Athlete Mom's: Sarah's Empire State Building Run-Up Experience

It’s funny how sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

That’s how I feel about a lot of things we left behind in NYC when we moved down to Maryland last November. Although we were most recently living across the Hudson in the relatively quieter town of Hoboken, I, like a typical New Yorker, still begrudged the jam-packed subways, the tourist traps. I was happy to finally retrieve my personal space, to cross a street without the fear of being mowed down by a yellow cab. 

Yet, every day, I miss it. I miss the crowds, the beautiful people. I miss watching the skyline sparkle while pushing a stroller along the Hudson, seeing the tippy-top of the Empire State Building from the living room window in our fourth-floor walk-up 

So when I received an invite from Emily at Matter, Inc. to participate in the media division of the 2014 Empire State Building Run-Up, I felt a tug on my heartstrings. My gut instinct was, “go, go!” But then the doubt set in. I run, but I don’t climb stairs. I can’t leave the kids in the middle of the week. Train tickets are too pricey.  Did I mention I don’t climb stairs? So I shelved the idea for a day or two. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to go. So I did. 

With Nell in tow and my older two happily at home with their Grandma, we made our way from DC to Penn Station. Soon, I met up with Bec for a little cousin bonding with Nell and Amy, then off to the Empire State Building we went. We had a quick visit with Keren (who works in the building), then gathered in a room off the lobby with other competitors in the “special” divisions—invitational, Broker’s  Challenge, media. Everyone looked fit, serious. I felt out of place, clueless. I had no idea how you warm up for this kind of race. Stretch? OK. Jog? There really wasn’t any room for it.  Nervously chit chat while trying not get overly intimated by the sports-bra wearing, six-pack showing, rail-thin competitors around me? Yep, I did plenty of that.

Minutes passed and soon the elites were out of the prep room and on their way to the start line. Then the Brokers. Then, the media. We nervously waited for our turn to be called to the start while the few veterans in the group offered some last minute advice. 

Once we lined up and a few of the “names” in the crowd were announced (hello, Rob Powers and Chris Powell!), the airhorn sounded and it was game on. Marissa Stephenson (a very fit fitness editor from Self Magazine) took it out hard. She meant business. I followed her lead, trying to stay calm and stay behind her. The last place I wanted to be was in the lead, since I had no idea how my body would respond and I didn’t want to run scared. (Which I do when I’m leading anything). But, after about 30 or 40 flights, I was ready to make my move. I passed Marissa and continued to crank up the steps, taking two at a time and literally pulling myself up on the railing. At this point, my pace slowed to a consistent climb… not a run, not a walk, but a step-pull-step-pull motion. I jogged on the landings, but even that was slow. My legs burned like there was acid coursing through my veins. I struggled to get a full breath in the dusty, dry stairwell. Messily chugged water whenever I could. It wasn’t pretty.

I knew I wasn’t sustaining a pace that would keep me in the lead. And sure enough, as I peeked down to the floor below me, there was Marissa. We were in the 60s, I think, at that point, and I thought for a hot minute that I’d be able to hold her until the end. But she flew by me, still at her quick clip, and I lost sight of her within seconds. From that point on, I was in survival mode. I could barely hold my head up, which felt like a bowling ball on my sagging shoulders. I was wilting.

Then, somehow, by the 76th floor, I managed to hush the sounds of failure in my head and gained a bit of clarity. You are almost there. Only 10 flights to go. Almost to the 80s. You. Can. Do. This. Pull. Pull. Pull.

So I pulled.  And stepped.  I turned a corner, and there was a photographer telling me to smile since it was almost over. I dashed through a doorway and onto the finish line.  My time: 16:33. Good enough for 2nd place in the media division (Marissa won in a stellar 16:10) and 12th out of 184 women who scaled those 1, 576 steps. 

Stumbling around afterwards on jelly legs while trying to catch my breath with heaving lungs, I felt completely humbled by those stairs. I have done countless running races, triathlons, swim meets, mud runs, etc. But nothing has come close to the physical toll those 16 and a half minutes took on my body. The only thing that I can think of that comes close is an all-out 800m on an indoor track. In high school, nearly all of our indoor meets were at the dilapidated, dust-filled Baltimore Armory. You couldn’t escape that place without a major case of “track hack”—the nasty, phlegmy, wheezy cough. The harder you ran, the worse it got. 

I’m here, tonight, 24 hours after running from the bottom to the top of one of the most iconic buildings in the world, nursing a pretty bad case of Track Hack. But I’m proud of it. In a way, it feels like I’ve taken a bit of the ESB home with me, bringing a some of the magic of NYC back to my still new, much quieter existence. 

 --Sarah