This post is written by Jonathan Angelilli, a New York-based fitness trainer and writer. The views expressed herein are his. For more from Jonathan, follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Around the 60th flight of stairs, the taste of blood started to creep into the back of my mouth and my consciousness started to flicker in and out like a candle in the wind. The only capacity I had to think consisted of four thoughts repeating over and over again in my mind: inhale, exhale, left leg, right leg, inhale, exhale… Oh, and this: Please lord, don’t let me pass out before I reach the top.

How did I get myself into this mess?

Race to the Top of the Empire State Building

Photo: New York Road Runners
It started back in 2007. I was just coming off a major injury — a disc herniation in my neck from a bad fall in a snowboard park — which took me the better part of five years to rehabilitate. I couldn’t really run (the impact was too intense for my disc), but somehow I figured out a way to get my intensity fix without triggering my injury: charging up stairs.

And then I heard about this crazy race.

Evidently, for the last 35 years, people have been willing to pay to run up 86 stories to the observation deck of New York City’s iconic Empire State Building — despite there being multiple high-speed elevators that work just fine. That’s 1,576 steps to the top, as fast as humanly possible! Each year, the race gets more and more popular, and harder to get into due to space constraints.

The Empire State Building Run-Up is sponsored by the New York Road Runners and partners with the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. Runners who commit to fundraising a minimum of $2,500 for the Foundation are guaranteed a spot in the race. (Last year, runners raised a record-setting $500,000 for the charity.). Non-fundraising entrants (which include local, national, and even international competitors) are selected via a randomized lottery.

The course record is a staggering 9 minutes and 33 seconds, but my main concern back then was making it through the challenge alive and in one piece.

Training for One Quarter Mile Straight Up Into the Clouds

Eighty-six stories equates to about one-quarter mile of vertical elevation. It’s not a particularly long distance for a race — but working directly against gravity is no joke. If I was going to survive this challenge (not to mention put up a respectable time), I needed to use all the skills, knowledge, and resources I’ve developed over the last decade through my work as a personal trainer.

I decided to adopt a 12-week training program consisting of several different stairwell workouts. I ran shorter intervals in my sister’s apartment building, which had 20 floors: I’d run up the stairs, take the elevator down, and repeat that interval three to eight more times. I also trained with medium distance intervals (45 stories repeated two to four times) and long-distance non-interval stairwell workouts (which basically consisted of hauling to the top of a skyscraper as fast as I could). These workouts were brutal and required 100 percent commitment. And in retrospect, I realize I was at serious risk of over-training.

The Moment of Truth

On a cold February morning, it was time to put all this training to the test. When I arrived at the Empire State Building on race day, there were already EMS workers on site — a reminder of how serious this event was going to be. Hundreds of people milled about, warming up, laughing, and doing their best to prepare for an amazing amount of pain. As I prepped myself for the climb, I tried not to think about the fact that many competitors don’t actually make it to the top.

Luckily, I didn’t have much time to get stuck in my head before I found myself at the starting line. I squeezed in next to my competitors 30 feet from the stairwell entrance, our hearts racing and eyes wide. The moment had arrived.

“BLAST!” The air horn screamed, and immediately the 50 people in my heat were sprinting toward the stairwell’s entrance and cramming their way through it. It was a real free-for-all, with pointy elbows swinging within inches of grim, focused faces.

The first 20 flights were crammed. It was like the stairs in a busy subway station during rush hour — on crystal meth. And instead of people with suits, I was being jostled by some of the quickest “tower racers” in the world. Oh, and the stairs never seemed to end.

The level of psychological distress I experienced during the run was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Somewhere around the 40th story, the level of physical pain I was experiencing also reached new and unknown territory. At this point, all thoughts and doubts were put aside out of necessity. Inhale, exhale, left leg, right leg… like a broken record on repeat.

I honestly can’t remember much about flights 60 through 86. My mind was lulled into some foreign place by the constant repetition of my survival mantra. At last at the top, legs and lungs on fire and fully in an altered state of consciousness, I and my fellow victors ran one lap around the observation deck — and finally crossed the finish line.

Harnessing Competitions to Improve Your Fitness

I always tell my clients to “focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t” — and for me, racing to the top of the Empire State Building was the ultimate embodiment of that concept. Recovering from a major injury and unable to workout with intensity in the ways I was used to, I found in tower racing something I could do that would help me continue moving toward my goals.

This lesson applies even to people who aren’t in the process of recovering from injury. If your fitness progress has hit a plateau, it may be time to create a new challenge for yourself by entering your first race. If you already compete, try a race that’s out of your comfort zone: It’s a major opportunity to take your mental and physical toughness to the next level.

At the same time, it’s important not to take it all too seriously. As you develop more skill and power in your exercise program, the experience of challenging and expressing your power actually becomes enjoyable (Really!). Not only that, but signing up for a race can be a great opportunity to meet and train with other people and maybe even raise money for a great cause.

Making an Impact

After five years of competing in this brutal race, I am thrilled to announce this year will be my last! Looking back, I’m amazed at the amount of pain and joy this race has brought to my life. How did I manage to stay committed all these years?

To sustain my motivation, I often used races as an opportunity to raise money for charity. In 2008, I raised over $2,000 for New York Road Runners’ youth fitness charities, which provide running programs and coaches for schools that don’t have the budget for these extracurriculars. In 2010, I led a team of five stair warriors, and together we raised over $5,000 for New York Road Runners.

This year, I’ll be raising money for an amazing charity, STOKED Mentoring, which takes inner-city kids snowboarding! Many of these kids have never seen mountains before, and the lessons learned on those mountains (how to face fears, how to get up after falling, how to support our peers) are highly applicable to success in life. Picturing myself on the slopes with these kids is one of the best ways I’ve found to stay motivated even during the hardest training sessions.

Visualizing Success

The nice thing about running the same race each year is that it’s possible to use trial and error to improve a training program. My race time last year was 30 seconds faster than my previous personal record, and it was meditation and visualization that allowed me to smash my record!

To incorporate these practices into my training, I would begin with a five-minute meditation, focusing only on my breathing. Once I felt calm, I would visualize in my mind’s eye exactly how I would run the race and what I wanted to happen. Not only did this help me face the race with more confidence, but I felt relaxed and full of joy standing at the starting line. I’ve learned that less is more, and am much better at avoiding over-training.

Last year, my race time was 13:13 (a new personal record), and I finished 28th out of 666 finishers. My goal this year is to have fun, finish in less than 13 minutes, and raise some money for an amazing charity! Knowing my efforts in the stairwell will help provide kids with a wonderful learning experience helps me stay motivated and inspires me to move upward, faster and faster.

See you on the starting line.

All photos except for the first: Jonathan Angellili

What do you visualize for yourself? What kinds of races excite you, and what charities are you motivated to serve? I would love to hear your goals and questions in the comments below.