Al Waquie climbs the empire State Building in New York City more adroitly than anyone since King Kong, although he'll have to go a ways to get a twentieth of Kong's publicity. To begin with, at 5'3" he's only about a twentieth of the big ape's height. Waquie, 36, is a Pueblo Indian who has won the annual Empire State Building Run-Up five straight times, and he's favored to make it six on Feb. 17. He negotiates the 86-story, 1,050-foot climb by taking the 1,575 steps two at a time until he reaches the finish line on the observation deck. Along the way he calls on the same passion with which he trains as a mountain runner in the forested heights and red-rock mesas surrounding his village in New Mexico.
"When I start uphill, I can't stop," says Waquie, in defiance of both Sir Isaac Newton and lactic acid. "The higher I go, the better I feel."
Known as King of the Mountains among the people in Jemez Pueblo, an Indian village of some 2,800 inhabitants about 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque and nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, Waquie (pronounced WAH-key) is one of the best mountain runners in the world. He's a two-time winner and record holder, at 3:26:17, of the Pikes Peak Marathon, a numbing 28-mile trek to the summit of the 14,110-foot mountain and back down. He has also won the grueling La Luz Trail Run, a nine-mile climb up a 12% grade to the top of 10,678-foot Sandia Crest near his home, a record eight times. Compared with those two, the Empire State run is easy. Last year Waquie won the New York race in 11:56 while running with a sore left knee, beating the second-place finisher by 26 seconds.
The records and titles and modest appearance fees he receives are nice, but they are not what make Waquie run. Like many of the Jemez people, he runs as a way of gaining harmony with the land and environment, an ideal that is the spiritual foundation of Pueblo culture. Waquie comes from a line of great runners who gave up chances to achieve fame in "white" society to stay with their families on the reservation and live by ancient traditions. Except for two years as an All-America cross-country runner at Haskell Indian Junior College, in Lawrence, Kans., Waquie has trained mainly on his own. He may love to get vertical, but when it has come to gaining fame and fortune in the world of distance running, his approach has not exactly been upwardly mobile.
"What I have here [in the village], I can't find down there," Waquie says, nodding in the direction of Albuquerque and its suburbs. "That's just a lot of modern life. Here, I can live like my ancestors. I can be strong, and free."
Waquie's paternal grandfather, Felipe, was an acclaimed messenger in the early 1900s who carried news on foot more than 20 miles across Redondo Peak and Jack Rabbit Flats to other Pueblo villages. His father, Felix, 69, excelled in wild-horse chases on the plains and in Pueblo ceremonial races, which are held every year at harvest time. His older brother Robert, now 40, was a four-time New Mexico state high school champion in the two mile, but like many promising Pueblo runners, he gave up serious training before he turned 20 years old. As a boy Al learned about the sacred mountain trails from his elders, and he always had a special affinity with his grandfather, who died in 1979 at the age of 87. "I'm like my grandfather," says Al, who lives alone in an adobe home a few hundred yards from the ranch-style home of his father and his mother, Corina. "I'm basically living his life."
It's a life with few conveniences beyond a pickup truck. Waquie's activities are tied to the land, whether he's running or doing one of the many jobs—including trapping, hunting, farming, woodchopping, raising livestock, fighting forest fires—he has had to support himself. "I love to work," he says. "It makes me happy to sweat."
Waquie is happiest when gliding along with his powerful but light-as-a-feather stride. Before setting out on his two-hour training runs at 9,400 feet, he sings the hunting songs of his tribe. He does speed work by sprinting along the abandoned logging trails near the summit of 11,254-foot Redondo Peak. (To prepare for the Empire State race, he visits Albuquerque's tallest structure, the 18-story First National Bank Building, to practice running up stairs.) Waquie is most comfortable in the wilds that surround Jemez, where he often encounters elk, deer, rattlesnakes, cougars-and bears. "The animals have gotten used to me," he says. "Now they just look at me like, 'What's up, Al?' Sometimes I chase them, because their energy can take me a long way. Deer and elk, they start fast, but after three or four miles they're so tired they almost let you touch them. I've even chased bears, but the only time you can do that is when they aren't hungry—when they are all fattened up."
Waquie laughs a boyish giggle that perfectly suits his open features and smooth skin. At 112 pounds, his reed-thin wrists and ankles contrast sharply with an impressive chest and thighs that propel him up the steepest grades. He can bench-press 170 pounds, and his resting pulse has been measured at 37.
"Other guys tell me they're stronger than me, and they are—in the village," Waquie admits. "But once we get in the mountains, no one can stay with me. My dad says, 'They are only stronger than you because women are watching. In the mountains, you get your strength from the land.' "