Look up the word “impressive” in the dictionary and you’ll probably find Suzy Walsham there too.
As the world’s top-ranked female tower runner, the 45-year-old has taken to the stairwells of some of the tallest skyscrapers known to man – including the Empire State Building where she defended her 10th title this month. Her feat? 86 floors (a whopping 1,576 steps) in 12 minutes, 18 seconds. But how does an Aussie chartered accountant and former Commonwealth Games athlete get involved in such an event, you ask? We hit her up to find out…
First off, huge congratulations on your 10th win of the Empire State Building Run-Up - can you tell us a little bit more about the event and how you first got involved?
I first competed in the event in 2007 – I entered a stair race in Singapore in late 2006 because the prize was a trip to go to New York to compete in the Empire State Building Run-Up. While the race definitely interested – it is the oldest and most recognized stair race in the world – I was initially more interested in the free trip to go and hang out in New York! I won the race in Singapore, went to New York, and surprised myself by winning there on my first attempt. And things just went from there.
How did it feel to win your 10th trophy?
I was ecstatic. Ever since I had achieved the most wins by any athlete in 2017 (my 8th win), I had 10 as a target. It is not easy to be physically and mentally ready to perform well every year so to reach my goal was a special moment for me.
How have you improved upon your performance each time (eg. What did you learn in previous runs that helped you this year?)
For my first 3 wins from 2007 to 2009, I was still concentrating more on road running and wasn’t doing too much stair training and racing, so my times from those years are not as fast as I am running now. After having my son in 2010, I got a lot more into stair running as it was easier on my body than running (a lot less impact) and the sport was growing and there were many more stair races around the world. I had less than stellar performances in 2011 and 2012, so I made some changes to my training, did a lot more stair running, and came back in 2013 to win and record what is still my personal best time of 12:05. My times in the past 7 years have been relatively consistent (within 30 seconds) except in 2018 when I was sick and injured. It definitely helps to have run the building so many times as I know the stairwell and I have learnt how to pace myself.
What was your training like in the lead up?
I tore my calf in February and I haven’t been able to run on the flat since, so that impacted my preparation a bit, but I kept up my cardio training by doing biking and elliptical workouts in the gym, weight training, and specific stair training 3 times a week – all up I am training 9 times per week. This year the race was in May instead of February, so I was more “race-fit” than previous years as it was my seventh race of the year, when often it is the first. It also helped that I had recently raced up 3 taller buildings in the 5 weeks prior, so running up the 86 floors wasn’t as tough as what it had seemed in previous years, crazy as that sounds!
How do you balance this with work and general life stuff?
I had been in a corporate job for 23 years (I am a Chartered Accountant) and I was finding it increasingly difficult to juggle my family, career and sporting commitments, so last August I made the decision to take a career break. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I was becoming too stressed and exhausted trying to do it all. I thought I would have a lot more free time but I am still crazy busy – training 9 times per week, planning and traveling for races (I am racing overseas 17+ times a year), and family commitments and admin. My husband is very supportive so that definitely helps a lot.
What do you like to eat the night before and the morning of the race?
The night before the race I like to have rice with some protein and vegetables – minimal sauces and flavouring so as not to upset my stomach or give me a “heavy” feeling. In the morning, some simple carbohydrate – bread and peanut butter – at least 3 hours before, and then a power bar, some coffee and a gel closer to the race time. The races, while intense, are not long so it’s not necessary to carb-load or anything.
Do you have any superstitions around race day?
I don’t really have superstitions because I think my training and preparation for the race is enough and the outcome of the race is not dependent on whether or not I wore something “lucky”. But I do like to set out a program/timetable for each race day (such as when I will wake up, eat, start warming up etc). The timing for things may vary each race depending on race logistics (ie start time, where you can warm up, what time you have to check in, etc) so the night before the race I will write out my timing for everything so on race day I don’t have to think too much and I know I won’t forget anything.
What’s the hardest part of the race for you?
For the Empire State Building race, the start is the most stressful for me – it is a mass start and can get quite pushy, and after being smashed into the wall in 2009 I get very nervous about something like that happening again. The middle section (floors 30 to 60) can make or break your race as you are trying to maintain your speed and rhythm, while still ensuring you have enough left to finish the race strongly. The last 10 floors is probably the toughest physically, because you are really hurting, but unlike the middle sections, it is a bit easier mentally because you know the pain will soon be over!
This event isn’t just about physical endurance but mental strength too, how do you keep motivated?
Mental strength is incredibly important – the race is so demanding physically, so you have to use your mental strength to overcome the constant message from your body telling you it wants to stop and take a break. I love this challenge and when things get tough I try to deflect from the physical discomfort by focusing on my technique and keeping a rhythm in the stairs.
Looking back, did you ever see yourself getting into something like this - or being so successful at it?
I had been a track athlete for 20+ years and after competing in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, I retired from the track to focus on my career. I wanted to stay fit but I found it harder to be motivated to train without a specific goal to work towards, so it was fun to find a new challenge to focus on. I didn’t really think it would turn into the kind of sport it is today where I am now traveling most of the year running up some of the world’s tallest and most iconic buildings – it’s a bit surreal, the races are tough, but there’s a great community of athletes so it’s a very positive experience. I love the challenge of each race – you’re really competing against the building, rather than other competitors….and I have become obsessed with skyscrapers!
Are you doing it for a reason? (e.g. a charity or personal goal)
It’s more for personal reasons, although most races have a charity focus and support some fantastic organisations. I love being fit and healthy, I love training to achieve a goal, I love challenging myself, and I love to travel, so it’s really the perfect sport for me!
What’s your next goal?
I would like to win another Vertical World Circuit crown and also finish the year as the number 1 ranked tower runner in the world – for the 8th straight year. Despite age not really being on my side, I am still striving to improve and I’m constantly working on training and strength activities that might help me go faster.