The Ultimate Stair Climbing Race - Valtellina Vertical Tube

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Sarah Frost; Total Motion Towerrunners; 10th April 2018

After months of mental preparation and excitement, I finally arrived at the Valtellina Vertical Tube race in Italy, and felt the dread creeping in. This is a stair climbing race like no other and photos do not do it justice – it seemed impossibly steep and impressively long. The course consists of a continuous staircase, 1km long over 2,700 steps straight up, with a 500m height gain.

When I arrived the race was already in full flow with many competitors on the course as each participant set off in 1 minute intervals. Those competitors reaching the top were only just visible as little dots as they crept up the steepest and final couple of hundred steps to the top giving a sense of quite how high and long the course was! The event was a sell-out with 400 entrants and was certainly a buzzing atmosphere with music and live commentary, fastest time announcements and spectators soaking up the sun. Find out more about the race here.

(Copyright: Andrea Gherardi)

It’s only 2700 steps…

The organiser, Emanuele Manzi (a tower running regular who races it himself), had placed me in the elite category amongst some of the stair climbing and mountain running greats, which I appreciated, but felt nervous I was going to get in the way of the other more experienced competitors on the course. I spent most of the time before the race flitting between positive and negative thoughts. “I definitely can’t do this”, or “it’s only 2,700 steps…”. Only. That’s 100 steps, 27 times. In a row. Less if I double step. I was definitely feeling the ‘pressure’ from my dad and brother who kindly accompanied me to Italy, having endured days of their ‘banter’ with top quality comments such as “we came all this way so you’d better put some effort in” and “if you don’t win we’ll pretend we don’t know who you are”. Turns out when they left to spectate they couldn’t make it very far past the start line as getting that far up was ‘too much effort’…

When the lactic burn takes over!

All of a sudden, it was time. The first 100 steps or so were pleasant, a gentle incline, easy to jog. I banked on copying the technique of the athlete one minute ahead of me, as I had no idea what the best strategy was. Turns out I couldn’t keep up for very long. I remember watching the 300 step mark pass below my feet as it began to get steeper, with an already persistent burn in my legs and a dry throat thinking “excellent, you have completed one ninth of the course”. From then on I altered my technique, between double stepping, jogging each step, or just plain walking. I quickly realised that despite my relative fitness, I was in no shape to proceed at a moderate tempo if I wanted to make it to the top in one go. Walking it was from then on! The major struggle for me was that compared to my usual stair climbing races, this one was non-stop (obviously). There’s no half turn between floors like there is in a skyscraper and I missed those milliseconds of rest. Even worse, there’s no handrail to pull on, usually half the effort for me. The lactic burn took over quickly and didn’t let off. I tried to focus on breathing and quickly began mental games with myself. “There’s someone catching up with you. How long can you hold her off for?” Not long it turns out! As the minutes ticked by I hunched over more and more until my lower back was screaming at me too. 1200 steps…. 1300 steps… just under half way. Every so often a photographer would appear and I tried to wrangle a smile through the heavy breathing (not always succeeding!).

(Copyright: Andrea Gherardi)

Am I getting further away from the finish?

I tried my best not to look up but couldn’t help myself. The view up the tube was staggeringly steep, and it just kept getting steeper. If it wasn’t for the markings every 100 steps, I honestly don’t know if I could have done it. I needed something to prove to myself I was getting closer to the finish, as the staircase seemed to get longer instead of shorter. I even started to rest for a couple of seconds a few times, something I would never normally do in a standard stair climbing race, looking behind to convince myself I was getting higher and closer to the finish.

The final 700 steps were definitely a challenge, and I was feeling desperate. By this point I had incorporated crawling into my strategy by pushing up with my hands and feet before my back would whine even more and I would have to stand up again. 2100 steps. I began splitting each 100 steps into 50 by counting every time my left leg pushed off, anything to get me closer to the next marking and keep my mind occupied. 2200 steps…. 2250 steps… 2300 steps… At this point a rope magically appeared and I hauled and heaved myself upwards. Don’t let go or you’ll fall over backwards. “Can I make it the whole way from 2400 to 2500 with the rope? Drop the rope to give your arms a rest, then count 20 steps. Now pick it up again.” It just went on and on.

That finish line feeling

The crowd at the top were a huge help. The sound of a commentator blasting through a megaphone crept ever closer as athletes were applauded as they made it to the finish. Somehow I found myself at the finish line after finding that last ounce of strength to double step the last 20 steps or so. Three pairs of hands reached out and hauled me over the chip timing mat. I was so tired I just slumped and they sat me down and lifted my leg to take off the chip from my shoelaces (clearly I didn’t have the energy for this myself). After gasping for air and chugging down water I began to calm down and the pain diminished. The view from the top overlooking the Alps, in the evening sunshine was breathtaking. Finally I began to feel proud of what I had accomplished. It was utter elation. I met some competitors at the top (Jessica and Michael) who had travelled over from the US to compete, who had enjoyed it just as much as I had done. We jogged through the woods – only slightly treacherous – to a minibus carting athletes down the mountain. Well done to everyone who competed, the full results are listed here.  

The Vertical Tube was one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced. It pushed me to my physical and mental limit, it scared me, and it showed me how much further I need to improve in terms of my general fitness and mental resilience. Despite this, or maybe even because of this (I am not sure!) it was the most amazing race I have ever participated in. I was relatively pleased with my time of 22.25, but I am in awe of the impressive times ran by others. The female winner, Gisela Bertran, clocked an incredible 17.24. I think I read somewhere that she is 17 years old. Equally impressive was the men’s winning time of 14.10 by Hannes Perkmann. All of these athletes have inspired me and reminded me why I enjoy this sport so much and think everyone give stair climbing a go. I literally cannot wait to compete in the Valtellina Vertical Tube race again. Hopefully there will be more GBR representatives in 2019 alongside me!

 

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