The nine staircases added up to 1,034 steps. At Bisbee’s 28th annual Great Stair Climb on Oct. 20, there I stood.
With less than two weeks’ notice, I was ordered to not only cover the Bisbee 1000, but participate in it. I’m not a runner and I did absolutely no training for this race. My best guess is this was a cruel punishment for missing a deadline. But I like a 4.5-mile challenge as much as the next person, so I thought it might be worth the pain.
The popularity of the event continues to grow. Organizers capped the event at 1,500 participants because the staircases have become more congested since 1990, when the event attracted only 200 people in its first year.
Two photographers came with me. We left Tucson a little after 5 a.m. and arrived a few minutes after 7. Dropped off in front of the courthouse, I noticed two things: It was terribly chilly, and people were pouring into this sleep, mountain town. Bisbee was wide-awake with anticipation.
“It’s just amazing. The people out there, the costumes and the stairs. I mean it was the hardest race I’ve ever ran and I’ve ran a lot of races,” said Natalie Shalvoy. “It was pretty terrible, in a good way.”
Shalvoy has run the race for the last three years and has been the first woman to cross the finish line each time.
Bisbee is a picturesque. Hills dominant the old mining town; you’re either going uphill or downhill. A lot of cities have alleys, but Bisbee has staircases that give you an intimate sense of the place and views like postcards.
As entrant No. 807, I hurried to my allotted corral. With so many people, they had to section us off into groups, and I began to question some of the life choices that led me here.
I won’t lie. I had anxiety about the race. Yet, standing in the corral, much of that angst evaporated. People laughed and talked like old friends. These people seemed happy about the uphill battle in front of us. I let the atmosphere take me away.
“There’s like no pressure. You just want to finish and have a good time,” said Kim Nguyen. “Everybody’s just laid back and chill and having a good time pushing themselves to the limit.”
The Bisbee 1000 brings out a unique crowd. People of all ages run. Some, like Rich Woosley, come just to have fun.
“So we come down here for the hell of it and party for the weekend and do this walk,” said Woosley.
Others like Ameera Aladimi do it for the challenge. This is Aladimi’s first year. Her twin sister from Ohio came to run with her.
“I’m used to doing a lot of running events … but the steps kind of changes things,” said Aladimi.
The starting pistol’s loud bang caught me off guard. Stuffed in a corral toward the back, I couldn’t make out the front. I could see many in the first corral dart away as the ringing shot died down. At first, I walked. But as the crowd spread out, I broke out at a comfortable pace. The beginning was deceptively smooth: a subtle downhill road through the center of town.
Volunteers in yellow, reflective safety vests and big orange foam fingers pointed the way along the path. Musicians at every turn played everything from bluegrass banjo to a flute solo to drum circle and, of course, a handmade suitcase guitar.
Townsfolk spent the morning in the streets — in some cases in their backyards — encouraging runners and handing out water, coffee and even beer. For them, the event is a modern-day gold rush for tourism.
“It’s like an institution in the city, and I think the business owners and most residents really look forward to it,” said Moore. “For some of them, it’s probably their biggest money maker, you’d say, of the year.”
Hotels book up, crowds pack the bars and all the little shops get more visitors. Alison Denning, owner of Chocoláte, a little confectionery on Main Street, said the increased business is noticeable.
“I think it’s great for business,” said Denning. “I think you’ve got to be nuts to run it.”
The race felt more like a walking tour than a serious race. The first leg past artisan shops, hotels and bars was easy enough. Then the first stairs began, and suddenly it hit me just how gorgeous Bisbee is. Colorful little backyard gardens and stacked stone walls harkened back to another era.
The stairs began to slow everyone to a walk. I met Valerie Hubbell, from upstate New York, on the first staircase. She and her aunt came across the country just for the Great Stair Climb. Hubbell told me something alarming on our way up. I had nine staircases ahead of me. I should have done more background.
I focused on my breathing and maintained a steady pace. Slowly the burn worked its way up my legs, but my mind dismissed it because of the beautiful views, plethora of instrumentals and cheering. I began to understand the appeal of this grueling race.
“It hurts. It’s physically agonizing,” said Eric Meyer, a Bisbee resident who won the race this year. “But, you know, it’s just a privilege to partake and I just feel happy because everyone that’s involved with the event whether they are part of the coordination or just participants make it such a happy event,”
Once I climbed the fifth staircase, my body started giving out. One more push up a hill and then I slowed to a walk. Don’t be fooled into thinking the stairs are a cakewalk just because most people walk them. The shortest staircase is 73 steps and the longest is 181.
My breathing became harder to control. My legs refused to keep up, and my back felt like it might snap. I couldn’t focus on anything but the task. I was getting slower and slower, and everything became a little blurry.
Finally, the finish line was in front of me. A lot of people cheered and someone put a medal around my neck; I was finished. I completed the race in 1:03:34, which will probably be my best time ever. I’ll never do it again.