The Pain and Glory of Competitive Stair-Climbing
|Ericka Aklufi, fastest female stair runner in the west|
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Competitive 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."@gendyalimurung and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.