Into Seattle Stair Country

“What do you say we bear crawl this next one…” Brian says to me as we jog approach the Blaine St. steps. That was enough to elicit a small giggle from me and a weak retort, “Maybe we crab walk…backwards down them….” Just before this, Steven Kent’s Ambit reported that we had covered  40 miles of mean Seattle streets to this point. The heat of the day was setting in, and we had already traversed dozens of Seattle’s major Stairways on the journey. I had just led the crew of eight up a social trail through St. Mark’s Greenbelt. Turning off Lakeview, near the Egan House, the barely-distinguishable, dusty path leads up into the ravine and let us out in the parking lot of the St. Marks Cathedral. It was a nice break from concrete, and one of the biggest climbs of the day so far. Next, we would bear crawl… u hum, drop several hundred feet down the Blaine steps, turn right, and then ascend the biggest Stairway in Seattle, the Howe Street Steps – at 388 stairs.

The Foot Tour Starters
The Foot Tour Starters Photo: Martin Criminale

I got up at the sour-stomach hour of 3:30AM in order to arrive early on the shores of Puget Sound to meet the group. For the past two years, I scheduled the Seattle Stairway Foot Tour to take place on the weekend of the June solstice. Marking the first days of summer, we move through neighborhoods in a counterclockwise fashion to explore much of the city with maximum daylight hours. With a very short history, I characterize the Foot Tour characterized as a 100 kilometer “running route.” Participants expect to navigate their own way to different stairways in order to traverse the suggested route. Everyone proceeds at a mellow pace with minimal to zero support. The trailhead begins at a public street end in West Seattle at sunrise.

It was going to be a surprise to see who would show up. Thirty plus people showed intent to participate on the Facebook event I set up, but I was pretty sure we would have less than 10 at the start. After a low-light, grainy group photo, a talented group of five, plus me, set off at a walk up the 98th St Stairway at 5:11 AM. When I say talented, I mean seasoned, tough distance runners. Their legs ripple muscle, and I was sure they could rip out seven-minute miles late in the day.

West Seattle Section
West Seattle Section

Within 15 minutes we had ascended the Thistle Stairway, once the biggest in Seattle, and headed to Lincoln Park. Getting onto trail, winding through the forested parkland, was a real treat. We ran through nine parks in West Seattle alone. By the time we reached Alki Beach at 6:30 AM, we were moving efficiently and we pretty much had the beach all to ourselves. Looking across Elliot Bay, we could see Magnolia Bluff just a few miles away as the crow flies; we would take the long way, hopefully making it to those Stairways in about +10 hours. Up the beach, then we cut up and over via Stairways, streets and little-known paths to Delridge. We made the Duwamish River crossing before 9 AM and rolled into our first mobile aid station at Oxbow Park – home of the iconic Hats & Boots. My wife and 4-year old were waiting with snacks and water. This crew was more than 30 minutes ahead of last year’s pace.

Hats & Boots at Oxbow Park in Georgetown
Hats & Boots at Oxbow Park in Georgetown Photo: Martin Criminale

We jogged out Corson Ave to Lucile St, crossing under I-5 for the first time and jogged into Beacon Hill. Ascending the first Stairway through Maple School Ravine, we made our way across Beacon Ave. Alex got a text from Ryan and Genia, who would meet us at Ferdinand, off Lake Washington. Picking up two more fresh-legged ultrarunners kept our pace constant,  if not a bit fast. Although I stressed safety, I was more than happy that we were able to jaywalk across Rainier Ave. multiple times. This crazy route means that we would cross this busy thoroughfare four times in order to hit all the Stairways, and I felt like it really bogged us down last year. By the end of the Southeast Section (Beacon Hill/Rainier Valley/Mt. Baker), we would have run just about half of the Foot Tour. Heating up, my Dad caught up with us for the 2nd mobile aid station at the East Portal Viewpoint, which overlooks I-90 and Lake Washington. Martin left us here, vowing an avenging full-day Foot Tour next year. My dad was cranking some 80s music from his limited collection of CDs. Let’s get physical!

Southeast Section
Southeast Section

When I first started toying with the idea of running long distance stairs, I was set on the idea that I would run every step. It might be a process to get there, but I would get there. Then, I started thinking about doing it across the whole city, connecting not only stairs, but also connecting neighborhoods, parks, sights and sounds of the Emerald City. After some reconnaissance, which I called “Stair Recons,” I learned how impractical it was for me over long distance to run between the stairs, then sprint up the stairways like I was some stair climbing sport. Ascending some stairs after hours on your feet requires full-body engagement with hands pulling myself up the railings or hands on quads/knees pushing down to make the elevation change. Making progress over the Stairways and through the city becomes a dance where the environment shapes everyone’s movement differently.

While I invented this zig-zagging path through the city, I had a legacy of information to feed my desires thanks to earlier efforts to inventory, chronicle and advocate for public stairs in Seattle. See below for a good list of resources from Doug Beyerlein, Susan Ralph and David Ott, and also Jake and Cathy Jaramillo. The Foot Tour adopts Doug Beyerlein’s method for counting public stairways. The most pronounced distinction is that the public stairways on the Foot Tour have 100 or more stairs, which distinguishes them from the minor stairways in the city.

Central Section
Central Section

Seven hours in, my Garmin had died. I left it in my food box in my Dad’s van. We crossed up and over the Mt. Baker ridge, and began the Central Section. I consider this one of the more complicated and gritty urban sections. My phone had pinged and by the time I looked at it, Jon was on our tail at Sam Smith Park. Now seven strong, we cruised through Frink Park and Leschi via some windy streets above Lake Washington. Through Madrona Park, and then into Denny-Blaine, we cut west and then up Madison Ave until we reach downtown. Ahead of schedule, we picked up Brian along Madison. At the top of 1st Hill, we made a pit stop at Starbucks for some iced beverages before heading to Freeway Park.

It gets crazy through downtown, and I am not sure if I really have the best route through here that loops us through Pike Place Market – shoulder to sweaty shoulder with tourists. Maybe the second loop was too much? Forty-five minutes ago we were in a forested park on Lake Washington, weren’t we? The diversity of sights and sounds on the Foot Tour is overwhelming and hard to explain. We beat it out of there towards Capitol Hill and the biggest Stairways in town. Forty miles in, want to bear crawl the next one? I was dragging by the time we rounded Volunteer Park, and I was pretty sure I would hold the group back if I couldn’t lock it up. Brian chatted me up about work, but I was hitting a low point in my Foot Tour experience. I talked myself out of some negative self talk, but I was pushing through 10, then more miles with some sharpish pains. We refreshed with one more mobile aid from my Dad’s van in Interlaken Park. I knew it was a weird idea, but I sat down for the first time. We ate a whole watermelon between us all! Then, we descended towards Montlake.

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Photo: Steven Kent

Five years ago, having moved to Seattle with my then girlfriend, now wife (TGNW?), we rented an apartment in Lower Queen Anne. At that time, I was run/bike commuting to the ferry at the Colman dock. Stairs. Were. Everywhere. In learning more about our new neighborhood and wanting to explore the city while running, I came upon an article by Yitka Winn in Outdoors NW called, “Mission accomplished! Seattle’s 525 staircases ascended.” A group of friends had systematically knocked off all the public stairs in the city. Internally I thought, “I am going to do that. Look at all these stairs around me.” Having sold my car, and now being a one-car family, it is sometimes tough to make it to the mountains all the time. This way, I could just jog out my front door and start running, and attempt to do as much elevation as I could on city streets without doing hill repeats.

Subsequently, I met Yitka a few months later at the first Vashon Island Ultramarathon (she finished first woman BTW). I told her how much I enjoyed the article and I probably told her some semblance of an early plan. Not until I set up the Seattle Stairway Foot Tour Facebook page did I realize that Craig Foster, fellow Seattle Mountain Running Group member, was one of the crew in the Outdoors NW that realized all the stairs in the city. On the few runs I have shared with Craig, I have soaked all the tidbits of knowledge I could get from him.

Northeast Section
Northeast Section

Car traffic was Crazy along Montlake with a capital C. I felt lucky to be on foot. With the fewest Stairways, Northeast Seattle is kind of bland elevation-wise, but it does afford some mellow running through University of Washington and less traffic distractions  while on the Burke Gilman Trail. What, another mobile aid station?! Susie met us for the second year in a row at the 52nd St Stairway in Ravenna. Yummy! This was like eating and drinking contest with exercise and scenery included (going to steal that Sunny Blende quote). 52nd is the most northeasterly stair, then we take the most direct route towards Queen Anne and Magnolia. The group decided to cut straight through UW back to the Burke Gilman Trail…and straight into the heart of the Solstice Festival.

Delving into the wayback machine: On the summer solstice of 2014, a small group of us set out complete almost the same 100 kilometer route that promised 11,000 feet of elevation change, and 15,000 stairs to traverse. It was epic, but we fell short of completing the planned route. Stats from the running group: 55 miles, +8167 feet of elevation gain / – 7357 feet of elevation loss over 66 stairways and 9577 steps on stairways. Sticking to a daylight schedule, total time on our feet was 15 hours 38 minutes (average pace 17 minute/miles). See Jean-Michel’s data here (~13 hours before our battery died). Andrew Lichtman, accompanied by Vivian Doorn, completed 50+ miles over two days of trekking across the Emerald City! They ended their journey in Magnolia’s Discovery Park.

Prior to, and then after last year’s adventure, I walked and talked with Andrew Lichtman to discuss philosophy and logistics of the Foot Tour. Andrew, along with some other go-getters, has been instrumental in nurturing a culture (sub-culture?) in Los Angeles that celebrates public stairs. Each spring, hundreds of people gather for The Big Parade through LA’s neighborhoods via the stairs. Lichtman has completed the Inman 300, an epic 200-mile route that traverses the LA basin from mountains to ocean. A charismatic soul, Andrew reinforced the importance of some basic rules as well as making directions clearer and route more accessible. With some slight tweaks and a mad rush of writing, I better developed the Google map and the Foot Tour guide. With individual aspirations, I liked running the city in this manner, but the route still involves a good amount of wayfinding and patience. Still, only a handful of people have visited all the Seattle Stairways.

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Alki Liberty. Photo: Steven Kent

I wanted to make the Foot Tour more accessible (much of the planning documents live on Google Drive). Amazingly, just weeks after completing the Inman 300 this spring, local adventurer, Kelly Wiley Lane circumnavigated a longer loop around the Seattle Stairways over several days of commuting and hiking. My hope is that people can take the guide and map and set off on their own adventures at their leisure.

One other important goal of mine was illuminate the importance of these infrastructure assets as the “vertical sidewalks” that allow people to travel on foot to carry out their daily lives. There are beautiful Stairways, then there are litter-ridden, grimy ones that are in disrepair and falling apart. Only a couple a year get major maintenance that they deserve. I truly respect the Seattle Department of Transportation carpenters that build and maintain the Stairways.

 

 

 

 

Sadly, I did not complete the full Foot Tour route again this year. About the time we hit Interlaken Park, I could feel my back continuing to tighten up and a sharp pain in my foot that wouldn’t seem to go away. I did not want to compromise my run at for Cascade Crest 100 in August (still waitlisted!). After we ascended the most northern Stairway in Ravenna, I told the group to go get it if I fell behind. I kinda limped into the University of Washington, and slowed to a jog and then a brisk walk along the Burke Gilman Trail. I texted my wife and let her know I was going to hike home…actually wade home through the eclectic throng of people headed home after the Fremont Solstice Parade. I had already picked up my trekking poles at the 50K mark and felt good walking, enjoying the comedy of my surroundings as well as my dirty, but amazingly bright appearance.

Fifty miles after I started (my data to the 50K mark), I walk in my front door. I receive a big hug from my 4-year old and my wife. I walk in and set my poles by the fireplace. She asks, “How do you feel?”

I reply, “I feel awesome…tired. They are still out there.” I just ran one big lap around the city. Who does that? I showered, ate, and called Doug. The main group had pulled away in Beacon Hill, but I was confident he knew the route well and was chugging along. When we spoke, he informed me that he had made it to UW, and was also making his way back to Queen Anne to call it a day.

Mostly Magnolia
Mostly Magnolia

Reviewing Steven Kent’s run data, I see those guys clicked off some fast miles all the way into Magnolia. I know they made to the Western States Pre-Party at Seven Hills Running Shop. The 7 Hills crew provided some nutrition and laughs, then the remaining group of four headed into Discovery Park. Steven pings me over Facebook Messenger throughout the rest of the run. Complicated trails crisscross the 500-acre park. I see they got a little off track a few times in Disco and southeast Queen Anne, but managed to navigate some of the most gorgeous natural areas and hills in Seattle – a highlight of the Foot Tour that comes late in the day.

I think the sun was going down by the time they reached Queen Anne stair country, wrapping around the west side of the hill. At some point, they climb up 3rd Ave W, turn right, and they are confronted with the quintessential Seattle skyline at Kerry Park. It isn’t over yet. They travel east and then drop down to Mercer St to an underpass that leads to Lake Union. While the Howe Street Stairs are the single biggest Stairway, the Galer Stair Complex encompasses four big sets of stairs in a row. Climbing over 300 feet in about a half mile, we save the best for last.

Queen Anne!
Queen Anne!

Ultimately, this year, the Foot Tour outlasted daylight hours. “Official” Only Known Time is 17 hours and 22 minutes, with a distance of 68.2 miles (and a whopping 10,198 ft of elevation gain), on this 2015 Celestial Edition of the Tour. Steven Kent and Alex Swanson went the full distance! We swelled to 9 person gang in the central part of town. In addition to the rockstar 100k finishers, runners also included: Doug Beyerlein, myself, Ryan McKnight, Genia Kasey-McKnight (completed ~50 miles); John Lumb (jiggied his own 40ish miler on the Queen Anne & Magnolia-Central sections of the route), and; Brian Landau (joined for most of the Central section). Shikha Jain independently hiked in the Leschi /Madrona neighborhood Stairways.

Late night, I am passed out at home, trying to keep a headache at bay. At 10:37 PM, Messenger pings me:

Steven: “We are at the finish. I think? The gps coordinates had us over shoot the finish. We are now back tracking. Where are you?”

The beginning of the end
The beginning of the end. Photo: Steven Kent

Feeling like a jerk, I leap out of bed and jump in the car. I find them about 11 PM in front of Molly Moon’s Ice Cream Shop. We make moves to get everyone back to their cars, and proudly, I make a last-minute delivery of Alex to the Vashon Ferry that leaves at 11:45 PM to get him back home to the island. This is how one big day in the Emerald City ends. We could not have done it without the Yadrick and Van Den Ameele mobile aid stations! Thanks to everyone else for all your support and following along as we traversed stair country.

While I write this now, I don’t know the fate of the Seattle Stairway Foot Tour. It is replicable, the information is out there. Run it in sections, hike it in a few days, run it all. My family and I are buying our first house in Tacoma, WA. I am not super-familiar with Stairways in other cities, although like many, my desire for a little wandering will fuel some urban adventures in the future. By the Solstice next year, we may be running a big lap around the City of Destiny!

 

 

 

More Stairway Reading Than You Can Stand

Beyerlein, Doug. Seattle Stairs. Community Walk. http://www.communitywalk.com/seattle/wa/seattle_stairs/map/388644#0004p4@c

Beyerlein, Doug. Stairs of the Pacific Northwest. Northwest Runner. October 2009. http://www.publicstairs.com/index_000019.htm

Fonda, Laura. Epic Stairway Run makes its way through Queen Anne this Saturday. Queen Anne View. June 14, 2014.http://www.queenanneview.com/2014/06/16/epic-stairway-run-makes-its-way-through-queen-anne-next-saturday

Horton, Thomas. Queen Anne Public Stairs. http://qastairs.com/index.html

Jaramillo, Jake and Cathy. Seattle Stairway Walks: An Up-And-Down Guide To City Neighborhoods. Mountaineer Books. November 12, 2012.

Koeppel, Dan. “I Climbed Los Angeles: One small step for our stair-obsessed man, one giant leap for fitness freaks everywhere.” Backpacker Magazine, June 2004. http://www.backpacker.com/gear/electronics/gps-units/i-climbed-los-angeles/#sthash.i1qNtcW6.dpuf

PublicStairs.com. http://www.publicstairs.com

Seattle Stairway Foot Tour Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/seastairrun

Seattle Stairway Foot Tour Google Map https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zRqVEVOvaI2Y.kmPbInSmwhfk

Seattle Stairway Walks. http://www.seattlestairwaywalks.com

Thomas, Liz. “Walking the world’s first urban thru-hike.” Liz Thomas: Long Distance Adventure Hiking. May 7, 2013.http://www.eathomas.com/2013/05/07/walking-the-worlds-first-urban-thru-hike

Wiley Lane, Kelly. Adventures by Foot Blog. February 2015. http://adventuresbyfoot.blogspot.com

Winn, Yitka. “Mission accomplished! Seattle’s 525 staircases ascended.” Outdoors NW. July/August 2010. http://sleepinglady.com/pdfs/Outdoors%20NW%20JulyAugust%202010.pdf

Yandel, Jeannie. The Hidden Legacy of Seattle Stairways. February 8, 2013. http://kuow.org/post/hidden-legacy-seattle-stairways

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