Marathon: A race for the upwardly mobile

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The Independent Online
It's a vertical marathon: every February in New York athletes gather to race up the 86 floors of the world's third tallest building. Martin Holder joined the Empire State Run Up.

New York took my breath away as well as most of my stomach contents. Being violently sick at the top of the "Eighth Wonder of the World" is undoubtedly one of the most memorable things I have done. I wanted my trip to the Big Apple to be unforgettable. So I ran up the Empire State Building instead of using the lift.

Every year 180 upwardly-mobile and perhaps mentally unbalanced athletes take part in the Empire State Run Up. It is the oldest of an ever-growing world-wide circuit of vertical marathons: Sydney, Moscow, Vienna, Munich, Toronto and Detroit all host their own vertical marathons and they are open to anyone keen to achieve something most people are too sensible to do. By running up the world's third tallest building, I wanted to scale new heights of achievement for British athletics, as well as British holiday- makers to New York.

The Empire State Building run takes you up 86 floors - a total of 1,576 40-inch wide, half-inch-high steps. The race begins in the lobby - on 36th Street and Fifth Avenue - and ends on the observatory dock on the 86th floor. My race began three months earlier, up and down the staircase in my home in Blackheath. Practice facilities were rather low on the ground in London, but I did not let the lack of skyscrapers interfere with my training. I ran up and down my 12-step staircase 500 times a day. My neighbours were tolerant. My wife, Fiona, had mentioned in passing something about my suffering from a bladder infection.

I then moved on to a local multi-storey car park, progressing on to the maintenance stairwell of Woolwich Tunnel. I run marathons and have run a few cross-country races - but vertical marathons, I had been told, require work on certain muscle groups. Presumably not the brain.

Raising money for Save The Children and the Catherine Wyatt Fund (set up in memory of a university friend who died suddenly) was my main motivation, as well as going to New York and seeing it from a different perspective - on the run, without the use of yellow cabs or the subway.

Arriving in the city, my training schedule continued with jogs around Central Park, down Broadway and Wall Street, past Macy's and right down to the Statue of Liberty - as well as workouts on the treadmill and step- up machine in the Manhattan Sheraton. I also ran up and down the hotel's 26-storey stairs. On one occasion, guests flooded out of their rooms in my wake thinking that there was a fire drill.

On the big day, I signed in, paid my pounds 10 race fee, collected my singlet and lined up at the start. The pros went first and the race was won for the third successive year by Kurt Konig, a 39-year-old accountant from Mittenwald in Germany. He is the undisputed King of the Maintenance Stairwells. His winning time of 10 minutes 22 seconds was just four seconds outside the all-time record set by Australian Greg Case. The best women's time is around 12-and a-half-minutes. This is held by an Australian, Belinda Soszyn.

I had no idea of what time would be respectable. I just wanted to finish without the aid of paramedics and with blisters that would not prevent me from shopping the next day.

The starting pistol fired and off we went, shoulder-barging each other out of the way in the huge crush, a desperate attempt to get to the small- framed door to the staircase. Then it was stair crazy all the way. I had expected a nosebleed or a stitch but all I got was sore thumbs from swinging around the handrail from floor to floor. The Empire State Run is essentially a road race with handrails.

Whizzing around the corners, I caught sight of the Manhattan skyline from a 360-degree perspective. It was a curious and novel way of sightseeing. The run is no great distance. Only a fifth of a mile and 1,050ft up. At the end you don't run into the arms of a loved one or trainer, but those of a small man dressed in a rather mangy gorilla suit. Apart from a congratulatory cuddle from King Kong, all you get for your exertions is a not-very-nice complimentary T-shirt, a tiny, tacky trophy, a Swatch, a sticky bun for your blood-sugar level, complimentary rehydration in a wobbly paper cup and an all-expenses ride down to ground level in the lift.

I finished 56th, in a time of just under 16 minutes - 13 minutes faster than the oldest man in the race, 85-year-old Chico Scorone. The view from the top was more breathtaking than usual. As I gulped for air, and the rest of the runners filed away towards the lift, I looked up to see the man who runs the souvenir shop on the observatory floor shaking his head disconsolately. His name is Douglas. "These stair climbers are my worst customers. They never buy nothing."

I felt terrible, and my recovery period was rather noisy. But slowly the ultimate holiday high began to sink in and make itself felt. I could have gone faster and overtaken more people, but I have been brought up to believe that it is bad luck to cross on stairs.

The 1998 Empire State Run takes place on 22 February: for more information call 001 212 860 4455.

Getting there: London-New York is the busiest and most competitive international air route in the world, and since the start of the year fares have fallen to their lowest ever in real terms. Most of the best deals are on Continental from Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham or Manchester for as little as pounds 170 return (including all taxes, through discount agents).