Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Empire state run-up

I signed up for the empire state building run up on a whim. I knew the odds of my getting in were slight, but that made me want to sign up all the more; i wanted to do the race eventually, and it might take many attempts to get in. So when i actually did get accepted on my first attempt, i wasn't quite ready... There was a moment of unreality before i started making plans and thinking about the race itself. The race was, oddly, a wednesday night, which i was not happy about, both because racing at night is so unusual, and also because i would need to take substantial time off of work. But it was an honor to get in, so I found airfare. Before i booked a room, my wonderful friend Jordana offered to let me stay at her place. She was even taking vacation, so we could play tourist together. What fun!

I learned from reading Tim Van Orden's blog that the race is unusual in that the stairs are organized fire-escape pattern, with a staircase, then a brief span of hallway leading to the next staircase, instead of the typical uninterrupted ascent most high-rise staircases. That accounts for the fact that times at the empire state building are typically slower that times at taller buildings, such as the Hancock or Aon Chicago.

I also learned from Tim's blog that most people run up the stairs, then trudge down the hall to the next staircase. He considers the reverse a better strategy; hold back a little on the stairs so you can move quickly on the flats, where expending the same unit of energy knocks more seconds off your time. I also observed that the race don't end at the top of the stairs, but rather with a run encompassing the periphery of the skydeck. I decided to not only employ tim's strategy ( save energy on the stairs, move quickly on the landings ) but to consciously save a little energy for the run along the deck before the finish line.

The day before the race, we were incredibly active. We saw the giant's victory parade, the 9/11 memorial, ate some great indian food, toured south manhattan, walked the brooklyn bridge, saw the met museum, and walked central park. We put on a large number of walking miles and seemed to climb endless stairs, but i decided not to care. i was going to be a tourist and enjoy my first trip to New York even if it cost me a few seconds on the stairs. It was a wonderful day, and we had some great food!

The day of the race, i was still playing tourist. I visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island with my wonderful host, Jordana. Previous years, i would have tried to laze away the day to save energy, but i decided the best policy was to relax and enjoy myself, and let the race happen. Of course, i knew my pace would be far far from the elite times, and a second here or there might not affect my ranking at all. We did head back "home" a few hours before the race, and popped in to trader joe's. I got their green machine juice to fuel me for the race, and camped out on the couch for about two hours before leaving for the race.

This was my first trip solo on the new york subway, and it showed. I somehow missed my stop, and it took quite a bit of time for me to realize i needed to get out and head back. Fortunately, i'd left a lot of extra time in my schedule, so i made it to the empire state building with plenty of time, but my nerves were getting frazzled. I had also forgotten my green machine juice. I was feeling very off, and now getting some jelly legs before even arriving at the building. I had a 5 hour energy sample in my pocket an advertising person had handed me the day before, so i sipped that until half the bottle was gone and chucked the rest in the garbage. If i had more time, i would have sought out some juice, but i was worried about getting checked in on time, so i headed for the building.

I couldn't see it until i was two blocks away, but when i did, it was really majestic; a classic building, lit orange up top for the new york road runners. The lobby was amazing, gorgeous marble and brass, and doormen in long dapper coats; it felt as if i was walking into the emerald city in the wizard of oz. They directed me to the race lobby, and i arrived to a chaotic scene. It took a long time to get my number, and the gear check line was huge and raggedy; many people were camped out in groups on the floor, and racers didn't seem to know where to go. Also, there didn't appear to be gear bags provided, and i wondered what i was going to do with my jacket and street clothes. Fortunately, someone did come up with bags for the people that "forgot", but it was still more stress.

After that, i found a spot on the floor and talked with people, seeing if anyone nearby had done the race before and had some advice. No one did, so we just chatted for about half an hour before our numbers were called. I was in the 700 group and we lined up in our corrals. I spoke to three people around me, lady in pink, german fellow, and tall lady. They were all serious 5 and 10k runners, but this was the first tower race for any of them. Lady in pink seemed terribly nervous and german guy and i tried to calm her. German guy had a go pro camera strapped to his head, and seemed boisterously happy. Tall woman seemed to feel she didn't belong in the same course with us peons, and she wouldn't have to deal with us once we went through the door. German guy said i was sure to pass him, so i should wave to the camera, and he'd post it to youtube.

Tall lady managed to move ahead in line, but soon enough the remaining three of us were set free, and we ran down the stairs and though the hallways of the empire state building. I was not crazy about running, and on stairs, right before a race, but everyone else was, so there seemed to be little else for it. I was right behind german guy and right in front of lady in pink. They were sending up runners every five seconds, which is very fast, and not what had been announced, so before i knew it, german guy was gone, then it was my turn to head up.

I hit the stairs, doing my best to remember my strategy. Pace myself. I knew the first few floors DIDN'T have the landings, though, so i didn't have flats to save my energy for; therefore i went a little faster on the steps than i was planning to go later. I was happy to see the staircases were rather narrow, so i could grab both railings and pull myself up, which is my preferred technique. I did my best to keep my body upright and my breathing slow and deep.

Lady in pink was close behind me. She was already breathing hard after 3-4 floors. I didn't know what to tell her. Saying to slow down or take it easy would be a condescending jerk thing to say, so i just gave her words of encouragement. I passed a few people and she did too. It was obvious that she was using me as her pacer, and i felt bad if i was making her go too hard, but i had my own race to run. I kept myself at a pace that seemed maintainable for me and kept moving. I dropped her at about floor 15 and didn't see her until after the race.

At about 20, there was a brief jog down a hallway past a water station. I never stop at those and certainly wasn't about to start. There was a substantial crowd of zombified racers in the hallway, and i ran through as fast as i felt safe with people milling about, which wasn't very fast.

After the hall, the stairs with landings began, and i used my plan: slow and steady up the stairs, use both rails, don't pass on the stairs unless really necessary, but move fast on the landings. This was working great, but i was starting to get a gnawing worry. I felt good. Too good, perhaps? Was i going too slow? I was starting to hit some crowds now. There were even large groups doing the slow trudge on the landings that i didn't want to expend a lot of energy running around, so i had to do some passing on the narrow stairs, climbing the outside rail like a rope. Around 40 or so, i passed tall lady, who looked to be in a pretty bad way. Soon i spotted german guy ahead of me. He was moving at a good pace, but was also part of a large group that was filling the staircase and the landing, so it took me a few floors to get an opening to pass the group while sticking to my strategy of conserving energy. I paused passing german guy and it took a moment to get his attention. Soon he recognized me, and we laughed, i mugged into his camera, cheered him on, and resumed passing people.

After i got past that group at about 55, the stairs cleared up a lot. I was able to revert to my plan of climbing the steps at a conservative pace, and jogging briskly on the landings. Now i was able to take in the building and i began to really enjoy myself; there were pretty halls leading away from the stairs, more dapper doomen, and the stairs were always changing, which added a nice variety. There was another water station at 60, and an even longer hall this time. I again put on a burst of speed through the crowd and hit the next staircase.

Before i knew it, i was on 71. It clicked that there were only 15 floors left, and i felt pretty great! I decided to stop saving energy and pick up the pace. Of course, i began hitting more people. No longer conserving energy, i passed on the outside, and shot across the landings. I moved pretty fast, and felt good. I was having fun! This was a fun race! I was smiling and cheering people on and encouraging a lot of pretty spent-looking climbers.

Then i did something i am pretty proud of. I hit 84, and slowed down, remembering that the race didn't end at the top of the stairs, but circled the observation deck. I knew that going slow on the last few floors would only cost me a few seconds, which would probably be repaid with interest on the run around the deck. I slowed down to my slowest pace of the race, focused on taking deep breaths, and pounded my legs with my fists to get them ready.

Finally, i reached the door, and race personnel pointed me to the right. I set foot outside, drinking in the cold wet night air. The sky was a wall of fog, and snowflakes settled against my overheated face as orange light blazed up from below. I set off running on the bricks, going as fast as felt safe on the slightly slick surface. I was moving past many tired runners, and worried i might collide with a wobbly walker, but did my best to give them wide berth and hoped they'd go in a straight line. I rounded the corner and skidded a bit, then saw the finish. I did my best to put on a last burst of speed, and seemingly a second later, crossed the line.

Fanfare? None. Every other race i've done had at least a few people cheering at the end, usually quite a crowd, but there was nothing. I jogged to a stop, and a person directed me to the elevators. That was it. I was back inside. A woman was handing out medals. I tried to accept one in my hand, but she laughed, said "I've seen worse" and insisted on putting it around my neck. I appreciated that; it was a nice touch.

After that, it was down the elevator and back to the lobby where it had all started. There was gatorade, which was highly appreciated, especially as it took them about 25 minutes to find my gear; the numeric labels were tiny and apparently easily missed. Every other race uses large white bags with the numbers written across it in huge bold letters. NYRR needs to adopt this technique, as gear check was a huge mess. I did get to see the people i'd met in line before the race, and we chatted about what a cool experience it had been.

I met a few people in the lobby who i knew from the facebook stair running group, which was really neat. We chatted about the race, and upcoming ones we might meet at again.

And that was it. I left the building feeling good in all possible ways. I was proud of myself for sticking to my strategy, how well the strategy had worked, and for the fact i'd stayed conscious and enjoyed myself for the whole race. Had i left time on the floor? Doubtlessly. I knew for sure i could have gone faster; hardly being tired after 70 floors told me that. I learned later that my time was 16:59, and i suspect that had i gone all out, i could have come close to my 14:29 time i set in the slightly taller Aon. But that would be a number, and what i got were great memories and a precious education. I could come back and do better, and i was ok with that.


  1. Really enjoyed reading about the race! Sounds like you had an equally great time touring NY, and I'm glad you didn't worry about its effect on your race legs. That city can definitely wear you out, after 2 days of exploring...

  2. Thank you, Andrew! I definitely felt tired after my first day of touring, and even a few hours before the race after my second. But i don't know if it affected me. If if did, its effect on my ranking was something no one, including me, would care about.

  3. Nice work, Dave. I still don't know how you actually got IN the race, but I'm glad you did. Sounds like a fantastic experience and provides some appreciation for the local races and how they're run.

  4. Well, i signed up, and they happened to pick me. The process is notoriously opaque. It seems there is some combination of qualification and randomness. Certainly, much more able people than me did not get in. But some first-timers did. I did have a few top 100 finishes in big races, but i'm not sure if that actually did anything for me.