The Aussie Rules Football Official Turned Pro Stair Climber

Darren Wilson won the Empire State Building Run up in 2016 | © Eduardo Munoz/Epa/REX/Shutterstock
Darren Wilson won the Empire State Building Run up in 2016 | © Eduardo Munoz/Epa/REX/Shutterstock
Photo of Michael LoRé
Sports Editor10 May 2017

Darren Wilson and his wife were in New York City for their honeymoon. Like the millions of tourists who flock to the Big Apple each year, the Australian newlyweds were taking in the popular attractions and sites.

They patiently waited on line inside the Empire State Building for the elevator to the 86th Floor Observation Deck. Their journey was slow-moving. They had waits at the ground floor. The 40th floor. And again at the 70th. An usher told them the wait for yet another elevator would be about 45 minutes — unless they didn’t mind taking the stairs.

Wilson excitedly took his wife by the hand and said “Let’s do the stairs,” and the two began their ascent step by step. While climbing, Wilson recalled hearing about a race held inside the iconic building up its 86 stories (1,576 stairs). He thought it would be fun to come back and compete in it.

“That’s how the hobby started,” Wilson said.

Towerrunning, also known as stair racing, is a sport where participants run up towers, skyscrapers and outdoor stairs in competition. According to the Towerrunning World Association, the sport’s international governing body, more than 140,000 athletes and running enthusiasts participate in its events each year across the globe. In 2015, 250 races were held in 55 countries; there are 130 races scheduled so far this year.

The Empire State Building Run Up is one of the tour’s most prestigious events. It’s 40th edition was in February. Wilson, a retired Australian Rules Football umpire, has raced up New York City’s iconic structure six times, winning the event in 2016 with a time of 10 minutes, 36 seconds, and finishing runner-up this year in 10:43.

“There’s something special about the building,” he said. “Most tower runners will say it’s the view you get at the top and that’s why they do it, but for me, once I get to the top I’m so fatigued that I don’t really appreciate the view. For me, it’s the constant reminder when you watch a TV show or movie and it pans across that New York skyline and you see the Empire State Building, you say to yourself, ‘Yeah, I climbed that,’ and it brings a sense of satisfaction.”

Training for a stair race is a completely different animal than training for other sports like soccer, basketball or even a marathon. While non-tower runners assume training is endless hours and steps on a StairMaster, Wilson and the other world’s best say otherwise — nothing beats real stair running.

“You basically try to find any stairwell you can get access to,” Wilson said. “For me, it’s pretty difficult because the tallest building in Adelaide where I’m from has 30 stories. You come to New York and you see all these buildings with 50-plus stories and it’s a bit of a playground for tower runners.”

Wilson will be putting the stairs on the back burner as he trains for the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in September in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“I’ve got to do a little work on my swimming,” Wilson said.

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