Running up the Empire State Building was not exactly on my to-do list — until it was

By Stephanie Emma Pfeffer
May 16, 2019 11:05 AM
Empire State Building Running
Credit: William Volcov/Brazil Photo Press/LatinContent/Getty

What It Is: The Empire State Building Run-Up, the world’s first — and most famous — tower race

Who Tried It: Stephanie Emma Pfeffer, PEOPLE Health writer and editor

Level of Difficulty: 8/10 — Thigh burning, lung-bursting… but with a great payoff at the top.

When PEOPLE got an invitation to participate in the Empire State Building Run-Up sponsored by Turkish Airlines (which is headquartered there), I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do one of the most iconic races in the world, one that benefits charities like the Challenged Athletes Foundation and the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.

While I was pretty sure I would be able to make it to the top, I knew it was a different beast than my usual half-marathons: I needed to be quick and powerful versus slow(er) and steady. About a month out, I increased my HIIT workouts and threw in a few extra split squats and lunges. (Obviously I’m not a trainer — I just guessed what might make sense.) I also used the StairMaster at the gym several times a week, figuring the the Empire State Building setting would totally prepare me for the thigh burn.

Not quite! It was still a challenge. The first 20 floors were easy enough, but then I started feeling it in my chest and lungs. The stairs are also pretty steep. I remember reaching the halfway point and thinking, wow, my quads are already kind of tired and I have another 40 floors to go! So no, it wasn’t really like the StairMaster — but that training probably helped my endurance.

And 17 minutes after entering the stairwell, I blew through the door of the 86th floor and literally felt on top of the world! Since the runners are staggered, there are just a few finishers at a time. It was really cool to be on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building — usually teeming with tourists — with just a handful of other people. I felt special for a few seconds… before heading all the way back down in the elevator.

Empire State Building Running
Back on the ground, post-race.

Here’s what else I learned climbing 86 flights, 1,576 stairs, approximately one-fifth of a vertical mile to the top:

  1. Double up! It was most efficient to take two steps at a time. But I did switch to single steps periodically when my quads needed a break from the exertion.
  2. Handrails help. The stairwell was narrow enough to grab the rails on both sides and use them to pull yourself up for momentum. It’s legal in this race and is one of the main tips given by elite runners.
  3. Dust is not your friend. The worst part for me was the burning in my throat, presumably caused by my rapid breathing + a dusty, enclosed space. The two water stations helped but my throat still hurt 10 minutes post-climb.
  4. It was not crowded at all! Not only were the heats staggered (elite, charity runners, media, etc.), but each person entered the stairs 5 seconds after the person before. I’d expected a massive cluster of people trying to elbow each other out of the way. But there was plenty of space, and runners were nice to each other, stepping aside if someone was trying to pass, but also asking: “Are you OK? Hang in there!”
  5. Tower running is a thing. There are tower run clubs all over the world, and running enthusiasts work the tower run circuit, traveling from city to city to compete.
  6. It’s super exclusive. The race had just 217 finishers. I met one woman who said she had tried to get in via lottery for the past 10 years!
  7. The payoff on the 86th floor was completely worth it. There is no way to describe the exhilaration that comes with the view, the realization of what you’ve accomplished — and the fact that you are standing on top of the greatest city in the world.
  8. The fastest runner was a 33-year-old from Poland who finished in 10:05. The next group of elite runners didn’t finish until at least a minute later. My finishing time of 17:28 placed me sixth in my age group. The last finisher was an 81-year-old man. That guy is my hero!