If I were to choose one sport to define myself as an athlete, it would be stair climbing. As much as I love the challenge and scenery of mountain running and snowshoe racing, neither has impacted me as profoundly as running up the dim, dusty, and denatured stairwells of America’s tallest buildings. Ironically, it is the sport that I like the least. In fact, I dread it. My relationship with stair climb races could be summed up with the following statement – It is better to have climbed than to climb.
Although I’ve had many great results in stair climbs across the country, one cannot truly claim success in this sport without popping one at the Empire State Building Run Up. Now in it’s thirty third running, this race is the oldest stair climb in the country. An exceptional field of athletes from around the world clamor for the opportunity to take on America’s most iconic skyscraper. Nineteen U.S. states and seventeen countries were represented at this year’s test of the world’s best. Germany’s Thomas Dold was the race favorite and had his sights set on a 5th straight win in this 1,250 foot tall megalith.
As if running up 1,576 stairs, and 86 storeys were not intense enough, event organizers at New York Road Runners choose to begin this race with a much talked about, often criticized and universally feared mass start. Imagine 160 of the world’s fittest athletes sprinting in a frenzied tangle across polished stone floors towards a narrow doorway only twenty feet away. If there were a picture next to the word ‘mayhem’ in the dictionary, it would be a freeze frame from the start of this race. In other tower races around the world, athletes are sent off individually at intervals of five to thirty seconds, providing a more relaxed takeoff and an uncrowded stairwell. These races are a test of man vs. building rather than man vs. man. The ESB race brings men elbow to elbow, foot to chest, and fist to face in an all out battle of man vs. man vs. building. Those quick enough to get through the stairwell door first have a significant advantage. A good start doesn’t necessarily make your race (you still have the building to contend with), but a bad start can definitely break your race. World Mountain Running Champion Marco DiGasperi from Italy discovered this the hard way in 2008. He was the race favorite until he was knocked down and trampled at the start.
To do well in this race, one must have an empire state of mind. One must acknowledge and embrace an ugly truth – Life is a mass start. It’s neither fair nor equitable. We are thrown together as children to create our identities, strengths, weaknesses, and social standing on the battlefield of the playground. There are no rules. There is pushing, shoving, stealing, cheating, beating, biting, crying, teasing… and lots of unabashed fun. For the most part, stair climbers (myself included) block this necessary stage of development from memory. We consider it barbaric and uncivilized all while virtuously sweeping our true competitive nature under the rug. We play a gentlemen’s game within the safety and comfort of an individual start and the personal space it allows. But real life seldom affords us that luxury or waits until we are ready before it takes a swing at us. Every year on the first Tuesday of February at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 33rd Street, we get yet another chance to remake ourselves in the same fires that forged us as children. As Frank Sinatra crooned “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you. New York New York“. Which is why I keep coming back to this god awful race.
At my first ESB attempt in 2007, I opted for what I thought would be a sensible start – I started last. By avoiding the melee in the front, I would sidestep injury, excess adrenaline, and run my own race. What I hadn’t foreseen was the entire field trying to fit through the door at the same time. A collective “intelligence” taking over, causing competitors to behave as stampeding cattle rather than individuated, rational beings. For nearly a minute, I stood calmly behind the log jam waiting to enter the stairwell, while the leaders were already approaching the 10th floor.
My second effort in 2008 found me standing right behind the seeded front line. I imagined myself bursting forth quickly and avoiding the bottleneck. This lasted for a fraction of a second as the flood gates opened and I found myself involuntarily body surfing face first into the wall next the stairwell door. The kicks, elbows and shoves, sent me into the flight side of fight or flight and spiked my adrenaline far past the red line. My heart rate never recovered.
A great season at the end of 2008 earned me an 8th place seed on the front line of the 2009 race. I would finally be in the perfect position. Unfortunately on race day, I was struck down with a very bad head cold and decided to pull out of race. As it turns out, 2009 was just not my year to climb stairs. High levels of life stress coupled with low levels of training stress caused me to opt out of all the major climbs. The stage was set for a comeback.
As I stood in line for registration, I was hoping that my previous results would again earn me a coveted place on the front line. “Last name please.” shouted a woman at the number pickup table. “Van Orden” I said with an articulate, slow delivery. She fumbled around in the stack of numbers for a minute and then said “How do you spell it?”. “V A N O R D E N” I offered slowly. “Nope, I don’t see your name.” I reached into my bag and furnished her with my confirmation email. She studied it for a moment and then moved to a different pile of numbers with yellow rather than blue ink. “Here you are, 246”. I took the number into my hand and then stood for a minute speechless. “Is there anything else?” she replied. “Um… what does the yellow mean?” I asked, already knowing the answer, but not wanting to accept it. “The yellow numbers are for the second heat, the blue numbers are for the elite race.” she offered. “But I’m supposed to be in the elite race.” I quipped. “I’m sorry” she said, “You’ve been seeded 46th in the slower heat.” Suddenly my heart dropped. Images of the past five months of brutally intense Tabata training flooded into my mind. My brain made a quick assessment of my training and preparation and concluded that I was in the best shape of my life. Didn’t they realize that this was my day to shine? Couldn’t they see how important this was to me? Pre-race excitement and anger swirled around in my head like pure white cream and jet black coffee meeting each other at first pour. Cool, sweet light clashing with scalding, bitter dark. Each taking and giving until an equilibrium of muddy brown has been reached. If defeat were a color, it would be muddy brown.
The popularity of my stair climbing videos usually leads to a deluge of introductions, dietary questions, testimonials and confessions at these races. It is these moments that I look forward to the most. The opportunity to share with people, to plant seeds, to offer encouragement and support, to make friends. This is why I race. This is why I am running raw. But today was different. I knew that if I started talking to people my forced smile and lack of enthusiasm would have a negative impact on them. So I kept to myself and warmed up in an isolated hallway on the 2nd floor.
As the elite heat assembled in the corral area, I walked over to wish my friends good luck. Javier Santiago from Mexico City, Jesse Berg from Chicago, and David Tromp from Albany, NY, were seeded 7th, 8th and 9th respectively. These amazing athletes have become close friends of mine through the many races that we have shared. The bonds formed between stair climbers are unique and special. In no other sport have I seen people so willing to embrace their competitors as friends… as brothers. My friend PJ Glassey, a top stair climber from Seattle has given us the moniker “Step-Brothers” in honor of the thousands of concrete steps that cement our bonds. When you collapse in a heap of pain and exhaustion at the finish, you are not alone. You are surrounded by men and women who have pushed themselves to within an inch of their lives and who have endured some of the most extreme pain imaginable – By choice. Again and again. Their creed, political slant, race, occupation, wealth, physical appearance and status are irrelevant and inconsequential. All that matters is the size of their heart and the depth of their courage. We have been through hell together and lived to laugh about it. We have been baptized by fire.
I slowly walked back to assume my place in the second heat, which would start five minutes behind the elite racers. The intense excitement, fear and anxiety that I normally feel before a tower race were absent. They were replaced with an apathetic resignation. I stood with my head down, like a tightly packed sardine in the corral area waiting for the inevitable. By habit, I studied the shoes of the racers nearby. A pair of solidly built bare feet caught my attention. I knew these feet. They belonged to Henry Wigglesworth. In stairwells across America, Henry Wigglesworth is a legend.
“Henry, what are you doing back here?” I shouted above the crowd. He turned in my direction. A puzzled look appeared on his face. “What are YOU doing back here?” he countered. I shrugged my shoulders. Standing next to Henry was Duncan Lonsdale. In the 2007 ESB Run Up Duncan nipped me at the line and in 2008 I narrowly edged in front of him. These men are two of the best forty plus stair climbers in the world and on any given day could place in the top ten overall in this race. Was there a conspiracy afoot? Henry surmised that we were considered too old for the elite heat. As it turns out, he was correct. No one over the age of 39 was seeded in the first heat. I find it quite ironic that in America’s oldest stair climb, in the world’s oldest mega-skyscraper, we were the victims of ageism.
After a few minutes we were herded through a maze corridors, and onto a narrow escalator heading down to the first floor. The race had not yet begun and people were pushing and shoving to get a good position on the escalator. As we approached the starting area, we could see the elite men lined up and ready to go. “HAWNNNUHHH!!!” sounded the starting horn. Cameras flashed like lightning and stampeding feet clapped like thunder as they hammered for the stairwell door. Moments later we were faced with an image reminiscent of the final scene of “Alien: Resurrection” where the alien is very painfully sucked through a small hole in the hull of the ship into outer space. A brief period of intense drama, pain and adrenaline quickly followed by an empty hole, an empty doorway… no evidence of the horrific spectacle remaining.
We were ushered up to the start with numbers 200 through 210 lined up in front, the teens behind them and then the rest of us. Duncan wore the lucky 200 and Henry was sporting a yellow 201. Despite being demoded into the second heat, they were still considered the best of the rest. I had no such distinction, and dishearteningly squeezed myself into position some four rows and forty people back. At this stage I would normally focus on getting myself into a place of calm aggression, if such a contradiction can exist. But today, I simply stood impatiently in line like an unfortunate sperm ‘seeded’ in the rear with no hope of reaching the egg first. A short-lived and futile existence. A necessary casualty of Darwinian evolution.
Ready! Set! “HAWNNNUHHH!!!”. A torrent of bodies burst forth, arms flailing and words flying… “Relax! Relax!” I yelled to the mob that was mashing me through the doorway and pushing me into the railing ahead. The first 20 floors would be slow going and congested and there was no need to get anxious about it. “Stay calm” I said to myself and then suddenly dropped like a rock as someone stepped on the back of my scantily clad foot and pushed me forward. I grabbed awkwardly onto someone’s calf before nearly “curbing” my teeth on the stairs. Struggling back to my feet against the tide, I apologized to the man in front of me and backed off the pace. A few men pushed by. “Don’t panic.” I reminded myself. The next 10 floors found me passing a dozen or more men… all on the outside. It’s very difficult to pass someone who is on the shorter inside rail. You must exceed their pace by a considerable amount to get by them. At one point I was stuck for several floors behind a very large, muscular Frenchman who was grabbing both railings and refusing to yield. Eventually, I saw an opening and stuck my head through the gap between his arm and body and wedged through with a quick burst of speed. He uttered something that I could not understand. Another 10 floors done, another dozen men passed. At the 20th floor we entered a hallway leading to a different stairwell. As I sprinted past a few men who were walking the corridor, I noticed something strange – I was not experiencing any fatigue or pain.
Rather than the, tight, clockwise ‘spiral’ of the first staircase, each floor in this new set (which would take us to the 70th floor) consisted of a very long flight of stairs, followed by a 20 foot landing. This configuration is unique to the Empire State Building and stood out in my memory of this event. In my two earlier climbs I had noticed myself and others hammering the stairs and then jogging the landings. Considering that these are stair races and not landing races this makes perfect sense, but to someone who has any basic knowledge of math or physics, this is absolute stupidity! If you were to multiply the 50 of these landings by their 20 foot length, you would get a result of 1,000 feet. A mere 50 feet less than the 1,050 vertical feet that must be covered in this race. When you factor in the shorter landings of the other stairwells, this number jumps to over 1,200 feet. In other words, more of this race is run on a flat surface than on stairs. A new strategy occurred to me – Sprint the landings, whip myself around the rail up four steps, and then back off on the stairs… rinse and repeat. The bulk of my effort would be focused on flat ground, sparing my quads for the final ten floor kick to the finish.
One by one I sprinted my way past the thinning stream of runners in front of me until it was just a trickle. My heart rate was starting to rise. The discordant racket of multiple footfalls and heavy breathing was for a brief moment replaced by silence. Until the distinct sound of bare feet slapping on concrete caught my attention. Two more landing sprints and I was running on Henry’s heels. He asked me if I wanted to go by. “I’m comfortable” I said, and remained behind him. I’m comfortable? It’s the middle of a stairclimb and I’m comfortable? Something was amiss. For another eight floors, I remained on Henry’s tail. He asked me again if I wanted to go by. I hesitated. “Tim, you should be winning this heat!” he belts out, and then steps aside. I shot by quickly and then sprinted the flat, opening up a gap. My thoughts were stirring now. Here I was upset for not getting seeded in the elite race and I’m not even winning the second heat. Was I intentionally blowing this race? Had I been subconsciously validating NYRR’s choice to put me in the second heat?
The race was half done, but I was not. There was still plenty of time that could be made up and I was not that tired. I turned it up a notch. The pace began to spark a fire in my quads. That’s the way a stair climb is supposed to feel, I thought to myself. Above me, I could hear the footfalls of a lone runner. I surged again. Moments later I was staring at the back of Duncan Lonsdale. I pushed past him quickly hoping to discourage any attempt to stay with me. My quads were hurting more. A back injury the week before the race forced me to rely more on my legs than usual as I could only pull with minimal force on the rails. Nonetheless, I was opening up a gap on Duncan. A familiar burning sensation in my throat told me that the pace was sufficient. The dry, dusty, uncirculated air of the stairwell acting like hot, jalapeno encrusted sandpaper on the soft tissues of my windpipe. To push beyond this point would be to risk significant swelling and near closure of my trachea.
As I powered towards the 65th floor, my solitary ascent was interrupted by the tail end of the “elite” heat. Despite their five minute head start, I was reeling them in. As each flight passed, more and more elite racers clogged my path. At the 76th floor, I began to catch the stragglers of the women’s heat which had started ten minutes earlier. They walked the landings side by side and jammed the stairs two abreast. Fatigue reducing their mental acuity and response time. My ten floor sprint to the finish was reduced to a hurry up and wait, bob and weave dance around these human obstacles. Loud footsteps were moving up on me from below. I turned to see Duncan and Henry working together to part the seas of the walking dead. They were gaining fast. Fear coursed through my veins. My seldom seen aggressive side took over and I pushed through those blocking my path without apology. Exploding out of the stairwell onto the 86th floor I sprinted the final hundred feet around the outside of the observation deck. Duncan and Henry sprinted behind me but couldn’t close the gap. I had won the forty plus title. There was no collapsing, there was no admiring the view of New York, there was no hugging… I just simply walked away. My time and overall place were not important.
As it turns out, when the times of the two heats were added together my effort had earned me 11th place overall, only 25 seconds out of 5th. Duncan placed 13th and Henry 14th. Had we earned the right to run in the elite heat next year? Only time will tell.
I had achieved my best placement and fastest time in this race and yet I was left with a feeling of disappointment. Not because I didn’t place higher, but because I didn’t think and act higher. I defeated myself before the race had started. It wasn’t my competition or the building… it was me. Maturity, insight and wisdom are muscles. They need to be challenged and trained on a regular basis in order for them to grow or even to stay at the same level. Without effort and intention, these traits atrophy and wither. Life rarely gives us what we want, but it always gives us something. The key to great results and a great life is making use of that something. It has been said that success is getting what you want, but happiness is wanting what you get.
It looks like I need to be hitting the weights at the gym of the higher mind.