NORTH ROYALTON — Fighting for air is a horrible experience, and that’s what many with respiratory conditions face.

But local firemen and residents are teaming up to fight back against lung diseases by putting themselves in their loved ones’ shoes to raise money for the American Lung Association and to honor their family members’ and friends’ memory later this year.

Firefighter Christian Sary – surrounded by his fire station brothers firefighters Mark Baltakis, Michael Webb, Sean Strefas and George Erker – will be climbing in honor of his father-in-law’s late wife Denise Skinner.

Sisters Denise and Lisa Willey, joined by Ward 3 Councilman Dan Langshaw, will climb for their late father and beloved former Ward 3 Councilman Don Willey.

All participated last year in the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb hosted at the Terminal Tower and will again March 7.

It’s 42 flights of stairs with participants trying to climb them as fast as they can.

As if that weren’t challenging enough, firefighters will be racing up the flights in full gear, adding an additional 60 pounds or so.

Here’s what the Lung Association’s Web site, www.lung.org, has to say about this now popular climb:

“It is a challenge of your lungs, your physical stamina and your determination to end lung disease. You will be climbing for those affected by asthma, from infants to older adults. You will be climbing for those who have been diagnosed with lung cancer, which is the leading cancer killer and afflicts both smokers and non-smokers. You will be climbing for those who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and struggle to breathe every day of their lives. The climb will take you to the top floors of one of your city’s tallest buildings, one step at a time. Floor by floor, you will be raising awareness and funds for the fight against breath-taking lung diseases. You will be climbing because you care.”

The Fight for Air Climb is about raising funds for research, advocacy for cleaner air and support for those who want healthy lungs and freedom from smoking. Climbers can participate individually or on a team.

The climb is daunting, grueling, but it’s a great cause that’s near and dear to these local participants.

“My father-in-law’s wife passed away from lung cancer in September 2011,” Sary said. “I do this for her.”

Of course, his brothers at the station would never let him go it alone. Each year they run up the stairs alongside him.

“We just want to support him, to support us, to help get the guys together and do something like this to test our skills and see what we can do. It’s the camaraderie, and it’s a great cause too,” Baltakis said.

Willey was loved many. He was a jokester, council’s comic relief. Mention him and you’re met with a storehouse of stories about his antics.

Willey developed a persistent cough in 2012. He got it checked out and in the meantime asked wife Judy and his daughters for a family vacation, almost sensing what was happening.

The four went on a cruise in August that year. In October, he was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer.

Just five months later, he passed away peacefully in his sleep March 1, 2013. He was serving in his 12th and final year as Ward 3 councilman.

He is far from forgotten. Councilmen, the mayor and city hall staffers think of him often, mention him often and always smile and laugh sharing memories of him.

Lisa Willey knew without a doubt that her father was with her as she climbed last year.

Her favorite number 27 is also her birthday. She finished last year’s climb in 27 minutes and 27 seconds. She misses her dad dearly. When she got a new phone, she made sure she found a way to preserve all his text messages and voicemail.

“I miss his sense of humor. It’s important we continue to honor his memory and raise money for a really important cause. In addition to him, we have a couple other friends who have lost loved ones to lung cancer, so we are climbing for a couple people, in addition to my dad,” she said.

Langshaw misses him too.

“It’s hard to believe that we lost Don two years ago. I still miss him and know he is happy with what I am doing to serve the residents of Ward 3 and probably has a good smile on his face up above. I’m climbing up all those 42 floors of Terminal Tower once again to honor his memory and all those in my ward and city who are battling some kind of respiratory disease or disorder,” he said.

With any race, there’s a competitive element, vying against other fire departments, racing against oneself.

Sary is always up against himself during the climb. In 2013, he finished in 19 minutes and was extremely disappointed, so last year he trained hard to improve and he did, finishing in an incredible 13 minutes and 32 seconds last year.

“I’m just shooting for the 15 minute time range,” he said this time. “I’m running the stairs here at the station in my gear, I run 6-8 miles a couple times a week. When I’m training, I might run 40-60 miles a week, and that’s running with a stroller, I run with my daughter.”

Baltakis is running the stairs at the station too, but he also holds weights while doing a stairmill.

He also runs about twice a week, bikes twice a week and lifts twice a week. He’s racing himself too. He finished in 9 minutes and 51 seconds last year.

“My personal goal is to try and beat my time from last year. Last year was tough, I had just had a baby girl. She’s 10 months now. I wasn’t training as hard last year, but I have more energy this time,” he said.

Lisa Wiley has an indoor trainer set up to ride her bike through the winter. She rides for an hour a couple times a week and will increase that. Twice a week, she’s on the stairs at work which is 10 flights and plans to do so more frequently.

Langshaw, who jokes that he might just need an oxygen mask from the firemen the day of the climb, will be hitting up the stair stepper soon too to help build stamina.

The firemen team and Team Willey are raising money now through the event for the Lung Association. Team Willey has raised $325 so far.

“The money we raise will make a difference for so many families here in northeast Ohio,” Langshaw said.

For more information about Sary’s team or to donate, visit http://action.lung.org/site/TR/Climb/ALAMS_MidlandStates?team_id=103083&pg=team&fr_id=11056. For more information about Team Willey or to donate, visit http://action.lung.org/site/TR/Climb/ALAMS_MidlandStates?pg=team&fr_id=11056&team_id=101920.

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