Tomorrow, 200 plus athletes will scale the 1,576 steps of the Empire State Building in the annual Empire State Building Run Up sponsored by Marmot. You can read more about the challenge here. The runners range from everyday athletes who entered through a lottery system to hardcore pros who can run up the steps in under 10 minutes. One of those athletes is Marmot Ambassador Athlete Sean Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor who has climbed Everest (not to mention the rest of the Seven Summits)—with only one functioning lung. We sat down with him ahead of tomorrow’s race to find out how one trains for something like this—plus, what it’s like to climb Everest at such a physical disadvantage (one lung!), how much hope plays a role in our fitness endeavors, and more.
MEN’S FITNESS: How do you train for something like the Empire State Building Run Up?
Sean Swarner: People ask me all of the time ‘how do you train for Kilimanjaro or whatever mountain.’ I always tell them: If you’re going to do something, train by doing that something. I mean, you’re not going to train for the New York City Marathon by hopping in the water and swimming back and forth for 26 miles. So for mountaineering, I get up in the mountains and go up and down and carry heavy packs and stuff like that. For this—where I live up in the mountains in Colorado we don’t have many tall buildings—so, I got on one of those treadmill-stair thingys—not a stairmaster, like the treadmill stairmaster. I found some workouts online and I warmed up with like 15 floors easy, and then 15 floors hard double-step, five floors easy, five floors hard, five floors easy, five floors hard. And then you get off that and put the treadmill at the highest angle and just go at a decent pace. So, just everything uphill.
MF: Did you do any actual stair climbing to train?
SS: Yes. Actually yesterday at the hotel I went up and down, up and down, up and down, but I also found out that going up doesn’t make your muscles sore—it’s the down part that makes your muscles sore.
MF: What shoes and gear will you wear for the Run Up?
SS: Marmot Windridge Shortsleeve Shirt and Mizuno shoes—They’re super light. I ran the New York City Marathon in them.
MF: So what made you want to do the Empire State Building run-up? What inspired you?
SS: These guys. (Marmot)
MF: Cancer, Everest, The Empire State Building Run Up—What’s next for you?
SS: The North Pole in April 2017. I’ve done the Seven Summits, I did the South Pole last year, and hopefully the North Pole in 2017. [It’s all part of The Explorer’s Grand Slam. You can read more about it here.] I can’t fail. This might be my only opportunity to make it because the North Pole was under water last year. New Years Day it was actually colder in Pittsburgh than it was at the North Pole.
MF: What do you tell yourself—whether it’s the North Pole challenge or climbing Everest or this—mentally to get through it? It’s got to be so much more mental than it is physical at times, right?
SS: I think it is. And I’m actually writing seven e-books right now called The Seven Summits to Success. We’re going to launch the first one Feb. 16. And you can find it at SeanSwarner.com. But it’s focusing on what I did and how I did it. And the first book is really just making it up in your mind before you begin. Because if you believe in it that strongly, if you encounter frustration, it won’t be enough to set you back to quit. Because if you focus on the end result, and make it real to yourself and real in your mind, nothing will ever stop you. So I focus on myself being at the North Pole and I have a mantra. I say: ‘The higher I go, the stronger I get,’ and I say it with every step.
MF: It’s a visualization process too, then?
SS: Oh 100%.
MF: So a lot of sports psychology goes into this…
SS: Yeah, it’s mental. And I’ve been through enough crap in my life to realize what true pain really is.
MF: Right. And you probably use a lot of those same mental mechanisms from fighting cancer that you use to tackle physical challenges. Plus, you’ve also got the physical limitation of the single lung. It’s a miracle of human adaptation, right, that you can do this? Do you feel it?
SS: When I was younger, I participated in swimming and I actually still have some records from when I was 13-years-old, you know, back in ’88. And that was when I had both my lat muscles, but now because the surgery—they cut one out—I swim in a circle. I didn’t start climbing or doing extreme stuff like that until I had a debilitated lung. So I don’t know what it’s like [with two functioning lungs]. I’m sure it’s a lot easier. But like anybody, you do what you can with what you have.
MF: What advice would you give to men, who may or may not be battling any sort of obvious physical limitation, to motivate them to get out there and do something amazing like some of these challenges that you’ve done?
SS: You know, when I was battling through my two cancers, I didn’t have any hope. And I tell people all my time—the human body can live for roughly 30 days without food, the human condition can sustain itself for about three days without water, but no human alive can live for thirty seconds without hope. Because without hope you really have nothing. So you always have to hold onto hope and always focus on the end result and don’t look at what people have accomplished like, for myself, I went up Everest with one lung but I didn’t start there. I started with my cancer—I was laying in the hospital bed and my goal was actually to go from hospital bed to the bathroom so I wouldn’t soil the sheets. I started in a coma and went up there—just never lose hope.