I have a friend who lives on the fifth floor of his apartment building. There is no elevator. Walking up those stairs is terrible. But it could be worse. He could be 86 floors up, and I could be racing every flight.
On Wednesday night, about 600 runners will be doing just that at the New York Road Runner's Empire State Building Run-Up. Starting at ground level, racers will make their way up 1576 steps (about a quarter-mile) to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building and the finish line. With over 600 runners registered for this year's edition, and a good amount of media coverage, the stair climb is one of the city's most well known races. From a runner's point of view, this popularity is thanks to it's gimmickiness.
Running (and track and field) is best described niche sport. Its popularity peaks every four years when the Olympics come around. Otherwise, there is a story here and there about a track star or a great run, but major track meets do not garner media coverage on a consistent basis. Throw a gimmick into the mix, and you might be onto something.
The Millrose Games are being held at New York City's Armory on February 16. A number of Olympians and world class athletes will put their talents on display. ESPN3 is streaming the event live and ESPN2 is showing the meet on tape delay February 17 from 8-10p.m. But aside from the hardcore fan, not that many people will be watching.
Meanwhile, the run up the Empire State Building receives a good amount of media coverage. Esquire's culture blog let's the reader know "How to Race to the Top of the World" and New York City's local news sources cover the event as well. While there's no national TV coverage, the run is a fun story to look at.
So is gimmicky the way to go in trying to popularize running? It didn't work when the show Man vs Beast pitted a sprinter versus a giraffe and zebra. As a co-founder of Mass Transit Racers, I'm hoping it works when we place runners against New York City's subway system.
As a fan of running and track and field, I have no problem with the gimmickiness. I do not, however, think that racing the subway and racing on the track are the same thing. One is a fun way to race around a city, the other is a form of a competition that has been going on for ages. I hope that stair racing isn't confused with the competition going on in world class track meets, but that doesn't mean I have a problem with enjoying a race up the Empire State Building as well.
Maybe the stair racing is something everyone can kind of relate to. Not everyone can understand what it's like for a runner to race full speed over 36-inch hurdles, but they can understand the burn in your legs after walking up a few flights. Not that they want to try going up 86 floors.