New York was nicknamed the Empire State, to recognize its vast wealth and variety of resources. Among the treasures of this great state is the Empire State Building, the crown Jewel of New York City. Although there are three buildings taller than the ESB in Chicago, you’d never convince a New Yorker that that Empire State Building was not the greatest building in America. There is a certain pride that New Yorkers feel for this building, it’s almost a part of them. Therefore the race up the ESB is run as only a New Yorker would see fit – Manhattan rush hour style.
I arrived at this race in the best shape of my life. My preparation was extensive and far beyond that of any other stair race I’ve entered. Other than a minor cold that had been nagging me for the 5 days leading up to the race, I was ready to rock. At the check in table I received number 70, which was NOT a seeded number. This meant that I would not be anywhere near the front row when the gun went off. I was devastated. This is a mass start race – meaning that 150 of the fittest men on earth will be fighting for position as they cross 30 feet of slick, polished granite in an attempt to be the first to enter a stairwell door that is 38 inches wide. The first racers through the door are almost guaranteed a top five finish in the race. Not being ON the start line, is a death sentence in this race. It means you will be tripping, pushing, getting pushed, punched, elbowed and kicked, crushed, and possibly trampled as you clamor for the door in the midst of the chaos. I liken it to the Running of the Bulls in Spain.
As I warmed up around the lobby, I noticed a very large international contingent this year. They were taking photos and being interviewed by the press. Being the understanding guy that I am, I just assumed that there were lots of amazing foreigners here today and that’s why I didn’t get seeded. I would just have to do my best and fight my way through the crowd into a top 20 finish, which was the best I could hope for under the circumstances. That was until I bumped into my friend from Chicago – Jesse Berg (see the US Bank Tower entry). Jesse was wearing number 5, and would be standing squarely on the start line. I congratulated Jesse on his great position, but inside my heart had dropped to the floor, I felt totally disrespected by the race organizers. I took it personally. Had they not seen my win at the US Bank Tower in Los Angeles, where I finished 3 seconds ahead of Jesse? My head started to spin. I felt defeated.
My friend Jamie, who had come to video the event overheard Jesse and I talking about my starting position. Jamie lives in Lower Manhattan, and she doesn’t tolerate her friends being disrespected. So with a few minutes to go until the start, Jamie marched over to the race organizers desk and let them have it. As they began to line us up at the start line, Jamie ran over and told me that they were going to allow me to start in the front row. I had to aggressively push my way through the crowd, which wasn’t easy, because no one wanted to give even a single position away. As I arrived at the front row I was yelled at by an official who told me that I had to get back to my position. I told him I had permission to be there. He said I didn’t. Jamie ran to my aid and a very heated New York style conversation erupted. Rather than being ejected from the race, I quickly ducked behind Marco Gaspari from Italy and took a position in the second row. No one complained, but I was a nervous wreck. I thought this position might have its advantages as Marco is the World Mountain Running Champion and the best stairclimb racer on earth. He recently won the race up Tapei 101 (the World’s tallest building) in Taiwan, beating the two time defending Empire State Building champion, Thomas Dold from Germany, quite easily. My plan was to shadow Marco for as long as I could, thinking that would guarantee me a phenomenal race.
When the gun went off, all hell broke loose. Jesse Berg got off quickly on the left side, and Ricky Gates (US Mountain Running Champion) got off quickly on the right. The middle was a different story. Jan Mathias from Germany (2nd at last year’s ESB race), extended both his arms like a cross, and forced them into the chests of Thomas Dold and Marco Gaspari on either side of him. This action pushed Jan out in front of the middle group, with disatrous results. Within 2 seconds of the gun going off, Marco found himself pushed off balance and heading to the floor, and about to be trampled. His chances of claiming this tower for himself had just vanished.
It’s amazing how time slows down when you have pure adrenaline pumping through your body. When I saw Marco taking a dive only inches in front of me, hundreds of thoughts and calculations cascaded through my mind. I was already moving at full speed and could not put on the breaks as the frenzied crowd behind me would have trampled me as well. So I decided to jump over him. But his body was still moving forward on the floor. Instead of looking ahead, I was scanning the ground so as not to step on his head or neck when I came down. This became problematic when people started pushing me from behind while i was in mid air. I was turning sideways as I neared my landing and my path was no longer in line with the door ahead. I hit the ground and was swept up in the commotion and forced off balance into the wall next to the door opening. Like a cat trying to land on it’s feet while falling, I whipped my body around and rolled through the door. The strong flow of bodies now coming through the door forced me straight ahead towards the downward flight of stairs to the basement. I fought my way back to the upward flight and began doing what I came here to do – climb stairs. People began to pull on my shoulders and my shirt in order to get by in an old stairwell not wide enough to two people. A man in front of me elbowed me in the face and then did the same to other racers who came up on him. I was totally disoriented. I wasn’t even aware that I was running anymore. I was swept up in the flow and I was panicking. I was having a full on panic attack. Now I have never been in a crowd of people that has tried to escape from a burning building, and I do not want to lessen the horrific nature of that experience, but to me that’s what I imagine it would feel like. I was no longer thinking clearly, I was acting like a frightened animal.
I “woke up” somewhere around the 18th floor when I realized that I was running every step – instead of every other step which is my racing and training technique, AND I was NOT pulling the railings!! I was doing the whole thing with my legs. The subconcsious panic quickly became conscious dread as I realized that I had lost control and was blowing the race. I tried to find a rhythm and exercise my normal technique, but my heart was coming out of my chest and I just couldn’t make it stop. The pace was steady from that point forth, but the damage was already done. I was well behind the lead pack, and my accelerated heart rate had sucked the life out of me. I had to settle for 14th place.
Thomas Dold managed to overcome his shaky start and duked it out with Ricky Gates all the way to the top to win by just 8 seconds, for his 3rd straight victory. Jan Mathias was 3rd. Jesse Berg was 6th. An injured Marco Gaspari remained calm after his starting disaster and ran a very solid race. He worked his way through the pack in the congested stairwell and finished in a phenomenal 7th place.
I interviewed Marco after the race. He was rightfully upset with the way the race is run and commented that it’s not a race to see who’s in the best shape, but it’s a race of luck and dirty tactics.
Reading all of the above might lead one to believe that I had a bad experience at the race, but that would be far from the truth. I rate this race as the most successful event to date for the Running Raw Project. Not because of my place in the race, but due to the large number of people who approached me before and after the race and shared their stories with me. Dozens of people in the race said they had seen my video of last year’s race on YouTube. Many others had looked deeper and made their way to my site. A few more even shared with enthusiasm that they had made major changes in their diet leading up to the race because of what they saw and read on my site – I was blown away. It was actually working. It occurred to me, that my success didn’t have anything to do with winning races, but it had everything to do with showing up to a LOT of races, always willing to share and talk to anyone who is curious. It is momentum that makes things happen, that starts the process of transformation. I had been so caught up on trying to win all the time that I had missed that.
Here is the Empire State Building Run Up race video.
My NYC raw restaurant adventures video.