Zvi Dannenberg running Larkspur stepsEvery year on the fourth of July, my wife and fellow blogger, Pat Salber, and I follow a routine that is, by now, one of our hallowed traditions. At 12 noon sharp, we walk down the hill from our house to the main street of our small Marin County town, Larkspur, California, to watch what must be at once the funkiest and most heart-warming parade in America.

The Larkspur mayor rides in a 1950’s white convertible, our representative in the California Assembly (what’s his name?) sits on the back seat of another fancy-dancy car, waving affably to a crowd as uncertain of who he is as we are. Next come vehicles bearing various local heroes (volunteer of the year, presidents of local chapters of national organizations, and local politicians holding offices we don’t remember voting for). Each of these local luminaries makes great contributions to our quality of life and we are happy to applaud them as they revel in their 15 minutes of fame.

There are also lots of vintage military vehicles (tanks, trucks, jeeps, etc.) courtesy of a local Military Vehicle museum. The liveliest parts of the parade take place when flat-bed trucks carrying high school bands and local wanna-be rockers stop and share their music.  For some reason, not clear to me, there are also two bagpipe bands (loud applause)—in kilts—enchanting the crowd with traditional Scottish music. A gay band with baton twirler, moms marching with their kids, the SPCA, and a healthcare group advocating a single-payer healthcare system, and, well you get the picture: a uniquely Northern California celebration.

This year, one parading vehicle caught my eye. It was a blue-gray convertible carrying an “older” guy sitting on the top of the backseat, hat tilted at a tantalizing angle, smiling and waving to everyone. What compelled me to lift my eyes from reading the news on my Kindle was the enthusiastic applause (as opposed to the politely tepid hand-clapping the local pillars of the community received), the shout-outs from the people around us, and the throngs of folks running up to him to try to shake his hand. A sign on the side of the car proclaimed “Zvi Dannenberg is 85. He has climbed 2 million stairs since 2009”. Clearly, we were in the presence of a local celebrity.


Who is Zvi Danenberg?

Once we got back home, I started to investigate “just who is Zvi Danenberg?” Here is what I learned. Zvi Danenberg is an 85-year-old local (Marin County) legend. Since January 2009, he has climbed more than 2 million stairs, usually bounding two stairs at a time. Now, these are not just any run of the mill office building stairs, rather they are concrete stairs built into a steep Larkspur hillside to provide a “short-cut” from the main street to the hillside homes. Everyone in Larkspur knows Zvi. He is a local work-out hero. A fellow stair-climber from the UK, in true British fashion, anointed him “The Lord of the Steps”. Even the City Council took time off from their weighty issues of sewers and planning commission variances to issue a proclamation in his honor.

So, I asked myself, just what compels Zvi to do what he does? I could not contain my curiosity, so I looked him up in the local phone book and gave him a call. I was expecting an amusing story; instead, I was rewarded with an inspiration. Here is what he told me:

He started suffering from a nagging low back pain in his late 50’s. His doctor recommended he take up walking. Dutifully, he walked every street and trail in the area before becoming terribly bored with the whole thing. One day, when some young women jogged by, he decided to join them. He told me that he was utterly winded after 100 yards, but he was also totally sold on the sport.

Gradually, Zvi increased his running distance to 8 miles, which he ran every morning, seven days a week. When “my boy Clinton”, as he put it, was elected in 1992, he celebrated by running an additional eight miles that afternoon. He continued to “celebrate” for next 15 years—8 miles in the morning and 8 in most afternoons.

In April of 2007, one of his knees gave out and, on his doctor’s advice, he had knee replacement surgery and ended his running career. However, nothing can keep a good man down for too long. Soon after his surgery, Zvi took up stair climbing and the rest, as they say, is (local) history. BTW, did I mention that he also does 100 pushups and 100 situps every morning?

As I was listening to Zvi’s story, I asked myself, “Is that all?” (as if “if” wasn’t enough). But, no, I learned as we continued to talk, there is so much more. He is also a classical music aficionado; he owns a collection of 18,000 CDs and vinyl records of every conceivable classical work. And he attends over 40 classical music concerts every year.


Take home lesson

In the recent posting on TDWI about the genetic study of extreme longevity, we made the point that even with the ideal genetic makeup, the wrong lifestyle can do you in before your longevity genes kick in. Genes are not destiny. Lifestyle makes significant contributions to your ability to live a long and healthy life. What better proof is there than Zvi Danenberg, the Lord of the Steps?

I love it when I meet people that push what most of us think are the limits of human accomplishment. They are role models for the rest of us. I salute you, and thank you, Zvi Danenberg. You are an inspiration for the rest of us.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.