Actor-stuntman plans arduous climb of Santa Monica stairs for charity

By Vince Echavaria

Zak Lee Guarnaccia is about to give new meaning to taking the stairs.

After the actor-stuntman is finished with the stairs April 28, he might not volunteer to take them again for quite a long while.

Many a fitness buff relish the steep set of stairs near Adelaide Drive and Fourth Street in Santa Monica for a tough cardiovascular, lower body workout. But while most may meet their calorie-reducing quota after an hour or so, Guarnaccia will attempt to climb up and down the steps for 24 consecutive hours, beginning at 7 a.m. Saturday, April 28.

He will not only be aiming to be standing at the end of the grueling step-a-thon but to raise funds primarily for a non-profit that provides free dental care to the homeless and underserved, as well as an animal rescue group.

Guarnaccia, 47, who grew up in Italy and has lived in the Los Angeles area for over 20 years, is no stranger to the fitness world. A former international martial arts champion, he has worked as a fitness trainer, stuntman and choreographs fight scenes for films. He has appeared in numerous films and television series as an actor.

Expressing his passion for showbusiness, Guarnaccia says the marathon stair workout is another way for him to put on a show and challenge himself, while supporting charities.

“I’m a showman; I love to entertain people and I’d love to do it for a good cause,” Guarnaccia said.

But the martial arts expert recognizes that what he has set out to do is far more than just another stunt, noting how ascending stairs is one of the greatest cardio exercises one can take part in and it offers a full body workout. The fact that he is striving to do the activity for a full day, likely creating strain on his body, takes it to the extreme, he says.

“Of course you don’t have to abuse it the way I’m doing it because the way I’m doing it is not healthy – that’s why we call it extreme,” he said. “This is more of a challenge for my body and my mind.”

Guarnaccia estimates that he will climb up and down the steep stairway about 500 times over 24 hours, burning approximately 14,000 calories along the way.

Such a feat can also demonstrate the strength of his health, says Guarnaccia, who pointed out that he has not been sick or faced any serious health setbacks for 24 years. Asked what that might be attributed to, he was lost for an answer, saying that family members have had their share of health problems.

Nutrition has had a big impact in his life, said Guarnaccia, who started to eat healthy at a young age and has mostly cut out meat from his diet. Tested for his fitness level two years ago, the actor was told he had the body of a 22-year-old.

“Technically, today, I’m 24 – that’s the way I’m thinking,” he said with a smile.

This will not be the first time Guarnaccia has sought to bring a common form of exercise to the extreme stage. In 2009, he walked and ran on a treadmill for 24 hours, recalling how in the final hours his feet hurt so badly that he removed his shoes to finish. That challenge was also completed in support of Homeless Not Toothless, a nonprofit program founded by Dr. Jay Grossman that offers free dental care to homeless people and foster children that cannot afford it.

Nearly three dozen dental offices participate in the program in which most of the patients are referred by the Venice Family Clinic and local shelters. The non-profit has provided over $2 million in service to the homeless population since 1992, and funds raised during Guarnaccia’s challenge will help the group remodel a clinic.

Grossman said Guarnaccia has been a huge supporter of Homeless Not Toothless over the past 20 years.

“Zak is one of the most interesting people I’ve met,” the dentist said. “He’s someone who finds a cause and is totally committed to it; he digs in and causes results.”

While Guarnaccia’s endeavors can be rather unorthodox, Grossman believes that is sometimes what is needed to draw attention to a certain cause.

“I think it’s a great way to bring attention to a huge need,” Grossman said of the step-a-thon. “Sometimes you need to do something that’s unusual to get the attention that’s needed and I think that’s why he’s doing it.”

Guarnaccia has received a mix of reactions to his 24-hour stair challenge, but he joked that all have led to the same response of “you’re nuts.”

When he first thought of a stunt for charity, he pursued climbing one of the tallest buildings in downtown Los Angeles but there was more support for group participation. After someone suggested the Santa Monica stairs, Guarnaccia was initially hesitant because he could only go up so far and would have to turn back down. Descending stairs is the hardest part on the joints and ligaments, he said.

But when he realized that he could be outside and have others watch him and exercise alongside him, he was ready to give it a try.

“It’s better for me because the more people I see exercising the more it motivates me,” he said.

Guarnaccia only plans to stop for bathroom breaks and he will eat a combination of raw and cooked meals supplied by NutriFit. He will have a team stationed in an RV at the bottom of the stairs communicating with him through walkie-talkie and he will “live-stream” his effort 24 hours online at www.ustream.tv/channel/the-fbx-show.

The stuntman believes one of the most challenging aspects will be finding a way to make the time go quicker, and while he does not plan to listen to much music he may even try to watch a movie on his mobile device.

Guarnaccia said he has faced a variety of tough tests during his acting career, but the stair workout will likely be the longest physical challenge he has attempted and the hardest on his body. He knows that his ability to overcome the demanding task is dependent only on himself and no one else.

“It’s all up to me. Fail or make it, it’s because of me and not because of anybody else,” he said.

His career as an actor has also taught him to not quit, something he says he most definitely plans to apply in the last remaining hours when his muscles will be tiring and he might be struggling to take another step.

“I don’t give up on my acting career so I can’t give up on this one. This is the stuff I don’t quit,” he said.

As he went for a practice ascent one recent afternoon, Guarnaccia said when he sets out on a challenge his main commitment is to finish and he finds a way to achieve it no matter what, which gives him the confidence that he will be standing tall after that final step.

“In the last six to seven hours, my body will probably be in extreme pain. But I will manage,” he predicted.

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