A history of the Empire State Building Run-Up: 1981-1983

Posted: November 26, 2018 in Tower running history
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If you missed the first installment of this series on the history of the ESBRU, you can read it here. Otherwise keep following the story and read on to find out what happened at ESBRU between 1981 and 1983.

1981 – Course record is smashed and the three-peat is on

The fourth edition of ESBRU took place at 10.30am on Thursday 12th February 1981, and it involved a series of firsts. It was the 50th anniversary of the building’s completion, so the event attracted quite a lot of attention.

There were 30 men and eight women racing, ranging in age from 16 to 58, and for the first time they set off in separate starts. The women set off 86 seconds ahead of the men, one second for every floor of the race course.

Two-time winner Nina Kuscsik returned to defend her title and attempt to make it three in a row. She would be faced with strong competition from runners less than half her age. In among them was Ylonka Wills who was a standout athlete at Columbia’s Barnard College (the 3km and 5km college records she set in the early 80s weren’t beaten until the 2000s)

Ylonka Wills

Barnard College athlete Ylonka Wills

When the race was run, it was Kuscsik who came out on top. She secured her third ESBRU title by reaching the finish in 14.44 (note – this was reported in some papers as 14.46, but the majority listed 14.44). 19-year old Ylonka Wills was close behind in 14.54, while 21-year old Mary Beth Evans took third place in 15.21.

1981 nina wins

Nina Kuscsik makes it three ESBRU wins in a row

Ochse attempts to defend his title

At this event, 1980 champion Jim Ochse became the first man to attempt to defend his ESBRU title. But it would not be an easy task by any stretch. The pre-race favourite was actually Pete Squires, who had been awarded the Big Apple Award in 1980 for best all-round runner, presented by the New York Road Runners Club.

1981 squires stumbles1981 mass start

Look at the pictures above and you can see Squires (middle of the top image and near right in the bottom image) falling forward slightly during the melee of the mass start. This stumble cost him first spot heading into the stairwell and he was battling from the start to get ahead of those who’d passed him.

Into the early lead went Villanova University track star Larry Bova. But as is so often the case with inexperienced stair climbers, he set out way too fast and didn’t have the fitness to hold it. He began to fade fast, soon after the 10th floor. Squires soon climbed to the front and didn’t hold back. He passed Nina Kuscsik at the 28th floor.


Pete Squires ran all alone in the latter stages of the race

Before the race started, breaking the 12-minute barrier was the talking point among the assembled athletes. Not only did Squires break that, but he broke the 11-minute mark too, crossing the line in a new record of 10.59.

1981 Squires wins

Pete Squires wins ESBRU 1981

Bob Orazem, an excellent middle and long-distance runner from Staten Island, took second place in 12.04, at least eight floors back from Squires according to one report. 1980 champion Jim Ochse finished in third place with a time of 12.09.

Squires, who was running 120 miles a week at the time, attributed his success to taking two stairs at a time and not using the handrail unless necessary. ‘I didn’t start grabbing the railings until the 60th floor’, he said. What might his time have been if he had used them properly to keep his run as efficient as possible?

When asked if he would return again next year to defend his title, he said, ‘No, I never want to see it again. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My lungs are burning. It was so hard to get air. It took me so long to catch my breath at the end. But it’s a good challenge’.


1982 – A champion rises and a champion falls

The 1982 edition took place on Thursday 11th February. 48 runners took part, and once again the women set off 86 seconds ahead of the men.


Three-time champion Nina Kuscsik was back again to try and make it four wins from four (Kuscsik is in the middle above wearing the white vest #58). Mary Beth Evans, third in 1981, was expected to be her toughest challenge.

22-year old Evans forced Kuscsik back into second place, setting a new course record of 13.34 and becoming the first woman to run under 14 minutes.


Mary Beth Evans, ESBRU winner 1982

‘It’s not something I’d like to do every day’ Evans said about the race. She trained for it by swimming and doing a lot of road racing, and said she intentionally started slow and didn’t feel that tired after the race. She told reporters she ‘felt so good I could do it again…almost’.

A dramatic finish in the men’s race

Despite dismissing the idea of defending his crown, following his win the year before, Squires decided to return to the Empire State Building Run-Up again in 1982.

1980 champion and 1981 third place finisher Jim Ochse was also in attendance, aiming to secure another podium finish.

As he had done the year before, Squires took the lead early on, although this time a small pack of runners stayed with him. Around the 40th floor Squires made a push and separated himself from the others. He held the lead all the way to the final floor. Then disaster struck.

Squires tripped, some reports say on the very last step, and reportedly injured his leg, although he was able to get up and finish. But not before Jim Ochse passed him and ran outside to claim victory in a time of 11.41.

1982 Ochse finish line

An ‘ecstatic’ Jim Ochse jumps over the line to win ESBRU 1982

1982 Ochse finish line 2

Ochse punches the air and lets out a victory roar

‘I think I would have caught him even if he hadn’t fallen. I was closing fast, and I think he fell because he was just so tired’, Ochse said. ‘He made an unbelievable surge at about the halfway mark, I think that’s what did him in later on.’

At the 65th floor Ochse said he could hear people above cheering for Squires and guessed he was only around 20 seconds behind, and closing. As he began to close the gap, he said he could tell Squires was fading. ‘I could hear his feet hitting the steps quickly a few landings above and I knew he was down to one step at a time, and that he had to be tired’.

No stranger to the course, having run it twice before, Ochse said he trained by running up hills around his school, adding, ‘the last few weeks I’ve also been running up stairs’.

‘I’m ecstatic, but I think I’ll take the elevator down. I think I earned that’.

In his race report, Mark Will-Weber, a reporter for The Morning Call paper in Allentown, PA, wrote, ‘Like the long, long distances, Ochse has found the rigors of the strength-oriented stair races to his liking, as it doesn’t require blazing speed. Endurance and mental toughness are more useful tools of this trade’.


1983 – A legend begins

The sixth edition of the Empire State Building Run-Up took place on Thursday 17th February 1983 at 11am. 36 people took part (24 men and 12 women), and the women set off 86 seconds ahead of the men.

The start list for the men’s event was laced with talent. Three-time Olympic cyclist, and 1981 Ironman World Champion, John Howard was there. So was future American Ultrarunning Association Hall of Famer, Stu Mittleman, who in 1984 set a world record for 1,000 miles with a time of 11 days, 20 hours, 36 minutes, 50 seconds. At the time, he had wins in the NYRR 100-mile race (1980-82). Brian Searchinger, a promising local cyclist, was also in the line-up.


John Howard winning the 1981 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii

The 1980 and 1982 ESBRU champ, Jim Ochse was back again to defend his title. Also in attendance was two-time Pikes Peak Marathon winner (1981-82) – and record holder – Al Waquie.

Waquie is from Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, a community renowned for its tradition of long-distance running. He has been described by well-known exercise physiologist and journalist Michael J. Joyner as ‘perhaps the most impressive runner I have ever seen, and that includes the likes of Alberto Salazar, Frank Shorter, Henry Rono and Bill Rogers’.

Al Waquie running

Al Waquie, two-time winner of the Pikes Peak Marathon

Waquie nearly didn’t make it to the start line. ‘When I was warming up on the side stairs, I got locked in. That was a close call. I had to get down on the floor and yell under the one-inch door opening. I got out 10 minutes before the race’.

His rivals may have wished he’d stayed there, as he took the win fairly easily in a time of 11.36. He said he could have gone a fair bit faster if he hadn’t been held up at the beginning of the race. The narrowness of the stairwell prevented him from passing as he would have liked in the early stages. He caught up with the lead woman at around the 30th floor, and after taking three floors to pass her he was able to pull away into a clear stairwell. ‘I didn’t know where I was until a floor marking finally appeared – 67th. I was surprised I was that far along, so I felt a lot stronger, picking up speed’. After that he ‘sprinted the last 19 floors’.

‘I’m still the king’ he shouted as he crossed the line. ‘I’m still the king of the mountain’. Later he told reporters, ‘I proved that I’m still the best at running uphill’.

1983 finish Al Waquie

‘I’m still the king’ – Al Waquie wins ESBRU 1983

Waquie told journalists that for most of the race he ran two and three steps at a time, and occasionally he used the railings. He thought he could beat the course record if he ran the race again, figuring he could do at least a 10.40.

In second place was Jim Ochse (12.14), while third place was taken by Brian Searchinger (12.49). John Howard was fourth (time not reported) and Guenter Erich was fifth (13.39).

Burke Koncelik wins the women’s race

Burke Koncelik, who was the New York Road Runners Club ‘Most Improved Runner of the Year’ in 1981, won the women’s race quite convincingly. She reached the top in 13.40, just six seconds off the course record set the year before. Isabelle Carmichael was second (14.21), third was Inez McLean (14.47), fourth Anna Thornhill (15.12) and fifth Debra Roche (15.17).


Burke Koncelik and Al Waquie

‘I really wanted to win’, she said. ‘You do this not only to finish, but to come first. Athletes like to prove they can do things’. The 5’11” tall Koncelik told assembled reporters she took two steps at a time and that ‘it was easy with my long legs’.


Read the next installment in the series – A history of the Empire State Building Run-Up: 1984-1987.

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