1,576 Steps (Heaven Help Me) to Clarity

1,576 Steps (Heaven Help Me) to Clarity

If only King Kong had known about the Empire State Building Run-Up, where for one miraculous if masochistic morning each year people are allowed to climb the inside of the landmark building, he and Fay might have lived happily — if asymmetrically — ever after.

That’s what I was thinking as I stood on Fifth Avenue at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, staring up at the Empire State in all its glory, waiting for the 33rd annual running of New York’s famous vertical marathon. Panicking. Like a surfer about to paddle out on a big day at Waimea Bay, I was filled with a mix of ecstasy and terror. At least horizontal-marathon runners don’t have to look at the whole course from the starting line.

I would never have been there if I wasn’t too cheap to take out a decent gym membership. One freezing morning a few months ago, I was headed outside for a run but chickened out at the door. Rather than ride the elevator back up to my 16th-floor apartment, near Washington Square, I headed for the stairs. It nearly killed me. But I was hooked. Soon it was up and down twice, 32 floors, then 48. I could never get quite high enough.

Still, every morning, I would walk out the front door of my building and see the Empire State Building. If I looked out the windows of theNew York Public Library, there it was again. Like a beautiful woman I could not force from my mind — an extremely tall, rather dominant beautiful woman — the 102-story Empire State Building became an obsession. I was haunted by the vision of all those stairs.

I flirted with a 45-story building on the Upper East Side equipped with a pool and hot tub where my friend lives and where I would occasionally work out. His health club was like something out of Playboy. But from the window of his 40th-floor apartment, I could still see her — mocking me, a perpetual temptation. I realized that there was only one place in the city from which I could be sure not to have to gaze upon this accursed object of desire: inside the Empire State itself.

I once mentioned my secret yearning to a woman at a party. “I get it,” she said. “It’s a sort of hamster thing, isn’t it?” No, to us vertical runners stretching in the bowels of the Empire State last week, it was not a hamster thing. It was grand and epic and heroic. I wore a T-shirt inscribed with a variant of my father’s old motto from his days in the Royal Air Force: “Through Adversity to the Stairs.”

I had been warned about the firefighters in the race. There are times when you really want a firefighter, times when nothing is finer than the sight of a firefighter, or indeed several firefighters, in extremely tight shorts. When you are about to run up the stairs of the Empire State is not one of those times. Let them stick to their pinup calendars and keep out of my way.

With the cry “God be with you!” from a woman in an emerald-green running vest, 324 runners from 19 states and 17 countries were off, jockeying for position as we stormed through the lobby door to the stairs. It got pretty brutal; Ben Hur without the chariots.

I had two basic rules. Rule No. 1: keep running. Or at least jogging. I passed a few sluggards who were under the impression it was the Empire State Walk-Up. And then there were those who had ceased any semblance of locomotion altogether. Rule No. 2: don’t trample on the bodies. Go around (ruthlessly ignoring any cries of distress).

The surprising thing about the stairwell of the Empire State Building is that it looks like any other stairwell — only with more stairs. A lot more; 1,576 of them to the race’s finish line on the 86th floor. But it might as well be double or triple that. There is a sense of infinity to the stairwell, as if you were running around one of those Escher drawings for ever and ever amen.

In the first phase of the race, you forget all about death, taxes and unrequited love. You are totally focused. In the second phase, starting around the 60th floor, you begin to feel that perhaps death, taxes and unrequited love are not so bad, and definitely preferable to running up any more stairs.

When I hit the top, 21 minutes 20 seconds after I started (a bit under half the pace of Thomas Dold, the German who picked up his fifth straight title in 10 minutes 16 seconds), I was half expecting something like a King Kong statuette. Instead, an angelic blonde in a pink leotard — there to root on another runner — came over, as if in a dream, and leaned on me. It was a stairway to heaven. I was emperor of New York for the day and anything could happen. Turned out she had a fear of heights, but still.

It was in this empire state of mind, as I gazed out on the great city spinning a thousand feet below, that I finally figured it out. It isn’t because it feels so good when you stop. Or because it’s there. The thing about the Empire State Run-Up is that although it makes absolutely no sense in itself, it makes complete sense of everything else in the world, which divides up into lovely tall buildings with loads of stairs — and all the others.

One thing worries me. Is it all downstairs for me from now on? I wonder if they have run-ups in Kuala Lumpur or Dubai.

Andy Martin, a fellow of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, lives in Greenwich Village, where he regularly runs up to his 16th-floor apartment as many as five times at a stretch, but takes the elevator down in between.

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