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126 steps at Swallow Cliff not exactly a walk in the park

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



So, you think you’re tough.

Really?

Take your bad self out to Swallow Cliff Forest Preserve and prove it.

It’s been a few years since the toboggan slides were taken out of the once-popular winter destination near Palos Park. Now the steep, undulating hill that once thrilled sledders is covered with grass.

But the people still come. Only now, they come in spring, summer and fall.

They come for the workout of their lives.

The stairs that were once an annoying means to a good downhill slide have become a mecca for workout warriors of all ages, shapes and sizes.

On any given day you see them, panting and sweating their way up and down the steep set of stone steps. These are rugged, serious fitness junkies.

For one brief moment, I joined them.

Look, I am no athlete. I may harbor fantasies of one day taking up speed skating or of giving the Tour de France a spin, but I have both feet planted in middle-aged reality.

I’m grateful to get on my bike and ride for an hour each evening. Sometimes, I “cross train,” meaning I walk my dog, Handsome Ted, and then ride my Schwinn.

Still, I admit, I love a challenge.

And when someone suggested I tackle the stairs, I thought, what’s a few stairs?

I live in a two-story house. I run stairs all the time. How bad could these be?

And then I saw them.

One hundred and twenty-six stone steps, ascending at what appeared to be a 90-degree grade.

Gulp!

I was grateful I’d come prepared.

The night before, I’d chatted with Anthony Gajkowski, a house-calling personal trainer with Amplify Fitness in Woodridge. He was quite encouraging, assuring me that because I exercise regularly I’d be just fine. But he also recommended I warm up, bring water or diluted Gatorade and avoid a large meal beforehand.

“And don’t try to break any records,” he said.

Dressed in “slimming” black sweats, I downed a banana on the drive over and met photographer Joe Meier at base camp.

As I was stepping off, I encountered toned, fit Courtney Miller, 26, of Orland Park.

She was just finishing up her 11th “lap.”

“This is harder than any Stairmaster,” she warned. “It’s way more intense.”

Her sisters, Cayley, 11, and Carlene, 21, agreed.

Carlene said she ran it six times on her first outing. “I was shaking the entire way down the last time.”

Greg Shubat called the stairs, “Probably the most aerobic workout there is. It blows your lungs up.”

Nice.

Shubat works out at Swallow Cliff three times a week with other members of Iron Fitness Extreme, based in Burr Ridge.

His advice for novices: “Don’t look up.”

Camille Anello, of Homer Glen, added, “This is a butt-kicker.”

All this chatting was making me sweat and I hadn’t even hit step one.

It was time to put the pedals to the mettle.

I joined the pilgrimage to the top.

By step 30, I was puffing. By step 70, I was sweating.

The closer I got to the top, the more exaggerated my steps became, as if there were 30-pound weights strapped to my ankles.

But once I reached the summit, and caught my breath, I felt an immediate high. Not only is the view spectacular, well, I did it.

I conquered the stairs.

I felt like busting out the Rocky dance. And then I saw the pebbles.

On a ledge along the top of the stairs are groupings of small stones. Climbers use them to keep track of how many times they’ve gone up and down. Some of the piles had six or seven stones. But others had more than 20.

Anello explained that regulars bring polished stones in old Sucrets containers to mark their laps.

Talk to enough people and you’ll learn about the “legends of the stairs,” people who not only conquer the steps but do so while wearing weights or while carrying infants. One guy, I’m told, hauls a backpack full of sand to the top.

I felt weak. And, oddly enough, compelled to do it again.

So I climbed down and braced for another run, er walk, up the rocky incline.

Halfway there, I questioned my decision. My thighs were burning. My lungs were about to burst.

Would it really be that bad if I sat down and rested for two, three, 40 minutes?

The mosquitoes were motivation to keep moving.

So were the other climbers, some of whom gave you a look of “for shame,” as if they could spot a quitter a mile away.

So I pressed on. And on.

It’s hard to explain the high that comes from doing something you weren’t entirely certain you could do, but really wanted to nonetheless.

When I reached the summit, I felt that rush.

And even though my muscles ached and I was a ball of sweat, I was proud.

And I carried that feeling, stiffly, through the rest of the day.



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