MORE THAN A 12-STEP PROGRAM EVEN WITHOUT KING KONG, THE RACE UP THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING WAS A BEAST

May 12, 1996

The observation deck of the Empire State Building is 86
stories--that's 1,050 feet--above the streets of midtown
Manhattan. More than three million tourists visit the deck each
year, and all but 149 take the elevator. On Feb. 22 this year
those 149 people met in the skyscraper's Art Deco lobby for the
19th annual Empire State Building Run-Up. The field contained
athletes from eight nations, all of whom had been selected from
among 200 applicants by the New York Road Runners Club. There
was a world champion mountain runner from Germany, a bicycle
racer from Australia and a 40-and-over champion marathoner from
Japan.

There was also one sportswriter--me. During a moment of severe
dementia this winter, I decided that the Empire run-up would be
a fascinating challenge. There are 60 or so annual stair races
in the world. The Empire State Building event is the oldest and
most competitive and is considered by cognoscenti to be the
unofficial world championship. The Road Runners Club graciously
allowed me to join the fray.

The subject of strategy dominated prerace conversations. Should
stairs be tackled one at a time, two at a time or three at a
time? Should you grab onto a railing while you run? Is passing
more efficient on stairs or landings? In the process I learned
some of the event's lore. For example, Gary Muhrcke, the winner
of the inaugural race, in 1977, was a retired New York City
firefighter who was on a partial disability pension because of
back problems.

The race was conducted in three heats--women, fast men and slow
men (including yours truly). I immediately understood why one
racer was wearing a surgical mask: The Empire State Building's
stairwells are probably vacuumed as often as the underside of my
bed, which is to say never. The rapid stamping of 149 sets of
feet raised all the stairwell schmutz ceilingward. I felt as if
I were running through a Sahara dust storm. At the same time it
seemed as if we were involved in a game of full-contact
phone-booth stuffing: The stairwell was no roomier than an
elevator shaft. I received about three dozen elbows in the ribs
before I realized I would have to fight back or finish last.

The pack thinned out by the 20th floor, and I found my rhythm:
I'm definitely a two-at-a-time, grab-the-railing,
pass-on-the-landing guy. I also learned that people don't
stair-climb for the scenery. The Empire State stairwell is
painted a depressing brown and tan. The floors are numbered with
little red plaques, which I tried not to look at (too
discouraging).

The steps are about three feet wide and 7 1/2 inches high and are
made of knee-jarring cement. Between some floors there are 16
steps; between others, 14; between yet others there are 10
steps, then a small landing, then 12 more. The lighting is
fluorescent, and on most floors it flickered, giving the race a
strobed effect. The stairwell also acted like an echo chamber,
warping our grunts and footfalls into a zoolike chorus.

As I ascended I became increasingly dizzy. The steps swirled in
a kaleidoscopic montage. By the 50th floor I was having trouble
focusing on where to place my feet. Worse than that, my legs,
loaded with lactic acid, began ignoring some of my commands. I
soon resorted to putting both hands on the railing and hauling
myself up with my arms. My legs followed meekly, dead weight. My
breath sounded like amplified sandpapering. Business people in
jackets and ties and skirts stood in doorways, staring. I did
the 82nd flight on all fours, like a dog. I didn't care. I had
gone stair-crazy.

The last three flights were the athletic equivalent of hammering
in a nail with a strand of spaghetti. My limbs were Jell-O. I
reached the 1,575th and final step on nothing but bullheadedness.

My time was 14 minutes, 4 seconds--27th place. I wobbled around
the observation deck, regaining my strength, commiserating with
other runners and soaking in the all-encompassing view of New
York City. I congratulated the winners: Kurt Konig of Germany,
who finished in 10:44, and Belinda Soszyn of Australia, who
climbed in 12:19. I had a photo taken with a guy in a King Kong
outfit. Then I took the 90-second elevator ride down to the
lobby.

Freelance writer Michael Finkel, of Bozeman, Mont., prefers
downhill skiing to uphill running

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL WITTE [Drawing of men and gorilla racing up stairs]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)