Michael Kimelman was at a loss. King Kong did it for Fay Wray, but neither Kimelman nor his competitors had any similar enticement.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what the appeal is to anybody. It’s a challenge. There are a lot of tall buildings in New York and a lot of competitive people as well.”
And many of those competitive people, like Kimelman, showed up last week for the New York Road Runners 32nd annual Empire State Building Run-Up. Their reward was a bagel at the finish and anything from 10 to 30 minutes of leg-pumping, lactic acid-induced exercise/torture before that.
“It started getting hard at about floor 10,” Joe Walsh, another competitor said. “By floor 30, it was brutal. After that, it was just pain.”
Walsh, Kimelman and 280 other stair runners from 23 states and 15 countries didn’t stop at the 30th floor, though. They lugged themselves from ground level all the way up to the Empire State Building’s observation deck, a total distance of 86 stories, 1,576 steps and 1,050 feet. The eventual champions, Thomas Dold (10:07) and Suzy Walsham (13:27) were both repeat winners. Kimelman acquitted himself quite well in his second Run-Up (35th place, 14:03), while Walsh won a separate challenge, one open only to brokers. He blazed to the top in 15:11 and barely seemed as winded as his co-workers.
“Go out slow,” Walsh said, offering some strategy. “A lot of people went out like a nightmare over the first 10 flights and then blew up at about the 50th staircase.”
Walsh said he did no training, but that’s a course few of the climbers would recommend. All of those interviewed said that using a StairMaster was inadequate. To really prepare for the Run-Up, the only sufficient preparation is to run stairs, a lot of them.
Blair Heinke (13th place, 15:34) was fortunate to work as a doctor in a hospital with 20 stories and to live in an apartment building with 40. She’s run three New York City Marathons but had never tried the Run-Up, so she practiced repeatedly for the Empire State Building by tearing up and down her hospital in between shifts. She eventually learned to ignore the wary, surprised looks she received, but the transition from running horizontally to running vertically was tougher than she expected.
“I like running so much more,” Heinke said. “This was hard, a really hard race. I went out really fast and quickly figured out it was going to be harder than I thought. I was about at the 20th floor and realized I was in trouble. But I changed my stride a little bit, moved from two steps at a time to one step at a time. When there was 20 stories left, I knew I could do it.”
Despite the physical punishment, all the first-timers promised to be back next year. Some of their more experienced competitors could have told them that stair climbing can become a bit of a fixation.
“I got into this by accident,” said Michael Karlin (74th place, 16:03), who completed his fourth Run-Up. “I wanted to get into shape, so I went to a gym and worked on the StairMaster. I realized I was pretty good about it, and then someone told me about this race and I knew I had to do it. The first time was hard. I was completely scared and terrified about it. Now I know how to train, what to expect. It’s not so difficult on the legs but more so on the lungs.”
Even with his throat dry and lungs burning, Karlin was planning ahead to more stair races. He usually does four or five per year. So does Michael Rosenthal, who is heading down to Philadelphia in a few weeks to tackle some local skyscraper, one presumably far shorter than the Empire State Building, which he ran up for the fifth time last week, finishing one spot and two seconds behind Karlin.
“Once you’ve done this, all the others are easy,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal has become something of an expert on the Run-Up. Four years ago, he won the preliminary, a less competitive race that precedes the main event. After that, he was moved up to the official competition. By this point, he knows just about all there is to know about the Run-Up. Each step, for example, is about seven and a half inches tall. And the staircase is narrow enough that Rosenthal can grab both railings at once, allowing him to transfer some of the burden from his legs to his upper body. On the other hand, such small confines can lead to overcrowding. In the early stages, before runners begin to tire, it’s not unusual to see some collisions and swung elbows.
“After 20 floors, people stop being so aggressive,” Rosenthal said. “I think that’s when they realize this isn’t going to be easy and they can’t keep up the same pace.”
Despite all that, stair running apparently has an addictive quality, one that most practitioners of the StairMaster would find surprising. Jonathan Angelilli was doing the Run-Up for the second time and helping his friend, Lorien Gabel, through his first attempt. Afterward, exhausted but ebullient, they were already planning their next venture. They decided their next stop was Toronto, where one of them had heard of a similar race.
Then they packed up and went home, leaving the Empire State Building behind. This time, they took the elevator.
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