For pro stair climbers, sky's the limit

For pro stair climber, sky's the limit
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For pro stair climber, sky's the limit 02:46

Story highlights

  • Stair racing might have started as a publicity stunt but now is a legitimate amateur sport
  • There are tower races all over the world, with varying degrees of officialness

NEW YORK (CNN)Is there a better metaphor for athletic achievement than tower running? It's a vertical sprint of power and endurance to greater and greater heights. And you always come out on top.

Yet, as sports go, stair climbing is relatively new and has only a small pool of professional competitors. Those who are ranked for speed are in the hundreds, not thousands. The winners earn modest prizes, usually swag from sponsors, not cash.
It's a sport that might have started as gimmicks or publicity stunts. But now, with an official organization and a global circuit of races, stair climbing is a legitimate, if niche, amateur sport. Participation is climbing, but for now, the limited size of this upwardly mobile community has its own upside.
    "We're like a family," said Lisa Zeigel, a tower runner since 2001 who is ranked seventh in the United States. "We hang out. We have our own Facebook group. I've never been in a group that bonds like that. We feel so grateful for having each other."
    They call each other "step siblings" or "step sibs." "My girlfriends are my 'step sisters'!" Zeigel said.
    In buildings 75 to 90 floors high, the race is roughly the exertion and length of a 5K run. It's usually all uphill, with a pack of climbers who try not to bump each other as they double-step it up dozens of flights.
    The whole thing is over in minutes. The fastest time for the 1,576 stairs of the Empire State Building run this year was 10 minutes, 36 seconds.o

    Gearing up

    Training for races is ideally done in the stairwell of a tall building, if you can get access. Barring that, outdoor structures, such a parking deck, are good, especially there's an elevator for going down. (Runners' legs are so rubbery after a race or long training that it's safest to return to earth by elevator.)
    Stair machines might help with overall cardio, but "climbing real stairs is much harder than using a stair stepper in the gym," explained Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent. "With the stepper, you are pushing the stairs down instead of pulling yourself up against gravity."
    Some tower runners like to use a machine called a Jacob's Ladder, which works arms and legs. Zeigel recommends a rowing machine and climbing sand dunes, if you can swing that. The sand works the key climbing muscles, but with added resistance.
    There's no special gear required. Sticky-palmed gloves used by football wide receivers help grip the railing, which the athletes use to increase speed.
    As for running shoes, the lighter the better, and some use those odd-looking "toe shoes" that wrap each individual toe. Some male climbers have even been known to shave legs and head to reduce air resistance.
    "I tried not to look at each floor number," suggested Patty Collins, a full-time para-athlete who lost a leg in 2007 and did her first tower run this winter. Her other tip was to chew gum or suck on a lozenge while climbing because the dry, stale air of stairwells is known to induce coughing fits.
    "Most people say they think it's too hard," said Zeigel. "But if you train slowly and do it enough and keep at it, it gets easier."

    Stair-ing contest

    Tower running as a sport is reminiscent of George Mallory's fabled line about why he (stair) climbed Mount Everest: "Because it's there."
    Running up stairs is so ordinary that it might seem silly to organize races around it. But the same could be said for simply running, jumping or throwing something heavy -- which are all Olympic events.
    What makes stair racing unique is its fusion of athleticism and architecture. For those on the tower-climbing circuit, it's the venues that are inspiring as well: the Empire State Building, the Calgary Tower, the Eiffel Tower.
    In fact, the closest the sport gets to an origin story is the 1905 "Stair Climbing Championship" up the Eiffel Tower. Sponsored by the daily newspaper Le Sport, it featured 227 competitors categorized by runner, walker, child, veteran and "soccer player." The winner ran the 600 stairs to the second-level platform in 3 minutes, 12 seconds, and won a Peugeot bike.
    Today, there are tower races all over the world, in most major cities, with varying degrees of officialness. The two organizing groups that advise on timing and safety are TowerRunningUSA and, in Europe, the Towerrunning World Association, or TWA. In order for a race to be officially recognized, the finish times must be accepted by the TWA. Runners with the fastest times earn invitations to some of the more coveted stair races, such as the Empire State Building Run-Up.

    There's no resisting the Empire

    The Empire Run-Up is quintessential New York: Everyone is in a hurry. The race is over in a matter of minutes. And there's a party afterward.
    The first year the famous art deco building hosted a tower run was 1978, relatively early in the trend of organized tower races (Eiffel Tower notwithstanding). It started as a publicity stunt to promote the New York City Marathon. But the number of runners grew year after year until the race became a victim of its own success, with a potentially dangerous mob of hundreds of runners scrambling up the stairwell every year.
    New management of the race since 2014 has scaled back the numbers and organized them into waves, with the elite runners going first. Organizers also moved the timing to night to be less disruptive to the office workers.
    In addition to invited professionals and charity teams, there is a lottery for the general public. Thousands enter, and 75 are chosen.
    For many runners, some of whom came from as far away as Singapore this year, the appeal is the iconic building itself.
    "I love movies, and 'King Kong' is one of my favorites," said Rudy Smith of Louisiana, at 73 the oldest lottery winner this year. "So that was it. That was the whole excitement for me."
    It starts in the lobby with a dash and ends 86 floors later in a wipeout. At this year's race in February, the finish line -- on the observation deck at the base of the needle nose where Kong waved off airplane attacks -- was a wild rush of wind and music. The first runners arrived just more than 10 minutes after the start, while "New York Groove" by KISS' Ace Freeley blasted.
    As chilly gusts whipped across the platform and Manhattan twinkled silently below, the deck began to fill with athletes crawling or limping around while their legs slowly regained power. The only way it could have been more exciting is to add Kong.
    For security and space reasons, there are no public spectators. But that's OK with Zeigel. "It was a Zen-like experience. It's totally quiet; you hear your breath," she said.
    "It a personal, introspective sport," added Anthony Malkin, chairman and CEO of Empire State Realty Trust, which hosts the Run-Up. "It's a triumph of the individual."
    Just as the monotony builds for some runners around the 80th floor, they start feeling cool breezes from the roof and hearing the sounds of music and cheering from the other runners. Then, they burst out on to the observation deck.
    "It's like a runner's high, multiplied many times," Zeigel said.
    "The pain is like nothing ever before," she added, but "as soon as it's over, you want to do it again."
    After the awards ceremony, where glass statues of the Empire State Building are handed out, the jolly, supportive group of runners headed to the State Bar in the building's lobby, where the party continued late into the night.

    Knees-to-know basis

    Stair climbing is an excellent full-body, high-intensity workout focused on lower-body strength, power, flexibility and weight loss.
    "It strengthens you, and your cardiovascular fitness goes way up," Zeigel said. "It makes other cardio easier by comparison."
    When she had her VO2 max (a measure of oxygen uptake) analyzed, it "was off the charts," she said. Oxygen uptake is a good measurement of muscle function, endurance and speed
    And it's a great way to tone thighs, calves and glutes. "Stair-climbers look lean but are more more muscular than long-distance runners," Zeigel said.
    "The main difference between running and climbing stairs is gravity," Gupta explained. "As you climb stairs, you are fighting gravity, which is a powerful force. Just imagine running up a hill that is several stories high."
    But how's all that stepping on your legs, and more specifically, your knees? Overall, it's probably good for most people because climbing strengthens the knee and the leg muscles that support the joint.
    As for shedding weight, a 30-minute run up stairs can burn nearly 500 calories. Burning excess weight is also good for your knees because every 10 pounds of being overweight adds 30 to 60 pounds of pressure on your knees with every step.
    Tower running might not be for everyone. Stairs can strengthen a knee or lower back, or they can exacerbate problems. So, if you're having issues on either front or with your heart or lungs, talk to a doctor first. And if you don't have a good technique, you risk developing muscle strain issues with the repetitive turns. Those considering running their first stair race should be aware that there are also risks of tripping, especially when there are too many runners at once, so be careful and use common sense in crowded stairwells.
    But then there is the mental benefit. "It's feels so amazing, better than I would ever feel from running," Zeigel said. "I feel that if I can do these tall buildings, I can do any challenge in my life."
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    "It was frightening at first. I was a little scared," said Smith, who has run 56 marathons on seven continents, at least 25 triathlons and many duathlons and half-marathons, and who entered his first Ironman at age 68.
    "Can I really do it? Can I get to the top?" he asked himself at the bottom of the Empire State Building.
    "But then when the gun went off, that was a different story."
    The experience these tower runners get from crossing the finish line with their "step-siblings" cheering them on delivers a heady double hit of runner's high: physical euphoria combined literal height. It's a view to a thrill.