CAMBRIDGE — It is the Mount Everest of the MBTA, a daunting ascent that pummels quads and sends heart rates racing. There are 199 punishing steps, from the depths of Porter Square Station to the street above.
Lots of people seek out stairs in our age of fitness watches that count every step, but the climb at Porter Square is a true challenge, reserved for the truly committed.
The rest of us take the escalator.
“I don’t walk up the stairs because there are too many of them,” Dwayne Smith deadpanned.
Smith, 34, recalled the first time he faced the 120-foot rise from the train platform. He was with a female friend who “pounded” the stairs without breaking a sweat. Smith chose the escalator, much to the amusement of a T worker, he said.
Peter Amstutz used to take the train to Davis Square, where he works and the stairs are more reasonable. But a few months ago, he started disembarking one stop earlier at Porter to take the “crazy stairs.”
The first time was horrible, he recalled.
But there he was the next morning, and the morning after that. At Porter, every day is leg day.
“I’ve gotten a little stronger,” said Amstutz, 38. “It’s gotten a little easier.”
The pain hits Amstutz halfway up the forbidding main stairway, 117 steps in all.
“It’s when you get to the middle and there’s still like five more flights left that you’re like, ‘OK, this is starting to get hard, but now I’m committed.’ ”
Most stair-climbers are content to just make it to the top, pace be damned. But when Ann Furbush sees someone else walking up the stairs nearby, her competitive side takes over.
“Every once in a while, I’ll see someone and, you know, not race them but try to keep up with them,” the 23-year-old said. She also joked that she sometimes considers giving her race partner a high-five at the end.
The Porter stairs are so long that the top is out of view, setting up a cruel twist for those new to the climb. After the bulk of the ascent, walkers finally reach a landing, only to encounter the final set of 60 stairs after the fare gate.
There are two reasons Porter Square Station is so deep, said Bradley Clarke, president of the Boston Street Railway Association. First, it was built beneath the Fitchburg Line of the commuter rail, and second, as with any city, workers wanted to steer clear of sewers and utility lines under the roads.
“When you’re dealing with a city, there’s bound to be a lot of stuff under there that’d you like to avoid digging up and replacing,” Clarke said.
Still, Porter Square’s escalators aren’t record holders. The Park Pobedy metro station in Moscow has the world’s longest at 413 feet. Wheaton Station in Silver Spring, Md., has the longest in the Western Hemisphere, a 230-foot ride that takes nearly three minutes. Don’t bother considering the stairs — there aren’t any.
“The escalators rise about 115 feet vertically, the equivalent of a 12-story building,” said Daniel Stessel, a spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “Not something the typical commuter is going to want to do at the end of a long day.”
At Porter Square, plenty of Red Line riders strike a compromise with the climb by walking up the escalator. But for the hard-core walkers, it’s all or nothing.
Joshua Ruby, a father of three from Somerville, doesn’t have time to hit the gym, so he heads to the Porter Square StairMaster.
“My alternative is to skip the train and run to the office,” he said. Ruby, a lawyer, sits at a desk all day. In a “weird way,” he said, he looks forward to the climb.
“It’s a departure — especially at the end of the day — from what you’ve done all day. It’s the last thing you have to do before you get to go home to your family.”
Rowena Ortiz, 49, has been taking the stairs since last summer to improve her health.
“I notice that in the summertime it’s easier because you wear less clothes,” she said. It’s harder in the winter “because you are wearing that big coat.”
Some fitness freaks get there as early as 5:30 a.m. to run the stairs, a worker for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said. But most commuters don’t want to arrive at work looking like they could use a shower.
“You will sweat, no matter what,” said Shambhavi Godbole, 26. “And that’s not really a good thing when you’re going to the office.”
Plus, the escalator has its benefits. Samantha Roy, 29, said she can check her e-mail and text messages and read another few pages of her book during the ride. She can also plan the next leg of her journey.
“You can call your Uber and it will be ready when you’re at the top,” she said.