When Michael Karlin ran track for Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, he wasn’t — as he put it — any good.
A young Karlin, now 41 with a lanky and seemingly-unathletic build, ran a mile in six-plus minutes and was fairly discouraged by the entire concept of racing competitively.
“I got lapped on the mile,” Karlin said. “I had recollections that I never wanted to do this stuff again. Especially when you’re young to get killed like that, it’s never fun.”
Roughly 23 years later, not only can Karlin run the mile nearly a minute faster than he did in high school, but he’s ranked 50th in the world in the remarkably demanding sport of stair climbing.
Stair climbing features sprint and marathon-distance races up (and sometimes down) lengthy flights of stairs. The Empire State Building, the Willis Tower and the U.S. Bank Tower are all skyscrapers in which competitive stair climbers race to the top in an all-out display of strength, balance and wild desire.
“I know a lot of very good athletes who won’t go near this, they’re terrified of it,” said Karlin, who lives in Bethesda and works as an entrepreneur in the biotechnology and Internet fields.
Karlin specializes in sprint-distance climbs that take the top performers anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to complete depending on the course.
In April 2012, after failing to complete the course in 2011, Karlin became the first American to finish the Mount Everest Stair Marathon in Radebeul, Germany. The climbers have 24 hours to finish a course that requires 100 laps on a 397-step staircase (up and down), which happens to be equivalent to the vertical distance from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest. And back. The course, which is comprised of 85 percent stairs and 15 percent hills, also is equivalent to the horizontal distance of two full marathons.
Karlin conquered the 39,700 steps, while listening to a collection of 1980s rock music, in 23 hours, 20 minutes and 45 seconds.
During this successful second attempt at the challenge — around the lap where Karlin cramped in 2011 (he retired near lap 70 and roughly 18 and a half hours of climbing) — he achieved a mental breakthrough.
“I was kind of thinking to myself — this is both an amazing feat and a ridiculous feat,” he said. “Here we are, a bunch of guys going up and down a staircase, going nowhere, it’s kind of ridiculous.
“I was like, ‘I love it, but if I don’t finish, I’ll have to come back and do this crap again.’ You make fun of yourself and you’re like, ‘How stupid can this be?’ And I really motivated myself to pick it up and finish this thing. I didn’t let anything distract me from that point on.”
In 2005, Karlin was in a snowmobile accident that nearly ended his stair climbing career just as it was beginning. The vehicle crashed, flipped over and landed on his left ankle, shattering the bone. An emergency surgery required eight screws and a plate to be inserted into his leg. If Karlin’s middle-aged development into an elite athlete out of relative obscurity wasn’t enough of a testament to his determination and willpower, overcoming that type of injury and continuing to climb stairs competitively sure is.
“It makes a difference. I got the hardware removed, but there are compensations your muscles make,” Karlin said. “I do lose time. You feel it. On the flip side, the fact that I can compete at the global level and have a world ranking, I’m proud of myself for that.”
So how did Karlin discover stair climbing in the first place?
“I was going to the gym and working out and I noticed I was very good at the step mill,” Karlin said. “I started working with a terrific personal trainer and the combination of the two was great.”
Karlin began researching races and entered himself into an Empire State Building race in 2005. His admiration for the sport grew from there. Karlin said he competes in six to 10 races per year, which usually are stacked during the colder months, and he’s sore for two or three weeks after every event.
“He had no real athleticism, per say, but he just wanted to strengthen his core,” Karlin’s trainer Elvin Baldwin said. “I saw something more in him and we started to get into performance training and he became a very good athlete.
“The fact that he is so coachable really determines his success.”
Naturally, it can get pretty tight in the staircase, especially for the elite climbers. But proper preparation and strategy can help climbers achieve the best time possible. Always use the hand rail, Karlin said, and pivot on the landings instead of shuffling your feet or taking baby steps. Slower climbers on the right, faster climbers on the left.
If Karlin’s participating in a sprint-distance climb and needs to stop for water, he’s having a bad day. But it’s still likely better than how he performed in high school.
“I’m a late bloomer,” Karlin said. “You preserve some of your energy that might have been expended by some other athletes at the high school level. I had the reserve and it kind of helps me to take a bit of revenge on the track.”