The Ultimate Climb in Full Turnouts

Firefighter Touché Howard from Fire Station 1 in Durham, N.C., climbed 86 flights of stairs during the 35th annual Empire State Building Run-Up on Feb. 8. What marks his achievement: Howard was the first person in the history of the climb to complete the grueling ascension in complete firefighter gear: air tank, helmet, etc.

With more than 600 participants from all over the world, the Empire State Building Run-Up is a race from ground level to the 86th-floor observation deck. The event, which has been held annually since 1978, benefits the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF), a nonprofit organization that works to accelerate the development of treatments for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow.

Howard’s Journey
Three and a half years prior, Howard thought his firefighting career was nearly over after he severely strained his back carrying a patient on an EMS call. But following back surgery, the members of Station 1 helped aid Howard’s full recovery, re-establishing him as a more-than-capable member of the team.

But why run up the Empire State Building? For one, Howard has been enamored with the Empire State Building since he saw the movie King Kong as a child. And in his teens, Howard’s brother (who has since passed away) made a special trip to visit the iconic building. Further, Howard’s personal relationship with people affected by multiple myeloma played a part in his decision to participate in the Run-Up. As such, the MMRF Run-Up became the perfect combination of elements: charity, memory, selflessness and professional dedication. He also realized that he could raise more money by being the first person to complete the climb in full turnout gear.

Supportive Training
Training leading up to the historic feat was a group effort. In order to ascend the 1,576 stairs in under 35 minutes, Howard needed to tap into his inner strength, determination and positive energy. He also relied on the old-fashioned camaraderie of his captain, Stephen Whitt, and the other firefighters at Station 1.

The group could often be found throughout Durham, climbing the stairs of parking decks, practicing yoga and working out at the YMCA or in the station. With no time to spare, the team worked together between calls, between shifts—basically whenever, wherever and however they could. Howard’s training ultimately became the endeavor of an entire team.

Howard’s battalion chief, Scott Robert, fellow Fire Technician Wayne Cheek and Captain Whitt travelled to New York City, some for the first time in their lives, to support Howard’s climb. After Howard had given so much of himself, his team was more than willing to give back.

The Ultimate Climb
The day of the race, Howard met with the event staff and spoke with many other participants about their own involvement with multiple myeloma. As the race start neared, Howard grew more nervous; he started to worry about letting people down by not completing the race.

While hundreds of other runners donned tank tops, shorts and running shoes, noisily jostling around him waiting their start time, Howard sought mental refuge on the cold concrete floor behind a foldout table. As he began to gather his thoughts and take steady, controlled breaths, a staff member announced that Howard’s had to be ready within minutes, long before his anticipated official start time. Minutes before the gun sounded, his friends gathered to assist him with the final suit-up. In a flash, Howard opened his air tank, secured his mask, and embarked on one of the most momentous journeys of his life.

Robert and Whitt joined Howard for the last 46 floors. Howard’s air tank ran out on the 62nd level, but he would not stop. His muscles churned out the remaining levels.

When the final doors opened, Robert and Whitt backed away to the side, allowing Howard the victorious moment on his own. Howard was welcomed on the Observatory Level by a magical scene: snow, city lights, crisp air, a finish line ribbon, photographers and his friends.

A Shout Out for Support
“I made it to the top because of all the hard work of the people in the Durham Fire Department, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and lots of friends around the country,” Howard reflects. “It is impossible to list all the people who helped out so much, but the support was absolutely amazing and I never would have made it without it.”

He continues: “Although I thought the highlight of the day would be getting to the top, it was surpassed by getting to meet both the climbers who were raising money for the MMRF and the MMRF staff. All of them were filled with a spirit of optimism and teamwork to fight multiple myeloma, and it was really inspiring. Just being able to meet them made all the long hours of training worthwhile.”

Howard’s climb helped raise more than $30,000 in donations for MMRF.

Final Thoughts
We often take for granted the selfless sacrifices that our civil servants make every day. Durham’s Fire Station 1 exemplifies the benevolence that not only gives aid to an immediate community, but the power of lifting each other up to achieve new heights and better humanity as a whole.