Five great Empire State Building Run-Up moments

Posted: March 20, 2020 in Tower running history
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The Empire State Building Run-Up (ESBRU) was first held in 1978. Since then each race has been packed full of exciting moments, surprises and disappointments.

Here are five of our favourite Empire State Building Run-Up moments. Feel free to share yours in the comments below.

1979: Last to the lobby, first to the top

ESBRU 1979

The second edition of the Empire State Building Run-Up took place at 10:30am on the morning of Thursday 15 February 1979.

At 9:40am the eventual winner was still sitting at the desk in his Manhattan office at 58th Street and Park Avenue, a mile-and-a-half from the Empire State Building.

Financial analyst Jim Rafferty had earned his invite to the ESBRU off the back of some solid road running performances in 1978. He was 25th at the New York Marathon in October and then in December he’d finished fourth in a 30km race organised by the New York Road Runners, the same organisers of the ESBRU.

Rafferty was one of just 20 men and four women that had been invited to the second edition of the new stair running event. But on the morning of the race he was in two minds about taking part. He was due to race in the Boston Marathon in April and was worried about picking up an injury in the unusual and novice event.

With less than an hour before the start, still sitting at his desk, he seemed to have settled on not running. But then he had a sudden change of heart.

‘I was worried about twisting an ankle on the stairs’, he said. ‘But then I thought it’d be a lot of fun. It’s not your everyday competitive event, you know.’

At 9.45am Rafferty asked his boss if he could have a couple of hours off, jumped in a cab and reached the building just before the start. You can see him on the far right in the picture above.

In the race, he took the lead fairly on and held it to the finish line, crossing it in a new record time of 12:19.

Eight weeks later Jim Rafferty set a personal best of 2:18.55 at the Boston Marathon.

Read more about Rafferty’s race at the 1979 ESBRU.

1987: The drive for five – Waquie vs Kenny

1987 Waquie finish

Heading into the 1987 race, Al Waquie already had four ESBRU wins to his name.

Typically he’d have been a firm favourite for a fifth win on the trot. But a knee injury sustained in July 1986 had prevented him from running properly for seven months.

As he and others toed the line in the first of two waves at the 1987 ESBRU, nobody knew what sort of shape Waquie was in.

Alongside him was the emerging stair climbing star from Indianapolis, Joe Kenny, who had won the 1986 Bop to the Top in his home city, plus other stair races in the USA.

Despite getting a good start, Waquie was already struggling by the 20th floor. Kenny passed him at the first crossover and began to pull away, looking set to put an end to Waquie’s winning streak.

But Waquie had different ideas. He powered on, while up ahead Kenny and another climber began to fade. With 14 floors to go, Waquie finally caught up with them and showed them both exactly why he was a four-time champ.

‘He just blasted by me at the 72nd floor’, Joe Kenny said. ‘I think he stayed back at the start and saved his big move for the end. He really knows those stairs’.

Waquie’s gutsy fifth win would be his last at the Empire State Building Run-Up.

Read more on the battle for top spot at the 1987 ESBRU (plus the story of Waquie’s 1984-1986 wins).

2003: One run to rule them all

2003 crake wins

With one eye on a pro cycling career, Paul Crake was ready to call time on his incredible run at the Empire State Building when he got set to race on Tuesday 4 February 2003.

Unbeaten in each of his four appearances at the ESBRU, Crake had become the first man to run the course in under 10 minutes when he clocked 9:53 in 2000. The following year he shocked the stair running world again by winning in 9:37.

But Crake had saved his best for last. His final run at the iconic New York tower was magisterial. He set an untouchable new record of 9:33.

‘To win five years in a row has been fantastic. It’s been a dream run,’ said Crake.

When asked why he kept returning year after year even though the race has no prize money, he responded: ‘It’s for the trophy, the honour and the glory.’

Read more about Crake’s record run in 2003.

2006: Faster, Mayr, Stronger

2006 Mayr wins

Already a two-time winner at the ESBRU, and the only woman to have run the full 86 floor course in under 12 minutes, Andrea Mayr was the firm pre-race favourite at the 2006 event. There was no suggestion that she might be beaten, instead the talk was all about how much faster could she go.

Three months before the ESBRU, Mayr had won the inaugural Taipei 101 Run Up in a time of 12:38 (a record that still stands). She was in outstanding form coming into the race.

The Austrian ran the course virtually unchallenged. She finished in an incredible new course record of 11:23, which was fast enough to place her fifth overall. Her record still stands.

2006 was the last time Mayr ran at the Empire State Building. Seven months later she went on to win her first World Mountain Running Championship title and began another history making run in that athletic discipline.

Read the story of Andrea Mayr’s record breaking ESBRU run in 2006.

2009: The Comeback

2009 ESBRU Walsham pushed

Although in February 2009 Suzy Walsham was a little over two years into her tower running career, she’d already established herself as the one to beat in Manhattan. She was going for her third straight ESBRU.

In 2007 and 2008, Walsham had been joined on the podium by Cindy Harris and Fiona Bayly. Both were once again expected to be among Walsham’s toughest challengers. Debutants Jessamy Hosking (AUS) and Daniela Vassalli (ITA) were also anticipated to be in the mix for the top spots.

When the claxon went off in the lobby, the mass of women dashed headlong for the door.

Running side-by-side towards the entrance to the stairs, Walsham and Vassalli were battling for space.

Nearing the door, it seemed like Walsham was going to pass the Italian, but Vassalli had other ideas. She reached up and shoved the Australian, causing her to lose her balance and smash face first into the stone door frame. You can see Walsham’s falling figure (yellow top) in the picture above.

Bruised and bashed with the front runners now well ahead, Walsham found herself in around 30th place by the time she had got off the floor and onto the stairs.

What followed was one of the defining moments in Walsham’s amazing ESBRU story.

She started picking off runner after runner, slowly pulling in the leaders. By the 50th floor she caught Vassalli. Hosking and Harris were still up ahead.

At the 65th floor Walsham took the lead and then held it all the way to the top. Her knee injured and her face swollen, she crossed the line in obvious pain just 13 seconds ahead of Vassalli who had surged into second place.

That comeback victory in 2009 was the slowest of the 10 ESBRU races Walsham would eventually win, but without doubt it is one of the best.

Read the story of the 2009 Empire State Building Run-Up.

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