A dash to the top floor of the Empire State Building that's more impressive than any view.By Patrick Egan
From the July 2010 issue of Runner's World
SULEIMAN RIFAI stood at the back of the pack of runners gathered in the Empire State Building's dazzling art-deco lobby. For a few hours on this February morning in New York City, the business-suit and high-heel dress code gave way to wicking tees and performance trainers as runners swarmed a stairwell doorway to ascend 1,576 steps to the 86th floor. Rifai and his guide yielded to the horde.
Starts are simply not Rifai's thing. As the first blind runner to compete in the Empire State Building Run-Up, an invite-only event that attracts world-class athletes from 17 countries, Rifai had no interest in thrusting himself among a mash of limbs. At the six marathons he's run, discarded clothes and jockeying runners have often sent him crashing to the asphalt.
Unlike many of his races, Rifai's life began without incident. He was healthy, happy, part of a big family in Tanzania. Then, when he was 8, he started having trouble seeing. As his vision dwindled away, his family life disintegrated—his father moved out, his mother died. Grandparents and aunts raised him.
At 14, he heard the diagnosis that would dictate the rest of his life: retinitis pigmentosa, the presence of abnormal rods and cones in the eyes. It's progressive and incurable. His school didn't have the resources to handle his needs. "I envied the kids playing ball," Rifai says. "I felt conscious of myself, so I stayed home."
Rifai descended into depression. The pain came to a head when he was 17—still 10 years from total blindness—on a vacation cruise with family. Rifai leaned against the ship's railing. "I was in a dark place," he says. "I didn't think there was any hope. I thought how I could jump."
He can't articulate why he didn't jump. But that decision allowed him, a year later, to take a much different leap. He moved to New York City and learned braille and city survival skills at Lighthouse International in Manhattan, a premier school for the blind. He later enrolled at Adelphi University, where he finished with a master's degree in social work at 38, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where he took classes for the sight impaired.
By 2003, Rifai had gone years without seeing images—he could only sense stark changes in light, and he used a cane to navigate the streets. One spring day, he was on a rush-hour train when Rick Lipsey, a volunteer with Achilles International, an athletic organization for the disabled, approached him. "I asked if he'd ever heard of Achilles or done any running," Lipsey says. "He bit right away." Days later, Rifai showed up in Central Park. "It was like being in another world," he says. "Trees and birds and breeze. The sun on your face. Other people running next to you. It made me feel...normal."
He's been on the road ever since. It's not easy. Rifai commutes an hour and a half each way between his home in Washington Heights and Brooklyn, where he counsels the homeless and mentally ill. At day's end, he often heads to the park for a workout. The only way to distinguish Rifai from other runners in the park is the tether clasped in his hand, connecting him to a guide. A slight tug from his partner helps Rifai make adjustments.
To prepare for the Run-Up, Rifai met his guide, Alex Gardner, at his Manhattan apartment building, where they climbed 30 flights several times. Though they were good workouts, Rifai was still anxious about the event's hectic atmosphere: "The week before the race, I was really terrified." But on race day, Rifai's instincts took over. "It was frantic—passing people and moving left, right, left—but frantic in a good way," he says. "It was liberating."
When he reached the observation deck, Rifai felt strong and proved it with his race-ending ritual that celebrated another accomplishment, another height scaled. Gardner told him when, and rather than run across the finish line, Rifai leaped.
206 RUNNERS PARTICIPATED IN THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING RUN-UP. THE OVERALL WINNER FINISHED IN 10 MINUTES, 16 SECONDS.
articel from runnersworld.com