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
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