11 674 STAIRS, 55 MINUTES!
RUNNING'S NEWEST RACE CRAZE
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.
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’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,
I CAN BARELY STAND, MY VISION IS OBSCURED BY SWEAT AND I’M SEEING STARS. WHEN THESE CLEAR, I SPOT A TENT SERVING BEERS.
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.