Hugh Sweeny is an arrow-limbed, javelin-thin Jersey City smart aleck who looks as if he was born in his spinach-green sweat shirt and blue Adidases. He's fond of short jokes ("Why did the marathoner jump off the Empire State Building?"), long footraces and Germanic culture: Bach, Beethoven and Anheuser-Busch.
Alone or with his buddies from the Warren Street Social and Athletic Club of Jersey City, the 36-year-old torts lawyer's cyclonic metabolism uproots everything in his path. On Feb. 12 that path leads from the ground-floor lobby of the world's third-tallest skyscraper to the observatory deck, in its time the destination of luminaries such as the three sisters of King Zog of Albania, the trysting lovers Tilly Losch and Prince Serge Obolensky, and more than 1½ million tourists.
Sweeny will be taking part in the fourth annual Empire State Building Run-Up, the toughest quarter-mile south of the Arctic Circle. It's a wild dash up 86 flights—350 yards, 1,575 steps—which is about as close to most people's idea of chic jogging as hauling 20 tons of coal out of a Harlan County mine. The New York Road Runners Club, which co-sponsors the invitation-only event, requires that the step-people have completed at least one ultra-marathon (anything over 26 miles, 385 yards). The Road Runners would also like to limit entrants to a maximum of 30 in the interest of racing comfort and safety, though some sentimentalists hope the limit will be raised to 50 in honor of the Empire State Building's 50th anniversary this spring.
It's not the world's fastest quarter-mile, but then this staircase race is more a test of strength than stamina. At about the 20th floor, thighs begin to ache. At 30, lungs start to burn and your head is drooping like a semi-retired cart horse pulling a cut-rate load of 300-pound Russian tourists around Central Park. By the time you've reached the top, your body quivers like a crapshooter on his eighth pass. Taking the steps two at a time, you begin to feel as if you're on a treadmill—which is about where you are: you spend an awful lot of energy to stay in about the same place. Next week will be Sweeny's fourth attempt to get nowhere fast first. So far, he's finished farther back every year, though his time has deviated by only one second: he came in second in 13:00, third in 12:59 and fourth in 13:00. He's almost as consistent as the clocks at the Naval Observatory. "Generally, the people who beat me ran faster," he explains.
February 9, 1981
"If dollars were involved instead of glory," he says, "this event would be a real bloodbath because the stairwells are only 40 inches across and that's not enough room to get an advantage." Fortunately for Sweeny, he's got sharp elbows. Last year his elbows lasted for 86 floors, but his lungs all but gave out after 40. He told the runners on his heels that he'd let them pass if they'd buy him a beer afterward. He got three. If he'd been a little slower and smarter, he could have opened a bar. But even when he loses, he gets more press than the winners. His Warren Street club smarts and rigorous legal training enable him to snooker even the most jaded of race writers. Last year as another club member, third-place finisher Paul Fetscher, expounded on the aerodynamics of his waffle-soled sneakers. Sweeny entranced reporters by saying he'd undergone "anti-vertigo hypnosis" for the race.
(Another club coup shattered all the records at the 1980 New York Marathon. Warren Street regular Andy Maslow ducked out of the race at the first subway stop in Brooklyn, hopped a local to Columbus Circle, and crossed the finish line in an astounding 1:20.21, breaking Rosie Ruiz's old subway-assisted mark by more than an hour.)
Gary Muhrcke, a friend of Sweeny's, won the first Run-Up in 12:32.7. At the time, he was collecting an $11,822-a-year disability pension from the New York City Fire Department. Investigative reporters thought this was odd, but a doctor said the 37-year-old Muhrcke could run, he just couldn't lift weights. Muhrcke didn't show for the second running, won by financial analyst Jim Rafferty, 26, in 12:19.8. That's the record. Last year James Ochse, a 25-year-old graduate student, came out on top in 12:20.1, about 11 minutes slower than an Empire State Building elevator ascending nonstop.
Last winter Sweeny turned up at a couple of local road races with a jar in which a dead mouse was submerged. He called it "mouse juice," and offered it as a special potion with the advice, "Shake it, don't stir it." Not even road racers were gullible enough to swallow that line. Sweeny claims he prepared for this year's Run-Up by watching the great apes in the Bronx Zoo. "I went there for tips on style and technique," he says. "I figured I wasn't going to win the race on legs alone."
Sweeny says he's going to pull himself up along the banisters like a chimpanzee swinging across the ceiling of his cage. And if he slips out to an early lead, he may toss banana peels down to the competition behind him.
His training film is King Kong. He watches it for inspiration. "What I've learned is that there's a beautiful girl waiting for you at the top," he says.
Which is even a shorter joke than "Why did the marathoner jump off the Empire State Building?" To be a hit on Broadway, of course. Of course.