“So, what kind of shape are you in?” Michael Villalpando, publisher of Park Labrea News and Beverly Press, asked with a laugh when he suggested that this reporter cover a YMCA event in downtown Los Angeles, which also may have been a challenge.
More than 3,300 people ran or walked up 75 stories of the U.S. Bank Tower at 633 W. Fifth St. to help raise funds for the YMCA at its 22nd annual Stair Climb Block Party last Friday.
Villalpando suggested I make the climb as well. Challenge accepted.
One day before the event, I learned both that I would be attempting to stair climb the tallest building in the city, and that stair climbing is a competitive sport all around the country.
The fastest climbers competed separately in the Elite category at the beginning of the event after meeting certain qualifications, such as being a top-40 finisher in a climb of at least 50 stories within the past three years.
Elite runner Jeff Dinkin from Pasadena raced up the tower for the ninth consecutive time on Friday, and scored a personal best of 10:51 – something he’s especially proud of just before his 50th birthday. He has stair-climbed the Empire State Building in New York City, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago, and the Stratosphere in Las Vegas during the national stair climb championship races.
After the race, Dinkin said it was helpful that he utilized most of the 16 practice sessions the YMCA held at the Wells Fargo building for 55-floor climbs.
“It really helps you get dialed in,” he said.
He said a runner’s mentality is one of the most important factors to finishing with a good time.
“You run out of breath quickly. Think about it, it’s like climbing a mountain,” Dinkin said. “You have to maintain a mindset of not stopping, because you want to stop. At floor 12 or 15, you want to stop. You have to mentally say, ‘I can suffer a little longer.’ Practice reinforces the positive talk of, ‘yea, I can do this.’”
He said among those who stair climb competitively, there is an ongoing joke comparing what floor of the climb each competitor thought to themselves, “why am I doing this?”
That happened to me during the race, but also quickly after I started to research the event. After learning more, the energy from taking on a new challenge was quickly replaced by nervousness. It didn’t take long into reading about the course that descriptions such as, “tallest building west of the Mississippi,” “1,644 stairs,” and “1,005 feet,” started to pop up.
‘Why am I doing this?’ I thought.
When I traveled to the tower on Friday afternoon, the nervousness persisted.
I didn’t speak to Dinkin prior to the race, otherwise I would have benefitted from knowing that there’s also stair climbing technique, like every other sport, that he was able to improve on at the practice sessions.
“To go fast you have to get a pace and maintain it,” he said. “Keep right at your limit without going over where you have to stop. It’s the same as running and cycling.”
Dinkin said the elite climbers almost always take two stairs per step. It’s also important to utilize the rail to pull up.
“Your arms should be doing about 15 percent of the work to help guide you up,” he said. “At each landing, pivot turn instead of walking around. If you’re saving one to two seconds on a landing, that can help shave massive amounts off your time.”
Upon arriving at the giant rounded structure, I was not able to resist taking photos from the base to send to friends and family.
With the help of more than 250 volunteers, runners signed in, received a shirt that read “elevators are for wimps,” and a protein bar while navigating through the block party section of the event.
Then it was time to get in a quick line to start the climb.
After hearing the upbeat pop music all around the event and high-fiving smiling volunteers who cheered for runners at the course entrance, the gray and white steel stairwell was a quick reminder that there was work to do.
It was quiet enough to hear the vents and the echoes of rubber against metal steps. I started jogging up the stairwell and hoped for the best.
At each floor there were signs to follow that ensured runners they were on the correct route to the top. Since each runner was sent one at a time at intervals, there was always room to pass, or be passed by, other runners throughout the entire course. But after a handful of floors, runners started to catch up with each other, which reassured me I was on the right track.
Most runners hugged the rail. I naturally grabbed it for support when I started to get tired.
At the 12th floor, I wondered, again, “what did I get myself into?” as the echoes of runners’ huffing and puffing got louder at every floor.
But the flow continued and climbers went through variations of quick spurts with short breaks, or aimed to keep a consistent pace.
At the 17th floor, runners were handed Dixie cups of water. Around the 36th floor, I thought I hit my “second wind.” At the 42nd, I stopped and hoped for a third.
I stopped once more and then made it to the 56th floor, which alone was worth the effort.
“Come on in for some water and fresh air,” the volunteers said.
Runners were allowed to rest at an entirely vacant building floor with windows that allowed for an up-to-the-edge, 360-degree view of Los Angeles from one of its highest points. Many runners stopped to take a break and take more photos.
“Only 19 floors left,” volunteers shouted as runners left the pseudo observatory.
At the 65th floor, the huffing and puffing turned into what sounded like a rehearsed cacophony, and Jell-O came to mind when I thought about the condition of my legs.
But at floor 70, I got that feeling of accomplishment that erased any remaining doubts about finishing.
Runners were greeted with a hearty “congratulations,” more high fives, and awarded medals for the achievement. I finished with a modest time of 30:30.
“It is a difficult activity. Anyone that gets to the top, kudos,” Dinkin said. “It taxes the body a lot – probably the cardiovascular system more than muscles.”
Runners stepped outside on the balcony on the 75th floor, where I finally realized why I took the challenge while I looked around again at Los Angeles.
After the finish, there are more stairs – though not many – down to the 67th floor. There were open rooms and hallways to hangout, drink water, eat bananas, take photos, and propose to girlfriends, like runner Daniel Rodriquez did with his now-fiancé Tammy, to a round of applause after completing the climb.
Lucas Matison, 18, won the elite class and set a new event record with a time of 8:56. He beat second place winner, Sproule Love, 44 from New York – the winner of the most recent run at the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. Veronica Stocker, 46, won the female category.
Other stair climb participants included 115 active members of the military, firefighters and police officers, who competed in a “full gear” category. That means they climbed up the 75 floors in full uniform instead of workout clothes. For firefighters, that can mean up to 85 extra pounds of gear, said Whitney Smith, associate director of development for Ketchum-Downtown YMCA.
Despite the shirts’ logos, runners took the elevators back down where they were invited to enjoy music, food trucks, games and a beer garden at the Hope Street Block Party.
Smith said when the event started 22 years ago there was more than one competition, but stair climbing became the main attraction, so now it is the main event. In 2004, 700 people participated, compared to 3,376 in the open class this year.
All the money raised – approximately $710,000 – will support Ketchum-Downtown YMCA’s programs and services.
For information, visit www.ymcaLA.org/stairclimb.