What’s it like to be a Tower Runner?




Five a.m. and I am on my way to climb a 104-story building at age 68. I should be at home in bed. It's dark out as I walk from the hotel to One World Trade Center. I don't even look for street signs, just a left, right, right. I see a group of people and UPS trucks. I get my arm license holder and drop of my camera at the UPS truck. Not sure where to go next so I follow the crowd. We go through checkpoint one and get "wanded". The guards are watching everyone. Someone has something that sets off the wand. She steps out the line and disappears in the crowd. Now a single file forms and everyone stops moving.

I’m with the elite class or runners by virtue of my performance in past races. We go early, the others go later. There's some nervous laughter. Someone says aloud that the hardest part is waiting. Suddenly the line advances. Now we are in the building. Somewhere there is checkpoint two, where a paper dot is placed on my plastic license holder. Now we go through checkpoint three, a metal detector. We enter what looks and feels like a tunnel lined with rocks. I don't know it yet but this is the entry for visitors. I catch a glimpse of pictures or posters on the wall but don't have time to fully see what is there as the line is moving faster and faster. We come out of the darkness into what is surely the bottom of the building.

We advance and find stairs but they are not the usual stairs, the incline is modest at best. We turn a corner and find real stairs, the stairs one would expect. I turn to the person beside me and ask "Has it started yet?" I immediately feel stupid for asking such a dumb question. There's no time for that. I need to follow my game plan: find a rhythm. In my excitement I jump into a fast unsustainable pace for four staircases. I correct my error and settle into a rhythm. My hours of practice are kicking in. I am at 75 to 80 per cent effort, just as planned. I figured the biggest cause of failure is trying to maintain an unsustainable pace. I quickly correct my thinking. I told myself the only failure is if I gave into my fears and did not come to the climb, if I stayed home.

The plan is to increase to 85 to 90 per cent effort at floor 80 and push the button to red line at floor 90. I recall how I did this in practice over and over and over. My body expects it to happen. The mantra all during training was a simple one: train to exhaustion. Then train again to exhaustion.

Set the goal for 11 reps up my 13-floor practice building, 143 floors. Run up floor after floor, another, and another, and another to the point where the body learns stopping never occurs. The legs never stop moving. Forward momentum never ceases. The whole plan is etched into my DNA. The body literally does not know how to stop. When the brain says "stop" the body says there is no gear for that now, only at the finish.

I become aware of a presence behind me. Floor after floor I can feel and hear a lady behind me. I slip to the left and motion for her to pass. She says "No I'm fine". I tell her "If I slow down hit me". She says "No". Floor after floor goes by and she is still there. I suddenly notice I have passed a person. I pass another person, and another. The thought hits me "You screwed up your plan, you are way too fast, you should not be passing people!" But I feel still at 80 per cent so I settle down again. I realize I have been doing "tunnel vision" on the steps. A narrow focus on the steps to the exclusion of everything else. Must be some kind of altered state I developed after all the training to cope with the pain. But where am I? What floor am I on? How much time has gone by? Watches are not allowed. I look for floor markers as we reach floor after floor but I can't see any. Where the hell are the floor markers? I quickly realize it's a secure building like Ft. Knox. No one ever goes on these stairs. Why should they need markers! I want to ask someone where we are but I'm too embarrassed to ask. Suddenly the racer woman behind me bolts past me. Wow, go girl. She's sprinting like the end of a race, but I figure it's too soon.

I turn to the next staircase to see a lady projectile vomiting just as I look up. For a split second I realize she is alone. In that instant I trip on a step. Someone behind me asks if I'm OK. I yell "yes thanks". One second lapse in concentration and I stumble. I refocus more intensely. Now I don’t hear anyone behind me or ahead of me. Complete silence, only my breathing. For a moment I don’t know where I am. Then I hear someone tell one of the guards "There's a lady puking down there".

I arrive at a landing where there is a group of people. Someone is handing out water. My only desire is to get past them as fast as possible. I don't care about water. A strange thought pops into my mind. A saying from Conan, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie... "There's plenty of time to rest in the grave".

I'm getting mentally fatigued. Concentration becomes a real effort. The physical effort is on auto pilot. The mental effort gets more difficult to hang on to. Where am I? I estimate 10 to 20 floors to go. An emotion sweeps over me totally unexpected. On 9/11 they didn't have the chance I have now. My eyes flood with tears. This is what I trained for. I recall a sentence on the race description, something like "You will feel the presence of those who tried to climb but could not". This is where to begin red-lining, full speed. I move to the final gear, just like in training. There's no surprise to my body. It expects this and responds. I lose track of how many floors I've done. At the top of a staircase is a person with his right arm extended to the right. What the heck is he doing there? I round the corner and see "finish". NO! I'm not done yet! I try to sprint but my legs wobble like a drunken man, I'm done. I did it.

I can’t make the 20 feet from the timing mat to the building wall where you’re supposed to go to rest. Someone grabs me and asks me something but I can’t understand what they are saying. I tear up with embarrassment. They help me to the wall and someone puts an oxygen mask on me. One minute of O2 and I’m OK. I notice I have a problem focusing. Normally this would be cause for concern but I'm perfectly peaceful with it. Must be the endorphins. I see others casually cross the line waving and smiling. A bit of embarrassment comes over me. Why didn't I finish smiling? I realize it's because I'm a tower runner.

There are three kinds of participants. There are those that make it a social event as well as to benefit a cause and do it for fun. That's a great thing to do. Then there are those that are serious but have not yet learned what they are getting into. They puke or bail somewhere along the line. Then there are hard core tower runners who love the cause the run is supporting, and love to compete. Doesn't matter, it's a benefit. That's what counts. There's a breakfast for all of us and I see a group gathered around a laptop.

Someone turns and says "Put in your number". I type in 1039. 26 minutes, 9 seconds. I later learn the results: 226 of 776. Third in my age group. Right now, all I know is the time. I ask "Is that good?" The guy replies "Yeah that's real good" The party thins out and I walk back to the hotel. Before I do I look up one more time. It feels unreal. I ran up that building. I want to scream to the sightseers “I ran up that!”  

Why at my age, almost 74, will I be running up this building for the third time in June? There’s a dragon waiting for me at the 80th floor. There’s no more sugar or fat for fuel there. It’s all I can do not to miss a step. Muscle memory is long gone. Mentally, I have a hard time knowing where I am. Every cell says “STOP”.  It’s decision time….do I stop or do I continue? I push the dragon away and continue to race. So many times in life it’s complicated…the “right” thing to do.  So easy to make excuses. The choice stands out in bold relief…continue or quit.

I am a Tower Runner.

Running the Tower again - at age 73!

Since Jeff wrote the blog above, he has run the Tower again: an incredible feat of endurance even if he was half his age!

I run stair races so I train on stairs a lot. For years I’ve seen the same people come to train and made it a point to try to engage in some conversation with them.  But gradually over the past year I stopped doing so. It seemed that the more effort I put forth to get to know who these people are the less was the chance they would respond.  Then recently something happened that changed my attitude.   What happened is one day training on the stairs I was my usual not trying to initiate conversation person I had become when one of the men passing by me going up as I was coming down said “You’re an animal!”. I immediately said “Hi I’m Jeff” to which he responded his name, Chris. As he passed by again, I told him the last one to call me an animal was a fireman. What followed then was a conversation where I learned he was a fireman. At one point he asked me how old I was and when I told him 73, he said “Well, you’re my hero…I want to be like you when I’m 73!” The whole experience reminded me of a card that is given to competitors in the World Trade Center tower run.

The card says “The miracle isn’t that you had the courage to finish, the miracle is that you had the courage to start”.  Doesn’t that often sum up what is wrong so often in our lives?

We hear the saying “Finish what you started” a lot but we don’t often hear “Start so you can finish”. Sometimes the hardest part in life is the starting.   You’re in a job that’s comfortable, tolerable, but to be really honest with yourself you are not happy. Your marriage is o.k. Could be better, could be worse but you both know the marriage is on auto pilot and neither of you know who is at the controls. In the past you had a lot more friends, but somehow time and distance seem to have taken a toll. Maybe you sent out texts and got no response; maybe you got texts and never got around to answering. All you know is today you have to stop and think a while to who to call in an emergency. Getting back to the stair training example and the message on the card about having the courage to start I realized I’d fallen off the wagon a bit.

Regarding the job example above, you think about taking that first step be it more education, sending out resumes, contacting people in your network about other opportunities. Why not do it? Maybe that talk with your wife you’ve been meaning to do means changes for the better for her and you. Maybe some stupid misunderstanding has been festering for years. Take a look at your contacts on your phone. Try to connect again.  You might get no reply, or a nasty reply or it may lead to a lasting friendship.

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