Saturday, February 11, 2012

86 Floors in NYC!

Empire State Building Run-Up – February 8, 2012

This year was the 35th running of the Empire State Building. This race has tradition, perhaps considered the Boston Marathon of stair climbing with its random selection process based on athletic ability, whether it be stair climbing, running, cycling or something a bit more eclectic. But each and every year some of the best climbers are rejected which leaves some feeling scornful towards the NYRR. The race normally takes place the first Tuesday of February every year and is known for its mass start (usually leaving someone on the ground practically being trampled and others taking elbows to the face), its uniquely long flat landings and the run to the finish around the observation deck. This year they decided to switch things up, first the race would be held on a Wednesday night, strange. Then they also decided to have it be a lottery with a time trial format, if you were talented and lucky enough you could apply for the invitational heat which would follow the tradition and stick with the mass start. This year the elite field included about 15 girls and 22 guys toeing the line, ready to make that dash to the stairwell. 

A couple of months ago when my random goal time for Aon popped into my head, one for Empire also came to mind. Out of nowhere I set my sights on 13:37 (last year I was 7th with 14:47). My training over the past several months indicated that I was on pace and after my record setting climb at Aon (10:49), I knew I was capable of going faster and sub 13:00 minutes lingered in the back of my mind. The thought of a time like that was frightening, when thoughts of leading or potentially winning this race crept into my mind, I quickly forced them to exit trying to keep my stay calm, keep cool demeanor and positive attitude. I knew some of the worlds best climbers would be battling it during this race. This included:

Melissa Moon – 2010 ESBRU champion, 2 time world mountain running champion and 7 time New Zealand national cross country champion

Suzy Walsham – 3 time ESBRU champion, 6th in 1500 at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, 4:37 mile PR and 15:56 5K

Cindy Harris – 4 time ESBRU champion, winner of Hustle Up the Hancock and Sears Tower too many times to count

Christina Bonacina – 2011 Towerrunning Worldcup Champion, 2nd in the 2011 Vertical World Circuit, 2nd 2011 ESBRU

Erika Aklufi – 2010 US Bank winner with a time of 10:35, 10k PR – 34:50 and 5k PR – 16:27

Surprise Guest Climber – Chrissie Wellington - 4 time Ironman World Champion, set the world and course record!

My 10:49 Aon shoved me into the limelight, forced me to come to turns with the fact that I could climb with these girls, they were no longer out of my league, they were within reach. I tried not to think about it, didn’t want to put pressure on myself, just wanted it to be me against the tower, do what I do, give it my best.

The morning of the race, I wasted some time hanging in various coffee shops doing some work since I wanted to save my vacation days for my international adventures later in this year. I got back to my hotel around 1 or 1:30, then started to get antsy. I had to kill a bunch of time, laying in bed watching an NCIS marathon, thoughts raced through my head. I was getting eager; the race anxiety was setting in. I started reading a thread on facebook between Brady and Terry Purcell regarding my potential race and my hands got clammy, my heart started racing. I called Brady to pass some time and discuss strategy. I knew that I wanted to try to stay with the other girls, didn’t want to let them get too far out of my sight but didn’t want to force myself to start out too quickly trying to stay with them. I’ve never been in a race situation where I might be involved in a train of climbers, all vying for the top podium spots. I didn’t know how I would react if I was leading or in the top 3 or last in that train of 5, 6, 7 climbers. I wanted to give myself a “drop-dead” GO floor so I decided 70-75 would be good since the race was 86 floors. At that point, I’d have to try to pick up the pace and muster up the last ounces of energy I had.

6:00 finally rolled around so I headed to a nearby shop to get my ritualistic cup of pre-race coffee. As I sat in there, I gazed out the window and I saw the top of Empire was orange! I knew this had to be a sign, had to be good luck and it put me in an encouragingly awesome mood. I met Justin Stewart, Kevin Crossman and Tim VanOrden to walk over to the building. We got there and meandered inside to the staging areas where we got our numbers. I was 108 which meant I was technically placed in the 1st row. I wasn’t sure how many elite climbers there would be this year but I wanted a good starting spot. We changed our gear, chatted with a few other climbers and started a warm-up. I jogged up and down a hallway chatting with Cindy along the way. As we were waiting around, the organizers mentioned that Chrissie Wellington was going to be climbing with us. Someone random usually shows up to this race but Wellington, seriously?!? Tim and others encouraged me, told me that she’s an Ironman used to long races, designed to push at the moderate/high threshold for extended periods of time, didn’t mean that she would cruise to the top in this intense grueling sport. Wow, this was gonna be incredible racing against her and other phenomenal athletes. 

The race organizers led us to the starting line, I felt like they were leading me to my death or something. We had to wait around 10 minutes while camera’s flashed and we just stood there. I'm sure I looked like a deer in headlights, not sure if the reporters could see the fear in my face. I saw Chrissie and introduced myself, asked her how/why she decided to do this. She said someone called her at 2:00 pm that day and asked her if she was interested so she said sure and mentioned that she had no idea what she was getting herself into.

The race was about to start, Melissa Moon was all the way to my left, then Cindy was next to her. I was sandwiched between Bonacina and Walsham. Aklufi and Wellington started in the 2nd row. The horn blared and we darted off, I felt someone shove me in the back (which I later saw was Walsham). I avoided an elbow and the wall this year, made it into the stairwell without any major issues. Cindy and Moon took off up the stairs, I followed closely behind. I didn’t wanna get left in their dust and my race strategy slipped my mind. We were going at a quick pace for the first few floors, kinda running the steps, wasn’t in my usual rhythm. The first 20 floors are like a normal stairwell, they turned to the right and had somewhere around 10 or less steps per flight. I think they were shorter flights because it seemed like I was getting dizzy and hitting the landings sooner than I was used to. The floor numbers were hidden back in a corner so it was hard to tell where we were, everything was whizzing by.

Cindy had quickly burst ahead of us and was out of sight, I hung tight and right behind Moon. Just smoothly followed her step by step up the stairs. she hit the landing, I hit the landing. Just gotta stay with her for a while, wow im in 3rd. its still early but im in 3rd. Aklufi wasn’t far behind neither was Walsham. We hit floor 20 and the stairwell switched to the long landings. I could hear and see Cindy. Moon passed her, I used an extra burst of speed and passed her on the outside then took off on the landing. Where is Wellington?!? Shes nowhere to be found, interesting.

I continued to stay right on Moon. Somewhere between 20 and 30 or 40, idk when for sure it was since time in the stairwell all merges together, floors become blurred, Walsham passed me on the outside and surged ahead. Then her and Moon were off, they were out of my sight, erased from my memory. We got to floor 43, I was still in 3rd even though the first two were no longer even in my thoughts. I checked my watch, assuming this might be the halfway point. who knows if it actually was halfway based on number of steps and height of the building but based on numbers it was! my watch read like 5:56 or something, I thought whoa if this is halfway, I'm setting a blazing pace and that most likely means I’m in trouble. I'm already having that blood iron taste/feeling in my throat, this cant be good, I must really be breathing heavy and pushing it.

I kept on climbing, the fatigue started to set into my legs and my arms. I kept darting those landings, Aklufi was only a few steps behind me. We climbed that way for another 15-20 floors. Then out of nowhere came Wellington, she breezed past both Aklufi and I, was one step running it without the rail in the middle of the stairwell, what the heck? Is she even tired or using any effort, guess it paid off that she started conservative! Shortly thereafter, Aklufi passed me on the outside. At this point, I was majorly feeling it. I went from being in 3rd for most of the race to 5th and we only had about 15-20 floors to go. Around floor 60 something, we were forced out of the stairwell and had to run down a hallway, turn right another hallway, another right turn and yet another hallway, this run was unexpected and I was all alone, my legs were wobbly.

Got back in the stairwell and started the groove again. I was in the “drop-dead go zone” and I didn’t have it. Only 15 floors left but there was no burst of speed, no spark of energy. I crept along, kept jogging those landings hoping that the flat would provide some desperate relief for my climbing muscles that were utterly exhausted and fried from the blazing fast starting pace. Reached floor 75, this is when I had no choice, I was really suppose to pick it up, checked my watch 10:20-10:40 or something but I had no idea what that meant. Its all a blur, I cant really remember if I even tried or not but I knew I was giving it all I had at the time. Floor 80, I checked my watch again 12:20 and I knew that my chances of going under 13 were gone, they had slipped away somewhere in the final half or quarter of that building.

I saw the final floor to the top, a long straight away, I tried to kinda run it and use the rail, I stumbled and fell, my legs were shot they didn’t like having to change their stride. I reached the top and ran out the doorway onto the observation deck, it was dark and I think there were snow flurries. I ran the best I could around that building, not sure I could’ve sprinted any faster or forced my legs to do any more than they had already done. I finished, I heard a guy say 13:37, checked my watch it read 13:36. Disappointment set in, I wobbled around looking for a place to crash but there wasn’t one. I felt sick, I wanted to throw up, my legs didn’t work. they shuttled us down a hallway to get some water and a medal. I stumbled around, found the nearest garbage can and just stood there, afraid to move. I had a headache, I was coughing, my throat tasted like blood, my stomach was in knots and nothing was making me feel better. 

The guys started to funnel in, I said a few words to some of them but I felt so sick, I didn’t wanna talk to anyone. They took us downstairs, I rushed off the elevator and found another trashcan. I think I spent about 30+ minutes hunched over one of those things after the race. I finally made my way to the press area and saw everyone gathered there. I saw the results, Moon won with a PR of 12:39, Walsham somehow fell behind the last 5 floors for a time of 13:09, Wellington came in at 13:15 and Aklufi was 13:22. I was 5th, not too far behind but I think that fast pace was too much for a lot of us to handle. I wonder what would’ve happened had I started out slower or had we all started off slower. I think we were all capable of a race closer to 13:00 but just didn’t happen.

My race was shot, I went out too fast and was kinda in disbelief, I didn’t know how to feel about it. I hit my goal time dead-on but I couldn’t hang with those girls. Moon talked to me after the race, she was like “wow you were right behind me for a while, when did you fall off?” honestly, I couldn’t tell her, haha.

I think I made a few critical errors in this race, obviously the fast pace left me shot for the end. If I would’ve paced it myself, forgetting about trying to hang with the leaders, I probably could’ve made a move at the end. And for some reason I was swinging wide on those long landings, might’ve only cost a split-second or a second but ya never know, I remember thinking during the race, what the heck are you doing all the way out there?

Bonacina, Harris, Me, Moon
I was disappointed and felt like I left myself and others down. I took over a minute off my time from last year so I should be happy, I raced against some of the best in the world and hung with them for a while. it could’ve ended up a lot worse.

I think Moon said it best “"You can't start too fast too soon in a race like this," Moon said. "I knew I had it when I got to the 70th floor and I could no longer hear them breathing behind me.”

Dang, I that’s exactly what I did! I have a fire for next year, I want one of those mini empire state building trophies. A place on the podium will be mine!

I also love this quote by Tim VanOrden “Your legs aren’t functioning, your throat is screaming, you can barely put your arms on the railing and you want to throw up — and you’ve got 10 to 15 floors to go.”

Wellington also exclaimed “I felt like my throat constricted early on, about Floor 6 or 7”. Asked how her 13-minute climb compared with an Ironman, she said, “Well, I’m a masochist—but I like to spread the effort over a longer time. This was the most painful thing I’ve ever done!”   Nice to know that she struggled a bit.

Post Empire Workouts

I was feeling pretty trashed after this race, guess I really pushed myself to the limit. I did a couple of easy workouts once I got home and my calves/achilles and quads weren't feeling all that great. Saturday morning we hit the stairwell and I had 3 decent climbs (2:38, 2:38, 2:37) but realized my legs were shot about halfway through the 4th one and I slogged in 6 seconds slower (2:44) than the other 3 and just had to drag myself up to the top. I was kinda discouraged.

Figured I'd do an easy recovery workout later in the day but when I got home, I saw my Vibrams had arrived so I was very eager to try them out in the stairwell. I went back to the Z tower. It took quite the effort to squeeze my sweaty foot into those puppies and get my tiny toes situated. I was nervous when I stepped into the stairwell, didn't know if I'd like the toe-shoes or how my legs would feel after the workout earlier.

I started off and my legs felt amazing, I hit a 2:31 and thought wow these shoes are awesome! Then followed it up with a 2:24 and 2:21!! thats my best 3 climb average by like 10 seconds! Im not sure what happened between the stair workout at 9:00 and the workout at 3:00 but it didnt matter. Maybe those shoes have magical powers, who knows. Either way I was smiling! :)

For some neat videos of the race, check out the following links:

The pressure Moon is referring to in the video below is me :)


  1. Awesome Kristin - thanks for writing that up, I loved reading it! I think one of the hardest things to do - is pace yourself during the race. Every climb is different. Sometimes surprises are thrown into it even. Competition at this, the biggest race of the year, doesn't help participants stick to their gameplan - and it all sort of goes out the window when you see the best in the field take off ahead of you. You'll do better next year... Your result this year is nothing to be ashamed of - that's for sure! Have a good year of racing and training and focus on mastering pace since you know you have a good kick at the end when you do. Best of luck, life, karma, and all that in your upcoming races! Cheers, Vern

    1. thanks vern. its funny how sometimes we can keep telling ourselves one thing but then when that gun goes off, adrenaline just takes over and strategy goes out the window. i'll definetly do my own thing next year, theres no doubt about that :)

  2. Great job Kristin!
    I enjoyed reading every minute of your story. Thanks for all the description of the event, your feelings...and your magical story at the end too!
    I met you briefly after the Aon (I train with Jesse.) I continue to be inspired by you and the others' stories. It's all new to me and I'm loving learning everything about this sport.
    Perhaps I'll see you at the Hancock next Sunday.
    Oh, really liked the pictures with your story too.

    1. thank you so much cheryl! it was delightful talking to you at Aon and im glad you enjoyed my blog :) i hope to see you at hancock too and if not, good luck! im sure you'll do great