Normally, Alex Workman has no problem glancing down when climbing stairs.
The 36-year-old Colonie resident and General Electric engineer is one of the region’s best competitive stair climbers. On Thursday, he’ll be competing in the annual climbing competition in the Corning Tower. The 42-floor building has 809 steps and is the tallest building in the city of Albany.
Because it’s an enclosed staircase, Workman will have no problem sneaking a peek over the railing as he bounds two steps at a time to the top. Last weekend, cruising up the 1,455 steps of the Stratosphere
25th CF Climb Event
WHERE: Corning Tower at Empire State Plaza in Albany
WHEN: Thursday. Individual timed climb, 7:30 p.m.; firefighter’s challenge, 6 p.m.; individual untimed U Can Do It climb, 6:30 p.m.; relay Race, 7 p.m.
REGISTRATION: Day of race, Empire State Plaza concourse level from 4 to 6 p.m.
BENEFIT: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Northeastern NY
Tower in Las Vegas, he didn’t find it so easy to take in his surroundings.
“It’s a great stairwell because you’re kind of in open space,” he said. “I didn’t actually dare look down, because unlike a stairwell in a building … in the Stratosphere [it’s] pretty open.”
The competitive sport of stair climbing came across his radar in 2006, when a friend mentioned the Corning Tower challenge — now in its 25th year. At the time, Workman was starting to do sprint triathlons and generally focusing more on cardiovascular workouts.
His first foray into the sport was on a whim. In 2011 he felt like his body was in good shape from bicycling and a running, so he participated in the Corning Tower climb, which is a fund raiser for and organized by Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Northeastern New York. He came in fourth.
“When I found the sport of stair climbing,” Workman said, “I really found my niche.”
Now he is a regular in stair climbing events around the Northeast and came in fourth out of 500 during his trip to Las Vegas. He has climbed the Empire State Building and the Sears Tower in Chicago.
Workouts vary among competitors, but his training includes a lot of weight training for his lower body, like lunges and leg presses. His focus is on doing lots of repetitions. And while he also does push-ups, Workman said, “I have really concentrated on pull-ups. That helps on the rails.”
The handrails are key to his technique, as his arms help pull him up stairs. Because he is heavier than most competitors, he said, his use of the rail helps even the playing field.
At least once a week he’ll train in a seven-story General Electric building in Schenectady, where he works. Using a less traveled staircase, Workman does about an hour of interval training, sprinting to the top and then slowly going back down.
Sometimes the trip back down will be backward. This odd practice, which he occasionally uses in normal life, is done to neutralize stress.
All of this training helps build up pain tolerance, which is mostly needed to ignore the lactic acid buildup that is generated in the thighs during a race. “If it builds up too much, you basically come to a crawl,” he said.
The other problem is keeping an even pace.
For newbies, his advice is to use the rail, go two steps at a time and pace yourself. He added that athletes who are skilled in foot races or bike races shouldn’t be surprised if their first race doesn’t go as well as expected.
And for people thinking about doing the Corning Tower competition there is the incentive of the elevator, which is available for the ride down.
Sometimes he’s forced to sprint, like when passing is required. Staggered starts and racing decorum, which is that slower runners move to the outside, is supposed to prevent the need for climbers to go around people, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. “Sometimes you have to be aggressive,” Workman said. “There were a few races where I kind of had to body-check someone out of the way.”
On Thursday he is hoping to win his first ever Corning Tower climb, but he’ll have plenty of competition from his friend David Tromp. The Glenmont resident recently beat Workman in Las Vegas, coming in second overall, and is a regular winner of Corning Tower.
Workman’s best time in the tower is 4 minutes and 39 seconds and Tromp’s is about nine seconds faster.
“If I was a betting person, as much as I like my odds, I think David has the edge,” said Workman. “It’s going to be within 10 seconds.”
Normally, he likes to race in the morning and have a light breakfast to give himself energy and keep from getting bloated. The Corning Tower climb is in the evening, so the added challenge is consuming enough food for energy during the workday.
Workman said more people should try the sport if they think they might be interested. All they need are a pair of running shoes and shorts. “It’s the hardest sport that no one has ever heard of,” he said.