Stair climbing champion Stephanie Hucko
It’d be easy to mistake Stephanie Hucko for a resident of The Vue Charlotte.
After all, she frequently strides into the main lobby of the uptown luxury apartment tower and, upon greeting staffers cheerfully by their first names in her native Australian accent, is waved through by security as if she owns the place.
But the 45-year-old Charlotte mother of two doesn’t own the place. She doesn’t live there, or even work there. She just comes there, as she does multiple times per week, to run up and down its 50 flights of stairs. Over and over again.
Hucko is a personal trainer by trade, but her passion is stair racing, also known as tower running – also known as one of the easiest ways on earth to make your heart feel as if it’s going to burst out of your chest. And she’s good. Like, U.S. women’s national champion good.
She successfully defended that title back in February by winning Scale the Strat, a race up 108 flights of stairs to the observation tower of the Stratosphere hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Her time was 8 minutes 48 seconds; of the 256 women in the field, she was the only one to reach the top in under 10 minutes.
Next up? Hucko is one of the favorites to win the world’s tallest indoor stair climb, SkyRise Chicago, on Nov. 6 inside the Willis Tower. (She finished third there in 2014, second in 2015 – ascending 2,109 steps in 17 minutes 18 seconds.)
The race will be her third since having abdominal surgery four months ago; that was to alleviate chronic back pain that began back when she was still running on roads.
And the race will hurt.
“I get to a point where I’m like, ‘Holy Toledo,’ ” says Hucko, whose athletic pursuits have run the gamut from netball as a kid in Australia to boxing in Golden Gloves tournaments in New York City. “Everything is just burning. It’s a suffocating feeling. ... I’m just maxed out, and at the end, I practically collapse on the floor. But then five minutes later, I’m like, ‘Oh, let me do that again!’ ”
With that, here are six things we learned about Hucko and her somewhat masochistic pastime in an interview after one of her workouts at The Vue.
1. There’s a lot more to stair climbing than just climbing stairs. Honestly, anyone can just climb stairs. It’ll be a bit of a suffer-fest, to be sure, but most healthy adults can climb 50 flights in less time than it takes those same people to run a 5K. The difference between “most healthy adults” and elite climbers, though, is that the elites are in better stair-climbing shape (duh) and have better technique. A key part of that technique: using railings almost like a rope to pull themselves up the stairs as they ascend. “With that pulling,” says Hucko, who employs a hand-over-hand motion, “you can really save your legs.” She keeps her upper body bulked up by lifting weights in her garage several times a week.
2. She also saves her legs, in training, by always using the elevator to go back down. Hucko didn’t have access to the lift at one of her old training spots, the 42-story One Wells Fargo Center, so she’d have to go back down the way she came up. That led to the return of old aches and pains: calf injuries, Achilles tendon injuries, various other lower-limb issues. “I thought, ‘I’ve really gotta stop walking down the stairs,’ ” Hucko says. So she found places to train that gave her the freedom to use their elevators, and since then, “things have improved considerably.”
3. As for where she trains these days: It’s kind of a secret. As we said, many of her stair workouts are done at The Vue, where she trains a couple of mornings per week with the blessing of the building’s staff. But she won’t reveal the other uptown building she frequents. It’s not easy to find tall buildings that will welcome someone who wants to turn their stairwell into a gymnasium. And if more people start asking for permission, the property manager might decide things are getting out of control and ban everyone outright – which could be detrimental to Hucko’s success. “Think of it like swimming,” she said. “You can’t be a better swimmer unless you get in the pool and swim.”
4. If you were standing in a stairwell and saw Hucko in the middle of a long race, you might not be impressed by her speed. But just as there’s no way Usain Bolt could keep up his 100-meter-dash pace for 2 miles, an elite tower runner can’t do an all-out sprint from the sidewalk to the top of the Empire State Building. “Pacing is really important; you’ve got to know what your limit is,” Hucko says. “We’re not bolting up the stairs the whole way. But even though it looks like we’re not going very fast, we’re working really hard.”
5. If you’re still not impressed, go ahead: Enter a race and try to beat her. Not only will she crush you, you’re liable to crush yourself. She, in fact, was her own worst enemy in her first-ever stair race, at the 54-story Duke Energy Center in 2011. “I remember thinking, ‘How hard can this be?’ ... I started going like a bat out of hell, and next thing I knew, I hit the seventh floor and I’m like” – Hucko takes two very deep, very heavy breaths, then continues: “I felt dizzy, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what just happened?’ I had been a runner, a cyclist and a swimmer. I thought, ‘I’m fit!’ It was very, um, interesting.” Anyway, like we said, if you don’t beat yourself, she’ll beat you straight up. Just consider her most recent race, the Elite PowerHour at the American Lung Association Fight for Air Climb in Greenville, S.C., on Sept. 17. She ran to the top of the 22-story Landmark Building 14 times in 51 minutes flat, good for first place overall (not just first woman).
6. Despite all of this, even Hucko occasionally gets humbled. It happens to the fittest of us: After climbing a few dozen steps at a good clip, our heart rate doubles and we feel out of breath. Shouldn’t happen to Hucko, though, right? Ah, but it does. “At home, I walk up one flight and my legs are dying,” she says, “and I laugh. I go, ‘Come on! I’m the stair climbing champion! What is going on here??’ ”