What It’s Like to Run Up the Entire Empire State Building

Using the stairs, of course.

November 4, 2021 9:07 am
A view of the Empire State Building and the Manhattan skyline
A view of the Empire State Building and the Manhattan skyline
Oliver Lopez Asis/Getty

Once a year a small group of people gather at the bottom of the Empire State Building and attempt to sprint up all of its 86 flights of stairs. The event, organized by NYCRUNS and sponsored by Turkish Airlines, is very fittingly called the Empire State Building Run-Up. This year one of the participants was Don Saladino.

Saladino is renowned physical trainer based in New York City. Recently he opened his home gym and studio, The Barn Saladino, where he will film workouts for his community online. One of his clients and friends is actor Sebastian Stan, who Saladino trained for the Marvel television series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Below, he shares his experience with the event, along with the benefits of stair climbing. His story appears as told to fellow competitor Charles Thorp, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I am always on the lookout for events to do with my friends that also can be used to raise money for a good cause. Growing up in the New York area, I always had a special feeling about the Empire State Building and when I heard that there was an event to run up it, I knew I needed to get involved. This was my fourth time doing the Run-Up, and I joined the team from On Running to raise money for Equity Designs Inc., which helps support teachers from the Bronx. Getting to step into the building in that context is something special.

Going up 86 flights is no walk in the park. Being a physical trainer, I stay in shape year round, so I didn’t need to do much out of the ordinary to prepare. I recently put a stairclimber from Life Fitness in my new home gym, so I used that to help build up the kind of leg strength that would help. Every once in awhile during a session I would hop on there and put it on level 14 or 15 at the beginning or end of a session.

Stair climbing is a great form of cardio. It’s a way to move the legs differently and get your body moving vertically. If you aren’t used to that kind of movement or that energy system, then it is a great way to get your heart rate up. I enjoy finding interesting reasons to move the body differently and keep training fun, and that is what the Empire State Building Run-Up is for me.

This was the first time I did the Run-Up at night; the first three times were during the day. I have to say it was special walking into the building when it was all lit up at the top. I saw the lights on my way in from Long Island, coming out of the Midtown Tunnel. For all of us New Yorkers the Empire State Building stands for something. It isn’t a glamorous building, with shiny decor or hi-tech features. But it is a symbol for the perseverance of this city, and our ability to innovate. I get chills every time I step into that place. There is this feeling when you walk in that it’s our building, and now we are going to run up it.

The best part of doing races and challenges is getting together with friends to achieve something together. I brought my friend Seb[astian Stan] and the rest of our crew in to be a part of it. Everyone was excited to fundraise for the charity but not everybody was looking forward to running up more than 1,500 stairs. A few of them were really dragging their feet, but I was able to convince them to tag along.

I warmed up a little bit before, because if you don’t, you can count on your legs filling up with blood. People who don’t do a little bit of jogging or something will get crippled after 10 flights. There is an urge to rush off the starting line, to jump ahead and run like a regular marathon. That is a mistake. Because you can hit a wall fast, and then it is all over. So the strategy is to use the handles and take a couple of steps at a time, maintaining a steady pace. 

The group of people who were involved with the race this year range from professional runners to people who had never done a race before. So the holding area where everyone was getting ready was complete chaos. As the moment got closer and closer, people were getting more pumped. The experienced competitors were in the very first wave, and the On Running team were on the one right after. David Kilgore, one of our team’s best runners, took off before me and I knew I wasn’t catching him.

The incline up the stairs in the Empire State Building is steep, and my first reaction after doing a few dozen flights is, “Holy shit!” There is no question that it is harder than I was expecting. It is absolutely brutal. I am a fitness professional, but I am not a pro at running up buildings. Not only that, but I probably outweigh the fastest person of the night by 110 pounds. So there was more for me to carry up that crazy steep ascent. 

You have to get the right timing on the steps. I started to hit my groove after the first 15 flights. That is when I passed three people, and then I didn’t see anyone else the rest of the time. Some people were listening to music on the way up, but I like to pay attention to the sounds. I focused more on the footsteps of everyone else. I used them to monitor where the people were around me. If I heard someone catching up on me, I knew I needed to push a little harder.

Going up each floor, it strikes you how truly impressive of a building it is. It blows your mind that one of the most well-known structures in the world was built in only a year. By the time I got to the water station a third of the way up I definitely needed a drink, so I grabbed a bottle  to take a quick sip. I kept my pace up though and pushed through to the end.

Crossing the finish line was incredible. There was a torrential downpour, massive gusts of wind, and a chill in the air. There is nothing quite like coming out on that iconic observation deck and looking out on the cityscape. I had the feeling that the view was worth the payment in sweat. But the best part was seeing my friends finish as well. They had these huge smiles on their faces, looks of absolute joy. Even the ones who dragged their feet about coming in the first place.

Our buddy Seb was there at the finish line to greet us with some pizzas. We managed to raise over 20,000 dollars for the charity by doing a raffle which included a video call with us at the end. The winner lived in Norway, so we were calling her at around 4 in the morning. It was great to see how many people online were following our run, and supporting those great teachers. There were quite a few teachers participating in the event as well. 

Running up the entire Empire State Building is a feat, but it’s not a feat that is impossible for at lot of people. Once we were at the top, all we could think about was bringing more friends with us next year. It is an emblem of pride to our city. Even with everything that the city has gone through, it is still there and it is still standing. And there we were standing on top of it. New York, New York, baby.

Check out some of Saladino’s programs here.

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