Posts Tagged ‘ESBRU winners’

The Empire State Building Run-Up is the longest-running stair climb event in the world, and for over 40 years it has played host to the greatest tower runners to have ever raced.

When it began in 1978, it was seen as just a bit of fun. ‘A pleasant midweek diversion between events of a more standard nature’. But it kick-started the American stair running scene, which has grown to become the busiest in the world. It is the most iconic stair climb in the global calendar.

This is the first part in a series covering the history of the event. Drawing largely from newspaper archives it will show who the racers were, how they felt about the event and how the races played out through the years.

This is the story of the Empire State Building Run-Up.

1978 – The first ever Empire State Building Run-Up

Fred Lebow has been referred to as ‘the P.T. Barnum of track and field’. There were definitely elements of the showman about him, but more importantly he was a visionary, and a most significant contributor to the sport of tower running.

Fred Lebow

In 1978 he was six years into his 22-year reign as president of the New York Road Runners. In 1970 he had organised the first New York City Marathon for a small group of 55 runners. On Wednesday 15th February 1978 another one of his bold ideas came to fruition – a race up the stairs of the Empire State Building. ‘No building in the world has the charisma of the Empire State’, said Lebow.

That inaugural race, as it would remain for several years, was invite only and just 15 people – 12 men and 3 women – took to the start line to take on the 1,576 steps (note – all reports from the early years say there are 1,575 steps, but we’ll use the modern count to avoid confusion later on).

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This being the first event of its kind in the USA, the organisers had no idea what effect the challenge might have on competitors. So, they limited entry to runners who had previously taken part in an ultra-marathon of at least 50km. The one exception was Kathy Marx, a reporter with the short-lived New York paper The Trib, who dropped out on the 26th floor.

To be doubly sure they were covered, there was a doctor on hand and there were water stations on the 23rd and 65th floors.

In among the runners was ultra-marathoner Marcy Schwam (wearing #11 in the middle of the photo above). She would be challenged by Chloe Foote, a member of the Central Park Track Club, which Lebow himself was an early member of.

In the men’s race, Gary Muhrcke, winner of the inaugural NYC Marathon in 1970 (2:31), was expected to do well. Paul Fetscher, who also ran the first NYC Marathon (and 40+ more subsequent NYC Marathons) was vying for victory, too. Elliot Denman, a racewalker who had competed  for the USA in the 50km walk event at the 1956 Olympics was there, as was Hugh Sweeny, a seasoned runner from new Jersey with a sub-2.30 marathon time (standing behind Schwam, laughing, above). None of them knew what to expect, but guesses for the winning time were between 20-25 minutes.

When the race was run it was Gary Muhrcke who had come out on top. And he’d managed to be a lot quicker than expected. He reached the top in 12.32, taking a clear lead by the 10th floor and holding it all the way to the finish.

1978 gary finish line

Gary Muhrcke wins ESBRU 1978

‘It was a lot easier than most of us expected. I used the handrail a lot’, said Muhrcke.  ‘It’s hard to describe what it was like. It was different. I’ll know better tomorrow when I find out which muscles hurt’. He predicted, very ambitiously, that with practice he could probably take three minutes off his finishing time.

1978 Gary murche

Muhrcke speaks to reporters after his win

In second place was Hugh Sweeny, who finished in 13 minutes flat. He didn’t try any special techniques, telling reporters he just ran as fast as he could. But he was disappointed there was only juice available at the top.

‘If somebody puts a six-pack at the top of Sears Tower in Chicago, it will draw marathoners from all over.’ Sweeny also thought there was potential in the sport, chatting with reporters about the possibility of a triple-crown of stair climbs. ‘You can start with the World Trade Center, then have the Eiffel Tower, and then end it with the Empire State, the third jewel in the crown’.

Third place Paul Fetscher (13.15) said ‘there’s not much room for tactical maneuvering on stairs’. But Fetscher was sharp enough to start using the railings early pretty early on in the race, and most runners said they took two stairs at a time.

‘After I’d run up a bunch of stairs and then get to the flat part, I’d turn, ape-style, by grabbing the rail and swinging myself up the next flight’

Marcy Schwam, who was putting in 80 miles a week at the time, was the first woman to finish, in a time of 16.03. ‘My calves hurt a little bit’, she said to reporters at the top. ‘It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Mentally I had prepared myself for a more difficult race. I think I could have done better. The worst part was that it was dark’.

1978 Empire State Building Run-Up results
  1. Gary Muhrcke   12.32
  2. Hugh Sweeny    13.00
  3. Paul Fetshcer     13.15
  4. Rick Langsam    13.37
  5. Jim Crasher        13.56
  6. Bob Glover         14.03
  7. Joe Shapiro         14.41
  8. Joe Erskine         14.45
  9. Ed Holiday          15.30
  10. Marcy Schwam   16.04
  11. Brian Jones         16.14
  12. Chloe Foote        17.13(?)
  13. George Spitz       17.41
  14. Elliot Denman     25.14
1979 – A pioneer of women’s running and a last-minute entry

The second ESBRU took place on Thursday 15th February 1979, with an expanded field of 24 runners (20 men, 4 women).

ESBRU 1979

Despite the first event being branded as a gimmick, Lebow was determined to turn the ESBRU into a firm fixture on the sporting calendar in New York. He told reporters the race would soon become an event as accepted as the New York City Marathon and that a 10-minute climb up the Empire State would rival the legendary four‐minute mile as a goal for world‐class runners.

Neither Marcy Schwam, nor Gary Muhrcke (due to controversy over him being on fire department disability pension when winning in 1978) returned to defend their titles.

When the pre-race favourite – British marathoner Chris Stewart (2:13 PB) – pulled out after injuring himself while training, the event became wide open.

The returning Fetscher or Sweeny, second and third the year before, were fancied to be among those set to take top spot. So was Cahit Yeter, who was the American record holder over 100km at the time.

In the women’s division, all eyes were on running legend Nina Kuscsik (far left in the photo above, wearing #18), winner of the Boston and New York City Marathons in 1972, and a champion for the official inclusion of women in long-distance running events.

A last-minute entrant

The race was set to start at 10.30am. At 9.45am, marathoner and financial analyst Jim Rafferty, who was on the start list, was still sitting at his desk at 58th Street and Park Avenue, a little over a mile-and-a-half away from the Empire State Building. He’d readily agreed to take part, but as the day approached he became nervous of being injured on the stairs. He didn’t want to jeopardise his training for the Boston Marathon in April.

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

At 9.45am he asked his boss if he could have a couple of hours off, jumped in a cab and reached the building just before the start.

When the racers hit the stairwell, Rafferty quickly took to the front alongside Paul Fetscher. Taking two steps at a time, the pair ran neck-and-neck for the first 20 floors. Then Rafferty began to pull away, at times lengthening his lead to over three flights. Interestingly, reports say he only began to use the railings once he had passed the 60th floor.

The 26-year old reached the top in a new record of 12.19. Fetscher followed in second in 12.37, with Sweeny taking third in 12.59. Cahit Yeter was fourth.

1979 Jim Rafferty finish

Gary Rafferty wins ESBRU 1979

‘I wouldn’t want to do this every day’, a winded Rafferty said after the race, ‘but I didn’t feel too bad, even though we were running in a closed space. What was eerie was being able to hear the panting and gasping for breath of runners five to 10 floors behind me. You don’t get that outdoors.’ Asked if he’d done any specific training for the race, he said ‘I thought about running up to my office on the 48th floor at 277 Park Ave, but I never got around to it’

As anticipated Nina Kuscsik ran to victory ahead of the other three women that took part. Her winning time of 15.03, was a full minute faster than Schwam’s time the year before.

Nina 1979 winner

Nina Kuscsik, winner of the Empire State Building Run-Up 1979

‘I’ve had this infatuation for this building since I was a teenager’, she told reporters. ‘It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I could have gone another 50 stories’.

1979 Winners together

Kuscsik and Rafferty celebrating their wins

1980 – Kuscsik returns to defend her title

The third edition of the ESBRU expanded again to include 34 runners (26 men and eight women). It took place on Thursday 14th February.

1980 ESBRU

Jim Rafferty decided not to return to defend his title, so the men’s field was wide open once again. 1977 British Fell Running Champion Alan McGee was due to race, but for some unspecified reason he didn’t make it to the start line. 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot was another late dropout.

1979 winner Nina Kuscsik returned to become the first person to attempt to defend their ESBRU title (in the photo above, she’s the third runner in from the left wearing #1 in a white t-short. Fred Lebow is on the far left wearing the hat, urging the runners on).

Among the challengers to Kuscsik was Julia Bruno, who had won a 50-mile race in Central Park in November 1979. But Kuscsik managed to make it two wins in a row, reaching the top in a new record time of 14.39.

‘I started off easy this time’, she said. ‘I was in better shape last year but I paced myself better this time around. There was nobody near me. I just had the crowd to urge me on’.

The men’s event was a closer battle. Medical student Jack Bellah took an early lead and held it until around the 70th floor.

1980 JACK BELLAH IN THE LEAD_

Jack Bellah in the lead at the 65th floor

At the 71st floor, 25-year old ultra-marathoner Jim Ochse took to the front. He held the lead all the way to the top and finished in 12.20, just a second slower than Rafferty’s time the year before.

1980 COLOUR FINISH OCHSE

1980 winner Jim Ochse approaches the finish line

‘Believe it or not, I dreamed about this race last night. And I won it then, too’, Ochse said after his win. ‘Actually, I just don’t know how I did it. I’m still pretty stunned. The race was kind of hard to describe. Early in the race, I felt like a dog. It got tough after the 40th floor. I think I took the lead, though, around the 71st floor. I’m a supermarathoner you see, I’ve got no speed, and the race was probably too short for me. I just ran out of floors to climb. I could have gone much higher.’

1980 winner James Ochse

Ochse celebrates winning the Empire State Building Run-Up 1980

 

Read the next installment in the series ‘A history of the Empire State Building Run-Up: 1981-1983‘.