No one needs an introduction to the Empire State Building. This 107-story skyscraper dominates the Manhattan skyline and is a giant amongst giants with 1,860 steps, 6,500 windows, 73 elevators, 2 banks, 5 entrances, 3 cafes, and 250 maintenance staff. It is undoubtedly the most famous building in the city and has drawn the multitudes to peer from its observation platform, including a rather large ape called King Kong. Built in 1931, it has been the scene of countless romantic movies as well as the final jumping off point for some 30 suicides. (One such jumper threw herself off the 86th floor in 1979, only to be blown back onto the 85th floor relatively unscathed.) The building, located on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, has survived the Great Depression, near bankruptcy (initially it was nicknamed the “Empty State Building”), and a catastrophic plane crash when a B25 Mitchell slammed into its side in 1945. Every year it also survives one of New York’s most bizarre and grueling foot races—the great Empire State Building Run Up.
Looking somewhat out of place in togs and trainers amidst such Manhattan Art Deco splendor, 250 runners gather in the building’s glass and marble lobby. They are congregated for what is essentially a handrail marathon, a vertical sprint to the top through a narrow grey stairwell. They trod a mind numbing 1,576 steps to the 86th floor at 1,050 feet (315m), their ears popping from the change in altitude, to a viewing platform that is often shrouded in clouds. Women go first, dashing across the lobby and jostling up the stairwell in what is a seriously competitive race with not an animal costume in sight. Participation is by invitation only, though anybody is free to make an initial application to the organizers who are called the New York Road Runners. Competitors are chosen by ability and background and there is a nominal registration fee of $30 if chosen. Runners come from all around the world to test their stamina on what proves to many a stairway to hell, where the sheer monotony and exertion means the climb is tough mentally as well as physically. Approximately 10% never make it to the top. Australian professional cyclist Paul Crake holds the overall record, completing this stair crazy challenge in 9 minutes, 33 seconds (that’s 6,593 ft. an hour), the only runner to ever reach the observation platform in under 10 minutes. The winner receives no prize money, just a commemorative medal and a free plane ride back to the event the following year. Thankfully, all the runners are allowed to take the elevator back down.
First held in 1978, the Empire State Building Run Up is the oldest and most prestigious event in a new urban endurance sport called tower running. Now there are similar events all over the world in cities as diverse as Sydney, Moscow, Vienna, and Detroit. One thing they all have in common is a mighty towerblock with hellish steps, some surpassing the Empire State in height and agony. Bangkok’s event at the Westin Banyan Tree Hotel, for example, has 1,093 steps. Tower running is certainly for the fit and upwardly mobile and one thing is guaranteed wherever you choose to do it—if the view does not leave you breathless, the run up will. —CO’M
New York Road Runner’s Club ( 212/860-4455; www.nyrr.org).
When to Go: Early Feb. Check website for details.
JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty.
$$$ The Michelangelo Hotel, 152 West 51st St. ( 212/765-0505; www.michaelangelohotel.com). $$ Hilton Garden Inn, 63 W. 35th St. ( 212/594-3310; www.hiltongardeninn.hilton.com).