11 674 STAIRS, 55 MIN­UTES!


Runner's World South Africa - - FRONT PAGE - RUN­NERS HIGH

20Ba­sic 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 wouldbe 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 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 shoe in­soles spring to mind). 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 mid-size 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 cross im­me­di­ately 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.


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’s em­pir­i­cal data, too. The Tow­er­run­ning World As­so­ci­a­tion (TWA), 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. “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 ul­tra-marathoner, 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 ben­e­fits. Quads, glutes and core are all 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. Any run­ner knows the at­tri­tion rate of churn­ing out dozens of kays a week can be high, and the con­se­quent in­juries are spirit-sap­ping. But on the stairs, while the car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tem may be stretched to break­ing point, your joints en­joy some­thing close to a free ride. ‘I was very in­jury-prone as a track ath­lete,’ says Suzy Wal­sham, stair­run­ning ‘galac­tico’ and mul­ti­ple win­ner of the ri­val world cham­pi­onships staged by the TWA and the Ver­ti­cal World Cir­cuit (VWC). ‘But stairs be­ing non-im­pact means I don’t get in­jured at all. In fact, I can still train and race even when I’m car­ry­ing in­juries that pre­vent me from run­ning.’ At 44, Suzy is lean, burst­ing with vi­tal­ity, and seem­ingly get­ting bet­ter with ev­ery race. She runs an es­ti­mated 200 000 steps a year and shows no signs of slow­ing down. The former Com­mon­wealth Games 800m and 1500m run­ner is con­vinced that such longevity would not be pos­si­ble in more con­ven­tional rac­ing.


Back at the Niesen­bahn, those Odor-Eaters won’t win them­selves. My num­ber – siebe­nund­siebzig (77) – is called, and my ran­domly as­signed race buddy (CamelBak,


neat Ger­manic glasses, hair as white as his knee-high socks) and I are ush­ered through the door of the base sta­tion and to­wards an elec­tronic counter. This works down from 20 sec­onds, dur­ing which we share a hand­shake, and then the starter’s arm goes down and we’re trundling over the river on the el­e­vated steel walk­way.

Don’t go off too hard. The mantra re­peats in my mind as I slip into a cau­tious early pace, aided by the walk­way ramp­ing up alarm­ingly, like a re­verse ski jump. White socks is even slower. “Treppe,” I an­nounce proudly, and he steps aside with a cheery nod. Early days. We’re all friends.

I feel good. My legs are strong and my breath­ing is reg­u­lar, and the morn­ing sun has just crept over the moun­tain, flooding the val­ley with sun­light and tak­ing the edge off the crisp air. I al­low my­self the oc­ca­sional glance left and right to ad­mire the val­ley open­ing up below. Cat­tle bells tin­kle in the dis­tance. I’m en­joy­ing this.

And then, all too soon, ev­ery­thing starts to fall apart. There’s just no let-up. In a con­ven­tional run, as Gal­lagher points out, you can vary the in­ten­sity, com­mit, then coast, then com­mit a bit more. This is re­lent­less. A dull ache takes hold of my quads and calves, which over the next hour or so will morph into a jagged, burn­ing sen­sa­tion, and a stream of sweat falls from the peak of my cap.

The vari­able sur­face is an­other chal­lenge I’ve not an­tic­i­pated. Sin­gle flight this may be, but it’s di­vided into mul­ti­ple short seg­ments: neat trel­lised steel steps; nar­row, bricked ones; im­pro­vised stone steps so high you need both hands, and a lit­tle mo­men­tum, to even scale. Some sec­tions have handrails, oth­ers have noth­ing. One un­sta­ble stretch has an ac­com­pa­ny­ing rope, which I flail at.

I dig in and clam­ber on, ig­nor­ing my first ‘treppe’ re­quest from be­hind for a good 10 sec­onds be­fore re­lent­ing. The gra­di­ent is shock­ing in places; a stone I dis­lodge slips into the track-side chan­nel and bounces off down the moun­tain­side to land in the river pos­si­bly as much as a minute later. Run­ning down this stair­case would be not just im­pos­si­ble, but quite pos­si­bly lethal.

The first and only re­fresh­ment sta­tion comes just over half­way, at around 6 000 steps in, at the Sch­wan­degg or mid­dle sta­tion. I en­ter a cool, dimly lit tun­nel and then, abruptly, the stair­case stops and a walk­way takes me 20 me­tres across to a par­al­lel track. This is the point where pas­sen­gers on the Niesen­bahn must change from one dis­tinc­tive red car­riage to an­other. This en­ables the rail­way to op­er­ate on two wires rather than a sin­gle, im­prac­ti­cally heavy one.

I gulp down mul­ti­ple plas­tic cups of wa­ter and or­ange squash, sud­denly chilly in my sat­u­rated top and shorts, and dine lib­er­ally at the re­fu­elling buf­fet. It’s fairly stan­dard stuff, save for the enor­mous hunks of choco­late that I al­most in­stantly re­gret gorg­ing on. “Ah, you’re English!” one of the vol­un­teers says, when I of­fer my thanks. “Keep go­ing. You’re al­most there.”

Well, not re­ally. Not at all, in fact. An­other 5 000 steps is go­ing to sting a bit, I’m fairly cer­tain of it. Ex­it­ing the tun­nel, I get on the heels of a woman with neat, ef­fi­cient tech­nique, and slip­stream her for a wel­come 10 min­utes or so. If my pained wheez­ing both­ers her, she has the grace not to let it show. I steal a look back: be­hind, stretch­ing away to lit­tle more than dots far below, fig­ures are bowed against the gra­di­ent, emerg­ing from tun­nels and scram­bling up the track like ro­dents. It’s a sur­real sight: part race, part train-crash evac­u­a­tion.

It’s around three-quar­ters of the way through that I spot Bruno. A tall, ef­fer­ves­cent fel­low and a train­ing part­ner of the late Ueli Steck (a leg­endary moun­taineer and speed clim­ber), he’s per­form­ing the role of of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­pher this year. But clearly he would rather be out here tak­ing part, as he has done ev­ery year since the race be­gan. A paraglid­ing ac­ci­dent has forced him to pull out; the hand he da­m­aged is ban­daged up, his tele­photo lens propped in his cocked wrist. I’m fad­ing fast, and crav­ing some en­cour­age­ment. I don’t get it from Bruno. “Here he is – the Brit!” he shouts. “What took you so long?”

I hang on and count the last sev­eral hun­dred steps to the fi­nal tun­nel. It’s long and dark, but at the end I know I’ll find what my legs and lungs yearn for: re­lief from the tyranny of the treppe. We’re spat back out into the sun­shine onto a paved path, which me­an­ders, stepfree, up to the summit fin­ish. I ex­pe­ri­ence the most in­cred­i­ble and un­ex­pected sec­ond wind, tear­ing past five, 10, 20 com­peti­tors plod­ding, zombie-like, to­wards the fin­ish line as if in a pro­tracted fall. I re­spond to the whoops from the sur­pris­ingly large crowd gath­ered by the ter­race of the res­tau­rant-ho­tel, hare it up the fi­nal stretch, and col­lapse over the fin­ish line.

I can barely stand, my vi­sion is ob­scured by sweat and I’m see­ing stars. When these clear, I spot a fin­isher’s tent serv­ing beers. You’ve got to be kid­ding, I think. Then I take one.

Three-quar­ters of an hour, two beers and a uni­sex chang­ing room later and I’m sit­ting on the daz­zlingly bright ter­race of Res­tau­rant Ho­tel Niesen-Kulm, tak­ing it all in. It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary spot. I never imag­ined that the Em­pire State Build­ing Run-Up would be bet­tered for stop-and-gawp fin­ish-line im­pact, but the summit of the Swiss Pyra­mid, as the Niesen is known, is out on its own. I have a pi­lot’s-eye view of the cloud­dap­pled val­ley floor far below, yet sit above the cloud line. There’s the vis­ceral thrill of know­ing that I’ve got all the way up here un­der my own steam; and it’s not of­ten you get to run a (lin­ear) race for 90-odd min­utes,

yet can still make out the start line when you’re done.

The race is won by 25-year-old Jonathan Sch­mid, in what must surely have been an in­fu­ri­at­ing one hour and 20 sec­onds. A quick chat with the tall Swiss con­firms as much. “I re­ally wanted to break the hour mark,” he says, mus­ter­ing an un­con­vinc­ing smile. Sec­ond is Friedrich Dahler, a man with some se­ri­ous ver­ti­cal pedi­gree – he holds the world record for the most me­tres climbed in 24 hours (20 407m). It’s pretty much a rule, I’ve found, that when­ever you do some­thing ex­treme, there’s al­ways some­one who’s way out in front of you on the scale.

Prizes are handed out in a low-key cer­e­mony on the ter­race (fourth, Si­las Walther, gets the Odor-Eaters), and every­one set­tles down to eat, drink and re­cover. I sit with Bruno and race or­gan­iser Urs Wohler, a jovial bear of a man. Bruno, who loves this moun­tain so much he wrote a book about it – Der Niesen und seine Bahn (there’s a chap­ter on the race) – re­gales us with sto­ries of Fran­cisco Sanchez’s record-break­ing as­cent in 1991. “He had in­cred­i­ble power,” he en­thuses. “He was like an an­te­lope.”

I quiz Urs about ex­pan­sion of the race; its lim­ited places are known to sell out quickly. There’s clearly scope to in­ter­na­tion­alise it: the high­est-placed non-Swiss run­ner is 38th, and I’m one of just three Brits among 227 fin­ish­ers. Rather than just a few hours a year, why not take the rail­way over for a day? Make a party of it? Have mu­sic at the top? A fes­ti­val at­mos­phere? Clearly, I’ve had too much beer.

Urs in­dulges me, but isn’t en­tirely con­vinced. A big­ger field would have its ben­e­fits, sure, but at what price to this race’s con­sid­er­able charm?

I speak to Pa­trick Gal­lagher on my re­turn to the UK. He’s a huge fan of the Niesen­bahn stair race, but sees the event as some­thing of an anom­aly on the cir­cuit (‘uniquely dif­fer­ent’, he calls it), though an im­por­tant com­po­nent in rais­ing the pro­file of the sport – and in help­ing it to earn the re­spect he be­lieves it de­serves.

“It does an­noy me the way that stair run­ning is treated in some quar­ters,” he says. “I’ve seen races screened on TV with com­men­ta­tors treat­ing it as an ab­so­lute run­ning joke. But that doesn’t make any sense: the men and women at the top level of the sport are 30-minute 10K run­ners. And I can tell you this: it’s cer­tainly not a joke for any­one who has trained for one, or who has ac­tu­ally stepped up and done one.”

As I fin­ish my beer, col­lect my sod­den kit and join the queue for the Niesen­bahn’s long, slow, treach­er­ously steep de­scent, I can cer­tainly vouch for that.

For fur­ther in­for­ma­tion (in Ger­man) on the Niesen­bahn stair race, see niesen­lauf.ch.

early ris­ers (top to bot­tom): Al­most a ver­ti­cal mile from the val­ley floor; the course fea­tured a se­ries of cov­ered sec­tions; on top of the world.

high time (top to bot­tom): The fi­nal few ag­o­nis­ing paces to the summit, the fin­ish line and an ill-ad­vised beer; Craig at the fin­ish; from this height, paraglid­ing is not a prob­lem.

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