June 11, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Climb to Remember: Conquering The World Trade Center Stair Race

Zack and Gabe.

Tunnel To Towers Tower Climb

On Nov. 3, 2014, One World Trade Center, also known as “The Freedom Tower,” opened to the staggering height of 1,776 feet — corresponding to the United States’ year of independence — and became the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. While that height includes the spire and may be a bit misleading, the main observation deck open to visitors is actually on the 102nd floor. Recently, my brother Gabe and I climbed the stairs of the skyscraper in an unforgettable race, enjoying spectacular views at the top.

I’m no David Roher — I’ve never done anything close to an Iron Man and I’m not that crazy — but I do love running. I’ve run several full marathons and am currently coaching the TABC track team. Running up stairs never appealed to me for two reasons: I am scared of heights when I feel unsafe, such as on a hike when there are no railings, and I simply prefer running.

Last November, my brother and I participated in the Empire State Building (ESB) stair race since I worked in the building and was able to register at a discounted tenant price of around $100 compared to the required $2,500 worth of donations plus a $250 registration fee. The entry fee for the Freedom Tower stair race only requires $250 worth of donations plus a $100 registration fee, a much more manageable goal than the ESB. The donations for the race go to the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which provides mortgage-free homes to families of fallen first responders and injured veterans.

Zack finished first (but lost).

The Freedom Tower stair race typically has taken place in late spring each year since the building opened, with the exception of 2020 and 2021 due to COVID. The fastest recorded time ever was 12 minutes and 5 seconds, achieved by Piotr Lobodzinski in 2018.

One tough sell of the race is its early start time, kicking off at 5 a.m., with bib pickup scheduled for 4. Gabe and I planned to head to the downtown New York area at roughly 3, allowing us ample time to find parking. Thank God, my wife Ahuva and I welcomed our first child a few weeks ago, whom we named Koby (aka Koby-Wan Kenobi or by our tandem name, The Suite Life of Zack & Koby). While newborns are adorable, unfortunately parents often don’t get much sleep early on. That Motzei Shabbos, Koby was having a rough night settling down to sleep; whenever I tried putting him down, he cried. So, I ended up staying up all night with Koby until 3, when Gabe and I needed to head to the race.

After arriving in the city, Gabe and I found a spot near the bib pickup location. We arrived at a station of tents where staff members were distributing T-shirts and bibs while teams of camera crews from Fox News and other outlets were on site. Gabe and I registered at the table and obtained our bibs and shirts. Additionally, we were given see-through armbands to hold our driver’s licenses.

Observatory

Unbeknownst to us (due to our lack of proper research), we discovered that we would not be allowed to carry anything with us besides that armband into the race, including phones, car keys, wallets and even baseball caps (though my kippah was allowed). Gabe and I were placed in Wave 4, which didn’t start until 5:50, so we waited for around an hour in our car before the start. It was amazing to watch the sunrise and see the city transition from a dark night sky to a stunning shade of pink reflecting off the numerous glass buildings around us.

Once it was time for our wave, Gabe headed over to the start line but we got separated after he went to the restroom. We wouldn’t end up seeing each other again until after the race. To enter the building, I needed to go through multiple security checks where they made sure I wasn’t carrying anything. Once inside, I descended an escalator for two flights to reach the entrance of the observatory experience. I saw a long line of climbers wrapped around a hallway getting ready to start. At the front of the line was the start line, where climbers were beginning the race one at a time. I headed to the back of the line to wait my turn.

Waiting in line reminded me of waiting for a ride at Epcot in Disney World. The walls were adorned with black rocks that resembled space rocks. I gently tapped the wall with my palm and heard a hollow noise, realizing they were plastic. Being surrounded by the rock walls made me feel as though I was in an underground tunnel (and I had an epiphany that I was in a “tunnel” ascending the tower, corresponding to the Tunnel to Towers Foundation).

Oculus

While in line, a muscular, bulky guy covered in tattoos next to me noticed I was wearing a Kippah and asked if I was Jewish. I confirmed, and he mentioned he was too. He then revealed a Jewish star from underneath his shirt and we engaged in a discussion about the ongoing situation in Israel. It was really nice to meet someone else who I wouldn’t necessarily expect to care about Israel. While I was waiting in line, nervous about the race and separated from Gabe, being able to have a meaningful conversation helped pass the time.

A few minutes later, I reached the front of the line, my legs shaking a little bit nervously. To avoid congestion, each climber is separated by a few seconds. The staff member read my bib, marked me down and instructed me to go. Instinctively, drawing from years of running experience, I let my nerves take over and began running up the stairs.

The first 25 flights went by in a blur. I was coasting up the stairs, letting adrenaline do the work. I felt great until my legs started to hurt. Then, I began to realize — oh no — I still had nearly another 80 flights to go! I started feeling slightly woozy at the thought and suddenly had trouble climbing, becoming afraid of how high up I was. The race was just up a white staircase with small platforms every dozen or so steps. Being afraid of heights shouldn’t have really been a factor since I couldn’t look down and see how high up I was. But in that moment, I felt scared by the daunting task ahead of me. I paused for a second on the platform, took a deep breath and mentally decided to slow down and climb at a steadier more consistent pace while looking ahead from here on out.

Race medals

That strategy paid off. For the next 15 minutes, I steadily climbed the next 65 flights. At times, slower climbers clogged the lane in front of me and I had to work extra hard to go around them. Thankfully, One World Trade Center’s stairwell is extremely wide. (Tragically, the original Twin Towers’ stairwell was not that wide, which led to dozens, if not hundreds, of unnecessary deaths — but the builders of the new tower made sure to avoid making the same mistake twice.) Around every 35 flights there was a water station. I was handed a small cup of water and I made sure to take a few sips. Instead of wasting the rest of the water, I strategically dumped the remainder on my head to cool myself off and give myself an extra jolt of energy.

As I reached floor 93, I knew that I was at last within the last 10 flights until the observatory. But then, instead of the next floor saying “94,” it said “93M.” I thought that was strange and continued on. Then, the flight after that, the number suddenly jumped and said “100!” I was relieved that it was almost over but frustrated because I had been pacing myself slightly slower, assuming I had 10 flights left and not two.

With my last bit of energy, I flew up the remaining flights and crossed the finish line. I was handed a medal and a water bottle and gulped it down eagerly. I then saw a white billboard where finishers sign their name or the name of the person for whom they dedicated their climb. I decided to sign for my fallen cousin-in-law Tomer, who was the commander of the Golani (infantry) Brigade’s 13th Battalion and had tragically fallen in combat in Gaza this past December. I named my son Koby’s middle name after him. I wrote on the board “For Tomer” and drew a Jewish star.

One World Trade Center at sunrise.

On the observatory deck, I strolled around, taking in the spectacular views while waiting for Gabe to finish. The southwest window offered a clear view of the Statue of Liberty while the northeast faced the Empire State Building. The vistas were breathtaking, especially since it was still early in the morning, casting a gentle pink hue across the sky.

After waiting around for 15 minutes with still no sign of Gabe, I began to worry about what was taking him so long. I approached someone who had a phone and asked if they could check the results and look up my brother’s name. They showed me their phone and I saw that Gabe’s name didn’t appear, meaning he hadn’t finished. However, I did see my name and decided to take a peek to see my finish time. I had expected to complete the race in roughly the 25-30 minute range. I was beyond disbelief when my time showed 23 minutes and 26 seconds! I had crushed my goal time. I thought there was no way Gabe could beat me. But I was wrong.

Ten minutes later, Gabe finally finished. After he recovered, we took a picture together holding an American flag sign with the race’s date printed on it, along with big letters saying “I climbed for heroes.” Then, we took the elevator downstairs to get our celebratory breakfast. On the elevator ride down from One World Trade Center, a 360 degree video played. It started with a view from the top of the tower and descended with the elevator, providing a simulated bird’s-eye view of New York City that matched the elevator’s descent. Afterward, we exited and headed toward the World Trade Center Transportation Hub.

If you’ve never visited the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, trust me, it’s a must-see. The hub, known as Oculus, feels like stepping into a scene from the movie “Men in Black” (1997). Its futuristic white walls and floors, coupled with the soaring, arched ceiling bathed in a mix of electric and natural light, create an ambiance that’s both awe-inspiring and airy. This sprawling space houses numerous shops and areas to explore, seamlessly connecting multiple World Trade Center buildings. At Oculus, Gabe and I found the breakfast area and enjoyed some refreshing beverages and fruit. Also on display were the full results from the race. In the end, Gabe finished the race in 23 minutes and 17 seconds — beating me by 7 seconds! I placed 75th overall in the race, while Gabe came in 70th out of 841 climbers.

Overall, I had an incredible experience participating in the Freedom Tower stair climb. While it was very challenging, I found it to be easier than the Empire State Building climb since the staircases were much wider and the landing platforms were shorter, making ascent easier. The views at the top were breathtaking and well worth the effort. Even if you don’t plan on taking the stairs like I did, I would recommend visiting the building to check out the observation deck. Often on Groupon, especially near Black Friday, there are very affordable deals to visit the observatory for around $20 per person.

I hope to participate in the race again. Next time, I would humbly request for Gabe and me to be placed in Wave 1 to avoid needing to weave around so many people. Whether you choose to take the stairs like Gabe and me or opt for the elevator, I look forward to seeing you at the top!

One World Observatory Admission: Starting at $49

Hours: 10 a.m.-7p.m.

Address: 117 West St, New York

Race Admission: $100 registration fee + $250 fundraising

Phone: (844) 696-1776

Website: www.oneworldobservatory.com


Zachary Greenberg is a consultant at Semler Brossy and the track coach for TABC. Zack recently won the election for a spot on the Teaneck Democratic Municipal Committee representing District 15. He also began watching the new Star Wars show “The Acolyte” on Disney+. To join in on Zack’s fun adventures, make sure you are following @funzacktivities on Instagram! If you have any recommendations of fun places for him to explore, please email [email protected].

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