Overlooking Lake Michigan, the view from the top of the US Bank Center in Milwaukee is breathtaking — especially if you walk the building’s 47 floors to get there.
On March 9, some 3,000 people will do just that, and not because the elevators are out of commission.
They will mount the building’s 1,034 stairs for the Fight for Air Climb, an annual fundraiser sponsored by the American Lung Association.
Kenosha resident Steve Laviolette will be one of those climbers. This year for the fourth time the 47-year-old will make the ascent in memory of his father, Glen Laviolette, who lived with chronic asthma for 30 years before he died in 2013.
In a recent phone interview, Steve recounted the circumstances of his father’s illness. Glen was in his 40s when he had his first asthma attack, which put him in the hospital for three weeks.
The maintenance medication prescribed at the time was prednisone, the side effects of which were pretty devastating, Steve said.
“It destroyed every joint in his body,” Steve said. “We even tried going to the Mayo Clinic to see if we could get Dad off of it.”
For the next 30 years, Glen’s family watched his “very slow decline,” Steve said. “The hardest part was that early in life my dad had been a mechanic who owned his own gas station and was a Harley rider.”
Even on medication, Glen continued to have one or two significant asthma attacks each year, Steve said. His family believes that the disease and the side effects of the prednisone contributed to his demise at age 78.
A year later after Glen’s death, Steve says he began taking “a more active role in my own health” and started running. “We have a family history of cancer and congestive heart failure and for me I recognized that the sedentary lifestyle would lead to early death.”
When Steve did his first climb in 2015, he says he “really underestimated” what it would take to complete it. He says he started by “hustling” a lot but has learned to just take the stairs at a “brisk walk.”
In each of his three climbs, Steve has made it to the top in 12 or 13 minutes. While it is not a race, some take it on as challenge, he said. “There are firemen and first responders who go up in full gear.”
Although it wasn’t his, the record for the climb is six minutes, Steve said.
To facilitate the progress of the 3,000 climbers, event organizers stagger starts three minutes apart.
Steve’s pre-climb training includes using a stair-climbing machine at home three to four times a week just before the event and “once or twice a week during the off season.”
He has also taken advantage of “practice climbs” to get a feel for the vertical course.
Additionally, Steve regularly participates in 5K runs. “Two years ago I ran a 5K and then did the stair climb in the same day.”
Steve also does the climb on behalf of his son, Nathan, 17, who has exercise-induced asthma. A member of the Tremper High School football team, Nathan uses an inhaler both before and after he exercises. “I’m doing everything I can to keep him off of prednisone,” Steve said.
Focusing on finding the best ways to manage asthma and other lung diseases is the goal of the annual Climb for Air events, noted Monique Hughes, director of development for the American Lung Association in Wisconsin.
“Asthma affects ability to take in air, and day-to-day life,” she said.
In Wisconsin, about 650,000 people suffer from lung disease, according to Hughes.
The onset of asthma can be at any age, Hughes said. According to the ALA, asthma affects some 6 million children in the U.S. and is the leading cause of school absenteeism.
While there is no cure for asthma, treatments range from quick bronchodilators to corticosteriods, including prednisone.
An asthma episode occurs when then the muscles around the airways become swollen, inflamed and constricted, explained Hughes. “It can be affected by different triggers: cold temperature, pollen, pet dander or pollutants.”
Hughes explained that asthma can be genetic or due to allergies or respiratory infection. “Every person is different. It is hard to narrow down asthma’s causes; this is why we need research dollars to figure it out.”
The American Lung Association has sponsored skyscraper stair climb fundraisers for more than 11 years. There are more than 40 Fight for Air stair climbs nationwide.
Now in its 11th year, the Milwaukee climb is a partnership between the ALA and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. It is the largest annual ALA climb in the nation, Hughes said. “Participants come from all over the nation, but mostly from southeast Wisconsin.”
In 2018, the Miwaukee Fight for Air Climb raised $740,000, a record for Milwaukee and the highest in the nation, reported Dona Winiski, ALA spokesperson. On the back of that, this year’s goal is $750,000.
For some, stair climbing is a competitive sport, Hughes said. “Most (participants) are local people doing this for lung disease, but there are professional stair climbers as well.”
The physical effort of the climb is a chance to raise money for the cause and also to consider those who live with respiratory challenges, Steve said.
“It really taxes your lungs,” he said. “It certainly makes me think about what my dad’s daily struggle was. It’s my once-a-year tribute to his memory.”