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Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I wear the right t-shirt to FLD Mike's puppy class at Leader Dogs for the Blind.  My bright red 2010 "Fight for Air Climb" shirt from the American Lung Association's stair climb at the RenCen in downtown Detroit announces to my fellow-raisers that I am up to tonight's challenge--STAIRS.  Yep, our class is all about stairs--cement stairs, wood stairs, inside stairs, outside stairs, and scariest of all, two flights of open metal stairs that take us up to the roof of the Leader Dog School!

Our "Beyond Basics" class of golden retrievers, yellow and black labs, German Shepherds, labradoodles, and their puppy-raisers march in line like ducks and ducklings out and about the Leader Dog School for an hour.  Along the way we practice loose-leash heeling, "around" when passing through doors that open from our right, sit, down, and stay.

I think I am ready to tackle all these stairs, but FLD Mike is not so sure.  Even though he is a very laid-back lab, he still has a tendency to "rush" stairs, leaping off the bottom step, or up the top riser.  We have a lot of work to do.

As we approach a staircase, I command FLD Mike to SIT.  We do this at the bottom before going up and at the top before going down.  We even stop on the landings to SIT in-between flights.  Putting FLD Mike in a sit slows his mind so he can focus on me, and the task at hand.  When he pulls on his leash, I can't step backwards like we do on a walk; instead I halt, wait for him to realize pulling won't get him anywhere, and then continue.

An important skill for any Leader Dog is to slowly and confidently lead his or her handler up or down stairs.  As our instructor, Bev, tells us, "Stairs are scary!"  Close your eyes the next time you negotiate stairs and you'll better understand what vision-impaired handlers feel when they trust their Leader Dogs to guide them safely.

Slowly.  Confidently.  Not my usual manner when attacking stairs.  For once I must agree with my husband's assessment--when it comes to stair-climbing, I'm crazy!

Sometime back in the mid-1980's, my tandem-bicycle partner, Lou, introduced me to the stairs down the ravine at Bloomer Park in Rochester Hills.  For "training," we would ride our tandem out to Bloomer, run 10 sets up the 194-wooden stairs, and then cycle home with wobbly legs.  It turns out that climbing stairs develops tremendous leg strength; a good thing to have when racing bicycles.

But, as was so often the case with Lou, her idea didn't stop there.  In 1989 we competed in the annual Empire State Building Run Up and my stair-climbing career took off!  I climbed the CN Tower in Toronto, before the glass-view staircases were closed and moved into the center of the tower; I won a couple of local stairclimb races; I competed in three "vertical-mile-marathons" at the RenCen (eight times up the 70 floors).

In 1991 I got an idea of my own.  Up until then, no one had ever attempted to climb stairs for 24 hours.  Since I was used to riding in 24-hour bicycle races I thought, No problem, and it won't even get dark!  So, in conjunction with a weekend of stair races at the RenCen, I ascended those dusty cement stairs for 24 hours--68,992 steps to raise money for the American Heart Association.  Not my brightest idea, but I did it!

That proved to be the end of my stair-climbing career.  I thought.  In 2007, some friends and family members talked me into climbing again, this time with a team (patti's "pack") in the inaugural event benefiting the American Lung Association.  That year I won my age group, but decided that I was done competing.  So, even though I am back to "training" on the stairs at Bloomer Park every winter so I can climb with my "pack" at the RenCen every February, I do it now just for fun.

Perhaps raising Future Leader Dogs is the only way to force me to take stairs "one at a time."  SLOWLY!