Of the 736 runners expected on the starting line Wednesday night for the 36th-annual Empire State Building Run-Up Powered by the MMRF, 11 of them are over the age of 60. One still runs ultra-marathons. Another has done the New York City Marathon for 33 consecutive years. Another has several times run two marathons in the same week.
Then there is Bill West.
“I’ve never run a 10K or a 5K or a 2K or a 1K or a half-K or any K,” said West, 63, of Los Angeles, CA. “Honestly, I get winded kind of quickly. I don’t know why.”
But in 2008, lured by an event banner that read “Elevators Are for Wimps” and then goaded by a co-worker, West did the Stair Climb for Los Angeles, a benefit for the YMCA held in the 75-floor US Bank Tower, the tallest building in the city. In a recent telephone interview, he called it a kick. He was hooked.
Soon West discovered the Empire State Building Run-Up and—best of all—learned that it was sponsored by the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF): Mary Weidner, a friend and the wife of his CEO, had been diagnosed with the incurable blood cancer in 2007.
He recalled sharing his discovery with her husband. “’We gotta do this!’” he told James Weidner. “I’ll climb the building, and you and I will e-mail our friends to see how much money we can raise.”
So for the third time, West will run up 1,576 steps to the 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, one of 125 entrants supporting the MMRF in the event. So far, he and James Weidner have raised $50,000 to help fund critical research to develop new treatments for multiple myeloma.
“I’m doing this for Mary,” said West. “She’s really an inspiration. She’s an inspiration to everybody who meets her, frankly.”
Inspiration comes in many forms. For David Allard, of Great Barrington, MA (in photo), it came in the form of the legendary Chico Scimone, who did the event until age 93 before he died in 2005.
“He used to say that the Empire State Building was his annual physical,” said Allard, 65. It seemed like a cute thing to say at the time, Allard added, but that as he gets older he’s beginning to understand the depth of Scimone’s remark.
“If you can do it,” Allard said of the climb, “it means a lot.” On Wednesday night, Allard will be doing the Run-Up for the 20th consecutive year, with no end in sight: “If I can hang in there for another 30 years, that makes me only 95.”
His advice for first-timers? (1) Don’t go out too fast; (2) Take the stairs two at a time; (3) Use the hand rails; (4) When someone wants to pass you in the stairway, get out of the way; and (5) Smile at the end.
Allard said he never ran “a single step” until his daughter went out for cross country in high school when he was about 40. Since then, he said, he has run about 50 marathons, including two in the same week a few times, and has his eye on the Dead Sea Ultra Marathon.
If he bumps into Ruth Liebowitz, he might want to seek some advice: The 70-year-old from Staten Island is a veteran ultramarathoner and is hoping to do a three-day ultra of 33 miles per day this summer; she recently completed the 2012 NYRR NYC 60K in 7:47:13. On Wednesday night, she will again be doing the Run-Up, which she has done almost every year since 1990.
Most days, Liebowitz runs seven miles early in the morning along the Hudson River before she goes to work. But not every day: Sometimes she cuts her run short so that she can meet her personal trainer to do some weight work at the gym.
Why keep at it? “I can’t answer you that,” said Liebowitz, who counts as her role model the legendary ultramarathoner Ted Corbitt, before going on to answer the question quite clearly. “If you didn’t do it, you would feel that you’re leaving yourself out. It’s just who you are. How could you not try? Ted walked until the very end. He didn’t quit when he wasn’t first anymore.”
Rick Feinstein isn’t quitting, either, although he did take a few years off from the stairs. After competing in the Run-Up twice in the late 1980s, Feinstein is back. Turning 70 later this year—“a monumental age,” he called it—has prompted the Long Island resident to revisit some events of his past as well as seek some new challenges.
As always, he said, he had ambitious plans to train that never materialized. “My training consists of thinking about it a lot and visualizing happy things,” he said. “And trying not to remember the pain of the last two times I did it. But when you’ve been in the Marines, everything else is easy. I made a vow when I got out of the Marine Corps that I would never allow myself to get out of shape. Fifty years later, it’s very hard to know what ‘in shape’ is.”
Feinstein has run every New York City Marathon for 33 years, however, so regardless of how one measures “in shape,” he knows this: One day a year, he is in shape. The Run-Up, he says, is icing on the cake.
“You know that Elton John song, ‘I’m Still Standing’? he asks. “I’m knocking on wood when I say it. I don’t take it for granted. I’m very lucky at this age to be thinking of doing this at all. One of the reasons I do these things is because I can.”
And Mary Weidner, for whom Bill West is running? She’ll be at the top of the Empire State Building on Wednesday night, holding the finish-line tape as the MMRF 2013 Spirit of Hope Award honoree. The award is given to individuals who inspire hope with their perseverance in overcoming personal obstacles such as a cancer diagnosis.
It’s all about taking things one step at a time. Of doing things because you can. Or as Liebowitz put it: “People say [about me], ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ I like to know that I can help somebody. We’re all doing this together.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg