The stairs or the elevator? Bob Toews will tell you he takes the stairs almost every time.Toews is the assistant director of institutional research and academic database manager at Goshen College. In junior high, he was always one of the last to finish sprints in basketball practice, but now he participates in a different kind of conditioning.
“I’m not a runner, though I probably should be,” Toews said. “I do try to get in at least one stair workout a week.”
Toews participates in stair climbing competitions—serious climbs, in buildings like the Willis Tower (103 stories 2,115 steps) in Chicago. Often these events are held as fundraisers, raising money for the American Lung Association, cystic fibrosis and various other charity organizations. The events are timed by professional climbing companies.
“It’s about seeing who can get to the top of the building in the least amount of time, and again because it’s a fundraiser…a small percentage of people are racing, and probably a larger percent of people are just trying to climb the building, be done and raise funds,” explained Toews.
Toews’ weekly stair workout includes climbing at a decent pace up a tall building. Locations are limited in Goshen, so he sticks to the stairwell in the Science Building as it has the most height on campus. This workout also includes hopping up three to four sets of stairs at a time in the stairwell. Toews used to participate regularly in a spin class offered at the Recreation Fitness Center three mornings a week, but he decided to do something different in preparation for his most recent climb.
“To condition for this climb, I just bought a new road bike for the first time in 30 years and I’ve been trying to get out and do some cycling,” Toews said. “But nothing can beat the feeling of completing a climb because those [stair climber] machines just don’t quite get you there.”
Most races take place in buildings much taller than the ones located in Goshen, making endurance training difficult.
“Being from Goshen, there aren’t a lot of good buildings to train in,” said Toews. “I do a lot of training in the stairwell in the science building because it goes up onto the roof, which is an extra floor. You can only do so much work going up—then just come down again. You’re all caught up again by the time you get back down.”
Most stair climbs go up a building’s stairwell, and upon crossing the timing mat at the top, your climb is complete. In some cases, a climb can include going both up and down.
“There are a number of sites that have what are called power hours, which is how many times you can climb a building in an hour,” explained Toews. “I did one of those and it was not fun. Those climbs are very hard; it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically.”
The idea of climbing stairs was not the result of a dream. It happened naturally when Toews conditioned for the annual family trip to Colorado.
“Hiking in the Rockies can be a bit more challenging than walking around here, so I started training in stairwells to get in shape for that,” said Toews. “I always dreamt that maybe someone had competitions like this.”
Luckily for Toews, he met a professor at Goshen College in 2005 who told him about such an event and Toews has become active in the climbing community ever since.
“At that point it was finding something to stay in shape for, but about three years ago I sort of fell into a group of elite climbers who are great people and great friends,” said Toews.
Stair climbers meet from all over the country to participate in the events, all with different backgrounds. Toews says that he usually conditions alone but occasionally practices with his son Ben, a Goshen College graduate. He also says that he uses social media platforms to stay connected with the climbers he meets, but rarely is there much time spent with one another outside of the events.
Participating in a climb not only takes physical preparation, but mental strength as well.
“There are so many times, and I think almost everybody feels this from time to time, where you want to say, ‘I would really just like to stop,’” said Toews. “There was a climb where I was sick the entire week before and I thought that I was well again, but I hadn’t gained all of my strength back. I started out with a very aggressive pace, still wanting to set a personal record in that building. At the 45th floor out of 75 I blew up, which means essentially, you just stop. I did complete the climb, but I had to stop a couple of times.”
Events are time-sensitive, so climbers often break down tall buildings into smaller timed portions called ‘‘splits.’’ If a split is 25 steps, a climber may make a mark on his or her arm with a pen every time he or she completes a split. This helps climbers keep track of how they need to divide their time per set according to their projected goal time.
“Floors are not always a good way of judging the size of a building,” Toews said. “There are two big buildings in downtown Chicago, the Aon Center and the John Hancock Center. Both are about a thousand feet. One is 94 floors and one is 80, but they are basically the same height, so you have to break it down into the number of steps.”
Stair climbing isn’t easy, and Toews said that there is always room for personal improvement.
“I think it was a cyclist who once said, years ago, that it never hurts less, you just go faster,” Toews said. “And that’s what climbing is.”