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Stair climbers push their sport skyward

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Competitors take off for the stairs in the NYRR Empire State Building Run-Up.

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Matthias Jahn, 23, and Thomas Dold, 22, both of Germany, placed second and first respectively in the Empire State Building Run-Up on Feb. 6. The Run-Up is considered the biggest event in stair climbing. (Peter Cox/CNS)

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The women start at the NYRR Empire State Building Run-Up. (John Wendle/Columbia News Servic)

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Thomas Dold finishes first in men's event of the NYRR Empire State Building Run-Up. (John Wendle/Columbia News Servic)

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Matthias Jahn finishes second as first place Thomas Dold accompanies him across the line. (John Wendle/Columbia News Servic)

Imagine entering the lobby of a high rise and seeing a sign on the elevator that reads "Out of order." A lot of people would throw their hands up and head for the local coffee shop. But in the world of competitive stair climbing, 40 or 50 open flights of stairs is an opportunity that many would travel thousands of miles for.

“These guys are definitely masochistic,” said Sproule Love, 35, a competitive stair climber from Manhattan. “It’s basically who can suffer the most.”

In the world of competitive sports, stair climbing isn’t exactly the stuff of ESPN. But the sport has grown in popularity, with races up the world's tallest buildings sprouting up all over.

And while athletes aren’t getting rich at these races (most races are run for small cash winnings or to raise money for charity), a growing number of stair racers are snagging sponsors who pay to send them around the world to run up the stairs.

Stair climbing requires endurance, strong legs and arms (since you can use the banisters to pull yourself up stairs) and a healthy set of lungs. But many people are drawn to the sport for its novelty.

“It’s a great conversation piece,” said Love, a real estate agent. “I’ll tell people I cross-country ski, run in marathons, do mountain races, and the only thing they’ll remember is the stair climbing.”

David Snyder, a stair climber from Las Vegas, developed his interest in the sport out of necessity.

“It started in high school when I lived on the fifth floor of a five-story building with no elevator,” he said. “I had no choice and had to carry books and a bicycle up all the stairs at least twice per day.”

Today he lives in a 29-story high rise, and he runs up to his floor at least once a day. Snyder competes in several races each year.

Love says the number of races in North America has more than doubled since he started climbing competitively in 1999. Stair climbers in Seattle, for example, climb the 1,643 steps of the Columbia Center twice a year. In Toronto they race to the top of the CN Tower’s 113 stories. In Chicago, stair climbers run up the Sears Tower’s 1,643 steps, and on Feb. 27 they’ll “Hustle up the Hancock,” a race up the city’s Hancock Building.

But the granddaddy of staircase competitions is the Empire State Building Run-Up, a race up all 1,576 steps of New York City’s iconic skyscraper. It was held this year on Feb. 6.

Though there isn’t a cash prize, the Empire State Building race is an invitation-only event hosted by the New York Road Runners, and entrants come from across the world.

While most races start groups of runners at 10- to 30-second intervals, the Run-Up packs 290 competitors into a 20-yard-wide spread at the starting line. A starting gun sets off a melee as the runners rush toward the 48-inch-wide door to the building’s staircase, with arms flailing and elbows flying.

“Your start position is key,” said Love, who finished third in the 2005 race. “My first year I was thrown into the banister right at the start.”

Love sat out with an injury this year, but has made it a goal to win the event. For the most part, the race has been dominated by international competitors in recent years.

Thomas Dold, a 22-year-old German, claimed his second victory in a row this year. Dold, a student at the University of Stuttgart, holds six world records for running backward. He ran the mile backward in 5 minutes, 48 seconds.

Wearing a bright yellow jersey, Dold pushed his way to the front of the pack, and finished the race just before his fellow countryman and training partner, Matthias Jahn, 23.

The key to success in climbing is the ability to take pain, but there are also a few strategic maneuvers.

“If you want any chance at winning, it’s two steps on the whole way, one foot on the platform" between each floor, said David Shafron, 27, of Illinois, who has competed in several climbs.

Using the railings is key. Many stairwells are dusty and hot, and by the end of a race, people say their lungs feel like fire.

Most climbers engage in other strenuous sports, like long-distance running and cycling.

The most well-known stair climber is Australia’s Paul Crake, a cycling medalist who was severely injured last year in a cycling accident. Before his injury, Crake won the Run-Up five times starting in 1999, and still holds the record for the event at 9 minutes, 33 seconds.

To train for races, most climbers just find a tall building in town and make like college students during a fire drill, except in reverse.

But training requires access to the tallest buildings around, which is not an easy task in a security-conscious world.

“Since 9/11, it’s been pretty tough,” said Love, who doesn’t have access to any very tall buildings but is fortunate to work in a 25-story office building in downtown Manhattan.

Many climbers have had to rely on their health clubs, using high-tech stair climbers to train for races.

Many of these competitors can't get racing out of their heads. Jahn, who came in second at the Run-Up, makes a point of taking in the skyling every time he travels to a new city.

“If I see a skyscraper, I say, ‘That’s a pretty cool building, I wonder what that staircase is like,’” he said.

E-mail: pnc2103@columbia.edu