August 18, 2012
I call Stan Schwartz a "stair-ologist." But he prefers a warmer, cuddlier term.
"I'm a nerd," says the 52-year-old system analyst for the earthquake computer at Caltech. "I studied the staircase in this building like a bug under a microscope. I took the train over here from Pasadena twice a week at lunch for three months to train. I counted steps. I did the math. And I figured out how to save 15 seconds."
Now, he had my attention. On this cold morning in late March, Schwartz would be one of almost 800 people — me included — racing up the stairwell of the second-tallest building on the West Coast, the 63-story Aon Center in downtown L.A in the American Lung Assn.'s Fight for Air Climb.
That's 1,377 stair steps.
To marathon-mania and triathlon-mania, add this weekend warrior obsession: stair-climbing races.
Known to enthusiasts as tower racing, stair climbing has exploded in popularity in recent years. Led by events like the invitation-only, 35-year-old, 86-flight Empire State Building Run Up or Go Vertical! Chicago, a climb of the 108-story, 2,077-step Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, there are more than 100 tower races in the U.S. and an additional 60 worldwide, double the numbers of five years ago. Many are charity fund-raisers. With tens of thousands of participants stepping up, an elite class of international, semiprofessional tower racers has naturally risen to the top.
L.A. now has three races, all downtown: The Fight for Air Climb, now 6 years old, will be held in the Aon next on March 30, 2013 (www.lungusa.org/california); the third annual 51-story, 1,274-step cystic fibrosis CF Climb for Life on Dec. 1 (www.losangeles.cff.org/climb); and the King Kong of the local upwardly mobile scene, the 18th annual Ketchum-Downtown YMCA Stair Climb for Los Angeles, held in the 75-story, 1,679-step U.S. Bank Tower on Sept. 28 (www.ymcastairclimb.org). At all three, elites make the ascent in less than 10 minutes; regular folk double or triple that.
Many racers, like Mark Trahanovsky, a 53-year-old salesman and former 5K runner from Yorba Linda, do all three L.A. stair climbs every year — and a lot more. Trahanovsky found his true calling after a skiing injury tore the meniscus in his left knee six years ago.
"My doctor said 'no more impact,'" he says. "But stair climbing has no impact; on the descent, you just take the elevator down or walk." He finished ninth in the Fight for Air Climb last spring in nine minutes, 38 seconds, set the YMCA 50-59 age group record of 11:26 in 2011, and has done 34 stair climbs around the country.
Trahanovsky was so impressed by the muscular legs and all-round fitness he's gained from stair climbing that he founded a team at work, West Coast Labels, now 30 members strong.
The team vibe is strong at stair climb races. Lined up early at the Aon's ground floor entrance was Team Elevated, 40 people of all ages from South Central who were the event's No. 1 fundraisers. They joined other large groups of kids, neighborhood groups and Explorer Scouts alongside dozens of firefighters in 70-pound yellow-suited firefighting gear. A new climber blasted off every 10 seconds.
What's it like inside the musty, boring, repetitive stairwell?
"It's exhilarating and challenging," says Tom Kutrosky, an optometrist from Ventura and the event's oldest climber at 77, who won his age group in 22 minutes.
"It's intensely painful," said Veronica Stocker, 42, of Los Angeles, a runner who has done 20 stair climbs since 2004. She took third overall and won her 40-49 age group in 10:31, sharing the pain with her 13-year-old son, Matias, who finished in 14:29 and mother, Margarita, 68, winner of the 60-69 age group in 15:39.
I shared the pain with my 16-year-old son, Joey. Heeding the mathematical step-reduction calculations of Schwartz, the Caltech stair-ologist, we dutifully devoured the 22 steps per flight two at a time, starting with the left foot, finishing on the landing with a giant right, then pivoting body and left foot 180 degrees to the next flight. Swinging my right arm like a pendulum, I methodically grabbed the rail with my left, yanking my torso upward like a one-armed cross-country skier. Faltering by the 42nd floor, I had only one thought: End this as soon as possible. Next thing I remember, I stumbled into blinding sunlight on the roof of the Aon building, 63 stories above L.A. Bodies were strewn about like discarded toys.
Joey, his face vacant and body rag-doll limp, emerged three minutes later. He'd promised to destroy me but had forgotten the "start slow, don't run" rule everyone had warned us about.
We looked at the ocean 15 miles to the west, posed for pictures with the firefighters and caught the elevator down.
I ran into Schwartz while looking at the posted results. My time of 12:28 put me at 36th overall, fifth in my age group, less than a minute behind Schwartz.
"You listened," he said. "Nerds rule!" I replied.
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