NORTH ROYALTON – As she climbed up the 42 flights of stairs to the top of the Terminal Tower, Lisa Willey huffed and puffed, but she kept moving.

It was grueling and exhausting to say the least, but she made it to the top in 27 minutes and 27 seconds. She wasn’t there to get in a good workout or impress people with her time. She was there to remember her dad, the late Ward 3 Councilman Don Willey.

Lisa Willey was one of more than 648 people who participated in the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb on March 1.

Lisa Willey, her sister Denise, and current Ward 3 Councilman Dan Langshaw formed Team Willey to celebrate Don’s memory and support the association’s research, education and advocacy efforts for lung diseases and conditions. For this team in particular, the date held special meaning. It was one year to the day that Don Willey died of lung cancer.

It was emotional to say the least.

“Definitely. I thought about him,” Lisa Willey said. “Especially at different times when I would stop to catch my breath. I was reminded that he would be with me when I was climbing. When I finished and saw my time, I knew that he was there. I managed to finish in 27 minutes and 27 seconds. Twenty-seven is my favorite number. It’s my birthday.”

What she misses most about her dad, what many miss about the beloved councilman, is his wonderful sense of humor.

“With his passing, it’s been so serious. He would want to be laughing. I miss his sense of humor. He was always smiling, always laughing,” Lisa Willey remembers.

Langshaw’s mind was racing as he climbed up the steps, too. Don Willey was on his mind, as well as thoughts of 9/11.

“I thought about how firefighters on 9/11 raced up double this amount of stairs to rescue people and how amazing our first responders are,” he said. “I also thought about Don Willey and how he must be getting a good laugh in heaven seeing me run up all these stairs. I thought no matter how much huffing and puffing I did to get to the top, it was all worth it to help those with lung conditions or diseases like Don.”

Team Willey raised nearly $1,000 for the American Lung Association.

Also running for a lost loved one was North Royalton firefighter Christian Sary, 42, flanked by fellow firefighters Mark Baltakis, 37; Michael Webb, 31; Sean Strefas, 28; and George Erker, 33. Sary’s father-in-law Michael Stanley lost his wife Denise Skinner to lung cancer in September 2011.

Firefighter teams, 10 in total, competed against one another in the event in full gear – firefighter pants, jacket, air tank and helmet – which packs on an incredibly heavy 50 to 60 additional pounds. It makes a difference when running 42 flights, which is 804 steps.

Last year, they took second and were hoping for a first-place finish this time around, but they would wind up taking second again, which wasn’t too shabby.

Sary was really racing against himself. Last year, he finished in 19 minutes and was extremely disappointed in that time.

How’d he fare this time around?

“I made it in 13 minutes and 32 seconds,” he said. “I felt good. I was very happy with it. It was a lot quicker than last year.”

Everybody had great time, literally. Erker’s time was 9 minutes and 43 seconds, Baltakis’s time was 9 minutes and 51 seconds, and Strefas’s time was 16 minutes and 48 seconds, which was three or four minutes better than his time last year too.

Webb said most everyone wears ear buds and gets pumped up for the climb on music. Many time their song lengths strategically to help keep pace. That was Webb’s tactic.

“For me personally, I started to feel a little tired at Floor 8. From there, I don’t look at the numbers, I just kept my head down, remembered my technique taking two steps at a time and using the railing to help pull myself. You just keep going and finish as fast as you can,” Webb said.

For him, it’s not really about a loved one but just the love of the challenge.

“I do it for the challenge of climbing, for the good cause, for the motivation of exercising,” he added.

A team’s top three scores are averaged together to come up with the rankings.

The Lyndhurst Fire Department took first once again.

North Royalton’s already talking about the rematch.

“Oh yeah. I’m ready to go now,” Sary said.

No matter how they place, Fire Chief Bob Chegan said he’s proud of his men for giving their all.

“They’re already planning next year, which is great. As everyone’s getting older it’s good to see them working on the physical fitness end of it. A third of our department is 50 years or older. We’re not getting any younger, but we’re still handling calls, trying to stay tough and in shape,” he said. “This started as a personal goal for one firefighter and now others joined in to help his cause. There’s a closeness here more than most workforces, because we do spend so much time together. It’s nice to see.”

Will Team Willey be back?

“We’re already talking about next year,” Lisa Willey said.

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