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Staying with It

On Tuesday, February 3, I joined 116 other athletes to tackle one of road-racing’s oddest challenges, the Fleet Empire State Building Run-Up. The race is 27 years old; this was my 15th straight year as a competitor. Lots of people ask me why I do it. The reasons have changed over the years.

Fifteen years ago, I did it as a dramatic change of pace from running marathons. I lived in NYC and had run the NYC marathon, and I thought it was symmetrical, in a way, to run the city’s longest event (26.2 miles) AND it’s shortest event (the ESBRU is .2 mile or .3 kilometer). I discovered that just about the only difference between the two events is that the ESBRU is vertical rather than horizontal. They’re both equally challenging to train for and to complete.

In the ESBRU, you "run" up 86 flights of stairs, or 1,576 steps. Most competitors, myself included, take the stairs two at a time, which makes it only 788 steps. The starting line is a strip of duct tape that they lay down on the gorgeous marble floor of the Empire State Building lobby. The finish line is outdoors, on the 86th-floor observation deck. The women (and there are usually about 35 of them — this is an invitation-only event) start first. We toe the line in three rows, all elbowing for position. When the horn sounds, the lights of the TV cameras start to flash, and all 35 of us head toward a doorway that is 10 yards away and no more than 4 feet wide. "Stairwell W," it’s called. And if you aren’t one of the first 5 women to get through the door, you end up standing at the bottom of the stairs until you have room to start climbing. You’ve never seen so many women so eager to start experiencing some serious pain!

The first heat of men is sent off 90 seconds after the women. I once got slammed so hard at the start that my Timex Ironman watch was broken. I can’t IMAGINE what it’s like when the men go through the W Door. After another 90 seconds, they start the second heat of men.

What you do on the first 20 flights is key to the rest of the race. Take it out too fast, and you get paralyzed from lactic acid (I did this once and vowed NEVER again). The first 20 flights are steeply pitched and there’s no break between the flights. At 20, you run through a hallway where they have a water stop set up (what other race can you think of that’s less than a quarter mile long and has two water stops?), and then you enter Phase Two. For the next 45 flights, you run up a different stairwell. Most of the flights are configured with 20 steps and then a landing, so you get a slight break (about 8 strides) between every floor. If you’re a woman, the lead men will start to catch you and pass you by about the 50th floor. And you’d better get out of the way. These guys are FLYING.

At 65 you switch stairwells again, and get another water stop. The final 21 flights seem steeply pitched again (maybe it’s just fatigue), and there’s less of a landing between each flight. When you reach the 86th floor, you run across a hallway and out to the observation deck, where you’re greeted by a blast of 30-degree air and, this year, by a 30-mph wind. You run half way around the deck and under a banner. At this point, your heart is racing at least 20 beats higher than what all the formulas tell you is your drop-dead rate. All you want to do is lie down and fall asleep, like Dorothy in the poppy fields of Oz, but a bunch of people are telling you to KEEP MOVING KEEP MOVING. So you stumble down what seems an endless chute and have to remain standing while someone who’s SITTING DOWN snips the timing chip off your shoelaces. When that’s done, then you can fall over. Or puke. Or do whatever you need to do to get your heart under control. After about 5 minutes the coughing starts. The stairwells are so dry and dusty…and you’ve been breathing so deeply, that you nearly burn a hole in your airpipe. The party at the finish sounds kind of like a tuberculosis ward, with everyone going through the same thing. It all sounds pretty dreadful, but it’s actually a lot of fun and, like I said, this is my 15th year of putting myself through all this.

I mentioned that my reasons for doing the race have changed over the years. In 2002, I think we all ran it as a way to say NO to terrorism — to say that we’re not afraid to enjoy our tallest buildings (after 9/11, the Empire State Building once again became New York’s tallest building) and our freedom. This year, however, I ran it because I was inspired LAST YEAR by one of the other competitors and wanted to see if he would be there again this year.

Chico Scimone, who you can see here crossing the breezy finish line, is a concert pianist from Sicily. This was also his 15th year for completing the ESBRU. He was smiling like crazy when he crossed the line, and you can see why in the next photo, after they got his shirt back on. That’s not just Chico’s race number. It’s his age. Ninety-two-year-old Chico Scimone has become the cult hero of this event, even though he is often the last person to finish. He is a model of strength and will and graciousness. The first thing he did when he finished was lean over and give a big kiss to his great grand-daughter, who was watching from a stroller. Chico says, "I have one medical checkup a year. If I get to the top, I’m OK." 

Chico is an incredible inspiration to keep exercising and to keep on trying to maintain fitness in the face of…anything. I’ll keep on racing to the top of the Empire State Building as long as Chico does — and then try to keep going just as he did. I hope you can all find inspiration in him..or in someone who will keep you striving to be your best.