For Minneapolis firefighters Daniel Casper and Linda Sone , racing in the Empire State Building Run-Up on Tuesday was more than a chance to compete in the unofficial world championships of stair climbing.
It was also a day for the Northfield, Minn., couple, who were on the front lines after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, to remember the firefighters who died in the stairwells of the World Trade Center.
"To go to New York and climb an iconic skyscraper out there ... You can't help but do that in the shadow of what happened in 2001," said Casper, who climbed the 86 floors between Fifth Avenue and the Observation Deck in 12 minutes flat, a time good for ninth place overall.
As they walked to the Empire State Building on Tuesday morning, "It really made my heart race, thinking that we were going to run up it, and thinking about all the firefighters" who died on 9/11, said Sone, who finished in 16:08 in the invitation-only field of 215 racers. After the race, they went to Ground Zero to pay their respects.
The married couple, both elite athletes with long cycling and running résumés, began tackling stairs three years ago when Minneapolis police asked firefighters to get a team together for a public safety face-off in the 50-floor Climb for the Cure, an annual ascent of the IDS Tower in Minneapolis. The event, which benefits the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, is expected to draw more than 1,000 participants on Saturday.
Casper, 41, and Sone, 35, have cleaned up the awards ever since: They hold the men's and women's records for the public safety race, and their teams have won three years in a row.
The Minneapolis Fire Department team dominates, Casper suggested, because climbing stairwells quickly during a blaze, when elevators are shut down, is integral to a firefighter's job.
"The police like to give us a lot of grief, and I'm like, 'Listen, guys, if you were to beat us in the stair climbing, that would be like us beating you at a shooting range,'" he said.
And the couple, who raced in about 70 cycling events last year, may have an even better cross-training edge than competitors who run on flat ground the rest of the year.
"Cycling translates pretty directly in that it focuses so much energy on your quadriceps," Casper said.
Still, novice stair-climbers nearly always have some hard lessons to learn: Take the stairs backwards when you're walking down during training, or you'll be sorry the next day. And forget about "running" upstairs, because nobody can take 50 floors at a sprint.
"If you pace the entire thing properly, it's like mercury going up in a thermometer," Casper said. "You don't hit that sense of absolutely unendurable exertion until right at the top."
Casper and Sone decided to become firefighters around the same time, but they met as public school teachers ; he taught English to at-risk kids, while she worked with special-education students.
The change feels good, Casper said. Firefighters see the difference they make in the world a lot more quickly than teachers generally do, and the job puts a premium on athletic fitness.
But there are traumatic days, among them Aug. 1 of last year; both of them were on duty when the I-35W bridge collapsed. As Sone tried to put out the flames that engulfed a semi-trailer truck on the south side of the river, Casper helped recover bodies on the north side, including a woman whose face he sadly recognized on television the next day as her family frantically searched for her.
But for Casper, that day helped answer a question that many firefighters ask themselves when they think about 9/11: "If I had been called down to the World Trade Center, would I have gone down there, and would I have gone up those stairs?"
Rescue workers at the bridge were so focused on the task at hand, he realized, that the answer is easy. "Yeah, of course I would."
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: 27th annual Climb for the Cure.
WHERE: The IDS Tower, Nicollet Mall between 7th and 8th Streets in Minneapolis.
WHEN: Saturday. The public safety race starts at 7:30 a.m., with a self-timed race for the public at 8:30 a.m. and a general climb at 9 a.m.
REGISTRATION: Same-day registration is allowed with a pledge of at least $50.
THE CAUSE: It is expected to raise $165,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
MORE INFORMATION: Go to minnesota.cff.org or call 651-631-3290.