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Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Updated: January 25, 8:21 AM ET
Kristin Frey on fast climb to the top

By Leslie Goldman

Kristin Frey
Kristin Frey fell in love with the fast-growing sport of tower running as soon as she tried it, even though she can be sick for two or three days after a race.

Eat more veggies and Do more yoga are such boring New Years resolutions.

This year, elite stair climber Kristin Frey had a better idea. She kicked off her 2013 by attempting a groundbreaking 24-hour endurance event in Jacksonville, Fla., where she and three fellow climbers repeatedly scrambled up the Bank of America Towers 42 floors. By the time they were finished, they had logged 123,480 steps and 5,880 floors -- the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest two and a half times.

Also called tower runners, professional stair climbers like Frey arent alone in their penchant for dizzying heights and cold-metal recesses.

More and more athletes, both amateur and pro, are turning to tower running for relief from the monotony and injuries of road running and for a sky-high hit of adrenaline. And they have plenty of opportunities: The American Lung Association has more than doubled its number of stair-climbing races in the past five years, from 25 to 57 (many American stair climbs benefit some sort of lung or respiratory disease).

Kristin Frey, Brady Renshaw
Kristin Frey was introduced to tower running by her friend (now boyfriend and coach) Brady Renshaw in 2010.

This years Hustle Up the Hancock 94-floor full climb in Chicago sold out faster than a One Direction concert -- 3,000 spots in two hours -- and last years Empire State Building Run-Up welcomed climbers ages 20 to 78 from 26 states and 25 countries, despite the $100 registration fee.

A 29-year-old environmental scientist and a 10-time Boston Marathon qualifier (her personal record is 3 hours, 14 minutes, 26 seconds) from Schaumburg, Ill., Frey was introduced to tower running by her friend (now boyfriend/coach) Brady Renshaw in 2010.

He knew I was a good runner and was putting together a team for Hustle Up the Hancock, says the 5-foot, 95-pound Frey. He said to me, Youre small, lightweight, quick. That year, I had done the Chicago and New York marathons and was tired of running and of being injured all the time. Mentally, I needed to try something new.

Plus, even though I was good at running and usually placed in my age group, I knew Id never win any marathons or travel internationally. I tried it and have been addicted ever since.

That was two years ago. Today, Frey is the worlds second-fastest tower runner (shes ranked first in the U.S. among women) -- vertical miles ahead of Renshaw. The vegan urban hiker is sponsored by her environmental consulting firm employer, ARCADIS, and has raced all over the world, from Vienna, Austria, to small-town Oakbrook, Ill. She prefers metal steps to cement or carpet (You get a better spring, but the downside is you sound like a herd of elephants), and spends her weekends immersed in killer training sessions that have her rocketing up 630 floors over the course of three oxygen-sapping hours.

Still, we caught up with her for a quick Q&A.

espnW: Have you always been athletic?

Kristin Frey: I ran cross country and played soccer in high school. In 2005, I ran my first marathon, and have done 12 since then. I loved long distances, so stairs were much different for me. I used to hate 5Ks and preferred the longer stuff, but this year, I broke 19 minutes in a 5K. Training for stair climbing has definitely made me a faster runner for short, intense distances.

espnW: How do you train?

KF: When I was a runner, all I did was run, and I had nagging injuries. Now Im always doing something different -- incline runs on the treadmill, the rowing machine, spinning, strength training. Theres a lot more variety, and tower running is low-impact, so I dont really know anyone whos had injuries. Its easy on the joints as long as you dont run down.

espnW: Is there a method to tower running madness?

KF: I like to take two steps at a time, but not everyone does. I like to use rails to help pull myself along, like pulling on a rope, but some people only use one hand or avoid the railing altogether.

espnW: What are some of the craziest things youve seen?

KF: One year, during the climb at Presidential Towers (a Chicago skyscraper), a woman in a robe stepped into the stairwell smoking a cigarette as we went climbing by. She had a very perturbed look on her face! I have seen firefighters climbing in their full gear, and I think its awesome that they do that. I cant imagine carrying all that. (Firefighters often participate in stair climbs, carrying their gear: boots, pants, coat, helmet and gloves.)

espnW: Do stairwells ever get boring?

KF: Sometimes there will be volunteers handing out water and cheering us on, or posters hanging with fun facts about the Eiffel Tower. But Im so focused, I cant even read them. I just try to keep a positive mindset. It can get lonely during races -- sometimes you dont hear or see anyone else, because we have staggered starts, so its just you against the tower. Theres not a lot of head-to-head competition like with running or other sports.

espnW: Whats your favorite part about tower running?

KF: Taking the elevator down! But its awesome to hang out at the top after youve finished, just enjoying the view and hearing other climbers stories. I have a close group of climbing friends -- we call each other our stepsiblings. We all have this common bond, and well meet up at different races  like the Stratosphere in Las Vegas or Hustle Up the Hancock in Chicago.

espnW: Any on-the-job hazards? Besides tripping and tumbling down a flight, I mean?

KF: Stairs are worse than marathons, recovery-wise: Sometimes Ill feel sick for two or three days afterwards. A few times, Ive tasted blood near the top of a race, and Ive seen spots in some races when I was just five floors from the top. Once I pass the timing mat, I usually fall and will crawl out of other peoples way, trying to catch my breath. Ive stumbled when my legs are Jello-y but have never fallen. And Ive gotten blisters on my hands from grabbing the rails, so I bought football gloves that protect the skin. They were kiddie-sized because my hands are so small!

espnW: Why do you think stair-climbing races have become so popular?

KF: I think because anyone can do it. Some people are just looking for a new health challenge, or want to set a goal. You can make a team with friends or co-workers, and you can climb stairs anywhere -- at home, in a parking garage, at the gym or the airport. Its a good activity during cold weather, and its low-impact compared to other workouts. Its popular in Europe, but theyre not usually set up as fundraisers there.

espnW: Youve climbed in Brazil, Switzerland, Taiwan, Austria. What have been your favorite races?

KF: Abroad, Taipei was my favorite. That was my first time being in Asia, and its my favorite of the international climbs. The steps are steeper there. In the U.S., I love the Empire State race. It attracts some of the top international climbers and the configuration of the stairwell is cool; theres a really long landing between flights so you have to run a little, which gives your muscles a quick break. I also really like the Aon Step Up for Kids, which benefits the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Childrens Hospital of Chicago, because its a great race that supports a terrific cause. It was also my first breakthrough race of 2012 and I set the course record. I think its wonderful that kids are allowed to climb for free; theyre so full of energy and seem like theyre having a good time.

espnW: What have been some of your craziest times?

KF: I broke 15 minutes at the Sears Tower this year -- only one other female, Cindy Harris, has done that. I broke 11 minutes at the Hancock and Aon buildings this year. Actually, in 2012, I won every major race in Chicago, so I can say I own the Chicago skyline.