The Hustle Up the Hancock was great fun. I climbed the 94 floors in 19 minutes, 29 seconds. Gabe -- despite the fact that he's had no exercise in a week because of his recent surgery, and despite being congested -- finished in 18:12 (Gabe came in 772nd out of the 3,032 racers who actually finished. I was middle of the pack, 1,071st).
So the climb was fun. But -- pardon my language -- the comedown was a bitch. Whoever recruited, trained and organized the volunteers should be pilloried in the public square.
Here's what went horribly wrong:
These stair-climb events always take place in the winter. So you dress in shorts for the climb, but you have to wear a coat and sweats, or pants, to get from your car to the building where the climb takes place (even if you're lucky enough to be in an attached garage, it's still freezing there: yesterday, when Gabe and I arrived and parked a block and a half away, the temperature was 20 (Fahrenheit)).
So there's a bag check, where you stow your bags. Volunteers put on a tag that's marked with the number on your racing bib, and when you're done with the climb, you go reclaim your stuff. Sounds simple, right?
But the Hancock is by far the most popular of Chicago's three stair-climb events, in part because the building is such a landmark. About 4,000 people do the climb; registration fills up the same day it opens. So the bag check has to be extremely well organized, with plenty of space for bags to come in, and volunteers moving them swiftly in on one side of their space, and swiftly out on the other.
But this year, the bag check was squeezed into a small hallway. Volunteers manning the check were so overwhelmed that they just started stacking the bags randomly, without organizing them by bib number. So when people finished the race and came to get their stuff, the volunteers couldn't find anything. And they kept taking bags in from people arriving to do the climb, and the situation got worse and worse.
When Gabe and I finished the climb, at 9:15, chaos and frustration were already building. Sweaty, stinky people who had finished were pressing themselves against both the "in" and "out" portions of the bag check, waving their racing bibs, screaming, pushing each other, trying to get their stuff out. More arriving climbers were in line behind them, trying to put their bags in.
It was so interesting to watch mob mentality take root. Most people were fixated on solving their own problem. Some just wanted to find someone in charge and yell at them.
I helped solve the problem, believe it or not. But not before stooping as low as anyone there. I sent Gabe to try to get our bags by looking young and pathetic. It didn't work. Appalled at myself -- and disappointed that he couldn't (wouldn't) elbow or plead his way to the front of one of the mob scenes, I found a person of authority with a walkie-talkie and said, "What is your plan for solving this problem?"
"I don't have a plan, man," the guy said. "I'm not in charge of this mess. But apparently nobody is."
"Here's what you need to do," I said. "Shut the bag check down, immediately. Stop taking bags in, stop trying to give them out. Take a half hour, or whatever you need, and get the damn bags organized. Then reopen the bag check, and the line will move."
My idea apparently made its way to the bag check, because a couple of minutes later, a beleaguered volunteer with a bullhorn announced a temporary closure of the bag check. By this time, Gabe and I, and literally about 800 other people, had already stood in an unmoving line, our sweat drying into salt crystals, for an hour. It took another hour before we finally got to the front. We were held prisoner because I had checked everything -- car keys, cell phone, wallet -- so we could get no food, drink, or other means of escape or nourishment. (Some quick-thinking volunteer did come around with muffins and water.)
When we escaped the building, it was 11:30. I would estimate that almost 1,000 people were now in line behind us to get their bags.
Anyone who organizes an event like this -- especially if it's a fundraiser -- needs to be sure it runs smoothly. Otherwise the building, the organizers, the recipient of the funds raised -- everyone, in a word -- looks like crap.
Gabe and I will never do the Hustle Up the Hancock again. Or if we do, we'll wear our racing clothes, and run from wherever we've parked into the building. I'd rather risk hypothermia than go through that again.