Matt Hudson; Total Motion Events; December 2017
Here I was, travelling to Hong Kong for a real busman’s holiday, combining business with pleasure – my modus operandi. In all honesty I’ve organised more stair climbs than I have actually competed in, but here I was 6,000 miles from home, ready to compete in one of the biggest stair climb events in the calendar. This was ‘The Race to Hong Kong ICC’, a climb attracting 2,000 participants to the tallest building in Hong Kong, The International Commerce Centre. The ICC climbs 484m and 108 floors, although those floors are actually numbered up to the 118th, but due to the prevalence of tetraphobia in Hong Kong, floors that would have included the number "4" (4, 14, 24, etc.) are omitted, although strangely the 40th, 41st, etc are included - go figure!!.
Anyway, here I was in Hong Kong, admittedly largely to get the inside track on what it actually takes to organise a stair climb event on this scale, clearly with a view to building on previous Total Motion stair climbs, as well as driving UK participation in a sport that around the world is a well established, and yet still growing past time.
Up to this point the highest climb in my remarkably short-lived stair climb career was ‘just’ 48 floors at The Leadenhall Building, ‘The Cheesegrater’, with the majority of my experience coming from climbing the stairs at The Broadgate Tower at 35 floors. Don’t get me wrong, 35 floors is a challenge, especially to those that misjudge their pacing (that’ll be most people then). 48 floors is a step further, actually 380 steps further, but the jump up to 82 floors, 2,120 steps was, I admit, slightly intimidating.
As if I wasn’t already a fish out of water and feeling slightly inadequate, I spent the majority of the build up to the race and race day with the incredible elite athletes. Amongst them there were histories of international competition, be it on the track, on the water, on mountain trails, across deserts, you name it. I’ve run a bit, rowed a bit, even trotted around the trails of Cumbria, but international calibre I aint. However, for all of the combined athletic ability on show there is no hint of ego, everyone is welcoming and only too willing to talk about the sport they love, which was great for me to get a real insight on what motivates them to climb stairs. For some, they discovered stair events whilst just using stairs to train for other sports, others come from cities with an abundance of accessible stairwells, and so competition is the logical next step (sorry, pun intended).
Race day starts with a pre-event presentation of elites, corporate teams and sponsors, a nice touch, underlying the significance of the event as the Final of the 2017 Vertical World Circuit – the tenth race in a global series that has spanned the US, Europe, Asia and Australasia. As the elite start approached the light-hearted demeanour of the competitors changed subtly. There was (a bit) less chat, although still time for posing for photos on the start line for some, but we were getting close to business time. Game faces on.
Due to the nature of my trip I was hoping to spend as much time with the elites as possible, but clearly you don’t get a true understanding of what an event is like unless you are actually putting yourself through what the competitors were going through. With an event of this nature on this scale timings are critical, everyone has to be where they need to be, when they need to be there – everything is planning to precision. However, my opportunity to compete came immediately after the elite start, just before the corporate relay. Due to my wish to be apart of the elite experience I hadn’t had a chance to change in to ‘race kit’. To gain ‘access all areas’ I was dressed as a marshal. It’s not ideal embarking on 82 floors in tailored shorts with iPhone in one pocket and spare phone battery in the other, but hey, you’ve just got to go for it. I’m a relative rookie, but there was no way I was going to start quickly, that’s suicide in a race of this distance – running is reserved purely for the globe trotting elites, who’s cardio vascular system can operate in zone 5 for 90% of a race – mine can’t. I started with a walk, yes, just the same pace as you might go up stairs at home – it seemed (and was) pedestrian, but do you sprint the first 100m in a marathon? No way. 82 floors is a marathon, with the highest races over 100 floors being the ultras in this world
My steady pace was ideal for just ticking off the floors (minus the 4th, 14th, etc – this was psychologically helpful actually with only 9 floors in every 10!), whilst maintaining form and conserving energy for the floors above. Unusually with this race there are 3 ‘refuge’ floors. Essentially vacant floors, striped to the bare, exposed innards of the structure just in case of emergency evacuations. At these 3 floors we were required to exit the stairwell and run around the periphery of the floor before re-joining the stairwell and continuing the journey higher. Stairwells are places of solitude where you can deal with your own personal hell whichever way you wish. Refuge floors are where you are required to run past competitors awaiting their relay partners, so there was a necessity to at least look like you were in control…tough to do by the time the 3rd of these comes about I assure you. The runs did provide some respite, as the quads took a breather, but the breather didn’t last long.
My time in the stairwell involved very little interaction, a few relay participants passed me as they took on their short sprint segment, I exchanged a few words with one of the female elites, but that was it. The bland walls of the emergency staircase is your solidarity confinement for the entirety of your race.
My final time of just over 21 mins, felt like I’d put in a real shift, worked hard. Potentially I had a little left to give, but I was 99.9% spent! To put my time in to perspective, Mark Bourne, elite male winner managed the same 2,120 steps + approx. 600m of running in just 12m37s, with the top 3 men split by just 13 seconds. The women’s elite category continues to be dominated by Mark's fellow Aussie Suzy Walsham, who took 13m58, over 1 minute ahead of her nearest rival. For those at the pinnacle of the sport the term ‘elite’ is entirely appropriate. It’s a sport that isn’t mainstream, there will be thousands of sportsmen and women out there who could do well in this arena, but I defy them to challenge the leading men and women who enjoy the plaudits. (Yes, that’s the gauntlet being thrown down)
Post race we were greeted by spectacular views of Hong Kong providing a fitting backdrop to more photos…these towerrunners love a photo, and there are selfies galore along with the obligatory shots with the race winners. Ultimately we were back to earth for the awards presentation, crowning not just the race’s top 3 male and females, but also the series winners, Suzy Walsham who has 100% record in races she has entered in 2017 and now 6 time winner of the series, along with Piotr Lobodzinski who takes his 4th VWC title – all of which received an abundance of whoops and cheers from their fellow competitors. It really is a fun environment to be a part of, but behind that there is a real desire to work hard in the stairwell, buoyed by the support of their compatriots – everyone knows how tough a sport it is, so there is respect for the effort exerted by all.
I must say a big thank you to David Shin for allowing me in to the circle of trust, as well as the team from The Vertical World Circuit, and of course to the elite competitors for humouring me, when they had serious work to do!