Firefighters are hot. Figuratively and literally. It must be the combination of their physical fitness and willingness to risk their lives to rescue people from danger that makes them so attractive. I spent my morning in the company of numerous such hot firefighters today, many of them wearing full gear, which made them even hotter… in the literal sense. They, along with hundreds of regular folks like me, were about to test their stair-climbing abilities against the clock.

The Fight for Air Climb is an event that raises funds and awareness for the American Lung Association. It is held in various cities throughout the United States, and involves climbing stairs- many, many stairs, to see who can climb them the fastest. In Des Moines, the climb takes place in three buildings and participants can choose whether they’d like to climb one (17 floors/369 steps), two (36 floors/733 steps), or three (68 floors/1,179 steps) of the buildings. Can you guess which option I chose?

It was not clear to me until two days prior to the climb when I picked up my race packet whether we had to run down the stairs after climbing them… a minor detail. After all, it would only double the workout and trash my quads- no big deal. To my relief, I learned at packet pick-up that I would receive a “sweet ride down” via the elevators once I reached the top of each building. I had many other questions about the logistics of how this would all go down (How will we get from building to building? What if I have to wait for the elevator? Won’t that add to my time? How will this be timed? How long does this usually take? What if I die?), but I decided that this was one of those times when going with the flow is the best course of action.

The event was very well organized with wonderful volunteer support. We walked to the starting line at the skywalk level of the EMC Insurance building in waves of about thirty people each. From there, the start was staggered in order to avoid congestion in the stairwells. I was in the fourth of about thirty waves. When I was given the green light, I started running. I had never done an event like this before and had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that my ultramarathon training has never involved climbing stairs of any kind, so this would be a new kind of hurt, if nothing else.

After about five floors, my legs had already begun to burn. The stairwell air was dry and my chest felt tight. I have been recovering from another doozie of a cold and I am not quite at a hundred percent yet. The next sixty-three floors were going to be tough, I decided. Could I be tougher? I took my time, slowly and steadily, one foot in front of the other. I felt like I was maintaining a decent pace, but I wasn’t sure. About halfway up, a volunteer handed me a bottle of water, for which I was very grateful. I passed several people, including a firefighter who must have been carrying his body weight in equipment. *Hat tip*. I reached the top of the EMC building breathless and sweaty. My legs were on fire. Where was that firefighter when I needed him?

I took the elevator down to the skywalk level, where I was greeted by several volunteers who escorted us to the next building: Hub Tower. I waited at the start until it was my turn, crossed the timing mat, and up I went. My legs had gone numb, so I concentrated on my breath, stared at the ground, and clutched my water bottle as I climbed. I passed more people and tried to focus on the encouraging signs that the American Lung Association had posted at the top of each floor for our benefit: I climb so that my lungs can burn from exercise and not ozone and I climb because no one should have to die of lung cancer. Eventually I saw the sign: One more floor! I was especially glad to see that one. Nineteen more floors done, I hopped in the elevator and immediately felt a wave of nausea come over me. Uh-oh… this might not end well.

Fortunately, I recovered quickly and made my way to the Marriott hotel for the final climb of thirty-two floors. How nice of them to save the tallest building for last. When it was my turn, I took off with a run (no idea where it came from) and began my ascent. I realized then that not one person had passed me so far in the climb. I felt excited about that thought and used it for motivation to keep up my pace. The stairwell in the Marriott was different from the others in that it was not a split level; rather, there were about twenty steps in a row, then a long landing, and then the next set of steps. I used this to my advantage so that I could run up the steps as fast as I could and then walk the landings.

It wasn’t long before I heard footsteps behind me. I looked down in between the staircase to see a woman about my age, wearing a red shirt, slowly closing in on me. She was taking the steps two at a time, which I am not able to do with my bad knee. Fueled by my desire to keep up my “no one has passed me” streak, I picked up my pace, passed a few more people, and booked it to the top. Red shirt woman did not pass me. But oh my, was that close!

With burning lungs and quads and sweat pouring down my face, I finally reached the top of the Marriott. I felt lightheaded and wanted to lie down. I stepped into the elevator for my “sweet ride down” along with about ten equally sweaty people who were huffing and puffing just like I was. Evidenced only by our pallid faces, as none of us could speak, it was clear that we were all very relieved to be done.

Once my heart rate settled, I helped myself to some post-race food and drink and retrieved my race results. Sixty-eight floors in eleven minutes and thirty-two seconds. All in the company of hot firefighters. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning.

Thank you for reading!

3 thoughts on “Stairs

  1. I also did this race!
    And I wore a red shirt. 🙂
    Maybe it was me you passed? HA.
    For a runner, I felt very 'unfit' during this climb- not at all what I expected!
    Good work out of you!


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