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Sharp Health News

A second chance to climb to the top

Oct. 3, 2021

Zivadin “Z” Zivkovic at the Niesen Staircase Run in the Swiss Alps

Zivadin “Z” Zivkovic climbed more than 11,000 stairs as part of the Niesen Staircase Run in the Swiss Alps.

Ever since he was a kid, Zivadin “Z” Zivkovic wanted to be on top. From biking up the world’s highest mountains to climbing stairs of the tallest buildings, the 55-year-old has achieved lofty goals, and continued to do so — until COVID-19 brought him down.

Discovering a love for running up
Z is a “tower runner” — someone who races up the stairs inside skyscrapers such as the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago, the Calgary Tower in Canada, and the Strat Hotel (formerly the Stratosphere) in Las Vegas.

Born in Yugoslavia, Z’s love of stair climbing began in childhood. In order to remain competitive in school sports, he had to train throughout the freezing winter. To avoid the bitter cold, he began climbing up and down the inside staircase of a nearby 17-story building as many times as he could.

“Stair racing is a difficult sport to describe,” says Z. “If you attack the stairs full on, you’ll be exhausted in 10 floors. You have to go hard but also pace yourself. Find the pace that will tax you the whole way, but not kill you.”

Z moved to San Diego in 1988 and began stair climbing competitively in 2011. One of his first races was the San Diego Towerthon, where runners climb to the top of a 20-story building as many times as possible in two hours. He won in his age group, and later created the group TowerRunning USA to bring together others who love the sport.

To date, Z has competed in hundreds of stair racing events, including:
  • Shanghai Tower, China — 3,398 stairs, 119 floors, 2,073 feet. It’s the second tallest building in the world.
  • Taipei 101 Run Up, Taiwan — 2,046 stairs, 91 floors, 1,283 feet. It’s the most challenging stair race due to the sheer vertical climb.
  • Niesen Staircase Run, Switzerland — 11,674 steps, 5,446 feet. It’s the world’s longest staircase that goes up the side of the mountain.
  • Scale the Strat, Strat Hotel (formerly the Stratosphere), Las Vegas — 1,455 stairs, 105 floors, 900 feet. It’s the U.S. TowerRunning championship race.
“I look at buildings completely differently than other people,” says Z. “I look at a tall building, and I see a challenge. And even though the stairs inside can look the same, the real reward comes when you reach the top.”

COVID-19 knocks Z off pace
As a project coordinator in the IT department at UPS, Z’s job involves constant interaction with many people in small spaces. Although Z was very careful and frequently washed his hands, he developed symptoms — fever, coughing and headaches — after the Fourth of July.

Z’s doctor initially thought he might have pneumonia, but ordered a COVID-19 test. While Z waited for the results, his symptoms became worse, and he went to the emergency room at Sharp Memorial Hospital. A second COVID test was negative, but Z was sick enough to be admitted. He was taken to the ICU, where a third test came back positive. Ultimately, Z was placed on a ventilator and was unconscious in the ICU for three weeks.

During that time, Z had seven strokes, caused by small blood clots that reached his brain. Although COVID-19 usually attacks the lungs, it can also cause the blood to clot, taking a toll on other systems in the body.

Outside the hospital, his teammates in TowerRunning USA organized a virtual stair training in his honor. Friends in several cities across the West Coast climbed skyscrapers to show their support. Other racers around the world — including in Denmark, Malaysia, Mexico and Germany — organized races for him as well.

Z regained consciousness on Aug. 7 and found he had difficulty using his left arm and leg. He transferred to Sharp Allison deRose Rehabilitation Center, where he began an intensive program of therapies to strengthen his left side and rebuild his endurance. One of his favorite therapies was climbing the seven flights of stairs to the top of the parking structure outside Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns, under the watchful eyes of his therapists.

Z went home one month later and continues his therapies through outpatient rehab. He started climbing stairs near his home, and eventually hiking Mission Trails and Black Mountain. He credits his Sharp caregivers for helping him get back to doing what he loves.

Z’s goal is to climb the Strat (when racing is allowed again) for the American Lung Association’s Fight For Air Climb, a cause that has deeper meaning for him now that he’s recovered from COVID-19.

“I have to find time for the people I love and the things I love to do,” says Z. “Thanks to the great care I received at Sharp, I have a second chance to climb to the top.”

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