Stepping up: Grueling Empire State Building Run-UP sees 150 people test themselves against 1,576 stairs

Empire State Building Run-Up women begin their race
The “elite women’s” division of the 2023 Empire State Building Run-Up begins their grueling journey on Oct. 4, 2023.
Photo by Nolan Deja

For a group of people who were about to run up the Empire State Building‘s 1,576 stairs at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night, they shared an overwhelming amount of cheer and energy.

Gathered in a large room off the main hallway, athletes were checking into the world’s most iconic tower run: The Empire State Building Run-UP.

Tower running is a competitive sport that takes place in tall buildings all over the world. The endeavors of the sport are exactly as they sound. Participants run up towers, racing to the finish line at the top.

Grueling and intense in its nature, the culture among the competitors is entirely contradictory.

As they checked in for their bibs the elite runners shared hugs and laughs, excited to catch up with each other inside the famous landmark.

“It’s very friendly, really good camaraderie. All the people that compete regularly know each other quite well, it’s nice,” said David Harris, a regular participant who travels much of the year to compete in events on the Towerrunning Tour.

The Empire State Building wasn’t built with a stairway race in mind: the flights are narrow and seemingly unfriendly to a mass of people. These logistics only allow for 150 runners, so spots are coveted and hard to come by. Non-elite runners enter a raffle to try and win a place on the starting line.

Wai Ching Soh winning the Empire State Building Run-Up
Wai Ching Soh winning the racePhoto by Nolan Deja

Shelly Ann, local to NYC, has had the Run-UP on her bucket list of things to conquer before she turned 50.

“Three years I’ve been trying to get in, in the lottery. And this year finally I got in,” she said with a face of relief, only a few months away from her 50th birthday.

The starting line, in the middle of an Empire State Building hallway, was only a few yards away from a sharp turn into the stairwell which was outfitted with padding for the occasion. The “elite men” started first at 8 p.m., followed by the “elite women” at 8:02, and finally staggered groups of lucky raffle winners.

After the countdown, the racers are out of sight within seconds ascending into the skyscrapers’ infrastructure.

But a two-minute ride through two elevators got spectators up to the finish line at the 86th floor observatory deck. The epic city view was completely visible with the clear night, awaiting climbers as a reward.

Wai Ching Soh thrust through the banner at 10 minutes, 36 seconds, according to the finish line’s digital clock, then immediately collapsed onto the ground. Apparently, this was the norm for top finishers.

Wai Ching Soh and Ryoji Watanabe collapsed on the ground after completing the Empire State Building Run-UPPhoto by Nolan Deja

Second and third-place winners followed close behind, each stumbling to the ground next to Soh, completely exhausted, though not so much that they couldn’t muster the energy to fist-bump each other in congratulations.

Valentina Bellotti was crowned in first place for the women.

 There was something different about Soh, now three-time consecutive winner of the Run-Up after Wednesday’s win. His funky neon glasses were not the most notable part of his race attire, instead, it was the absence of sneakers.

Soh sported what looked to be socks from a distance, though upon closer inspection there was a thin padding on the soles.  In a post-race interview, Soh elaborated on the shoe choice or lack thereof: “You can feel the ground faster, it’s a microsecond faster for every step.”

The more sensitive footwear allows him to sense the stairs sooner than he would in a padded show. “For a long staircase like this, 86 floors, this is going to help a lot,” he remarked.  

As more participants crossed the finish line and matriculated along the open railings of the lookout, there was an undeniable and contagious feeling of elation. Collapsed moments earlier, then dancing in celebration with supportive opponents, the elite runners bounced back quickly to contribute to the event’s sweeping positive energy.

Roberto Valasquez, a member of Team Mexico (@towerrunningmx on Instagram) described the feeling in as many words as needed: “The finish is like a dream. I finished the dream!”