CLEVELAND – Two local teams, the North Royalton Fire Department and Team Willey, fought to climb to the top of the Terminal Tower in a race against the clock in memory of fallen loved ones who have succumbed to lung diseases.

Every year a team of firefighters – Mark Baltakis, Michael Webb, Sean Strefas, George Erker and Ken Kulczycki – rally around their brother, fellow fireman Christian Sary, at the American Lung Association’s Annual Fight for Air Stair Climb at the Terminal Tower March 7.

Sary organized the team a few years ago in honor of his father-in-law’s late wife, Denise Skinner, who died of lung cancer in September 2011. The goal is to raise awareness for various lung diseases such as cancer, but also asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and to raise dollars to combat these diseases.

“Lung disease among us is a reality,” Sary said.

The team raised more than $1,000 and placed third in the firemen category this year. This climb is no easy task, especially for the firemen. Not only are they racing up all 42 flights of stairs, or 804 steps, but they are doing so while suited up in full gear – firefighter pants, jacket, helmet, air tank and gear – which adds another 60-plus pounds of weight.

The team, which usually places second, is bummed about how they finished this time around, but it has lit a fire in them.

“We are pretty disappointed over our placing third, but it’s a great motivation for next year,” Sary said. “Last year my time was 13:32, this year it was 15:36.”

Sary’s biggest opponent will be himself and besting his prior times next go around.

This climb is as challenging mentally as it is physically. When Sary was charging up the stairs, he kept telling himself “just five more flights.”

“I just kept thinking short-term goals. I could not think to myself at floor 12, I’ve got 30 more floors, so I kept telling myself, ‘five more flights, just do five more flights.’ It’s something I learned from running. You can’t think about the 12 miles you’re going to run, three or four miles you can manage,” he said, of his mental strategy.

As for training, the team really never stops training. Much of the guys exercise regularly. They are avid runners and ultra runners to stay physically fit and in peak condition for the demands of the job.

“All of us exercise and stay active, so I don’t know if training ever really stops. We just start to focus on the stairs a few months out from the event,” Sary explained.

Another local team was racing up the stairs too, giving it their all.

Team Willey, comprised of sisters Lisa and Denise Willey and Ward 3 Councilman Dan Langshaw, nearly doubled the amount of money they raised over last year. The team honors the sisters’ father and former Ward 3 Councilman Don Willey.

March 1 marked the second anniversary of Willey’s passing. He died while serving in his last term as councilman just a few short months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Last year the team collectively raised $880 for the cause. This year they stepped up their efforts and raised nearly $1,600.

Lisa Willey, the team captain, said this year the three teammates were extremely competitive, all finishing within a minute apart, which her dad would have gotten a kick out of. He was on her mind the entire day, not just during the climb. She knows he would be proud because they raised so much, and Willey was known for helping people. She also knows he would be proud because she increased her time significantly, going from 27:27 last year to 14:41 this year.

“I shaved off a pretty good chunk of time with all the training I did. It helped quite a bit,” she said.

Next year they want to sport matching shirts with crazy hats. Willey was known for his hats. In fact, sometimes he’d wear a Michigan hat just to razz people.

Willey was on Langshaw’s mind too.

“I miss my friend and predecessor Don Willey. He had such an impact on my life, and I couldn’t think of a better way to honor his memory than by doing something to help others,” he said. “And, of course, Don always enjoyed a good laugh. Me running up 42 floors is a funny sight, that’s for sure.”

Langshaw bested his prior time, coming in at 13:58 compared to last year’s 15:12. Though he improved, his future stepson thinks he can do better and has volunteered to whip him into shape for next year.

“My fiancee’s son Henry told me he will train me starting now,” Langshaw chuckled, “so I can be as fast as the firefighters.”

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