Heath’s Story

In 2009, Heath B.’s mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes. He watched as, for a year, she continually gasped for air, fighting for breath. He knew the feeling, having struggled with exercise induced asthma himself since he was a kid. “I used to have nightmares that someone was chasing me, and I couldn’t run because I don’t have enough air, I can’t catch my breath. It’s terrifying. Being short of breath is not something I would wish on my worst enemy,” Heath said.

When his mother passed away, Heath decided he was done feeling helpless. He wanted to act, to do something to commemorate her. At the time, he was very involved in CrossFit and it was here that he first learned about the American Lung Association’s Fight For Air Climb. Several other people at his gym were forming a team, which he joined, and he began to hear stories from his team members that reminded him of his own. “At one point we had 15 or 20 CrossFitters and we were competing against other gyms and, that year, we won. I became enthralled by the event, and I just kept coming back,” he said.

Now in his 14th season, he has a loyal following. His friends and family rally around him, donating what they can, following his progress and urging him to never stop competing. “I have friends who not only give but urge me to continue to participate because they can’t, and it makes them feel good to be a part of the event,” he said.

His new goal is to make it to 20 years participating and to beat his best time of 12 minutes 30 seconds. “I mountain bike, run and CrossFit, but there’s nothing like climbing,” he said. “It is just one step, slow and steady until the end, when you give it all you’ve got. It’s the most challenging 12 minutes of my year.”

Heath climbing stairs at the Fight for Air Climb

For Heath, his yearly participation in the climb has become a cherished ritual. He spends months training on the Stairmaster and on stairwells he has access to. But on the day of the event, he spends the morning in solitude, remembering his mother. “The day is emotional for me. I drive to the city, reflect and prepare, and until I hit that first stair I am really thinking of my mom. We had a complicated relationship but at the end I really got to know her. A big part of the climb is remembering how far we had come.”

Heath thinks that his mother’s inspiration is essential to not only his success, but for anyone who wants to participate. “You need to have a ‘why’ because this event is tough. It’s not for the faint of heart,” he said.

Now, 14 years later, the event is multifaceted for him. “I love the challenge. I love making a difference and being a part of a team and community of climbers. It is the more meaningful thing I do all year.”

Tara R.’s Story

Tara R. hadn’t even heard of pulmonary fibrosis until her dad was diagnosed with it. “He was strong and healthy for as long as I could remember, until his diagnosis people often commented on how youthful he was,” Tara said. He used supplemental oxygen to help him, just a little at first, and more and more as the disease progressed. When he passed in 2012, and her uncle was diagnosed as well, Tara became interested in learning all she could about the disease.

While doing research online she came across an ad for a Fight For Air Climb in San Fransisco where she lived. “The fundraising which was pretty minimal, and the stair climb event sound exciting and different, so I signed up,” she said. Immediately she received a wonderful response online, as her friends and family contacted her, donated money, and began to share their own stories of lung disease. Quickly she became one of the top fundraisers in her area, “I decided that this was going to be my annual thing, and I just never looked back. This will be my 11th climb,” she said.

Living in San Francisco, Tara enjoyed going up and down the city’s many hills and embedded staircases to train. Now that she lives a little outside the city, she continues to use steep hiking trails to get herself ready for the Climb event. “But nothing really prepares you for being in that stairwell,” Tara said. “It's been referred to as a vertical 5K, but I think it's even better than a 5K. You're literally ascending and then you get to the top of something and then you can look back and go, wow I did that. The sense of achievement is well worth it.”

Tara R at the Fight for Air Climb

Tara has also found a tight-knit community in the many people who have climbed multiple times. “Perfect strangers come up to me during a climb and say, ‘I remember you form last year’ and we are able to share experiences.” She has also had many friends open up about chronic conditions, like asthma, that she never knew they had. “Lung disease isn’t something people openly talk about, but it affects more of us than anyone would think. Breathing is just so fundamental, It's the thing we all absolutely need to do, and when any of us have experienced instances where we couldn't, it's panic inducing.”

“Climbing stairs is so hard, but it is essential for most people, and I think it has that symbolic quality for people battling lung disease. Though it is a relatively short event, it's challenging to put yourself through. But it feels like a drop in the bucket in terms of the level of commitment vs the potential impact it could have. The cause just really speaks to me.”

John H’s Story

Shortly after John’s sister, Marsha, passed away from lung cancer, he came across an article in the newspaper that piqued his interest. It talked about a Fight For Air Climb coming up in his hometown of Cleveland, OH. He decided he was going to climb in his sister’s honor. That first year, 2013, he climbed alone but was awestruck by the number of people participating and the comradery of the event. He wanted to do more, so he approached people at his neighborhood YMCA and asked them to sponsor a team. Then he went about recruiting members and was amazed by how many people had been touched by lung cancer or lung disease. “So many people love the idea of doing it in memory of their family member or friend. So, we named ourselves the Y’s Steppers, and I probably had about 22 people that first year. Since then, every year I have had a team, whether it is 13 or 33, we always take the stairs at the Key Tower together,” he said. Many of his teammates have been with him for more than one climb.

One of Captain John's many Climb teams. One of Captain John's many Climb teams.

Before COVID-19, John, dubbed Captain John by his teammates, would also organize trainings. The team would go to Indian Point which has 158 steps down to the river and a few miles of hiking through the woods. They would also train on the stairs from the basement to the roof at the YMCA. “We enjoyed being together, either out in the woods or on the steps. People would ask us what we were doing and we would explain about the climb,” John explained.

On the day of the event, John eats a light breakfast, puts on his lightest tennis shoes and heads in early. As a VIP climber (he raises over $1,000 every year), he enjoys arriving before the crowd and getting to sign the poster in honor of his sister. After a reflection, he admits that the excitement takes over and doesn’t end until he reaches the top of the tower. “It’s like my Super Bowl,” he said. "We are the only team that has our own climb song, YMCA. When they put that on everyone gets really excited."

“When I first started climbing, I wanted to be in the top 25%, but as I get older, I just want to get to the top and succeed another year. At 79 years old, this will be my 15th climb in Cleveland, and I have climbed in other cities too. Many times, I am the oldest climber, but it is so satisfying, I love participating and have no intention of quitting any time soon.”

John realizes this event isn’t for everyone, and joked that his doctor says that when he climbs one flight of stairs he thinks, “How does John do this?” But he hopes that people who can’t climb will support a climber. “Anyone can make a difference.”

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