Coming out of retirement doesn’t always work out well for sports stars. Some get it just right – think Sugar Ray Leonard (the first time), George Foreman, Michael Jordan (the first time). Others should have left well enough alone – Messrs Armstrong, Ali and Borg et al.

Last Sunday at the John Hancock Center in Chicago, one legend got it almost exactly right.

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The iconic John Hancock Center is the fourth tallest building in Chicago

If you talk with people who have been involved with stair climbing for years, one name will always eventually come up: Terry Purcell. When he retired from the sport in 2011 he left behind an unrivalled record.

24 years ago, Purcell laid the foundation stone for a now mythic reputation when he took part in his first race at Sydney’s Centrepoint Tower. Baited into it by fellow Australian Geoff Case, who had won the Empire State Building Run-Up from 1991-1993, Purcell excelled from the go. Within two years he had destroyed Case’s record at the Sydney Tower by 24 seconds. In 1998 he won ESBRU himself, and by the time he retired in 2011 he had won more elite races than any other climber before him. His record included 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 Centre.

Purcell didn’t just standout for his incredible speed in the stairwell. He revolutionised the sport with his approach to race technique and specific training.

On technique:

Most guys don’t study technique…which is fantastic for me. They may be fitter and have more time to train, but they waste so much energy. I see people wasting it on the turns by taking too many steps. I see people not using the railing well to save your legs

On his opponents and training:

The way to kick them in the gut is to surge! But who does that? A guy who’s trained to do it for the last six months!”

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Terry Purcell winning the 1998 Empire State Building Run-Up

Hustle up the Hancock 2017

It was to the John Hancock Center that Purcell returned on Sunday to chase a record tenth victory. Standing in his way were two of the fastest American stair climbers of the past 15 years – Jesse Berg and Eric Leninger.

Sunday’s event had a beautiful romanticism to it, as old rivalries were reborn and close friendships were cast aside.

When Purcell won his first race at Hancock back in 2002, Berg finished almost two and half minutes behind him in 15th place. For the following two years Berg sat in fifth place, but just 1.30 off top spot. In 2005 he was up to fourth spot and only 48 seconds behind Purcell.

2006,  Berg finished second, going sub-ten minutes for the first time. 2007 he was third while Purcell lowered his course record to 9.30 (beaten by Sproule Love’s 9.23 in 2013). In 2008 Purcell took a break, but he returned the following year to win again, while Berg managed third. And so their rivalry played out until Purcell left the Hancock behind after a final victory in 2011, with Berg once again finishing in third spot – just five seconds behind.

All the while Eric Leninger was approaching unnoticed, slowly improving his times, edging closer to the much-coveted sub-ten minute time. In 2014 he finally managed to go under the ten minute barrier and take his first win. He defended his title in 2015 and 2016, also with sub-ten minute times.

In their time together on the race circuit, Purcell and Leninger developed a close friendship. Here Leninger discusses that bond:

In the last couple years we raced, Terry started becoming somewhat of a coach to me. I’ve always listened (and thought) I knew exactly what he was saying, but the more time goes on, the more I draw from our conversations…past and present. It’s an interesting dynamic between us filled with mutual respect and admiration, but also the fire of pure competition. He’s someone I hold in the highest regard…but also someone who brings out my absolute top level of competition. When he retired, I felt that part of my connection to the sport was lost, as there was no-one else on that starting line that I looked forward to racing as much as him. When I returned to the sport after a year off, Terry became a true mentor….helping me understand that life inside the stairwell is applicable to life outside the stairwell too.

Going for his fourth straight victory on Sunday, Leninger was probably first to know that Purcell was coming out of retirement to once again race up the 94 floors of the John Hancock Center. The ‘fire of pure competition’ was lit again.

But Purcell’s return was not to have the fairy tale ending. There would be no ten from ten.

It was Missoula firefighter, elite triathlete and trail runner, Andrew Drobeck who took the overall victory. He was competing alongside fellow firefighters as part of the ‘Firefighters for New York’ team. Established in 2002, the team competes each year to honour the firefighters who gave their lives on 9/11. His win helped them secure second overall in the team standings.

Drobeck has long been a top-level triathlete, winning in races from sprint to Ironman distance. But he is also no stranger to tower running. He’s won multiple races in full firefighting gear, including five straight wins at the renowned Scott Firefighter Stairclimb in Seattle’s Columbia Tower, where he holds the record of 10.39. But Sunday’s race was his first ‘regular’ race out of gear. There were many curious to see exactly what he could do in the stairs unimpeded by heavy apparatus. He didn’t disappoint.

He took the win in a time of 10.19. It was made all the more impressive by the fact he set off in the 13th wave, weaving his way to the top between reams of slower climbers from earlier heats.

Purcell took second overall, finishing in a time of 10.25. Berg got the closest to the Australian he had ever managed, finishing just one second behind in 10.26. Leninger took fourth in 10.34.

Brilliant to see Terry racing again, and exciting to see an elite athlete from another sport successfully manage the crossover to stair climbing, when many others have fallen short. It will be interesting to see what Drobeck can do in the sport if he makes it a focus.

He will be competing again at the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb on March 12th to raise money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. You can donate to that great cause and Drobeck’s attempt at a sixth straight win here.

Check out the full results from Hustle up the Hancock.

Ed. note: My heart leapt when I saw Purcell’s name on the results sheet for Hustle up the Hancock. He was the first stair climber whose results I studied and is a true legend of the sport. It was akin to the feeling I had when Gandalf re-emerged as Gandalf the White in LOTR having battled with the Balrog or when Mick Dundee was revealed to still be alive after the shootout at the end of Crocodile Dundee 2. It’s fantastic to see Terry return and actually get to write about an actual race he has taken part in.

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The third installment of the UK tower running championship begins in just under two weeks time on Sunday 26th February with The Christie Tower Run at Beetham Tower in Manchester.

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Beetham Tower, Manchester

The first race of the planned six-race series starts at the tenth tallest tower in the UK and is hosted by The Christie Charity. Two-time UK champion, and current course record holder, Mark ‘The Marauder’ Sims will be there on the day to begin the defence of his title, as he seeks to make it three championship wins in a row.

He will be challenged by Slovakia’s Patrik ‘The Nitra Nitro’ Schneidgen aka ‘Mr Guinness’. The two standout stair climbers have had a number of head-to-head battles over the last 16 months, with Sims coming out on top in each race. But sprint specialist Schneidgen will surely welcome a race at the 798 step Beetham Tower. Having run Sims incredibly close at last year’s Total Motion Events Broadgate Tower Run Up (877 steps), he will fancy his chances of an upset in Manchester.

Sims, however, is a man for all occasions. It was not by chance the Liverpool-based tower runner found himself in the world’s top-20 at the end of last year. His times and conditioning have been improving year-on-year. He will be determined to secure his status as arguably the greatest stair climber the UK has ever seen by making it three championship titles in a row. With a solid performance at The Climb to Abu Dhabi race last month, Sims is obviously in good shape heading into the domestic season.

The Christie Tower Run will see stair climbing return to the north of England for the first time since 2014. We know there are fast guys in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Merseyside and beyond. Personal trainer Peter Hopson is still record holder at Bridgewater Place in Leeds. Will he be racing in Manchester? Will the event attract some new talent to the UK tower running scene? Can the dominance of Mark Sims be broken by some as yet unknown athlete?

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There is still time to sign up to take part in The Christie Tower Run. The event is open to people of all abilities and there is no qualifying criteria for entry in the UK championship. The top ten finishers will be awarded points and they will carry those into the remaining races of the championship. The athlete with the most points at the end of the year will be crowned 2017 UK tower running champion.

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Troy ‘The Future’ Alston aka Stair Climb Elite and Stephanie ‘The Oracle’ Hucko set new course records at the Bank of America Tower in Jacksonville, Florida last weekend.

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The Bank of America Tower, Jacksonville, FL

Locked in a year-on-year rivalry with ‘The Flying Doctor’ Thomas Scott, Alston was aiming to make it six wins in a row as he headed into his hometown event.

The inclusion of John ‘Renegade’ Osborn into the mix this year meant Alston had to dig deep to secure victory again. His time last year at the 832 step Bank of America Tower was an incredibly speedy 4:24.

The Future managed to wipe five full seconds off that, crossing the mat in 4:19.

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A victorious Troy Alston celebrates his new course record

Thomas Scott took second in 4:37, with Osborn just behind him in 4:41.

In her first time racing in Jacksonville, Stephanie ‘The Oracle’ Hucko ran the fastest time ever by a woman at the event as she reached the top in 5:21 – only the second ever sub-six minute time in the ladies division.

Coming off a strong fifth place finish at the demanding Empire State Building Run Up just three days before, the Australian’s time was fast enough to earn her an impressive sixth place overall on the day.

Kate ‘The Say Hey Kid’ Mays took second in 6:26, with Suzanne “The Fjord” Bergen completing the podium in 6:30.

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Empire State Building Run Up 2017

Posted: February 4, 2017 in News

After years of watching the world’s most iconic stair race unfold without him, Piotr Lobodzinski – the Bull of Bielsk Podlaski – sauntered into Manhattan on Wednesday night and finally won the Empire State Building Run-Up.

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The Polish phenom had waited until the morning before the race before announcing his participation, but it didn’t take long before excitement quickly spread across social media at the prospect of a battle between Showtime and the returning ESBRU champion, Darren Wilson.

Wilson had been absent from the stair climbing circuit for a few months (he qualified for the Ironman 70.3 world championships during his hiatus). But his sudden emergence in Chicago last weekend to smash the long-standing course record at the AON Center sent waves of expectation and speculation through the tower running community.

Could this be the year he matched the exploits of his fellow Australian Paul Crake and came in sub-10 minutes at the Empire State Building Run-Up? It would be a fitting tribute to a race that was celebrating its 40th edition.

With arguably the greatest stair climber of all time also focused on victory, winning would certainly require the perfect race from Wilson.

The signature mass start for the elite racers was as frantic as ever. Italian Fabio Ruga made it into the stairwell first followed by Gustavo Isaac Mendoza. Lobodzinski was next in with Wilson just behind him.

Lobodzinski and Wilson eventually separated from the pack of following elites, staying close together until they entered the 72nd of 86 floors. It was here that the Pole began to gradually pull away.

He reached the finish line in a time of 10:31, with Wilson crossing the line just 12 seconds later in 10:43. In-form Canadian stair climber and mountain runner, Shaun Stephens-Whale completed the podium reaching the observation deck in 11:04.

Interestingly, if you take the first names of the top three – Shaun, Piotr, Darren – you can make this anagram – ‘stair run doper, nah’!

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In the ladies division, the incredible Suzy Walsham made it five wins in a row, and secured a record eighth overall victory. She managed it in one of her fastest ever times, too: 12:11.

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Four-time previous winner Cindy Harris took second place in a time of 13:15, while Meg Santanna (13:51) secured her first podium finish by holding off a strong challenge from Shari Klarfeld (14:01).

Empire State Building Run Up 1978

Posted: February 3, 2017 in News

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Now it’s 2017 and tower running is a sport in its own right, not just something runners do for a bit of fun. The 40th edition of the Empire State Building Run-Up is about to get under way.

Darren ‘Optimus Climb’ Wilson emerged from his hiatus last weekend to set a new course record at the AON Center in Chicago. The Australian star is in incredible form ahead of the 40th edition of the Empire State Building Run Up (1 February), where he hopes to repeat his 2016 victory.

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Optimus Climb: Darren Wilson – record holder at the AON Center, Chicago

The AON Center stair climb is a very competitive event in the USA race calendar, regularly drawing in the country’s best tower runners. The list of former winners is a who’s who of some of the sport’s greatest ever stair climbers: Sproule Love, Jesse Berg, Eric Leninger, Justin Stewart.

At the top of the AON Center pile is Australian Terry Purcell. A former ESBRU winner (1998), and victorious in multiple climbs throughout his long stair climbing career, Purcell’s record time of 9:26 was set in 2009 – the last of his five victories (from five starts) at the 80-floor building.

Wilson smashed the record by 25 seconds, setting a new time of 9:01 – a record we can almost guarantee will remain untouched for years.

Big D Climb in Dallas, Texas

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The Bank of America Plaza in Dallas

Down in Dallas it was the 9th edition of the Big D Climb at the Bank of America Plaza (1,540 steps). Stair climbers descended from around the USA to vie for supremacy, and it was ‘The Molten Puma’ Thomas Scott from Florida who took the win in 9:11.  Mark ‘Lord of the Incline’ Ewell from Colorado Springs wasn’t far behind in 9:23.

With the Cowboys having crashed out of the NFL playoffs a few weeks back, the locals were looking for some sporting Texan star to brighten their mood, and Scott ‘The Chalice of Thunder’ Stanley was good for the job. He made sure a Texan was standing on the podium, taking third in 10:05. Big shout out to one of our stair climbing heroes, Hal ‘The Statesman’ Carlson, who at 64 (!!!) took a massively impressive fourth place finish. Amazing longevity!

In the women’s division it was local athlete Anita ‘A for Aggression’ Averill who took the win (12:18). She was followed by another Texan, Jackie ‘The Stair Corroder’ Rust (12:44), with Madeleine ‘The Oakland Bad Ass’ Fontillas Ronk taking third (13:40). Our current stair crush, Sue ‘She’ll Amaze Ya’ Glaser, took fourth place (14:01).

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The tower running season took off fully last weekend, with races in Italy, USA and Dubai. With the world number one and number four both in action, we take a look at some of the key results.

Vertical Run Almas Tower

World tower running champion, Piotr ‘Showtime’ Lobodzinski is currently in the UAE ahead of Friday’s exhibition race in Abu Dhabi, which he has been helping to promote. He was in nearby Dubai on Saturday to take part in the 1,600 step Vertical Run Almas Tower.

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The 64-floor Almas Tower in Dubai

Despite a highly competitive field of athletes, that included Rolf Majcen and Iman Koushki, Lobodzinski showed once again that he is in a different league.

Victory for the Bull of Bielsk Podlaski was never in doubt as he sauntered to a winning time of 8:07. Behind him in second place was Ugandan Ismail Ssenyange, who has a 62min half marathon, 2.18 marathon and 30min 10km performances on his record. Ssenyange managed an impressive 8:43, but was some way off the Polish superstar.

Third place was taken by Kenya’s Henry Kipsang, another highly accomplished road runner. A 2.13 marathoner, he was just behind in 8:45. The UK’s very own Paul ‘The Puppet Master’ Faulkner put in a brilliant performance to take fourth place in a time of 8:58.

The extent of Lobodzinski’s win against this level of high-caliber road runners shows what a brilliant athlete he is, and also highlights how the physical requirements needed for fast times on the flat don’t always translate to fast times on the stairs.

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The top three at Vertical Run Almas Tower in Dubai

In the women’s division it was another Pole who came out on top. Anna Celinska has previously medalled at a long-distance mountain running world championship and was third in the Polish marathon championship in 2014. She managed to finish 13th overall in Dubai, in a time of 10:31.

That was 20 seconds ahead of Russia’s Natalia Sedykh (10:52), who is a highly experienced ultra runner and was a stage winner at the 2016 Marathon Des Sables.

Third place in the ladies division went to another excellent road runner, Amina Mhih (11:56) from Morocco.

Latina Vertical Sprint

Over in Latina, Italy there was a Towerrunning World Association 60 point race. An initial qualifying round whittled the field down to the top ten men and top five women, and among them were some big tower running names.

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Torre Pontina: venue for the Latina Vertical Sprint (702 steps)

‘The Zilina Avalanche’ Tomas Celko took the spoils in a time of 3:14, setting a new course record in the process. Italy’s Fabio “Stair Charmer” Ruga was just behind in 3:20.

Lenka “Czech Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself” Svabikova aka “Shredder” aka “Operation Abs” took a straightforward win in the women’s division.

There were a number of results out of the USA as their stair climbing season got under way. With multiple climb options at all three different events, we found it a bit of a challenge to do write ups for each race. But we hope to have a post on those races before the week is out, so be sure to check back.

We will note, though, that we were highly pleased to see Justin Stewart back on the stairs taking a win in Indianapolis. One of the finest stair climbers in the USA, we firmly believe that given the chance he could be the man to challenge the European stronghold on the TWA rankings. If only it were that simple.

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