IT'S TRUE: The StairMaster isn't exactly the most evocative piece of exercise equipment in the club. After all, you can ride the stationary bike and pretend you're Greg LeMond, hurtling down the Pyrenees so quickly tears form in your eyes. Or, if you're lucky enough to find an old-fashioned heavy bag, you might imagine yourself as Evander Holyfield, bobbing and jabbing and covering your ears. The treadmill, the rowing machine and even the swimming pool all offer similar opportunities to become a lunch-hour Walter Mitty.

But consider the StairMaster. You pump your knees up and down, feel the lactic acid burn, and pretend, what? The elevator is broken?

Clearly something needs to be done to spruce up this mode of exercise. The solution: Find what passes for a skyscraper in the D.C. area--in this case, the USA Today building in Rosslyn--go to the bottom of the stairwell and start working your way up. The 10th Annual Capital One Stair Climb, a fund-raiser for the Metropolitan D.C. Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, is an opportunity to do just that. On Wednesday evening, fitness buffs and the rest of us can join in on 30 floors' worth of uniquely vertical racing and raise money for a worthy cause at the same time.

Given stair climbing's glamour deficit, event organizers do everything they can to provide different types, and levels, of competition. If getting to the top seems like an eternal climb, participants can form a co-ed relay team with two friends, so that each climber handles only 10 floors. On the other hand, if you feel like sharing the pain, gather yourself and four friends (again, co-ed) and each of you will climb all 30 stories, totaling your times at the end.

Instructors from the Sergeant's Program--the popular "boot camp" workout--will be stationed near the starting line to warm up each batch of participants. Climbers are released at 10-second intervals, and some attempt is made to group them by seriousness and ability, though organizers point out that this is hardly a scientific process.

"You'd be surprised," says Steve Saah, a recruiting manager at Robert Half and this year's event chairman. "There's not much crowding on the stairs, and if there is, people are really good about letting others pass. You just have to yell ahead of yourself sometimes."

If individual glory is what you're after, be forewarned. Participants trying to beat last year's winning time record will have to go bottom to top in less than 2 1/2 minutes. There are plenty of climbers with their eyes on that prize, and years of experience in this event.

"No two people use exactly the same technique," Saah says. "Some take the stairs one at a time, some two. Each flight has the same amount of steps, so the key is to get a rhythm going, to get in sync with the stairs."

(If you need a more practical tip, though, here's one: Get your arms working in tandem with your legs by hoisting yourself along the inside rail as you climb.)

If all of this strategy and "getting in sync with the stairs" seems like overkill, don't worry. Stair Climb organizers will accommodate the various fitness levels of more than 400 climbers this year, and there's no expectation that participants do anything except participate. Even a casual stroll up the stairwell usually doesn't take more than 15 minutes, and when the huffing and puffing are over, there's elevator service back to the third-floor atrium, where free pizza and beer are provided at the traditional "Survivor's Party."

"The party is extremely fun," Saah says. "It's really the point of the evening, to reward everyone for their participation and fund-raising."

The basic contribution for each climber is $35, but awards are given for advanced levels of fund-raising, including $125 and $1,000. This highest level is called the Winner's Circle and consists of a half-dozen or so climbers who year after year use letter-writing and press-the-flesh campaigns to drum up such impressive totals. Winner's Circle climbers receive especially fine prizes, though anyone raising at least $50 is eligible to win a vacation for two donated by Princess Resorts.

Saah and other organizers rely on dozens of corporate contributions to make the event a success, and this year's Stair Climb includes a loyal and growing group of sponsors that includes MIX 107.3 FM, Samuel Adams, Armand's Chicago Pizzeria and Legg Mason. The Arlington Jaycees provide volunteer services, and the climbers are timed by racePacket, a company specializing in handling large, staggered-start road races.

Last year's Stair Climb raised more than $35,000, all of which goes toward cystic fibrosis research, and this year Saah is aiming even higher. "The climb is secondary to the money we raise," he says, and points out that the event welcomes contributors who leave the walking shoes at home and choose simply to watch, mingle and enjoy.

"Most people don't realize how quickly they'll finish the climb, anyway," Saah adds. "What they seem to remember most is the camaraderie, the good time and the food."

10TH ANNUAL CAPITAL ONE STAIR CLIMB -- Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the USA Today building, 1000 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn (Metro: Rosslyn). Call Karen Fink at 301/657-8444, Ext. 18 or e-mail metro-dc@cff.org. Pick up climb packets or register on race day, 4:30-6 p.m. at mall level of building. Free parking at USA Today building. Presented by Robert Half. Entry fee is $35 minimum in pledges or personal contribution.