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Step It Up
Local stair racer Michael Branca faces an uphill climb to gain recognition for his sport.
by Kristin Pazulski
Published: Mar 21, 2007
You've seen it. Runners — young and old, Philadelphian and tourist, in shape and out — after chugging up the 72 steps leading to the Art Museum, panting from the exertion, throwing their fists above their heads, mimicking Philadelphia's Hollywood-made hero, Rocky Balboa.
You've probably done it. Though some Philly natives are reluctant to admit they've participated in this clichéd re-enactment, Roxborough native Michael Branca has no qualms. But when Branca runs up those stairs, his celebration denotes more than the completion of the infamous Balboa run. Running through the mind of this 58-year-old is a future where stair runners can celebrate the completion of a much different run — a stair climb in the Olympics.
Stair-racing competitions are held mainly in the winter, as an alternative to 5Ks and other outdoor charity runs. Branca, who has been running competitively since he was in the seventh grade, discovered the sport at the 1996 Mellon Bank Center Stair Climb for Cystic Fibrosis. After 30-plus years of winning races and participating in marathons, Branca had found a new challenge.
Although after that first race, a 53-floor, 1,019-step climb, he vowed never to return ("I did finish the race," he says, "but I finished almost on my face"), Branca has since embraced the sport, recruiting a new generation of runners, creating training programs specifically for stair runners and sharing his goal of making the sport Olympics-worthy.
The biggest obstacle stair racing presents the runner is not the leg-pumping, says Branca, but rather the dusty, thin air in the stairwell of a skyscraper.
A runner training for a stair race must concentrate on expanding lung capacity in preparation for the big run, he says. This is especially important since most runners take their pavement pounding outdoors rather than the stairwells in which stair races are held.
"Any skyscraper looks clean, but there's going to be dust there. Even if [the stairwells] are damp-mopped prior to the competition [to pick up dust], your airways are going to be clogged in some way," he explains. "It's just harder to breathe."
Becky Kay, a 32-year-old who lives near the Art Museum, learned that lesson at her first Mellon Bank Center Race on Feb. 25. She says she'd trained by trekking the museum's 72 steps 2,000 times a few times a week. Yet in the 53-floor race, she didn't make it past the fifth or sixth floor at a running pace.
"I trained on steps, but when you do that, you get the down, so it's not the same as going straight up with no down," remembers Kay. "It was pretty rough. I felt like there was so little air."
According to Branca, it's hard for runners to find a venue to get a one-up on the dusty environs. Besides training on the stairs of their own apartment buildings, homes or offices, runners have to stick to outdoor staircases because it is nearly impossible to get permission from tall buildings to use their steps because of liability and safety issues.
But by training outside and incorporating weight lifting (because runners are allowed to use their arms to pull themselves up the stairwell), running uphill, and, of course, pumping up hundreds, even thousands, of steps, Branca has been able to win numerous medals at the Mellon Center, and was invited six times to the Empire State Building Run Up. That race, with 86 floors totaling 1,576 steps, chooses about 200 participants from a pool of more than 1,000 international applicants.
Now he is ready for a new challenge: pushing it as an Olympic sport.
For a sport to be considered worthy of the Olympics, it first has to be registered as an International Federation. Then the federation can apply to the International Olympic Committee for qualification as an Olympic sport. Branca recognizes that as a "normal, ordinary person," he does not have the clout to convince the IOC, nor to organize the International Federation.
So instead, Branca is doing what he does best — besides running — to advocate for the sport.
"I've been told by people that I have the gift of gab," says Branca, a quality that has earned him the title "Mayor of Valley Green." He's using his gift to recruit runners in the Wissahickon area, like Kristina Butcher, a 28-year-old triathlete from Chestnut Hill. She raced alongside Branca Feb. 6 at the Empire State Building Run Up.
"My goal, before they put me out to the pasture, would be to train Olympic-bound stair climbers," Branca said, like Butcher. "It's exciting when you talk to stair climbers, it's a different process — a different think — than course running."
Branca believes that young, talented athletes will be the ones to best advocate for the sport, and his efforts are to do what he can to create an interested group in Philadelphia.
"Something new is always going to be looked at by athletes, and athletes with credentials are the ones that are going to push for the sport for themselves because they will want to compete on that level," he said.
Last month's Mellon Center race is one of more than 30 annual races held throughout the nation, and there are more around the world. It has also been the only one held in Philadelphia, until this year.
On March 24, Pennsylvania's chapter of the American Lung Association is introducing its first Philly stair run at the Bell Atlantic Tower, which boosts a 50-floor, 1,088-stair climb.
Runners travel around the country, and sometimes the world, to compete in these races. At the Mellon Center race, City Paper talked to a couple from Houston, Texas; a man from Miami; and a couple from Atlanta, Ga., who came to Philly just to run this race.
"I love this race. It's different because it's vertical," said six-year Mellon runner John Schultz, a 74-year-old from Wilmington, Del. Schultz started racing at 59, "just to see that I could do it, just out of curiosity," he said. "And I found I could."
Though most runners agree stair climbing is a unique challenge, not everyone has jumped on Branca's Olympic bandwagon.
Amby Burfoot, editor of Runners World, a runner's magazine based in Emmaus, Pa., agrees that stair climbing is a challenge many serious runners want to tackle. "Go to a road race and ask anyone who would want to run the Empire State Building," he says. "They all would."
With any specialty sport, Burfoot figures, people will discover they are good at it and direct their training to focus on that specialty, but he doubts it will become an Olympic sport.
But Branca doesn't question his mission. "This should be, it must be, an Olympic sport," he says. "I think the U.S. should lead this. I would like to see that because we have some young, up-and-coming stair climbers that I have run against. I'm like their father, basically, but you can see a generation of talent there."