DOZENS OF local road races chart courses for miles along the length and breadth of New York City. But one of the most challenging runs is only a fifth of a mile long: a vertical climb to the top of the Manhattan skyline.

The annual Empire State Building Run-Up draws hordes of spandex-clad runners past the suits and turnstiles. The objective: ascend the building’s 86 floors of narrow stairwells, ignoring the burning pains in their calves and thighs.

Kevin Ward, a cashier for the ESB observatory who, at 50, ran his second Run-Up last Tuesday, said the course quickly weeds out the uncommitted. Of the 96 runners who entered last year, 38 made it to the top. Without strong mental resolve and a sense of purpose, Ward said, he would have been one of non-finishers.

He ran last year in honor of two former competitors: Chico Scimone, who at 93 was the oldest runner to complete the race before passing away in 2007; and race record-holder Paul Crake, a marathon trainee and professional cyclist who was paralyzed in a bike accident the same year at age 30.

When he read the news about Crake’s accident, Ward said, “I was in the house by myself with tears running out of my eyes.” He contacted Crake shortly after, telling him, “I’m gonna do the race for you and Chico.”

And the motivation held him steady till the end: “When I was on the 50th floor,” he said, “I screamed out Chico’s name. ‘Chico, I am coming!’”

This sense of nostalgia and camaraderie has characterized the race since it began in 1977, organized by the New York Road Runners. There are actually three separate runs: a preliminary race, the official run, and a recently added special brokers’ competition. Ward ran the preliminary at 9 a.m., pleased with a personal best under twenty minutes, and then waited, chatting and sharing stories with other runners, for the awards ceremony at 11 a.m.

Runners stretched out, warmed up, and chatted with family and friends on the 61st floor during morning lulls. Every participant has picked up tricks and techniques for how to master the behemoth skyscraper. They shared a few: “lungs, not legs.” “Take the stairs two at a time until you get to the 15th floor. Once you’re there, it levels out. The stairs change.”

Dark stairwells that barely fit two runners abreast make this a less-than-ideal spectator race, but after meeting up with an acquaintance, 15-time competitor David Allard, 61, of Massachusetts, Ward showed us a way to maneuver through the elevator banks to the 73rd floor stairwell, where we covertly watched the runners stumble and pant, single file, towards the final leg of the race. Most of the runners looked ready to drop, but Ward confided that the worst of the race isn’t over: “the stairways get longer toward the end.”

But although the difficulty of the Run-Up may trivialize that of the average road race, the rewards apparently increase proportionately. Allard, a veteran marathoner who has run Boston, New York, Paris, and Prague, will run his next marathon on April 26th in Zurich, his seventh time for that race alone. For all that, he still counts this race among his favorites.

“I like traditions,” he said. “This is the best in the world.”

 
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