The ecstasy of the agony
The agonies people are prepared to inflict on themselves in the name of fitness and fun are often baffling, but “tower running” takes endurance to a whole new dimension. It is a sport of few rules: you run up a skyscraper’s stairwell, you collapse and the fastest time wins.
Despite the fact that it sounds about as enjoyable as gargling with magma, it is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.
In the United States there are countless competitions, with the three majors being the US Bank Tower in Los Angeles, the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Empire State Building in New York. There are races, too, all over Europe, Asia and South America.
The elite athletes who pioneer this craze are, unsurpisingly, a rum bunch. There’s 55-year-old Kurt Hess, who holds the world record for altitude climbed in 24 hours (30 000m) and who trains for 12 hours a day at weekends. There’s Ed McCall, a successful broker, who liked running up stairs so much he introduced his teenage sons to it: the three now combine school and work with travelling to races all over the world. And there’s Tim van Orden, who feels compelled to break records in a host of athletic endeavours and to show the world (via his website runningraw.com) that all of this can be done on a raw vegan diet.
Their motives for taking up the sport may differ, but tower runners all talk of one universally shared experience - the pain. “It’s not all that pleasant,” says Ed McCall. His son, Colin, adds: “After my first race, I puked in a garbage can. Everyone high-fived me. Think about the most painful thing you’ve ever done, then multiply by 10.”
Most tower runners seem to have found the sport by accident. “I was a mountain runner training for the US team back in the autumn of 2006,” says Van Orden. “At the time mountain running was the most gruelling sport I could find. But I injured my knee, and thought I was going to be out for a few months until I discovered that I could climb stairs without aggravating it. A friend had mentioned that they held a stair climb race in the US Bank Tower in downtown LA and suggested that I give it a try.
“Somehow I managed to get third place overall. I had never experienced so much pain in my life - but I was hooked.” Not everyone achieves such success in their first event. Tower runners love to relate stories of elite marathon runners who assume they’ll cruise to the top, only to drop out in a crumpled heap on the 43rd floor.’
One “flat” athlete who has succeeded at more vertical pursuits is Austrian Andrea Mayr. As well as being the Austrian record holder for the women’s 3 000m steeplechase, Mayr is a multiple winner of the Empire State Run Up and the Taipei 101, the sport’s most prestigious events, and sees the sport as useful endurance training on a road that she hopes will take her to Beijing. Even she - a seasoned athlete - complains of the pain of tower running: “After the first half your legs get tired and at the end the muscles really burn. It’s really, really tough.”
Surely, you might think, this can’t be doing these people any good. Susan Brown, a lecturer in biomechanics at Napier University, disagrees. “This is good exercise because it increases cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength and endurance,” she says. “When you’re running up stairs, you’re shifting your centre of mass vertically as well as horizontally, so you’re fighting against gravity, which uses more energy. The more difficult it is, the better a training tool it is.” Tower runners also use their arms to haul them up using the stair rail, which means the upper body is being worked. “If you think about it, athletes have always used stair climbs as part of their fitness training. Lots of footballers take a run in the stands for that reason. Rocky did it, too.” She is referring, of course, to the iconic sequence in the eponymous film, where Rocky sprints up the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He looked exhausted when he reached the top and the big galoot had done only 65 steps. Most tower runs worthy of the name involve 1 500.
Brown also dismisses the suggestion that stair-climbing is particularly hazardous for your body. “Injuries occur only where you apply a force in a direction that doesn’t suit the way your body moves,” she says. “Your body is perfectly capable of climbing stairs. You are putting more stress on your knee and hip joints, but not to an extent that your body can’t cope with, unless you have existing problems.”
She does, however, offer a few cautionary words: “Make sure your whole foot is on each step to eliminate potential Achilles tendon strain,” she says, “and avoid running back downstairs: it’s of negligible benefit and the risk of an impact injury is far greater. Finally, as you get more tired, there is an increased possibility of tripping. In that respect the injury you’re most likely to suffer is to your nose or teeth.”
You don’t have to be an athlete to benefit from stair running either, says Brown. “As with all new forms of exercise, you should start slowly, climbing one step at a time. After four to six weeks try two steps at a time, then two steps more quickly and once you’re used to that, try wearing a weighted belt.”
Enthusiast David Snyder claims on his website (stairclimbingsport.com) that it burns about twice as many calories as other sports, though no scientific study has backed this up. It is generally accepted, though, that walking up stairs burns 500 to 600 calories an hour, while running up burns about 1 000, depending on your weight. So next time the lift breaks down at work, instead of sighing and muttering into your doughnut, think of it as an opportunity.—