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It's not the destination, it's the climb

Sunday, July 12, 2009
by Carole Sharwarko

The giant staircase at Swallow Cliff Woods used to be nothing more than a necessary annoyance between the thrill of shooting down the hill at high speeds.

Now with brush covering the former toboggan runs in Palos Township, Southlanders walk up the stone steps just to walk back down again. A hill that thrilled bundled-up kids now beckons those looking for a killer cardio workout.

The legions have grown since the Forest Preserve District of Cook County closed the slides and repaired the 126 limestone steps in 2007, according to Steve Krause. The Crestwood resident climbs every other day during the warm season, and has for four years.

"I was coming out before they did the remodeling, and it was pretty dilapidated," Krause said. "It wasn't as crowded. There's a tenfold difference."

The high school wrestling coach poured sweat as he stretched after ascending and descending 25 times. That's 6,300 steps, which took him about 55 minutes.

Krause said it's easy to spot high school athletic teams training on the stairs, including cross country competitors.

Even the trainers train here. Andrew Amaya, a personal trainer from Plainfield, recently started visiting the stairs.

"It's one of the most challenging workouts out there," Amaya said. "I'm a fan of using natural body weight for resistance. I'm not a big fan of machines. With the stairs, you have to use every muscle, and it forces you to breathe and use your core."

An unlikely athletic center

Noting the increased popularity, two years ago the forest preserve district made much-needed stair repairs and installed an emergency call box at the base in case someone needs police or paramedics, said spokesman Steve Mayberry.

The district also created a five-minute video to promote working out at the stairs. People can check it out by visiting and clicking on "What's New."

"How cool is it that we have the ultimate Stairmaster right there?" Mayberry said. "With the economy, I heard one of the things Americans are giving up is their gym memberships. We offer nature, fresh air instead of recirculated air, and this workout. And it's free."

Mayberry said the district plans some kind of Swallow Cliff endurance challenge, pitting competitors in a running, biking and climbing contest sometime in September.

The stairs entice those who exercise at a gym because of the unique workout they offer. Karen Connors, of Bridgeview, comes to the stairs for a "quick workout," which lasts 30 minutes. She visits the gym four times a week.

"It's so beautiful here," she said. "It's a nice scenic view. But it's deceiving. Regardless of what you do at the gym, this kicks your butt."

Others also commented on the stairs' deception. They're only stairs, after all. No big deal, right?

Time for the climb

A collection of water and Gatorade bottles sits at the bottom of the flight, along with drooping towels and discarded tank tops.

Each stair is unique, so some are taller than others. Also, the limestone steps present an uneven surface. These two characteristics amp up the challenge. The feeling of intensity kicks in about halfway up the first ascent, walkers said.

Metal handrails on either side help walkers balance, though most try not to use them. Some sprint up the steps, while others stroll. Some take steps in twos, walking by others taking a break. Families and friends walk together, alongside more serious athletes pumped up by their iPods.

At the top, there are plenty of places to sit, thanks to a rock wall along the path and a lone picnic bench.

On the stone wall, walkers place piles of rocks. Climber Ken Cozzi, of Homer Glen, said people first decide how many circuits they'll make. They carry rocks to the top to mark their progress. As they reach the top, they'll add a rock, or take one away.

Walkers can take a path from here, or walk in circles to cool down, glancing past the defunct toboggan lane entrances, down the hill to the fields and road below. Butterflies commonly flap by, and toads jump in the brush. Staying too long encourages bugs to visit sweaty heads and buzz in faces.

Though coming down isn't quite as tough as going up, it presents its own challenges. Many walkers hold the handrail on the way down. The steep perspective can prove a little disorienting. Foot placement is important.

Erin Burns made her way down carefully. The Palos Heights resident used to train on the stairs with the Shepard High School swim team, and it was her first time back in a while.

"I'm working with a trainer right now," she said. "This is a good thing to do away from the gym. I like the atmosphere and fresh air."

Burns planned to only climb five up-and-down circuits. Others go for 10 to 30 cycles. Just about anyone could modify the stairs workout to his or her own level, trainer Amaya said. He suggested first-timers start out slow. The stairs aren't going anywhere.

"The first time I did it, I ran up as hard as I could and I almost passed out at the top," Amaya said. "Set a small personal goal and go slow. It can be great to go up, but remember, you have to come back down, too."

Carole Sharwarko can be reached at or (708) 633-6872.

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