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updated: 11/12/2010 3:58 PM

Suburban stair climbers to tackle Willis Tower

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  • Schaumburg residents and elite stair climbers Kristin Frey, ranked 5th in world, and Braden Renshaw, ranked 29th in the world, train in the stairwell of a Schaumburg building in preparation for the stair climbing competition at Willis Tower Sunday. Renshaw climbs barefoot.

      Schaumburg residents and elite stair climbers Kristin Frey, ranked 5th in world, and Braden Renshaw, ranked 29th in the world, train in the stairwell of a Schaumburg building in preparation for the stair climbing competition at Willis Tower Sunday. Renshaw climbs barefoot.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Stair climbers will compete Sunday at the Willis Tower in Chicago.

    Stair climbers will compete Sunday at the Willis Tower in Chicago.
    Associated Press

  • Best blgs. for tower running

    Graphic: Best blgs. for tower running (click image to open)

 
 

Kristin Frey estimates it'll take her 17 minutes to climb up the stairs of the Willis Tower Sunday, during the SkyRise Chicago race.

Braden Renshaw says he'll race up the 2,109 stairs in less than 16 minutes.

And Jesse Berg expects to scale one of the world's tallest buildings in just 14 minutes.

"I've done better than that, but with the current shape I'm in, I'd be happy with 14 minutes," says Berg, 38, a Maywood native who now lives in Chicago.

These three are among a cluster of elite, world-ranked stair climbers who live in the Chicago area and compete in the growing sport of stair climbing.

Berg is ranked 4th in the world among men, according to TowerRunning, the Austrian-based organization that ranks the climbers. Renshaw, of Schaumburg, is ranked 29th, and Frey, of Schaumburg, is ranked 5th in the world among female climbers.

Other world-ranked climbers from the suburbs include: Eric Leninger of Geneva, ranked 18th among men; Hal Carlson of Aurora, ranked 54th; and Dave Shafron of Lisle, ranked 67th, according to TowerRunning.

Stair climbers admit their sport involves pain and lacks scenery there aren't windows in the gray, concrete stairwells but it provides a terrific workout and a powerful adrenaline rush.

It also challenges them to compete on stairs around the world, from the Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan to the Springfield, Ill., Hilton.

"I don't do stair climbing for the scenery," says Renshaw, a 33-year-old accountant who has raced up stairs in Los Angeles, Milwaukee and his hometown of Springfield. "To be honest, while you're climbing, it's too painful to get bored. People have asked me, 'Are there pictures on the walls?' And I said if there were pictures on the walls, I wouldn't have even noticed them."

Some races post inspirational quotes on the stairwell walls or play music on certain floors, but competitive climbers focus on taking two stairs at a time up and pulling themselves up with the railing.

The reward, they say, comes after the climb. That's when they can rest at the tops of the buildings, soak in the beautiful views, socialize with other climbers, "and take the elevator down," says Frey, laughing.

Since most of the elite climbers are already accomplished athletes, they see the stairs as a good, zero-cost way to change up their workouts, especially during the winter months. They say anyone can do it, and they've seen 60-year-olds at races.

Besides meeting new people and raising money for charity, another appeal is that stair climbing doesn't require countless hours of training, like running a marathon does.

"By the time you do the marathon, you're sick of running," says Renshaw. "This is like a marathon or the Ironman triathlon, condensed."

Growing popularity

Stair climbing began about 100 years ago at the Eiffel Tower and has been growing in popularity ever since. The past five years have seen a major boom.

Registration for this year's Hustle up the Hancock, for example, a popular stair climbing race up Chicago's John Hancock building, closed after just one hour because more than 3,000 people signed up, the climbers said.

This weekend's SkyRise Chicago has a waiting list, after 2,500 climbers from 38 states and eight countries signed up, despite the $150 registration fee, organizers said. Last year's race drew 1,800 people from 31 states and five countries. The winner, Matthias Jahn of Germany, finished in 13:09. Berg was third at 13:24.

In the past five years, the American Lung Association has doubled the number of stair climbing races it's hosted, and this year held 50 competitions nationwide. They'll host the Oakbrook Terrace climb at 31-story Oakbrook Terrace Tower on Feb. 13, 2011.

"Not everyone races," says lung association spokeswoman Katie Lorenz. "People set their own goals. Some people climb with oxygen tanks on their backs. Really, anyone can do it if they put their mind to it."

No one is quite sure why stair climbing has suddenly become so popular, but athletes speculate that word is spreading about the cross-training, low-impact workout it offers, and that climbing up stairs (not down) is much less punishing to the knees than running.

Stair climbing has become popular in Chicago because so many high-rises host events. Chicago has seven stair climbing sanctioned races, making it a hub for enthusiasts.

Not all office buildings are welcoming, however.

"I've tried to train in some, and I've gotten in trouble," Berg says.

But Frey, a 26-year-old environmental scientist, simply climbs the 20 flights of stairs in her Schaumburg office building during breaks at work. While none of the athletes interviewed said they use a StairMaster to train ("the steps are too small"), they use spinning classes, lunges and Pilates to prepare.

"(Stair climbing) has opened up this whole new world that I didn't even think existed," said Frey, who has set her sights on being ranked in the top three next year. "When I started doing this, my dad kind of laughed and said, 'Stair climbing? Who does that?' And it's, like, 'Look at me now, Dad!'"

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