7 tips for first-time memorial stair climb participants

From identifying your “why” to studying climb logistics, there are several factors to consider as you prepare to complete the climb in honor of fallen firefighters


Every year, tens of thousands of individuals honor fallen firefighters by participating in memorial stair-climb events. Stair-climbing events, which might be co-located at a national conference or scheduled on or around Sept. 11 to honor the 343 FDNY firefighters who were killed on 9/11, could be firefighter-only events or open to the general public.  

I was honored to participate in the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at Lambeau Field several years ago. It was an incredible sight to see a steady stream of people ascending and descending every flight of steps in the famous football stadium. Firefighters, representing departments from across the country, climbed in turnout gear or station uniforms. Civilians of every age and varying levels of fitness climbed the steps in workout clothing, quietly nodding to other climbers who stopped to catch their breath. Every participant somberly rang a bell to honor a specific fallen firefighter after climbing the equivalent of 110 flights of stadium steps – the same number of flights in each of Twin Towers.  

If you are considering a memorial stair climb this September or planning ahead for next year, here are a few tips for first-time climbers to get you started and help you through the event.  

1. Climb for a reason 

Whether you are training for a 5K, half-marathon, triathlon or stair-climbing event you need to have a personal mission or a sense of purpose. What’s your why? Honoring the 343 is an important purpose as any for walking, running or climbing. Consider also having a personal “why” that will keep you going through training sessions and the hardest moments of the event. When I am in the hardest moments of a running race, my mind always goes to my love for my children. I want them to do difficult things, explore their mental and physical abilities, give back to their community and serve others. Knowing that they will be top of mind on the day of the event, I always make sure to remember them as I complete training sessions.  

2. Physically prepare 

If you are a fit firefighter or civilian who regularly exercises, you probably have the on-demand fitness to climb 110 flights of stairs. It won’t be easy, but you can likely push your way to the finish without much specific training. That being said, you’ll get a lot more out of participating if you prepare yourself for a stair-climb event with walking, jogging and, naturally, climbing stairs. Ideally, if you have access to a stairwell in a multiple-story building, climb those stairs a couple of days a week in the months leading up to the event. If you don’t have access to a building, the steps in your house, the bleacher at the local high school or even a hilly neighborhood will help get you ready for a stair climb. Of course, a stair-stepping machine at your local fitness center or gym is a great way to prepare.  

3. Mentally prepare 

A moment of silence and remarks from the surviving family members of deceased firefighters will make an opening ceremony much more emotional than your typical training session. It can be both inspiring and an extra weight to know you are climbing for others. Also make sure you are mentally ready for the pace of the stair climb. When you trained, you were likely able to move at your own pace. On the day of the stair climb, you’ll likely find yourself moving in a long line, often at a different pace than you trained. If the pace is too fast, step out on a landing to catch a break and try to rejoin with a group moving at your pace. If the pace is too slow, remind yourself of your why. You're there to honor and remember, not to race.    

4. Study the event guide and venue 

The steps in the Lambeau Field bowl have a tread height and depth that’s different from a standard set of steps. After about 50 rows of climbing, the step tread height and depth changes. Look for information like this, as well as information on registration, packet pickup, parking and medical assistance in the online event guide. Also, try to talk to past participants about how they prepared, any difficulties they encountered and their words of advice for a newbie.  

5. Choose your clothing and footwear 

Many firefighters complete a stair climb in full PPE. Some even carry an SCBA and a hose or hand tool. If you choose to wear full PPE, make sure you’ve trained in the PPE, the PPE is clean, and you are ready to wear that PPE during the opening ceremony, throughout your climb and until you’ve reached your vehicle after the climb. Remember, your fitness is unique to you. If you can accomplish your “why” and safely participate in station shorts and T-shirt, do that. If you’ve put in the work and have the fitness to climb in turnouts, then that extra challenge might be how you accomplish your “why.” Do what’s best and safest for you.  

6. Remember, don’t race 

A stair climb is a memorial service for fallen firefighters, so give your competitive instincts a day of rest. As you climb, remember the fallen, their sacrifice and their surviving families, friends and coworkers.  

7. Celebrate with your friends and family 

Most somber events, like funerals and memorial services, are followed by a social gathering or celebration. The shared experience of completing a stair climb with dozens, hundreds or thousands of other people is worth celebrating. You are a part of something bigger than yourself. As you congratulate others and learn about their favorite or most difficult moments, rehydrate and refuel.  

What are your tips for memorial stair climb participants?  

Find a stair-climb event near you: National Fallen Firefighters Foundation 9/11 Memorial Stair Climbs 

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