The observation deck of the Empire State Building is 86 stories—that's 1,050 feet—above the streets of midtown Manhattan. More than three million tourists visit the deck each year, and all but 149 take the elevator. On Feb. 22 this year those 149 people met in the skyscraper's Art Deco lobby for the 19th annual Empire State Building Run-Up. The field contained athletes from eight nations, all of whom had been selected from among 200 applicants by the New York Road Runners Club. There was a world champion mountain runner from Germany, a bicycle racer from Australia and a 40-and-over champion marathoner from Japan.
There was also one sports-writer—me. During a moment of severe dementia this winter, I decided that the Empire runup would be a fascinating challenge. There are 60 or so annual stair races in the world. The Empire State Building event is the oldest and most competitive and is considered by cognoscenti to be the unofficial world championship. The Road Runners Club graciously allowed me to join the fray.
The subject of strategy dominated prerace conversations. Should stairs be tackled one at a time, two at a time or three at a time? Should you grab onto a railing while you run? Is passing more efficient on stairs or landings? In the process I learned some of the event's lore. For example, Gary Muhrcke, the winner of the inaugural race, in 1977, was a retired New York City firefighter who was on a partial disability pension because of back problems.
The race was conducted in three heats—women, fast men and slow men (including yours truly). I immediately understood why one racer was wearing a surgical mask: The Empire State Building's stairwells are probably vacuumed as often as the underside of my bed, which is to say never. The rapid stamping of 149 sets of feet raised all the stairwell schmutz ceilingward. I felt as if I were running through a Sahara dust storm. At the same time it seemed as if we were involved in a game of full-contact phone-booth stuffing: The stairwell was no roomier than an elevator shaft. I received about three dozen elbows in the ribs before I realized I would have to fight back or finish last.
The pack thinned out by the 20th floor, and I found my rhythm: I'm definitely a two-at-a-time, grab-the-railing, pass-on-the-landing guy. I also learned that people don't stair-climb for the scenery. The Empire State stairwell is painted a depressing brown and tan. The floors are numbered with little red plaques, which I tried not to look at (too discouraging).
The steps are about three feet wide and 7½ inches high and are made of knee-jarring cement. Between some floors there are 16 steps; between others, 14; between yet others there are 10 steps, then a small landing, then 12 more. The lighting is fluorescent, and on most floors it flickered, giving the race a strobed effect. The stairwell also acted like an echo chamber, warping our grunts and footfalls into a zoolike chorus.
As I ascended I became increasingly dizzy. The steps swirled in a kaleidoscopic montage. By the 50th floor I was having trouble focusing on where to place my feet. Worse than that, my legs, loaded with lactic acid, began ignoring some of my commands. I soon resorted to putting both hands on the railing and hauling myself up with my arms. My legs followed meekly, dead weight. My breath sounded like amplified sandpapering. Business people in jackets and ties and skirts stood in doorways, staring. I did the 82nd flight on all fours, like a dog. I didn't care. I had gone stair-crazy.
The last three flights were the athletic equivalent of hammering in a nail with a strand of spaghetti. My limbs were Jell-O. I reached the 1,575th and final step on nothing but bullheadedness.
My time was 14 minutes, 4 seconds—27th place. I wobbled around the observation deck, regaining my strength, commiserating with other runners and soaking in the all-encompassing view of New York City. I congratulated the winners: Kurt König of Germany, who finished in 10:44, and Belinda Soszyn of Australia, who climbed in 12:19. I had a photo taken with a guy in a King Kong outfit. Then I took the 90-second elevator ride down to the lobby.