Step­ping Up In The World’s High­est Stair Race

STEP­PING UP TO THE CHAL­LENGE OF 11,674 STEPS RIS­ING PRECIPITOUSLY TO THE SUM­MIT OF A SWISS MOUN­TAIN, DUN­CAN CRAIG TACK­LES EUROPE’S CRAZIEST RACE AND IN­VES­TI­GATES THE GROW­ING AP­PEAL OF STAIR RUN­NING

Runner's World (UK) - - IN THIS ISSUE -

How to climb 11,674 steps to the top of a Swiss moun­tain. And why

Ba­sic race eti­quette was one of the ear­li­est ca­su­al­ties. The or­gan­is­ers had been quite clear – should we be­come aware of some­one try­ing to pass us on the sin­gle-file steps dur­ing our in­ter­minable as­cent, the would-be over­taker should say ‘treppe’ (‘stair­way’ in Swiss- Ger­man) and we should step aside. But there’s some­thing about be­ing in the red zone – deeper in the red zone, in fact, that you’ve ever been – that rel­e­gates ba­sic man­ners to the most in­con­se­quen­tial of mat­ters. Sur­vival in­stincts kick in and you be­come a self­ish bug­ger. Or at least I did – ig­nor­ing pleas from be­hind, stick­ing to my line, forc­ing over­tak­ers to brave the steeply slop­ing, chute-like chan­nel that sep­a­rates the steps from the fu­nic­u­lar tracks. There was no way I was sur­ren­der­ing even the faintest sliver of mo­men­tum. When you have thou­sands of steps still ahead of you, such things take on an ab­surd im­por­tance.

The Niesen-trep­pen-lauf (Niesen­bahn stair race) had captivated me since I first read of it a decade ago. The Niesen­bahn fu­nic­u­lar rail­way is one of the Alps’ most ac­com­plished en­gi­neer­ing feats. Ex­tend­ing up the Tobleronic slopes of Mount Niesen, in Switzer­land’s Ber­nese-ober­land, it cuts a neat swathe through the forested foothills and clings, stiff-fin­geredly, to the bar­ren up­per slopes like a freeclimber. But it was not so much this en­gi­neer­ing mar­vel that in­ter­ested me, as what ran along­side it, as a con­tin­gency for an emer­gency evac­u­a­tion of the rail­way: the world’s long­est stair­case – a flight of 11,674 steps.

Just imag­ine try­ing to run up it, was my first thought. My sec­ond, to Google just that. And, sure enough, since 1990 – but with a 13-year hia­tus as it changed its fo­cus from a small group of niche pro­fes­sional en­durance ath­letes to a larger field of ama­teur loons – there’s been a race. Once a year, the rail­way comes to a stand­still un­til 10am to al­low a field of 300 or so to sub­ject them­selves to un­told suf­fer­ing in idyl­lic sur­round­ings. The re­wards? Pres­tige and a few spec­tac­u­larly unglam­orous prizes (Odor-eaters stood out here). The race is a ver­ti­cal mile – you run from the 693m val­ley floor to the 2,362m sum­mit – the in­cline ap­proaches 70 per cent in places and nearly all the com­peti­tors are lo­cal. It was an im­pos­si­bly se­duc­tive mix.

Ar­riv­ing at Müle­nen, the vil­lage at the foot of the moun­tain from where the fu­nic­u­lar be­gins, at 6:20am on race day, I find an at­mos­phere sim­i­lar to any mid­size parochial race. Names are be­ing taken; num­bers pinned; tim­ing chips ad­justed; gels stored; stretch­ing rou­tines flirted with. The race or­gan­is­ers keep up a crackly mono­logue of in­struc­tions, strug­gling to be heard over the sound of the surg­ing melt­wa­ter river we’ll im­me­di­ately cross when the race gets un­der way.

As with ev­ery stair race, a mass start is im­pos­si­ble. At the Niesen­bahn, it’s or­gan­ised into pulses of two run­ners ev­ery 20 sec­onds, with the best stacked towards the fi­nal slots. Most seem to be run­ners rather than step spe­cial­ists, though there’s a con­spic­u­ous glut of rip­pling quads on show. Ad­vice varies. There is lit­tle con­sen­sus on the num­ber of steps to take in one go: some say one; oth­ers are adamant it should be two; one even sug­gests three – the strat­egy em­ployed by Colom­bian Fran­cisco Sanchez, who won the 1991 race in a record time of 52:22. In 2004, it was de­cided to end the race at the Niesen sum­mit, rather than the last step, adding 250m to the dis­tance. The record for the new course, set in 2011 by Em­manuel Vau­dan, is 55:55.

Step tac­tics may dif­fer but ev­ery­one is in agree­ment about one thing: don’t go off too hard. I don’t need to be told. At my first step race, the in­au­gu­ral Spin­naker Tower run in Portsmouth six years ago, I went off like the clap­pers, com­pleted the fi­nal few floors on my hands and knees, and spent 20 min­utes dry-retch­ing in the toi­lets at the fin­ish. Chas­tened, I ran the Em­pire State Build­ing (ESB) Run-up six months later lis­ten­ing to clas­si­cal mu­sic, with my heart rate hardly de­vi­at­ing from 150bpm. That had been en­cour­ag­ing – but that race’s 1,576 steps were a lit­tle more than a sev­enth of what I’m about to tackle.

Am I pre­pared? Dif­fi­cult to say. My train­ing has been im­pro­vised, at best, built on three cen­tral pil­lars: strap­ping my­self to the gym’s Ver­saclimber un­til my quads and glutes groaned and the clean­ers moaned at the pud­dle of sweat; tack­ling as many hills as pos­si­ble on my road bike; and hit­ting the stair­well at work. Hard.

on the up

If I’d been look­ing for ev­i­dence of stair-run­ning’s growth in the years since I nearly re­dec­o­rated the Spin­naker Tower, it came in the re­sponse of those col­leagues who caught me in the act. Six years ago, I might as well have been openly uri­nat­ing in my cho­sen train­ing stair­well, such were the looks of be­wil­dered in­dig­na­tion. But this time round, there was al­to­gether more un­der­stand­ing; all seemed to have heard of stair run­ning, and a few had even tack­led one of the UK’S grow­ing num­ber of races such as Lon­don’s Tower 42 or the Christie Tower Run in Manch­ester.

There is em­pir­i­cal data, too. The Tow­er­run­ning World As­so­ci­a­tion, the sport’s in­ter­na­tional gov­ern­ing body (the mere ex­is­tence of such tells its own story), es­ti­mates that the num­ber of races world­wide has more than dou­bled since 2010. A record 266 events in more than 50 coun­tries were staged in 2017, from Bo­gota to Bei­jing, Pasadena to Pe­nang, Ljubl­jana to Las Ve­gas. That’s close to 140,000 stair run­ners of all lev­els com­pet­ing each year, and a grow­ing num­ber of these events are in the UK. ‘There are new races all the time,’ says Pa­trick Gallagher, founder of the in­de­pen­dent Tower Run­ning UK or­gan­i­sa­tion. ‘ When I set this up, in 2013, there were six races. Last year there were 14. Glob­ally it’s pop­ping up in new places all the time. There’s a grow­ing scene in In­dia, China, Hong Kong.’

Gallagher did his first race, at the Gherkin in Lon­don, in 2013. In­stantly hooked, he then tack­led the Heron Tower and Tower 42, the Spin­naker, the Em­pire State Build­ing and a string of oth­ers. He’s an ul­tra­ma­rathoner but he’s yet to find any­thing that comes close to the phys­i­cal and men­tal tor­ment of a stair race: ‘I re­ally like the hon­esty of the sport. There’s no fool­ing the stairs: you try to take it easy but the stairs won’t let you. In other races, there are times when you can cruise a bit, but this isn’t pos­si­ble in stair run­ning.’

Many stair run­ners trum­pet the cross­over benef its. Quads, glutes and core are al l strength­ened, lac­tate thresh­olds in­creased and util­is­ing the handrail to help pull your­self up (a bona fide tech­nique that the pros spend years hon­ing) pro­vides a full-body work­out. Bad weather is no bar­rier to train­ing on your near­est stair­well and its quick-hit-re­turn equa­tion is an­other plus in our time-starved times; if you’re pre­pared to em­brace the pain, re­sults are pretty much guar­an­teed. ‘I took about four min­utes off my 5K after six weeks of just stair run­ning,’ says Gallagher.

Then there’s the lack of im­pact. As any run­ner knows, the at­tri­tion rate of churn­ing out dozens of miles a week can be high and the con­se­quent in­juries are spirit-sap­ping. But on the stairs, while

Dun­can Craig hits the 10,000-step mark – and hits it hard. Not far to go… ON THE RAILS

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