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Monday, Feb. 22, 2010 11:13 am

Onward and Upward

As I rounded the corner to the stair well, the radio-controlled timer reacted to the tag on my shoe, reminding me with a loud “BEEEEEP” that there was no turning back. I was participating in the American Lung Association's Fight For Air stair climb at the Hilton Hotel in Springfield, and all I could think about was flight after flight of endless stairs, challenging me, taunting me, daring me to reach the top.

The first few flights flew by, two steps at a time, with surprising ease. It was only my third ascent up the steps – twice before as practice – but it felt as if I’d been there a thousand times before. Pulling myself up with the hand rail as my legs pushed like pistons, I conquered ten flights before I realized my breathing had become fast and heavy.

Suddenly, my legs became leaden and my chest heaved, searching for the perfect gulp of air. I slowed my pace – one tread at a time, trotting up the cold concrete steps, their yellow-painted edges inviting me to plant my sole on their faces. I passed a group of young women chatting casually at a water stop. They had stopped to rest, yet they looked to be in better shape than me. My smug self-satisfaction gave me fuel as I continued on, ever upward into the skull of the Hilton.

I began to catch up with older women in pink shirts made specially for the event. “Passing on your right,” I called between gasping breaths. I couldn’t hear their reply, if they even made one, because the blood pumping through my head created a dull roar that elbowed out any other sound. It added to my hyper focus, almost a tunnel vision; all I could see were floating pink figures slowly falling away behind me. I trudged on, passing a familiar-looking man in a cream-colored mock turtleneck and khakis. It was U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, slowly climbing the 32 stories from the hotel concourse to the top floor. He seemed to have a sense of quiet determination, standing upright even as the stairs continued to rise before him.

I reached the platform at the 29th floor, greeted by a cheering crowd urging me up the final two flights. With the finish line in sight and the sounds of encouragement filling my ringing ears, the weight of my tired legs and my quickly-pulsing heart fell away, and a burst of energy – like a hurricane wind – propelled me onward and upward. My legs became pneumatic pumps, powerfully driving me forward without thought or protest. I reached the final platform, and a sense of relief and serenity washed over me. All was quiet, from the congratulatory shouts to the blood rushing through my ears. For just a moment, I was alone in the Hilton, king of the mountain.

Snapping back to reality, I felt my legs lose their vigor and my focus degrade into a fog of anonymous high-fives, water bottles and gym towels. The pewter medal awarded to finishers hung heavily around my neck like an anvil, but I didn’t mind the weight. It was proof I had reached the top.

I finished in 4 minutes and 31 seconds. The winner, stair-climbing virtuoso Terry Purcell of Springfield, did the climb in 2 minutes and 24 seconds, beating me by just a hair. My teammates, coworker Amanda Robert (team captain!) and Lindsey Buis, bolted up the steps as well. Together with another teammate, Illinois Times calendar editor Anita Stienstra, we raised at least $590 for the American Lung Association – not bad for a few folks just out to have fun.

Check out the race results here: http://www.theracershub.com/results_view.php?id=801&result_type=db and check out the American Lung Association's local website here:  http://www.lungil.org/

Now is a good time to start training for next year! Get out there and GET FIT!

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