep climbing the Cathedral of Learning steps today, I decided to go barefoot, and solved all my problems. So I will continue to do this barefoot. I don’t even want to do this with minimalist shoes such as my Vibram FiveFingers or Xero Shoes; given the perfectly friendly nature of the stairways to bare feet, I will only ever again do the climb barefoot.

The remaining question is whether it is permitted to do the Fight for Air Climb barefoot. I’ll have to find out.

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