The Pain and Glory of Competitive Stair-Climbing

Ericka Aklufi, fastest female stair runner in the west
Ericka Aklufi, fastest female stair runner in the west
Drew Barillas

See also:

*10 Best Ways to Get in Shape in L.A.

*10 Best Workouts in L.A. for People Who Hate Working Out

Competitive

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stair-climbing, its devotees like to say, is the hardest sport that no

one's ever heard of. That there is such a thing as an elite

stair-climber probably comes as a surprise to anyone who's been

assiduously riding elevators all these years. But even to enthusiasts,

running as fast as you can up dozens of flights of stairs is an ungodly

painful thing.

The sport's elites gathered in downtown Los Angeles

a few weekends ago to raise funds for the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA by

racing up the tallest building west of the Mississippi: the U.S. Bank

Tower. At 75 stories, the skyscraper is host to one of the top three

stair-climbing races in the country. The other two are the Willis

(formerly Sears) Tower, at 103 floors, and the Empire State Building, at

86.

One elite climber, Mark Trahanovsky, is standing near the

starting line where people -- wiry, skinny, 1 percent-body fat types with

knees of steel -- are hopping up and down like caffeinated rabbits.

Climbers carry their body weight up the stairs, so it helps to weigh

less. Trahanovsky weighs a svelte 174 pounds but confesses that he

wishes he weighed about 10 pounds less.

An energetic, voluble,

53-year-old "cheerleader type of guy," Trahanovsky is captain of Team

West Coast Labels, which he founded at the office where he's a sales

rep. Last year he set the record in the 50-to-59 age category, scaling

75 floors in 11 minutes, 27 seconds.

He got into stair-climbing a

few years before that, after he injured his knee and his orthopedic

surgeon banned him from high-impact sports. Now he trains five days a

week on the raised treadmill, elliptical and Gauntlet rotating stair

machine, which has, he says, "revolutionized stairs."

"So since we

just go up, and we take the elevator down, it's no impact," he says.

"But one guy, Tim, who's won this before, three times, he says it is an

impact sport. It impacts your mind." He waggles a finger at his forehead

and laughed. "When you get to the 10th floor, your body is saying,

'Slow down.' When you get to the 20th floor, your body is saying,

'Ouch.' When you get to the 30th floor, you really start to feel it.

You're getting lactic acid buildup in your legs. You're dying for

oxygen."

On the stairs, there is no place to hide. "Like, in a 5K

you may go, 'OK, for the next quarter of a mile it's flat,' "

Trahanovsky explains. "Or riding a bike you might say, 'Hey, I got that

area where it's downhill. I can coast a bit.' No. With stairs, it's all

uphill. Uphill, uphill, uphill, uphill."

Several elite climbers

wear gloves -- they use their arms to pull on the rails in an attempt to

save their leg muscles. But eventually, everything gets tired.

Stair-climbing

is as hard on the pocketbook as it is on the quadriceps. With travel

expenses, and having to raise funds for whatever charity is hosting the

climb, the costs add up. There is usually no money to be won, only

bragging rights.

A small, slim woman stretches nearby. "That's Ericka," Trahanovsky says. "She's, like, the best. Oh yeah. She kills."

Ericka

Aklufi, a 36-year old police officer, is a woman of few words and many

muscle fibers. Curled forward into a ball on the ground, her fingertips

gently touch the floor as if in prayer. She is so spare and lean, "you

can see the blood going through her body," is how Trahanovsky puts it.

He recruited her for his team after she did well in last year's race.

The

race begins. Climbers enter the stairwell three seconds apart in order

to minimize stampeding. By contrast, racing in the Empire State Building

has been compared to trying to escape a burning nightclub.

Personally,

Trahanovsky doesn't mind a crowded stairwell: "We say this is not a

contact sport, but sometimes on the stairwell, you've got to give a

person a little nudge."

He keeps a running commentary as people

plunge into the building: "This guy's from Vermont. He's won three

times. This guy's from the Netherlands. This guy's getting married.

Tonight's his wedding rehearsal. Talk about commitment to the sport. Go

Jeffrey! This is Johnny. He's really good. He's 19 years old. He came

down from Washington. Go Mikey! Jerry's from Denver. It's his first time

doing it. He's going too fast. Worst thing you can do is start too

fast. But you get hyped up. It's Karen's birthday today. Come on,

birthday girl! You think she only does weights? She does hundred-mile

bike rides."

Soon it's Aklufi's turn. "Wooo hoooo, Ericka!" Trahanovsky shouts. "She's in incredible shape, isn't she? It's ridiculous."

Americans,

he adds, hate the stairs. They want the easy way. So it's ironic that

stair-climbing is an American sport. It started in the late 1970s when

nine people climbed the Empire State Building. It then became popular in

cold-weather places: When inclement weather forced runners indoors,

they took to racing up skyscrapers.

Trahanovsky has learned that

stair-climbing puts "difficult" in perspective. "Say I'm at work, and

someone says, 'I need a ton of labels printed in three days, it's gonna

be really rough.' " No, he tells them. Climbing a 75-story building is

rough. Labels are easy. Or his wife says, "We need to talk," the worst

four words a husband can hear. He now can sit down and listen to what he

needs to work on, because at least he's not running up stairs.

Grueling

as it is, some people make climbing 75 stories look easy. Of the 3,400

competitors, Aklufi is the fastest woman, and second fastest overall.

She finishes in 10 minutes, 15 seconds.

"I didn't get into

stair-climbing, like, for stair-climbing," Aklufi says afterward. Living

downtown, she happened to see the event one day a few years back and

signed up on a whim. She's actually more of a runner, and she doesn't

train in any special way for stair races, other than daily runs. One,

because training on stairs is too torturous. And two, "because it's

really about pain management. It's not like who's the strongest

stair-climber. It's who can get through that pain." You hit an anaerobic

point really early in the race. Breathing becomes excruciating. "You

get this weird, like, smoker's cough because the stairwells are usually

really dry," she says.

Aklufi, who has been running races since

she was 5 years old, is no stranger to marathons and triathlons.

Stair-climbing, though, is the hardest thing she's ever done: "Most

people can't even wrap their heads around finishing. The elites are

hurting just as much as the guy at the back."

On the way up, she

keeps her head down and doesn't look at the floor numbers. She never

checks her watch. She pulls herself on the railings, taking the steps

two at a time the whole way without stopping. "I'm gonna leave it all

out on the stairs," she tells herself, "and know it will be over soon."

See also:

*10 Best Ways to Get in Shape in L.A.

*10 Best Workouts in L.A. for People Who Hate Working Out

Follow me on Twitter at @gendyalimurung and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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