You'll never catch Ryoji Watanabe taking the lift instead of the stairs.
The Japanese athlete has become a record-breaking success thanks to the incredible speed in which he can scale skyscraper staircases.
He represented the "Vertical Kilometre" division of the Skyrunning World Championships. Skyrunning usually refers to a sport that takes athletes to mountain ranges. Its vertical division takes the "climbing" aspect of the sport to the urban area: stairs inside skyscrapers.
In 2017, Ryoji came third in Vertical World Circuit's annual ranking and was conquering stairs of tall buildings across the world.
And in 2020, Ryoji climbed up the stairs inside Tokyo Skytree - one of the tallest free-standing towers in the world - and broke the Guinness World Records title for the fastest vertical mile stair climbing (male) in a time of 1 hr 6 min 58 sec.
But how did Ryoji end up in the world of stair climbing? We chatted him to find out all about his passion.
A whole different kind of sport
Our team traveled to Tama, located roughly southwest of Tokyo prefecture, to meet Ryoji. It was in the middle of summer, but we were saved from the heat a bit, as we were shaded by deep forest, but walking a couple of steps was enough to feel the sweat coming out.
Ryoji was waiting for us deeper in the forest. Behind his back lay a long set of stairs that seemed as daunting to us as trying to scale a 50 ft wall.
"Before further ado, should we climb up?" Ryoji said shortly after saying hi.
While we did tell him in advance that we'd like to join him on a stair climb, we weren't mentally prepared for the challenge he presented us with.
We gathered our composure and started climbing, one step at a time.
Each step wasn't too high, so it wasn't hard to keep the pace, as long as we didn't look up to see the never-ending stairs lying ahead of us. The steps weren't completely flat, though, so we had to carefully watch our footing.
And by the time we got to the halfway point, we were starting to breathe a little heavier.
From there, we decided to run to the top. Ryoji told us that we could use the handrail to help us on our way. It was hard to keep up with Ryoji, but our initial impression when we got to the top was it was doable.
But something happened when we started walking down the stairs. For us, it was the quads and calves that were feeling it, making our descent quite difficult. Ryoji said: "Some people end up using smaller muscles like calves. You have to try and incorporate bigger muscles like your glutes. This is true for normal running as well, but even more so when it comes to the stairs.
"Remember that in races, this goes on for a thousand or more steps."
Now we were trembling.
Ryoji was born in February 1984. Although he is an athlete now, he wasn't good at sports during his childhood. Instead, he was hooked on watching TV and playing games whenever he had some free time. Ryoji didn't think he had any special skills at the time, nor did he have any goals or dreams.
"In elementary school, you have to do some calligraphy," he said. "I remember choosing the word 'dream' then because I had none. I wanted to have a dream."
Ryoji says he was a chubby boy back then, and he didn't like the way he looked. So when he entered middle school, he started doing table tennis to get fit.
"I chose table tennis because my dad was really good at it. He went to inter-high school competitions, and he continued to do well in Tokyo Metropolitan competitions as a non-professional. That's cool, right?"
However, there was another reason he chose table tennis: fear of other sports.
He explained: "For example, in baseball, if a ball hits you, it really hurts. I felt that in table tennis, you will be ok."
Ryoji really got into table tennis, but even with all the practise, the results weren't so fruitful. "So many kids do table tennis, so only a handful of students get to compete on a national level. Plus, I couldn't strategise. All in all, doing well in that sport was an impossible task. This kind of story might be common in many students, though."
More dreams broken
Once in University, Ryoji took a step back from sports; at the same time, he began to feel he wanted to find what he was passionate about and tackle it head-on.
"I started thinking about the things I only do at a young age. I thought hard about it, especially in the fourth year of university, and thought less about job searching."
That brought Ryoji back to sports. He knew that he was disadvantaged because elite athletes were competing during their university years as well. Nevertheless, he went to a boxing gym with the hope of becoming a professional boxer.
From there, he trained studiously for four years. However, the fear that struck him in his youth had returned again. Ryoji reacted too much to the opponent's punches due to fear. His attempt at turning professional had failed.
Finding a dream at 30
As soon as Ryoji stopped boxing, his weight started increasing. To tackle that, he began running as a hobby in 2010. He soon found out that there was a thing called trail running. He started and found he was good at it, often hitting the top 10 spots in races. Ryoji thinks his boxing training helped in his running.
Then in his 30s, Ryoji entered the Fuji Mountain Race just to see what would happen. To his surprise, he came in eighth place.
Realizing that running upwards was his thing, Ryoji found out about a stair-climbing race series called Vertical Kilometer. Even more, a local Japanese series was due to be held in 2015; the top finishers of the series would be selected as Team Japan for the international series. He took on the challenge, and he amazingly was selected for the team.
Although he was able to represent Japan in the realm of vertical climbing, Ryoji was not able to capitalize on the opportunity. In the Spanish event, for example, he finished in a disappointing 14th place. His journey wasn't over though, as Ryoji then found out about stair climbing.
"A representative from Sky Running Championship suggested I should try stair climbing races. So I decided to give it a go. And with only two months of preparation, I came in third. On the same day, Toru Miyahara - a legend in the Sky Running community - came forth. There was no way I could beat him in the mountain, but I managed to get ahead on the stairs."
After 20 years of not having a real dream, Ryoji finally found his calling.
In 2017, Ryoji entered the Vertical World Circuit. Although he suffered from a lack of endurance, he came third overall at the end of the year. He cloud-funded for the following season so he could enter more races overseas. And in 2019, he got a sponsorship deal with Yokomori MFG - one of the largest steel frame stair manufacturers. This allowed him to take on races in the US and Europe.
Cancelled races and world record attempt
But then, Covid-19 hit the world. A lot of athletic events were cancelled everywhere, and Vertical Kilometer was no exception. That's not all: the races were not to be held for the next three years.
"Racing stairs basically means it's an indoor event, and that didn't go well with Covid. Before that, this type of race had the merit of being compact and urban."
With no races in his schedule, Ryoji had no idea what to do next. That's when he started thinking about attempting a world record.
"I saw on social media that one of the Vertical World Championship athletes, Wai Ching Soh, was attempting a record. I decided to try a record that is similar to his."
The record Ryoji chose was the fastest vertical mile stair climbing (male). Yokomori MFG and Shinichiro Okuno (Meeting Inc.) negotiated with Tokyo SkyTree so Ryoji could attempt the record there.
"I think negotiation with Tokyo SkyTree was only possible because Yokomori MFG made the stairs for them. All I did was say, 'I want to do the attempt', so I am so thankful for those who helped."
The longest staircase Ryoji had raced up to that point was 550 m (1,804 ft 5 in). This world record challenge was more than three times that length. The amount of fatigue felt during the attempt was much higher than in previous races.
"I was only at the halfway point, but my legs were shaking like crazy, and my level of fatigue was something I'd never experienced before. I even had cramps in the second half, but I did what I could to keep my legs moving until the end. It was long. Being inside a closed staircase with no changes in scenery, my mind was getting a bit confused!"
And on 18 November 2020, Ryoji climbed 9,097 steps in 1 hr 6 min 58 sec to break the Guinness World Records title. He still holds the record today.
Never mind accolades, find your passion
Stair climbing races have been coming back since 2022. Ryoji is now an employee (a solo member of the company team) at Fujimori MFG and is already producing results, including a win at Melbourne in May 2023.
Having experienced many challenges and struggles, Ryoji had become a world record holder. He says becoming passionate about something is a special experience, whether that produces any results.
"I want to live with as many happy times as possible. It's normal to have no dreams or goals in life, and the process of finding them is more important. You might make some mistakes or go along a long detour in the process, but that experience is probably the most important. Don't worry about getting acknowledged by someone; just find something that you truly enjoy."
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