Posts Tagged ‘Jim Ochse’

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.

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).


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

For more details on the winners of this event read our separate account of the first Empire State Building Run-Up.

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

In this recently-released archive news footage, you can see Rafferty finishing the race. You also get to listen to Fred Lebow describe what climbing the building feels like as a reporter comically drags himself to the top.

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.

kuscsik 1980

Nina Kuscsik speaks to reporters after her win

‘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.


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 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.