Terry Purcell is one of the top athletes in the world in a sport you’ve never heard of.
The 40-year-old Springfield man is a tower runner, and he’s won sprints up the John Hancock Center, Willis Tower and Aon Center in Chicago, the Empire State Building, and the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles.
This past weekend, Purcell won the Fight For Air Ultimate Climb at the Hilton Springfield. (That’s climbing the 30 floors as many times as possible in an hour. Purcell ran up 12 times.)
Purcell has been tower running for 18 years, and he’s seen the number of races and number of runners grow.
“It’s becoming a lot more popular,” he said.
This is just the second year for the climb at the Hilton Springfield. But tower runners have been sprinting up the stairs of the Empire State Building for more than 30 years. Purcell was among the tower runners featured in a story in The New York Times a few weeks ago, just prior to the Empire State Building Run-Up.
Purcell started tower running in his native Australia. The coach of his running club taunted him and another runner, saying they weren’t tough enough for stair climbing.
“That was the taunt we needed,” said Purcell, who was looking for a new challenge.
It so happens that Purcell’s running coach was the brother of a champion tower runner.
“They had the training and technique down to an art form. They had really put a lot of thought into the most efficient way to climb,” Purcell said. “From a training perspective, I was pretty much learning from the best.”
There is a strategy to tower running, Purcell said, and it’s not to sprint out ahead of everyone at the start to get into the stairwell first, as many racers do.
“That’s a horrific way to do things, because you get to the 20th or 25th floor and you’re gasping for air, and good luck surviving the rest of the race,” he said.
His strategy is to be conservative in the first part of the race, and to push through the desire to slow down in the middle of the race, knowing adrenaline will take over and get him through the last few floors of the climb.
“One thing I’ve really learned is this is more a mental battle than a physical battle. You know you’re going to hit a point where you’re at your pain threshold and think you really need to back off. It just becomes a mental battle whether you’re going to give in to that or not,” Purcell said.
“I’ve won a lot of races by pushing through that barrier,” he continued. “I won one race by surging at the 60th floor. That can break (an opponent’s) spirit.”
Chicago has the three tallest non-stop climbs in the U.S., and Purcell has 16 wins in 17 races in Chicago. He’s won the Hustle Up the Hancock eight times (94 floors); the Willis Tower (formerly called the Sears Tower) climb three times (103 floors); and the Aon Center (originally the Standard Oil Building) climb five times (80 floors).
He’s also raced the Empire State Building (86 floors) four times, with one win, two second-place finishes and one third-place. And he’s won and finished second at the 75-floor U.S. Bank Tower race in Los Angeles.
“I do the sport for personal satisfaction. It’s more of a financial drain than gain,” Purcell said, noting there is no prize money for the races as most of them are fundraisers for charity.
“What makes this event so interesting is people are so in awe or disbelief that this is achievable,” Purcell said.
But the tower runs take less time than running a 5K. About 90 percent of the runners in last year’s Hilton Springfield 30-floor climb finished in under 10 minutes. Purcell finished in 2 minutes, 24 seconds.
“It’s far more achievable than a marathon for most people and has just as much, if not more, ‘wow’ factor. You tell people you climbed 30 floors, or went to Chicago and climbed 103 floors with the Sears Tower,” he said.
John Osborn of Rochester, near Springfield, entered the first Hilton Springfield climb last year, and he finished second, 16 seconds behind Purcell.
“A lot of people that had done the race said, ‘You might think about doing more of these,’” Osborn said.
“It’s a strange thing to find out you’re good at,” he added.
Osborn was a BMX bike racer, and he entered the climb to stay in shape during the off-season. He’s since quit racing bikes -- it’s harder to bounce back from injuries at age 37, and it took away from time with his family -- to focus on tower running.
“I haven’t found anything that compares to climbing stairs as far as fitness,” he said. “For a short amount of time, the benefits are huge.”
He’s done 10 races since last year’s Springfield race, and he was ranked 21st in the world for tower running last year. (Yes, there are rankings.)
He’s also changed his diet to eat more vegetables, more organic food, and grass-fed beef and free-range chicken.
“I’ve met a lot of cool people doing it,” Osborn said. “I hope to keep doing it as long as I can. I’m inspired by some of the older guys that do it.
“I like it because it is unique.”