A history of the Empire State Building Run-Up: 1998

Posted: December 27, 2018 in Tower running history
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Incredibly, the winners of the 1998 Empire State Building are still competing in and winning events over 20 years later. Their victories in 1998 thrust them into the spotlight on the biggest stage in tower running.

If you missed the first installment of this series on the history of the Empire State Building Run-Up covering 1978-1980, you can read it here. Or jump back to 1981-19831984-19871988-19901991-1993 or 1994-1997 instead.

Otherwise read on for the next installment in the series and find out what happened at ESBRU in 1998.

An incredible comeback

As she promised, 1997 winner Belinda Soszyn did not return to New York to defend her title. The three-time winner and course record holder had checked out on top, and so the women’s race was wide open.

Fiona Bayly was back after missing the 1997 edition. Having finished second in 1995 and fourth in 1996, and with a personal best time of 13:10, she was fancied to take the win. But Bayly was suffering with tendonitis and bursitis in her right foot. What effect this would have on her performance would have to be seen.

Unlike in previous years, there were no renowned elite athletes in the field of 29 women. No previous ESBRU winners turned up and there was no Australian champion in attendance, either. There were some highly competitive local club runners in the mix, but none that had the sort of massively impressive times or titles that had been seen among the women in years past.

But there was an experienced tower runner on the start line and she was expected to be Bayly’s strongest competition. 29-year-old Cindy Moll, an accountant from Indianapolis, had already enjoyed success at stair climbs in her home city, including wins at the Bop to the Top at OneAmerica Tower in 1995, 96 and 97. She was coming into the event off the back of a confidence-boosting win at a tough 7-mile race in Indiana, just 12 days earlier.

Moll had actually taken part in her first Bop to the Top tower race in 1985, while still a high-school student, but she wouldn’t return to the stairs for quite some time after that. ‘It took me eight years to do a second one. I started too fast and learned you have to pace yourself’.

At the start line of the Empire State Building Run-Up, Moll looked relaxed. Bayly, just a few steps to her left, was crouched in position like a 1,500m runner at the start of a race, ready to hit the stairwell first. Just before the starter’s claxon went off, Moll slightly lost her balance and as she adjusted her feet the horn sounded and she was immediately passed by those around her. She entered the stairwell in around fifth or sixth position. Not a disaster, but not the start she wanted. Bayly was first onto the stairs.

The race was a slow one – the slowest since 1987 in fact. But it was the closest race seen at the ESBRU up until this point, too.

Bayly set off hard, and was well and truly out of sight of everyone by the halfway mark. When Moll got to the 60th floor, she was told that Bayly was around 40 seconds ahead of her. But despite thinking the race for first place was probably over, she pushed on.

Up ahead, the hard early pace and the pain from her injured foot began to take its toll on Bayly, and she started to slow.

Incredibly, in 20 floors, Moll managed to claw back the 40-second deficit and by the 80th floor she had caught up to Bayly. Passing on the narrow stairs of the Empire State Building is always hard, especially against a climber that is determined to stop you getting through.

But Moll made her move on the 84th floor and finally took the lead.  At the finish line, just one second set the two apart, and it was Cindy Moll who crossed first in 14:17 for a brilliant comeback win on her ESBRU debut. Maria Fernadez from Mexico was third in 15:16.

‘My legs started to feel rubbery’, said the winner. ‘I kind of got that burst of energy in the last floor’.

Bayly was understandably gutted. ‘I’m so furious, I’m just really disappointed’, she told reporters. ‘My foot couldn’t hurt anymore’

Nine days later, Moll defended her title at the 37-floor Bop to the Top race, winning in 5:05. She was quickly establishing herself as the best stair climber in the USA. Her legendary tower running career, which is still ongoing, was now well under way.

 

Advance Australia Fair

Heading into the race on Thursday 19th February, Terry Purcell knew exactly what was expected of him. Five of the ten previous men’s races at the ESBRU had been won by Australians. In the other five events, an Australian had finished in second or third in each of them.

Purcell himself had been second in 1996, finishing just seven seconds behind the winner Kurt Konig. It had been five years since an Australian won, so now was the time for Purcell to step up and join the ranks of Aussie ESBRU champions.

Described by one journalist as having ‘quadriceps that look like sides of beef’, Purcell was coming in off the back of a win at the Sydney Tower Run in late 1997. His confidence was high.

According to some reports, the pre-race favourite was actually Bernd Hammer from Austria. No big surprise given he had finished fourth in 1996 and third in 1997.

As the athletes limbered up in the lobby, Hammer took a knee, clasped his hands together and prayed.

God surely doesn’t favour one tower runner over the other, but if he does, he may have had a soft spot for Jesus Zerpa, a tough runner who would be challenging for a podium place.

At the start line, 27-year-old Purcell adopted his familiar low stance with knees bent and body parallel to the ground. A master starter, Purcell flew off the line at the first hint of noise from the claxon. But as he went for his second step, his right foot slipped on the sleek lobby floor and he stumbled badly (see image below). He just managed to save himself from completely falling, but it had cost him ever so slightly and he was passed by at least one runner heading into the stairwell.

Hammer slipped at the start, too; his right foot also giving way massively as he tried to push off. His stumble cost him far more than Purcell, and around nine or ten men were ahead of him as they hit the stairs.

1998 ESBRU START

Terry Purcell (centre) works to recover after his stumble

Purcell quickly took the lead. Despite his poor start, it wasn’t long before Hammer made up the gap and settled in behind him. The pair climbed close together for the large part of the 86 floors.

At around the 75th floor, Purcell managed to pull away. He created a small lead for himself and held it tightly right to the finish, crossing the line in 10:49. Hammer finished in 10:57, and Jesus Zerpa was third in 11:23.

16831856_10154849324540999_4210814132973125614_n

Terry Purcell wins the 1998 Empire State Building Run-Up

As Purcell crossed the line, Michael Baume, the Consul-General of Australia to New York, stepped forward and draped the Australian flag around his shoulders, just as he’d done for Belinda Soszyn the year before. Baume had put Purcell up in his official residence for the days leading up to the race.

‘I couldn’t let the Australian tradition down’, said the victorious Geelong man. ‘I realised today when I was at the 55th floor, I looked at it and I thought, hey I’d be finishing in Melbourne now, and I’ve got another 31 floors to go. And the second Austrian guy, he was sitting right behind me then, I was thinking, ya know, just drop down a bit so I can have a bit of a relax. But I couldn’t. Not until about the last 10 floors could I get away from him.’

‘I’m used to about seven or eight minutes for a race’, Purcell added. ‘Those last three minutes really hurt’.

Already a stair climbing legend in his own country, this win put Purcell firmly on top on the global scene. A permanent move to the USA just a couple of years later saw him quickly establish himself as the best climber in the States. His record would go on to include five wins from five starts at Chicago’s AON Center (and a long-standing course record that was only broken in February 2017) and nine wins from nine starts at the John Hancock Center. He retired from the sport in 2011, but made a stunning return in March 2017, and at the time of writing is once again the top-ranked US tower runner.

1998 purcell and moll

Cindy Moll and Terry Purcell – 1998 ESBRU winners

 

1998 Empire State Building Run-Up results

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Comments
  1. Jeff Dinkin says:

    Great piece! Very well written with great photos, and the awesome video! Thank you!

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