Sally Kalksma, the only American woman to compete in the elite race to the top of the Eiffel Tower this year, reached the finish line under the stars and high above shimmering Paris in only 16 minutes.
That is, she flew up 1,665 noisy metal stairs Wednesday in less time than it takes to pour and sip a celebratory flute of champagne. Her pace: 100 steps a minute.
Afterward, the cancer survivor from the Jersey Shore sent a text from Paris saying she was “very pleased” with her feat, though she wasn’t among the top finalists in the invitation-only race against 39 other ranked contestants from around the world.
“The Eiffel was extra-special this year because they invited me last year but I had to decline to undergo a stem cell transplant. So this year I took it all in when I got to the top to reflect on what I went through and how far I came in a year to get there,” she wrote.
Bitter cold winds and rain greeted the athletes on the open-air staircase at La Verticale de la Tour Eiffel, while the tower sparkled with thousands of flashing yellow lights. The racers were released from the starting gate one at a time, every two to three minutes, and darted across a red carpet at the bottom before beginning their ascent.
Kalksma said the race was difficult. A livestream feed of the event showed her chewing gum nervously before it began, and pumping her arms and walking in place to warm up. Then off she went, using her gloved hands to grab the handrails and propel herself up the narrow winding staircase. Her strategy, she said in an earlier interview, was to keep repeating to herself: “Get to the top. Don’t stop.”
It worked — again. Kalksma, 55, of Pine Beach, who has three grown children, has completed more than 50 skyscraper runs, including some up the Mellon Bank building in Philadelphia and several at the Empire State Building. Soon after she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood, her husband died of melanoma, and she discovered that pounding away at thousands of stairs was a great way to release her stress.
Nine years ago, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation invited her to participate in her first race as a fund-raiser, and she was hooked. Earlier this month, the HeadStrong Foundation honored her as patient of the year at its banquet at the Hilton Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing.
At the Eiffel Tower, the winner was Suzy Walsham, 44, an Australian native who lives in Singapore. She also won at least six races up the Empire State Building and took the title at the Eiffel last year. She finished in 10 minutes.
The only other American to compete at the Eiffel, but not in the elite category, was David Garcia, 38, of Los Angeles. He began stair climbing six years ago as a way to keep off the more than 100 pounds he shed during a long journey to reduce his weight of 402 pounds.
When he reached the top, he sobbed with emotion. “It’s just an incredible feeling. I worked hard to make a lot of changes in my life and if any people out there think it’s too late, I’m proof it’s not,” he said.
During the run, Daniel Cecetka, president of the Tower Running World Association, said, “The first-ever stair climbing race was held here [at the Eiffel] more than 100 years ago.” He said that the sport is growing and that there were 288 international tower races held last year, with about 260,000 participants.
Kalksma was ranked 13th among female stair climbers in the United States in 2016, according to the USA Stair Climbing Association. She didn’t race in 2017, when she was recovering from her surgery.
She returned to the sport this year with the Eiffel run and is lining up more skyscraper races.
“I’m not going to stop climbing until there is a cure,” she said in her text from Paris. “I will keep pushing myself to inspire all cancer patients not to give up. Live life to the fullest.”