Empire State Building Run Up 1978

Posted: February 3, 2017 in Tower running history
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It’s February 1978, Jimmy Carter is in the White House and Player’s Baby Come Back is about to be knocked off the top of the Billboard 100 by the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive. The Dallas Cowboys are celebrating their second Superbowl win and there’s a huge blizzard heading for New York.

Fred Lebow is six years into his 22-year reign as president of the New York Road Runners. In 1970 he organised the first New York City Marathon for a small group of 55 runners. Now he’s about to see another one of his bold ideas come to fruition – a race up the stairs of the Empire State Building.

Elsewhere in the city, Gary Muhrcke is at home. A former New York City fireman, he was forced to retire on a disability pension almost five years ago, at the age of 33, after injuring his back in a burning building. He’s been taking painkillers for a while, but he’s found that doing a bit of running again actually does a better job of easing the pain than the pills do.

Before his injury Muhrcke was a serious athlete. He won the first NYC Marathon in 1970 in a time of 2hrs 31mins.


Gary Muhrcke wins the first NYC Marathon

In the right circles, he’s a bit of a celebrity. He knows Lebow is putting on a new event; something unique. He’s signed up for it. Hopefully his back will hold out.

Marcy Schwam is going to turn 25 in about a week’s time. Three years ago she walked away from a burgeoning career as a tennis player. She’s a long-distance runner now. A good one. She won the 50km USA Championships at the end of last year. Now she’s training for the Pikes Peak marathon in August, and the 72-mile Lake Tahoe ultra in September. Some incline training in New York’s second tallest building sounds about right. She reckons she probably has a decent chance of finishing near the front, too.

Maybe Fred Lebow had heard about these stair races some students had put on in London in the ’60s. Maybe not.

Either way this race up the 1,500+ steps of the Empire State Building was going to be fun. Something different for winter, when the conditions in the city aren’t ideal for road races.

The first Empire State Building Run Up

It’s race night. Competitors are waiting in the lobby area for the event to start. They’re wearing t-shirts printed with an image of King Kong hanging off the side of the Empire State Building. It’s the 45th anniversary of the movie.

Muhrcke and Schwam are about to write their names into stair climbing history.


Muhrcke wins the men’s division. Despite a sore back, he reaches the top of the building in 12:33. He gets a lot of heat for taking part in the first ever Empire State Building Run-Up.

Speaking in 1994, Muhrcke recalled: “People asked, ‘What’s a guy who can run up 102 flights of stairs doing with a fire department disability pension?’ Even The Times had an editorial about me. They had to hold a departmental inquiry, but I proved that the ability to run is different from the ability to pull and carry a 200-pound person out of a burning building – and a fireman’s job is to pull and carry. So I still have the pension. And I still have recurring back problems.”

Schwam won the ladies division in a time of 16:04.

She went on to become one of the greatest female ultra runners ever. She became the first woman to complete that Lake Tahoe race she was training for, and she took third in the Pikes Peak marathon. She was just getting started.


Marcy Schwam on her way to setting multiple world records at a 24hr race in 1980

World records for 50 miles, 100 km, and 100 miles all fell to her throughout the 1980s. So did records for most miles run in 24 hours, 48 hours, and 6 days. In 1984 she took second at the gruelling 153-mile Spartathlon race that traces the route taken by Pheidippides between Athens and Sparta, during the Battle of Marathon.

For more on the history of the Empire State Building Run-Up check out our in-depth series covering 30+ years of the event – start with the history of the ESBRU 1978-1980.

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