The Pain and Glory of Competitive Stair-Climbing
Ericka Aklufi, fastest female stair runner in the west
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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
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
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
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.
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
A small, slim woman stretches nearby. "That's Ericka," Trahanovsky says. "She's, like, the best. Oh yeah. She kills."
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.
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.
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
Soon it's Aklufi's turn. "Wooo hoooo, Ericka!" Trahanovsky shouts. "She's in incredible shape, isn't she? It's ridiculous."
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.
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."
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