Jessa Turner of Berea, number six in a line of more than 300, did little jumps straight into the air as if powered by springs as she got ready to run up 51 stories of steps in Lexington's Urban Mountain Challenge.
"I wanted something physical to do in January that wasn't weather-dependent," she said before she entered the stairwell at the Central Bank building on Saturday morning while the song Eye of the Tiger boomed in the background.
Eleven minutes, 55 seconds and a quick jaunt across Vine Street later, she emerged on the 30th floor of the Lexington Financial Center.
Runners started every 20 seconds in order to avoid clogging the stairway; a runners' chute was set up between the Central Bank building and the Financial Center so that climbers could make a quick switch between buildings.
The second year of the Urban Mountain Challenge added a second set of "urban mountain" stairs to climb, at Central Bank. While last year's event drew 338 participants, this year's group of heart-healthy early risers numbered 308. Collectively, more than 13,000 flights of stairs were climbed.
Participants could run one or both sets of steps for a total of 51 stories — 1,134 steps in all — or run in relay teams, with each racer taking one set of steps. The youngest participant was 14, the oldest 68.
Some Lexington firefighters took on an extra load, trudging the stairs with 40 to 75 pounds of their equipment.
Firefighter Paul Richardson dripped sweat as he drank from a water bottle on the 30th floor of the financial center after his climb, but he said he felt great.
How did he train? Lots of "explosive cardio," and, of course, stair climbing.
John Durr, president of Lexington's Fraternal Order of Firefighters, stood in the lobby at the Central Bank building waiting to don his equipment. He said that running the steps with gear "is just a challenge for my job. We could roll up to this place any day and it be on fire."
Signs on the doors near the steps encouraged participants with witticisms including, "Pain Is Only Temporary: Not Finishing Is Forever."
Top individual finishers this year were Josh Nadzam, 24, who ran the stairs of the two towers in 8:08, and Hallie Walther, 15, who finished first among women with a time of 10:12.
Nadzam, who ran the mile and cross country for the University of Kentucky, where he is now a graduate student in social work, said the stair climbing was different than running a 5K, during which runners can slow down to recover a bit when they feel pain. In stair climbing, he said, the stairs just keep coming.
Nadzam runs about 60 miles a week to keep in shape.
Walther, a swimmer for Henry Clay High School and the Lexington Dolphins, said that although she didn't specifically train for the event, she was determined to better her performance from last year — when she was 4 seconds behind the top-finishing female — and win the women's division.
The men's and women's top finishers from last year, when the challenge was limited to one tower, did not participate this year, but they had some tips for those who may participate in the future.
Jonathan Feddock, a Lexington oncologist who won the men's division in 2012 with a time of 2 minutes, 46 seconds, said: "Use the handrails ... don't just run up the center."
Farm owner Vanessa Seitz of Versailles, who topped the women's finishers in 2012 with 4 minutes, 22 seconds, noted that the air in the stairways is dry and dusty, and it helps to put a cough drop in your cheek "because it opens your airways."
The Urban Mountain Challenge is coordinated by the Downtown Lexington Corporation and presented by LEX 18 and sponsored by Central Bank. Proceeds from registration ($35 or $45 for individuals; $55 for teams of two people each) benefit Lexington's fire department for first responder equipment and supply needs; DLC Foundation; and an initiative for a produce bus to provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables in underserved areas of Lexington.