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| By Wellvyl Media Editorial

“I’m an athlete.”

“Oh, great. What kind of sport do you play?”

“I’m a tower climber!”

When I say this, there’s a flash of shock or confusion on the face of the other person, and I have to clarify that I’m referring to the stairs, not scaling structures from the outside. My daredevil streak doesn’t extend that far and I’d like to stick around for a while.



So, what is tower climbing, or tower running, as it is called in some circles? It’s an organized, international sport that involves climbing human-made structures of various heights. Compared to soccer and baseball, it’s a relatively new sport in the sense that there are many who have never heard of it. I learned of it purely by chance in 2016, when I was part of a fitness group that decided to create a team for the Rockefeller Center climb, intended to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis research. I had no idea how I would do, but since I was struggling with my weight, as well as a debilitating elevator phobia, it was best for me to use the stairs whenever possible. I questioned my sanity more than once in that stuffy stairwell- wondering why I hadn’t hit the “snooze” button on my alarm clock. It’s customary for climbs to start early in the morning, and since I came into Manhattan from the Bronx, I had to leave home while it was still dark. But the cause, coupled with the incredible view at the top, justified every drop of sweat.


I never thought that what was meant to be a one- time experience would become a staple. My discovery of this sport correlated with a pivotal point in my adult life. In my mid to late twenties, I was becoming more enthusiastic about celebrating my blackness, and cognizant of issues affecting my community. To an extent, climbing buildings was a metaphor for rising above the race-related struggles which plagued me for years. I didn’t get to that summit quickly, and there were pain and uncertainty along the way, but I arrived, and that’s worth celebrating.


To date, I’ve climbed the Eiffel Tower, Willis Tower, Freedom Tower and a number of lesser-known structures, and the lack of diversity among participants is difficult to miss. Of the few climbers of color I’ve seen, practically none are black, and I’m not sure if that’s due to my community’s lack of awareness of the sport or lack of interest. For certain, it can be expensive in the absence of a sponsor, and not knowing enough people willing to donate to your fundraiser, which ranges from $100 to $250 minimum, depending on the building. Most American climbs have a fundraising component, and if you have to travel, that can augment costs. I budget in advance, but it requires discipline because I sometimes spend beyond my means.


There is much more of me to haul up the stairs, so when I look at most of the top climbers, who have slimmer builds conducive to speed, I sometimes feel self-conscious. Appreciating my voluptuous physique has been an on and off battle. My breasts aren’t huge, but they’re ample enough, and though I’ve taken to wearing leggings with lively designs to emphasize my big legs, I worry if they are too big. I’ve never been dead last out of all climbers, but I’m always the tortoise among my group of friends, affectionately called “step-siblings.” This was difficult to digest for a while and I almost quit because I didn’t think I was worthy of being around such world-class athletes. But I’ve learned to take it all in stride and to use humor to diffuse the sting because, at the end of the day, it really isn’t all that serious. I may not set records as the others do, but I’m reasonably sure I can twerk better, so that balances things out.  Our rhythmic differences are an ongoing source of humor for us, and god knows there are enough photos and videos to prove it!


The camaraderie that has blossomed over the course of my tower climbing journey might not have been possible otherwise. Whereas my relationship with most climbers is casual, there’s a special group I'm close to, mostly women. This isn’t a coincidence- I’ve always connected with powerful ladies, and most of them are substantially older than me. Their agility is awe-inspiring. Even if I enter the stairwell first, it’s not long before I hear one of them coming up behind me, and as protocol dictates, I move aside for them to pass. There’s no use trying to catch them- I don’t even hear their footsteps past a certain point. Once we reunite at the top, panting, sweaty and a little nauseated, there’s no belittling or arrogance whatsoever- just support, and a sense of accomplishment.  Once we’ve gotten our medals, we take the elevator to the lobby (we wouldn’t dare descend all those stairs even if we had the energy), and go to a restaurant or somebody’s hotel room for more shenanigans. The “step-siblings” have varied life experiences- we’re parents, cancer survivors, personal trainers, travel agents, medical professionals and more. Tower climbing gives us an outlet to persevere in spite of any personal challenges, and even though it’s difficult for us to convene regularly outside of climbs, it feels like no time elapsed when we do.


Whether the Eiffel Tower or the Space Needle, no structure is the same, and unless you have the advantage of climbing a building before, you can only be so prepared for it. Sometimes, you have to contend with long, steep flights in spaces without ventilation or water stations. The Freedom Tower and the Eiffel Tower have tight security, so we have to find other ways, aside from listening to music, to distract from the lactic acid building in our legs, and the disembodied pants around us. Some climbers applaud for each other, others break out in a song when their lungs permit. Some have the stamina to run the whole time, but I prefer to pace myself- making use of my long legs by climbing two steps at once. With practice, I’ve managed to shave seconds, even minutes off preceding times for buildings I’ve climbed previously, which is the best I can do since tower climbing isn’t my sole hustle.


The Eiffel Tower is the only structure I’ve climbed that is advertised as a race, and it’s an exclusive one at that. It’s a televised event that takes place at night, and there are about 130 participants, who are divided into three groups: elites, amateurs and “wild cards.” As part of my application for the 2017 climb, I submitted a doctor’s note, evidence of my athleticism, and a letter addressed to the coordinators written partially in French.  Discovering that I’d been accepted remains one of my biggest honors, and, as I do prior to all my climbs, I danced before running down the red carpet to the tower. There are no words that can adequately describe what it’s like to race up 1,665 narrow steps, with nothing between you and the open air but latticed iron, and the chocolate and macaroons waiting for us at the top was a nice touch. When my breathing returned to normal, I absorbed the beauty of the Parisian skyline and the Seine.  It was one of the moments when I felt most alive but make no mistake, the tower does wobble a bit when you climb, so if you’re scared of that and/or heights, it’s best to not apply.


I’m the kind of person who likes to try things that are different, and while taking the stairs isn’t all that extraordinary, ascending buildings with far more stairs than a five-floor walk-up, isn’t something most would enthusiastically do. I like to joke that there must be something off about those of us who participate because it’s really quite absurd. But the absurdity is part of the appeal, at least in my eyes. I often use my social media platforms to share what this sport has done for me. It has bettered my stamina, increased my overall confidence, and it has introduced new characters to the wild movie that is my life.


What structure will I conquer next? Time will tell….