In recent years, competitive athletes searching for new ways to push their bodies to physical extremes have abandoned their park running trails and taken to the steps of some of the world’s tallest buildings. Stair-climbing races provide a grueling way for fitness fanatics to double the intensity of their total body workout, but they’re also appealing to exercisers who have something other than their completion time in mind. Take Lori Feren, 29, who combines her love for unique fitness activities with her passion for philanthropy. Feren will lead her fundraising team on March 3 up the winding stairwell of one of Manhattan’s iconic skyscrapers: Rockefeller Center.
What did you first think when you heard about the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Climb to the Top event a few years ago?
I thought, “That sounds horrible. That sounds like something I would never wish on anybody because it just sounds so awful to climb 66 flights of stairs.”
How many actual stairs are in 66 flights?
There are 1,215 steps.
Wow. What inspired you to try the climb?
My mom was diagnosed with MS in 2001, and I wanted to find a way to help. I’m not a research scientist, and I don’t know anything about that world, but I can certainly fundraise. It’s what I do in my professional life, and I love to help how I can.
How is fundraising part of your profession?
I’m the manager of individual giving at the Children’s Museum of the Arts. I have been there for five and a half years.
Congratulations on leading the top fundraising team for the climb thus far. At $18,000 you’ve more than doubled your closest competition’s total.
Thanks, but it’s definitely not going to last. We can’t keep up with the corporate teams. But we will see what happens.
How did you team up with the Manhattan Society Climbers and become their team leader?
I started going to meetings for the Manhattan Society, which is a 20s and 30s networking group for people who either have MS or a connection to MS through friends or family members. Last year, I volunteered to be the captain and see how it went, and we did it. The team raised $16,500.
How did the actual climb go?
The whole thing was over so quickly. I did it in 18 minutes, which sounds crazy because they say the average time is maybe between 20 and 30 minutes. There were firefighters there doing the climb with their gear on, there were kids climbing, there were people with MS, people who know people who have MS, it was just an amazing event because it brought everyone together through this unique thing you would never think of.
What kind of times do the really competitive stair-climbers aim for?
Well, the person who did the fastest climb last year made the quickest time in all five years they have hosted the event: seven minutes and 59 seconds.
How is the MSC team shaping up this year?
My mom can’t climb but my dad is going to climb, and he is really looking forward to it. He is in his 50s and has been training with his personal trainer, working to be the top climber in his age group. So far we have 33 team members and I’m expecting a few more. We are trying to get some of my husband’s coworkers to join in.
Is your husband climbing the “rock” with you?
He is not. I have never been able to convince him to join because it scares him too much. But he has gotten a lot of people to join the team and has been really helpful with fundraising.
It has been 12 years since your mom’s diagnosis. How is she doing?
My mom is doing very well, though her general mobility has taken a toll over the years. We are lucky that there are several medications on the market now to help those with MS cope with their symptoms. In addition my mom does physical therapy, yoga and swimming to help keep her body responsive.
How do you train for the climb? Are you the girl hiking along the Stairmaster in the gym?
I do use the Stairmaster, but I don’t always advise it because it’s different than climbing actual concrete stairs. There is a different resistance. Also, when you’re climbing an actual building, you have to turn corners and you don’t do that on a Stairmaster—you’re just going. I spend my time alternating between the treadmill and Stairmaster, and I keep up my Zumba classes twice a week.
Have you always been into fitness?
No, it definitely started after I moved back to New York. I was born in Queens but I grew up in Florida. I wasn’t athletic in high school—I did theatre and drama and music. I was the artistic kid. My sister was the athletic one. She’s really into running.
Do you have a climbing goal time this year?
As long as I’m not slower than last year, I’ll be happy.
Do you have nightmares about being trampled by a stampede of climbers in the stairwell on race day? I’m sure I would feel claustrophobic.
It’s a fairly wide stairwell, and they don’t release everyone at once. They start off the morning with the people who are the competitive climbers, and then they give different teams a “rush time.” You’ll start to pass people eventually, but it’s never a crush of people going up the stairs.
Well that’s a relief. What is the craziest thing you’ve witnessed at the climb?
Last year, one of our team members dressed up in a panda suit and climbed the entire building in the costume because his friends were going to donate more money to the cause if he did.
Is stair-climbing becoming a sport?
I definitely consider it a sport. I think it is a good way for runners to keep up their training when it’s cold out. It uses different muscles and creates a different type of workout.
Have you completed any other stair-climbing races in the city?
No, but I would love to! I definitely want to climb the Empire State Building next year. And I really want to run my first 5K. They say that climbing stairs is equivalent to running a 5K, but just vertical.
I bet if you can climb the Empire State Building, you would have no trouble at all with a 5K. Do you have a set of dream stairs you’d love to climb?
I’ve heard there is a stair-climbing event at the Great Wall of China, which would be kind of wild.
You know I have to ask: do you ever take the elevator when stairs are an option?
I usually try to take the stairs. If they are easily accessible and not scary, I’ll definitely take them.
And at the end of the race, will you take the elevator or the stairs back down to the bottom of Rockefeller Center?
They don’t let us walk back down the stairs.
Really? That’s unfortunate.
I know. I would totally do it, too. Believe me, I would.
Originally written for my graduate writing/reporting workshop