About three and a half years ago, I bought a stairclimber and started using it regularly. My primary goal has always been aerobic fitness, though at the time I started I was also at the beginning of what would eventually be an approximately 30-pound weight loss. Since then I have done 342 workouts, through travel and sickness and Amy being born and even having to the replace the machine because it broke. About the third month or so of this, I developed the idea of doing the equivalent of a marathon – i.e. the same number of calories as would be expended by someone of my weight running 26.2 flat miles. To that end, I’ve done four half-marathon equivalents, working my way down from 108 minutes the first time (all numbers include breaks) to 79 for the most recent. I’ve never felt quite up to doing the whole thing, though . . . until now.

Two hours, forty-three minutes

Yes, that was my time for what I believe to be the caloric equivalent of a marathon today. Yes, I know the Boston marathon is tomorrow, but I decided this morning that I’d try it today if I felt good because I can’t be sure I’d feel as good tomorrow. Besides, I usually do well when I work out two days in a row, and I had just reached a new personal best during what was supposed to be training yesterday, so when early afternoon rolled around and I felt pretty good I decided to go for it. I did it in five sections of 31 minutes each, minus the last minute, with short breaks in between, at about 80% of my usual maximum rate. This was pretty much in accord with my original plan except that I had expected to stay closer to 75% and take longer breaks; the original plan was to squeak in just under three hours. The results were also pretty much what I anticipated, and what many sources have said to expect: double the distance, take 10% of the speed. This was my fifth-best workout according to my own scoring system, which is based on a similar formula but (intentionally) gives slightly more credit for longer workouts, further showing the accuracy of conventional wisdom.

If my translation between stairclimbing and running were totally accurate, this result would have put me just barely out of the top 25 for the Men’s Masters division of the 2006 Boston Marathon. Frankly, I know that’s not very realistic, but I don’t know how to do any better. I’ve tried finding information on how to correlate between the two forms of exercise, and mostly come up empty. I also don’t really know how accurate my machine’s calorie counting is, though I do know it undercounts steps by ~40% and even after that’s accounted for (which I did in determining my “finish line”) it counts about 30% fewer calories than the brand-name StairMaster machines I used to use at various health clubs. What I do know, from having counted the steps at various intensity levels myself, is that I climbed about 12K vertical feet. If anyone knows a scientifically based translation from that to running distance, let me know. I don’t pretend that I could actually run a marathon, but on the other hand I’m pretty skeptical that most marathoners – even good ones – could do what I just did either. They’re different kinds of exercise, suitable for different people. I’m a lousy runner, and probably always will be. I picked stairclimbing over running (or cycling, or swimming) as the focus of my exercise program for a reason, just as most runners probably made the opposite choice for a reason too. I’m sure many of them are lousy climbers, no matter how fast they are on a flat surface. (Yes, I know roads in general and the Boston Marathon route in particular are far from flat, but they’re even further from the kind of slope my climber simulates.)

All that said, I’ll reiterate that I don’t believe I’m in as good shape as a top-25 marathoner in my age group. Besides, I did cheat a little. I generally try to avoid putting my hands on the support bars like those health-club dandies who do 140 steps/minute because they’re taking three-inch steps with half their weight on their wrists. That’s not really doing them much good, and I’ve seen even less extreme offenders get in trouble when they take their act on a real hiking trail and twist an ankle or a knee because their strengthened big muscles allow them to go faster than their atrophied small ones (needed for balance and recovery) can keep them safe. I’m a big believer in stairclimbing without using the hands for support, but I do generally allow myself to put hands on for up to one sixth of a workout and this was no exception. That’s a luxury I wouldn’t have when climbing or running in the real world, and having to give up that relative rest would probably cost me 5-10% of my performance. I still think I’d be able to finish, though, and even at a 10% penalty I’d still be under three hours. With a reasonable amount of cross-training I think I could even get under the age-group qualifying time for the real Boston Marathon (3:45) but the effort:reward ratio for that is just too high to bother. “Real” marathoners might tell themselves that I’m just kidding myself until I’ve actually done what they do, but I think they’d be kidding themselves to think they can do what I do too, and anybody who has never done either just doesn’t get a say. No matter how you slice it, though, being able to exert yourself that hard for that long takes a lot of determination, and the training to get there even more. I won’t be looking down my nose at anyone running tomorrow, but now I feel like I can look such a person in the eye and say I understand what it takes.