Monday, January 25, 2010

Unsolicited Opinion: Empire Run Up: Part I

Back in 2004, I ran the Empire State Building Run-Up and I wrote the story below about my experience there. This story, originally e-mailed to a few friends, got posted online somewhere and received some attention (people from Runner's World and Running Times contacted me about printing it). With the 2010 race coming up on February 2nd, I thought that I would post this since there are probable a few readers here that have not yet read it.

The Fleet Empire State Building Run-Up (FESBRU) is a race that I have wanted to run for a few years now. As a mountain runner, stair racing has intrigued me as a juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. Mountain running is sacred. The races take place on courses that were, depending on your philosophical bent, created either by millions (or billions) of years of plate-tectonic-driven orogenic processes, God, or both. Race courses, as a matter of necessity, take competitors through unspeakable natural beauty and often finish in locales so perfect that one can't help but consider amending some future will in order to ensure that your ashes are one day scattered in such a place. Running inside, no matter what the occasion, is profane- even something so viscerally enlightening as the employ of nothing but muscle, sweat, and a little bit of luck to climb over 1000` in a matter of minutes. Actually, the lobby of the Empire State Building has some really nice granite and the view from the observation deck is unique, stunning, and, dare I say it, beautiful. In between lays a stairwell painted dark gray and a few service corridors whose design was not exactly aesthetic in its intent. The stair climb as an athletic event is thus an evolution toward purity. The mountain in the beauty void. Without the distraction of natural beauty, only pure effort and the singularity of getting to the top faster than anyone else remains. This is the intrigue- asking yourself for but a few minutes of shear, athletic aggression and expecting nothing in return.

The media frenzy surrounding this race in amazing. Admittedly, this was one major reason that I had wanted to run here. In the warm up area, one floor below ground level, there were a probably half a dozen cameras interviewing competitors. This was nothing compared to the scene in the lobby where bleachers were needed in order to accommodate all of the press. The winners were shown on CNN and countless major media outlets report on the race. USA Today even published an article in which they interviewed me regarding my training for the event. This, of course, was before it became public knowledge that I suck at stair racing.

Going into the race, I felt that greatest obstacles to my success were the start and the short duration of the event. The start is on the ground floor in the lobby with about 20 feet between the starting line and a single door leading into the stairwell. Race numbers one through ten had priority on the starting line; with number 41, I was very lucky to sneak a spot on the line to the extreme right side of the corridor. This was a big mistake. While I probably knew more about fluid dynamics that any of my competitors that day, I had not realized that this should have been a factor my choice of starting position. In a normal race, the field moves according to the decisions of individual competitors each of whom are trying to run the shortest allowable distance to the finish line. In the FESBRU, however, the field behaves as a Newtonian fluid wherein the flow velocity at the center of the flow conduit is double that of the average flow velocity. This is, of course, assuming laminar flow, which, it will soon be evident, was not entirely applicable to the situation. I do not remember anything between the blast of the starting horn and entering the stairwell. A well-timed photo from the NYCRR website indicated that numerous runners had already passed me in the first 5 feet of the race. Somehow, I managed to get to the bottom of the stairs halfway down in the field! After navigating my body through the doorway, I ran smack into the back of the runner in front of me. Instantly, the runner behind me ran into the back of me. It is at this point in the race, that the waiting begins. After running all out at the gun, the majority of the field than proceeds to stand still and wait for the congestion to clear sufficiently for forward motion to resume. This part of the race probably comprised less than one second; however, for those runners who's competitive nature has been sharpened by years of hard work (everyone in the race), the wait seems to take an eternity.

Finally, we were (physically) allowed to move forward. The next few minutes were filled with easy running as passing is very difficult. At this point, I was very discouraged about my chances of finishing well. Then, I looked up to see that race favorite (and eventual winner), Rudolf Reitberger was only two runners ahead of me. This convinced me that, despite what I thought was an awful start, I still had a chance to finish well since Reitberger had finished second in his previous two attempts at this race. The next few minutes of the race, I passed many competitors who had capitalized on a better-than-average lobby dash and were now victim to staggering levels of blood-borne lactic acid. Passing these runners was relatively easy despite the narrow (4 feet wide) width of the staircase as, by this time, I was moving considerably faster then they were. With every additional flight, however, passing became increasingly difficult. After six or seven minutes of running up stairs, I was not moving that much faster than the runners that I was passing. The last three or four times that I passed runners required several flights for me to completely get by. By this time, we had managed to work our way into the bulk of the women's field who had started five minutes in front of the first men's heat- adding significantly to the difficulty of navigating a race on stairs. With a few minutes to go, I had moved into third and was thoroughly dispirited as I could not see the leaders and time was running out. My last two passes had been extremely difficult (physically demanding and psychologically defeating) and I was completely fed up with the event and with my inability to deal with its rigors. The only runner to pass me during the race then came up behind me and repeatedly attempted to forcefully pass on the right (inside). After being shoved and yelled at for a few flights, I pulled wide on the landing and allowed him the opportunity to pass on the inside. This was another mistake. A few minutes prior, it had taken me five flights to finally pass this guy. When I did so, it was on the left (outside) with no assistance. In return, I endured a few shoves before entering into a nadir of apathy about the event and the nature of competition in general. This was the end of my race and I ran slowly to the top thinking about how much time and money had been wasted on the trip.

Before completing the event, I had said that to run well in the FESBRU would require 95% pure, mountain running fitness and 5% specific stair running ability. In hindsight, I would change that to 75% pure mountain running fitness (the winner, after all, was an accomplished mountain runner- a member of the Austrian national team), 5% specific stair running ability, and 20% ability to pass people on a four-foot-wide staircase while maintaining focus on the race at hand (to word it a politely as possible). I work hard year-around on the first 75% and, for eight workouts this January, I worked pretty hard on the middle 5% by running as many as 10 repeats of our 29-story campus library in the course of a single session. I could probably work to improve my standing by focusing on that last 20% but I would view preparing for this event the same way that I would view training for running fast down a steep incline. There is no way to properly prepare for running extremely fast downhill except to do it in a race. No matter how hard I try, I am never going to run as fast down a hill in training as I will during an important race. Likewise, there is no way that I would subject myself to the sort of situations that would allow me to train for 11 minutes of extreme unpleasantness. Short of attending a Who concert or waiting for DVD players to go on sale at the local Wal-Mart, I wouldn't even know how to go about it.

Such is the nature of the event. The FESBRU is the oldest, most prestigious, and greatest stairclimbing race in the world. Part of this race and its honorable tradition is the lobby start and the utter craziness that its competitors must endure in an attempt to win it. Tradition is an important thing in racing and I hope that 26 years from now, the FESBRU is using the same course, the same starting procedure, and the same observation deck finish. Meanwhile, I will be looking for columnar joints in basalt, dragonflies, and columbines during my races.

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