Vigour, September 2014


Pain icon: 8/10

The nub… Now in its 38th year, this is the original and best race of its kind. Since those first bulging-thighed competitors took to the stairwell of this New York icon in the mid-Seventies, tower running (as it’s now called) has become all the rage. It’s demented and brilliantly post-modern – why take an air-conditioned, high-speed lift when you can claw your way up through an airless, endlessly corkscrewing vertical tunnel? Of the 250-plus such events around the world, set everywhere from anodyne office blocks to medieval cathedrals, the ESB Run-Up is the stand-out favourite of amateurs and pros (yes, there is such a thing) alike. Like playing baseball in St Paul’s or five-a-side in the Taj Mahal, squeaking around that famous Art Deco lobby in your running trainers will offer a pleasingly illicit frisson. The building towers 1,454ft above Fifth Avenue, with its 86 flights linked by 1,576 steps. The 700-odd competitors are let off in waves in a bid to reduce congestion. As if. Stairwell access points are designed for orderly, rehearsed exits not stampedes of adrenalin-pumped masochists, and the confined conditions make overtaking dastardly hard, even if you do have the requisite additional revs when deep in the red zone. Few finish lines can be more welcome or spectacular, though – an observation deck swept by cool winter air and boasting breath-catching views of the world’s premier urban skyline.

Attracts… For those on the Vertical World Circuit, this is the one to win – their Olympics. There may be bigger challenges on their eight-race calendar (Hong Kong’s International Commerce Centre has 2,120 steps, for example), but none holds the aura or kudos of the ESB. Luminaries of the sport such as Singapore-based Aussie Suzy Walsham and Germany’s Thomas Dold have wracked up multiple wins over the years, with rivals snapping at their heels. These runners receive automatic entry and make up the invitational field that goes off with the first klaxon. The remaining 650 or so competitors are drawn from across the world, with often generous representations from mountainous nations, interestingly. Some of the ‘mass field’ are dauntingly athletic, but there are just as many non-athletes who are here to raise money (see Make it happen) or just get the metaphorical (and literal – in fetching red) T-shirt from this most head-turning of events.    

Train… The course record is a staggering 9 minutes 33 seconds, set more than 10 years ago. For the layman or debutant, a time of around 15 minutes is highly commendable and what you should base your training around. There’s little subtlety to this; it’s simply a question of finding an appropriately gargantuan stairwell and surrendering to agonising repetition. Stairs are ubiquitous but be discerning; mimicking, as far as possible, the size, number of steps per flight and direction of corkscrew will certainly benefit you come race day. Start slowly and build up. Jogging alternate flights at first is a good idea. Once you can jog up the entire stairwell in one go, switch to two steps at a time (standard tower-running practice). Then up the pace. Adding ankle weights and/or hopping further builds essential leg strength. Using the handrail is an entirely acceptable race practice, so once you’ve isolated and beasted those thighs, switch to the full-body approach and practise pulling as well as pushing your way to the top. Given the intensity of stair training, preparation will be kind on the schedule. A hard hour every other day from a few months out is more than sufficient.   

Tactics… Sharpen those elbows. The term ‘bottleneck’ doesn’t even begin to describe the sudden, savage filtering of your ‘wave’ as you complete the cursory sprint across the lobby to the stairwell entrance. Think of this race as a rain-lashed Monaco Grand Prix – the opportunities, and inclination, to overtake are going to be few and far between. So unless you’re partial to having your nose thrust into someone’s sweaty crack for 86 floors, get in there up front. Then, it’s all about hogging the handrail and controlling your pace and breathing. The latter will be off the scale; consider some form of audio sedative on the iPod such as Jack Johnson or a Melvyn Bragg podcast to bring this down a notch. Metallica is self-defeating. Going off too hard is an epidemic of the ESB Run-Up, with irreversible burnout a common symptom. Stick to the pace you’ve practised, and maintain it all the way up. As the air starts to freshen near the summit, you should find you can pick off a few stragglers from the group in front having enjoyed a largely clear – and crack-free – ascent.

Wear & Eat… Ultra-light trainers, open-thigh shorts and a lightweight running vest. The top of the ESB is prone to a bit of snow in early February (last year’s race finished one floor short of the observation deck for this very reason). By the time you reach it, you’ll be so hot from that infernal stairwell that you’d happily roll around in the stuff. A headband to combat the tap-like sweating is a good call, keeping the hands dry for extra grip. In the same vein, fingerless cycling gloves with palm and finger pads can be a good idea. The race has switched to an evening event in recent years so, on the nutrition front, aim for an early afternoon snack with a balance of carbs and protein, and then some form of spike immediately prior to lift-off – Science in Sport (SiS) does a range of easily absorbed energy gels. Find one that works for you and doesn’t leave you with the urge to dry-wretch the moment you enter the red zone. Lord knows, you’ll be close enough to that already. Don’t worry about carrying water – it’s over too fast and your hands are constantly in use  but consider sucking a cough drop to combat the dry, dusty air in the stairwell. Post-race rehydration? You’re in NY, the spiritual home of the cocktail. Settle in somewhere chic with a stupendous view of the edifice you’ve just conquered, put the impressively weighty finisher’s medal on, and wait for the official race results to be posted at midnight. 

Make it happen… A date for the 2015 event has yet to be set but the race typically takes place in early February. It’s organised, ironically, by New York Road Runners – the club behind the Big Apple’s globally renowned city marathon. With high demand and a tight field, entry through standard channels is notoriously difficult. Consider the charity route instead. Race partners Team For Kids and the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) have a small number of guaranteed places in return for a commitment to raise a not inconsiderable sum in sponsorship (minimum of around £2,000). For information on these, and all aspects of the race, visit