When a massive blackout hit New York in 2003, then 35-year-old Jamie Leone had no choice but to take the stairs to her 28th-floor apartment. The next day, the elevators came back to life, but Leone opted to keep on climbing -- and still does, even though "my neighbors think I'm nuts," she says.
All that climbing is paying off. In the recent Empire State Building Run-up, an annual stair-climbing race at the Manhattan landmark, Leone dashed up 86 floors (1,576 steps) in 20 minutes, 40 seconds -- about 10 minutes behind the winner, but a solid first-time performance. Stair climbing, she says, has taught her how to reach new heights in other areas of life, including her job at a private-equity firm in New York. "It's a physical challenge. You have to learn to focus and push through mentally," she says.
In today's sedentary cubicle culture, stair climbing could save you from more than just those awkward elevator conversations -- it could save your life. The American Council on Exercise recommends 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Walking up steps, says Todd Galati, ACE research scientist, can burn as many calories in a 30-minute period as jogging at a 12-minute mile pace or cycling at 12 to 14 mph. That translates to 286 calories for a 150-lb. climber and 382 for a 200-pounder. Plus, the faster you go, the more calories you burn.
Of course it's not a holistic exercise solution. "You should include strength training and flexibility training," Galati says, "and start out slow to avoid soreness." Those with a history of knee problems should consult a doctor first, he adds. Once you're in shape, you'll be ready to race.
The wintry months spanning November to April constitute the stair climbers' racing season. More than 80 major "towerthons" take place around the globe each year, according to the Web site TowerRunning.com. And with new races popping up everywhere from Boston to Taipei, the number of people who bypass the elevator is rapidly taking flight.
Just ask Pedro Ribeiro, a Portuguese-born mechanical engineer who lives in Macau, south China, near Hong Kong. Ribeiro, 33, uses his vacation time to compete in stair-climbing races. He recently finished 9th out of about 1,000 at the Taipei 101, a new 91-story race at the world's tallest building in Taipei, Taiwan, and 7th out of 150 elite runners at the Empire State Building. Tower running, he says, gives him more determination in his life, not to mention prize money. He took home $300 from the Taipei 101. The top prize? Nearly $6,000.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for climbers these days is not the steps themselves -- but gaining access to them. Heightened security concerns in some high-rises make stairwells off-limits even for people who work or live in these buildings. A week before the Empire State Building event, runner Michael Rosenthal, who works on the 58th floor, was barred from training in the stairwell by building security, citing liability reasons.
Resigned to working out in his 26-story apartment building, the 42-year-old entrepreneur has big plans for the sport. He founded the International Federation of Stair Racers and is launching a Web site, stairracing.com, that he hopes will link the thousands of stair climbers and those who sponsor the races to make buildings more accessible for training and competition. "If my organization could do anything for the sport, it would be to move it out of the category of a novelty," he says. It's a step in the right direction. Only 1,575 more to go.
By Bremen Leak