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What Hurts After Racing Up 86 Floors of the Empire State Building? Your Lungs

Yes, I took the stairs. All 1,576 of them. No, I'm not a masochist; I'm a runner and I was participating in the New York Road Runners' Empire State Building Run-Up, an annual charity-based tower-climbing competition. (OK, maybe I'm a little bit of a masochist.)

The event is smartly organized, if only to avoid stampedes: Participants (all 400 of them) start on the lobby level and go up the stairs in waves of 10 to 15 people at a time—an upward hurtling toward a finish line on the 86th floor. That saves against overcrowding, though passing people takes quite a surge of effort.

Less than a quarter of the way in and I could really feel it. Not that my legs were the problem. (I had a strategy of alternating one stair at a time—which works your quads—with two stairs at a time—which targets your glutes—every few flights in an effort to not burn out any muscle group. It worked.) No, it was my lungs.

Vertical (tower) training—along with hiking and mountain running—is one of, if not the, most intense forms of cardio possible. The extreme deep and heavy breathing, coupled with a rapidly elevated heart rate causes what is known as "track hack," a severe, almost smoker's-like cough. That began, for me, in the stairwell—and lasted several days—accompanied by a feeling of chest tightening and lungs shrinking. I'm convinced the symptoms have something to do with the altitude, although I cannot back this up.

I made my way to the very top of one of the country's most iconic pieces of architecture, passing a few people along the way (including a man who had a Go-Pro camera attached to his wrist and kept aiming it at me), in 18 minutes and 27 seconds. How did I rank? The male winner, Norway's Thorbjorn Ludvigsen, finished in 10 minutes and 6 seconds, while the female lead, Suzy Walsham of Australia, completed the climb in 11:57. (The slowest time was 56:19.)

In years past, participants have done a lap around the observation deck before crossing the finish line. This year, falling ice caused race organizers to think better of that. It was a bit anticlimactic to finish, but, hell, I was just happy to be done. And yes, I took the elevator back down.

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