For pro stair climbers, sky’s the limit

(CNN)Is there a better metaphor for athletic achievement than tower running? It’s a vertical sprint of power and endurance to greater and greater heights. And you always come out on top.

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Yet, as sports go, stair climbing is relatively newand has only a small pool of professional competitors. Those who are ranked for speed are in the hundreds, not thousands. The winners earn modest prizes, usually swag from sponsors, not cash.
    It’s a sport that might have started as gimmicks or publicity stunts. But now, with an official organization and a global circuit of races, stair climbing is a legitimate, if niche, amateur sport. Participation is climbing, but for now, the limited size of this upwardly mobile community has its own upside.
    New management of the race since 2014 has scaled back the numbers and organized them into waves, with the elite runners going first. Organizers also moved the timing to night to be less disruptive to the office workers.
    In addition to invited professionals and charity teams, there is a lottery for the general public. Thousands enter, and 75 are chosen.
    For many runners, some of whom came from as far away as Singapore this year, the appeal is the iconic building itself.
    “I love movies, and ‘King Kong’ is one of my favorites,” said Rudy Smith of Louisiana, at 73 the oldest lottery winner this year. “So that was it. That was the whole excitement for me.”
    It starts in the lobby with a dash and ends 86 floors later in a wipeout. At this year’s race in February, the finish line — on the observation deck at the base of the needle nose where Kong waved off airplane attacks — was a wild rush of wind and music. The first runners arrived just more than 10 minutes after the start, while “New York Groove” by KISS’ Ace Freeley blasted.
    As chilly gusts whipped across the platform and Manhattan twinkled silently below, the deck began to fill with athletes crawling or limping around while their legs slowly regained power. The only way it could have been more exciting is to add Kong.
    For security and space reasons, there are no public spectators. But that’s OK with Zeigel. “It was a Zen-like experience. It’s totally quiet; you hear your breath,” she said.
    “It a personal, introspective sport,” added Anthony Malkin, chairman and CEO of Empire State Realty Trust, which hosts the Run-Up. “It’s a triumph of the individual.”
    Just as the monotony builds for some runners around the 80th floor, they start feeling cool breezes from the roof and hearing the sounds of music and cheering from the other runners. Then, they burst out on to the observation deck.
    “It’s like a runner’s high, multiplied many times,” Zeigel said.
    “The pain is like nothing ever before,” she added, but “as soon as it’s over, you want to do it again.”
    After the awards ceremony, where glass statues of the Empire State Building are handed out, the jolly, supportive group of runners headed to the State Bar in the building’s lobby, where the party continued late into the night.

    Knees-to-know basis

    Stair climbing is an excellent full-body, high-intensity workout focused on lower-body strength, power, flexibility and weight loss.
    “It strengthens you, and your cardiovascular fitness goes way up,” Zeigel said. “It makes other cardio easier by comparison.”
    When she had her VO2 max (a measure of oxygen uptake) analyzed, it “was off the charts,” she said. Oxygen uptake is a good measurement of muscle function, endurance and speed
    And it’s a great way to tone thighs, calves and glutes. “Stair-climbers look lean but are more more muscular than long-distance runners,” Zeigel said.
    “The main difference between running and climbing stairs is gravity,” Gupta explained. “As you climb stairs, you are fighting gravity, which is a powerful force. Just imagine running up a hill that is several stories high.”
    But how’s all that stepping on your legs, and more specifically, your knees? Overall, it’s probably good for most people because climbing strengthens the knee and the leg muscles that support the joint.
    As for shedding weight, a 30-minute run up stairs can burn nearly 500 calories. Burning excess weight is also good for your knees because every 10 pounds of being overweight adds 30 to 60 pounds of pressure on your knees with every step.
    Tower running might not be for everyone. Stairs can strengthen a knee or lower back, or they can exacerbate problems. So, if you’re having issues on either front or with your heart or lungs, talk to a doctor first. And if you don’t have a good technique, you risk developing muscle strain issues with the repetitive turns. Those considering running their first stair race should be aware that there are also risks of tripping, especially when there are too many runners at once, so be careful and use common sense in crowded stairwells.
    But then there is the mental benefit. “It’s feels so amazing, better than I would ever feel from running,” Zeigel said. “I feel that if I can do these tall buildings, I can do any challenge in my life.”

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    “It was frightening at first. I was a little scared,” said Smith, who has run 56 marathons on seven continents, at least 25 triathlons and many duathlons and half-marathons, and who entered his first Ironman at age 68.
    “Can I really do it? Can I get to the top?” he asked himself at the bottom of the Empire State Building.
    “But then when the gun went off, that was a different story.”
    The experience these tower runners get from crossing the finish line with their “step-siblings” cheering them on delivers a heady double hit of runner’s high: physical euphoria combined literal height. It’s a view to a thrill.

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