Back in 2004, I ran the Empire State Building Run-Up and I wrote an account of my experience there. The wide distribution of this account has, over the past few years, lead some perfectly reasonable yet woefully misinformed people to incorrectly assume that I was some sort of expert on all things Run-Up. Seriously, each year, a few people (who apparently skipped the part in the essay where I say that I suck at stair racing) contact me with requests for information about performing well at this race. I thought that, with the 2010 race fast approaching, I would write a post about my recommendations regarding preparing for, performing well, and recovering from the Empire State Building Run Up in list form ('cause I like lists).
1. Watch TiVo's video of the 2007 race: Tim went to the ESBRU a few years ago with high hopes. This video, in addition to showing those hopes being crushed, communicates the characteristic start of the men's elite heat better than words possibly could. If I was the RD for this race, the application would have a box that says "Have you seen TiVo's video of the 2007 race?" and if this box was not ticked, entry would be denied. By the way, "this man" mentioned in the video is former USATF Mountain Runner of the Year, Rickey Gates. Tim also has a video of the 2008 race, that is longer and involves a mechanical bull an an interview to multiple-time World Mountain Running Trophy winner, Marco De Gasperi (though, unfortunately, not at the same time).
2. Get your entry in early: The first year that I tried to run the ESBRU, I only contacted the organizers six weeks before the event. This was too late as the race was already full. Keep in mind that I was coming off of my seconds mountain runner of the year award at that point and was unable to get in. If you are not similarly credentialed, I would suggest entering as soon as you can.
3. Train generally: The most important components to performing well at a stairclimb race are going to be aerobic fitness, a high lactate threshold, and leg strength. Being in good 'running shape' is obviously a must for an event such as this.
4. Train specifically: If you look that the results from past ESBRU's entrants that are 'just' fast runners tend to not finish very high up in the results. The group of athletes that tends to do well consistently are mountain runners. Course record holder, Paul Crake was both an accomplished mountain runner and a professional cyclist. It's a good (and faily obvious) bet that the training that makes someone a good mountain runner translates well over to racing up stairs. As for the training that goes into making someone a good mountain runner, it seems to vary widely for every elite mountain runner that I have every met...
5. Train really specifically: The best way to get better at doing something is to do it; so, the best way to get better at stair climbing is to climb stairs. Most people do not have access to really tall buildings (like the Empire State Building) so this means stairwell repeats. Stair repeats will prepare you for the race in two ways. The first (and more obvious) way is that you will develop the muscles specific to running up stairs. The second (and somewhat less obvious) thing that the stairwell will do is that it will prepare you for the unfavorable indoor air conditions that you will encounter. Stairwell air is dry and often dusty and makes breathing during athletic exertion uncomfortable. You will still be coughing and hacking at the top of the ESB but this can be minimized if you work at pissing your lungs off in increasingly long increments. Also, don't even think that a StairMaster will prepare you for an event like this (beyond developing basic cardiovascular fitness- see #3).
6. Train really really specifically: In preparation for my attempt at the ESBRU, I did quite a bit of the stairwell training described in #5- five weeks of two to three hard stairwell repeat workouts per week. During my workouts, I would run at a hard but controlled pace (it took about two minutes to get to the top of my stairwell). I would turn the corners (two per flight) hard but I never once used the hand rails during my training. During the race, I used the hand rails extensively. Never mind that this was totally different than the training that I had done- it was clearly the optimal way to run the race. So, if I was preparing to perform well at a stair race, I would still do most of my repeats without the rails but I would add a few reps at the end of each workout where I practiced using the handrails.
7. Be prepared for the start: I do not really think that a person can really train for the start. The reaction time and sprint speed needed to reach a 36-inch wide door 40 feet into a race is something that you either have or you do not. You can optimized your chances for a good start somewhat (see #8 and #9) but, assuming that your start is not going to go well (as is the case for 95% of the first men's wave), you should at least be prepared for that. This means being prepared for two things. First your expectations about your performance should include the idea that your finish time might be effected (substantially) by a poor start. Second, the crush of humanity that occurs for all but the first few through the doorway is disturbing and uncomfortable. Even thought I was distracted by thoughts of being physically prevented from perusing my competitors, I was still aware of just how nasty this was. If this 'crush of humanity' actually appeals to you, please do not run the race. You are disgusting.
8. Get a low number: If you have not run the ESBRU or another high profile stair race before this will be difficult. Racers line up according to number if you are not in the first two rows see #7. I do not have any advice other than saying that unless you actually know someone in charge of assigning the numbers, you will probably have to run reasonably well off of a high number start position in order to get a lower number in later years.
9. Be a woman: The women's field is much smaller than the men's and tends to be more spread out. This almost eliminates the chaos that is experienced by the men at the start of the race. Without the start and all of the problems that it presents, this would be a race that I would actually be interested in running again. Also, the women start first so they do not have the additional difficulty of having to pass the slower racers. While I have not actually run the women's race here (obviously) I have no question that theirs is a more positive experience.
10. Have fun after the race: I was so pissed off with my performance in the race that I was unable to enjoy the fact that NYC is a pretty cool place to visit. Granted it is wicked expensive but it is a unique place with plenty of cool things to see and see and do.