Stair master: “I live in a 30-story building, training is literally at my doorstep.”

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Suzy Walsham sneers at escalators and laughs at lifts. On Wednesday she’ll be powering up 1,576 steps, 86 floors and a quarter of a mile to the top of the Empire State Building in the ultimate skycraper race. SPIKES just had to ask the multiple tower running champion: WHY?

You are a 4:07 1500m runner. How did you get into tower running?

I moved to Singapore after the Commonwealth Games in 2006 and saw an advertisement for a race up the 72-story Swissotel hotel, and the first prize was a trip to compete in the Empire State Building Run Up. I thought it would be a great challenge so I signed up. I won the race in Singapore and then surprisingly won in New York.

What kind of training do you carry out for tower running?

I still do quite a bit of running [approximately 70 km/43.5 miles per week] supplemented with cross training and weights, however when a tower race is coming up I will be practising in the stairs twice per week. I live in a 30-story apartment building, so training is literally at my doorstep.

What is your technique for running up a tower?

I typically run two stairs at a time and use the handrails for added support.

Ah, the old two-stair-with-handrail approach. What qualities do you need to be a good tower runner?

Very strong quads, high lactic acid tolerance and some endurance: although the extent of this depends on the height of the building, and a strong mind. When every muscle in your body is begging you to stop, you have to will yourself to power on. 

Is the Empire State your favourite race?

It used to be one of my favourite races, and I love coming to NY but since my crash at the start in 2009, it has become one of my least favourites. It is the only major tower race that has a pack start with the entry to the stairwell only metres away: it is dangerous.  

Also, I have now done many shorter tower races, so doing such a long race is very tough. If you are running up a 30-story building and you are dead tired at level 20, you only have 10 floors to go… if that happens in NY, you have 66 floors to go!  Pacing is a lot more important in NY than in the shorter races.

What happened with your crash in 2009?

I was pushed at the start and instead of entering the stairwell, I went crashing into the wall, fell to the ground, and got trampled. After some time I managed to get to my feet and went on to win the race. I ended up with bad bruising around my nose and mouth, and swelling on my left knee, which I had x-rayed it was so painful. I couldn’t even step up off the sidewalk when I got back to my hotel and was unable to run for two weeks. I now have permanent problems with my left foot [the same leg that slammed into the wall] that I never had before the crash, which limits the amount of running I can do.
 
Since the crash, New York Road Runners [NYRR] has introduced some measures to make the start safer. The entrance to the stairwell is now padded on both sides, and last year, an elite start was introduced. There are now fewer athletes all starting at once and the remaining competitors start individually, 6 seconds apart.

When I crashed, there were about 70 athletes all starting at once. This is the only race I compete in where you have so many athletes starting, and so close to the stairwell entrance. Most races have individual starts, so it is basically a time trial.  I did two tower races last year where we started in a pair [Singapore and Bogota] but there was a 50-70m flat run before entering the stairwell.

What are your hopes for this year’s race?

I hope to finish in the top three.  This is one of the most competitive tower races in the world and new competitors come every year. It’s the race everyone wants to win and why I keep coming back.

Do you think of King Kong or Sleepless in Seattle when running up the Empire State building?

Ha-ha… no!  I am usually counting stairs or thinking about my technique, form, pacing… and wishing that the floors were passing quicker.

Is winning the Empire State race your biggest accomplishment in athletics?

I have been competing in athletic events since I was seven years old and I am proud of many of my athletic accomplishments. Winning the Empire State Building Run Up is certainly one of those events.

Can you describe the pain of running up the Empire State?

Oh, I don’t think there is anything that can describe the pain. It is all consuming. Everything hurts and the lactic acid is burning in your legs, arms and lungs. But it’s all worth it when you get to the top and at least you get a great view for your efforts.

Suzy is three-time women’s champion (2007–9) and returns to the Empire State Building with her sights set on equaling the women’s race record of four wins, currently held by Cindy Harris, 44, who will also compete in the 2013 on 6 February.