Towerrunning European Championship 2016 ‘From the outside in.’

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Matt Hudson; Total Motion Events; 14th March 2016

Matt Hudson of Total Motion Events takes a look behind the scenes of the little known sport of Towerrunning as he seeks to get under the skin of the sport at the highest level.  Matt accepted an invite to meet up with those at the centre of Towerrunning at the European Championships in Warsaw last weekend.

This was my opportunity to move from the outside of this mysterious world and get an insiders view of how events of this magnitude really work and to mix with those elites athletes who travel the world to run these crazy races.  (Yes, there is such a thing as an elite towerrunner, and boy they are committed!).  I had already established a few friendships in the sport following the organisation of my first towerruning event at The Broadgate Tower in The City of London, and so I had Mark Simms, one of the UK’s finest as my chief guide.  

I travel from the hotel on the official coach with the elites to the venue, Rondo 1, a 40 story building in the heart of Warsaw.  It’s a pleasure to be this close to a sport which has gained a cult following in many parts of the world, but certainly here in Poland this is a huge event.  In the registration room I survey the competitors as they prepare for the day ahead.  I expected to see a clear ‘type’.  To my mind a towerrunner would be tall and lean, a gazelle, but that isn’t the case. Some athletes were clearly made from that mould, having often transitioned from endurance sports, but some are shorter, stockier, more sprinter than marathoner.  Both have their place in this sport; events tend to be short on time, but long on intensity.  Whichever shape you are there’s no room for excess baggage, be it body mass or as Mark had said, ‘I don’t wear long compression socks, what’s the point of carrying that extra weight?’  One thing they do all have in common is their love of florescent clothing from their feet, to their choice of lycra outfits all the way to the brightly coloured headbands.  Luckily I had my orange trainers on…that’s where the similarities between them and I ended.   Competitors from Eastern Europe dominate the room…Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia.  Yes, we were in Eastern Europe, but I think these countries lead the way in encouraging the sport on a mass scale.  There is of course the charity aspect to races in Europe as there is in the UK, but the building management teams and corporate sponsors see the attraction of hosting these events.  When you have 70 elite entrants and 700 amateurs racing and then streamed live on the internet, and reported on news channels and in the press you have a recipe for great publicity reinforcing the CSR, not to mention the commercial benefit of putting the building in the shop window for those all important new international corporate tenants.

For the elites this is a rare opportunity to go head to head.  The world of top-level competition is different to any other (semi) professional sport.  Races take place at different venues, at different times in non-standard events.  Competitors win points based on the value attributed to each race, but the format of each race is different, ranging from 20 stories to 100, a single sprint to multiple climbs mixing short climbs and full height runs…it is indeed a confusing world, but one where each event is accepted on its own merits, much like a marathon runner or cyclist accepts the terrain that they race upon, but here athletes can choose the type of event that suits them best.  Top athletes very rarely meet in anything more than a handful at a time due to the costs associated with international competition, not to mention they all have their day-jobs and families to consider.  The Towerrunning European Championships is different, this is the biggest date in the calendar, a chance for the top competitors to meet in the same place, the same building, the same format, this is the chance to really find out where they stand in comparison to their fellow runners.

The elites made the journey to Warsaw to join hundreds of amateurs to climb the Rondo 1 tower, the difference being the amateurs were preparing to climb 38 floors, the elites were preparing for a sprint from 19-38, followed by a further full distance climb to determine who made the final full distance round. Unforeseen issues meant that the sprint distance was run twice, but the top men and the women raced all the way to the final.  The several hundred amateurs struggled up 38 floors and firefighters climbed in full breathing apparatus in homage to those that scaled the WTC, the elites, however, sprinted up 114 floors, 228 flights of stairs over 4 rounds, completely emptying the tank each time.  To put the difference between amateur and elite into perspective the average amateur would take around 9 or 10 minutes to climb the stairs, the elites are around 4 minutes, some even quicker.  To see these elites in action, close up, was a true pleasure, even inspirational.  They are dedicated to a little known sport, with little funding, little recognition, limited prize money, no adoring fans, but to those on the inside some of these climbers are rapidly becoming legends.  Elites have differing backgrounds, from international track athletes, marathon runners, cyclists, mountain runners, some have been in the sport a few years, others are veterans, some are sprint specialists, others favour the prolonged torture of the longer climbs.  Whatever their backstory they share the passion and the love of the competition, not the competition experienced in other sports where athletes fight shoulder to shoulder in a dash for the line, no, this is a lonely race.  It’s runner versus stairwell, a straight race against the clock…It’s a time trial event in solitary confinement.

They are competing in seemingly impressive arenas, some of the most remarkable man made structures on the planet.  The Empire State Building hosts the longest running event, just completing it’s 39th year, Taipei 101 the highest at 91 of those 101 floors, St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna amongst the most beautiful, The Eiffel Tower the biggest spectacle in the sport.  As impressive as these buildings are the towerrunner isn’t thinking about the cultural significance, they are thinking about the logistics of their climb, not just how many floors or steps, but are they spirals or flights, odd or even steps on each flights (can make a huge difference), one handrail or two, height of each individual step.  The best climbers do their research, and most visited the stairwell of the Rondo 1 tower the previous evening.

On the stairs they are focused, determined, literally have tunnel vision, off the stairs the friendships and camaraderie is palpable. They want to win, they have all experienced victories in competition, some more frequently than others, but they are here as a group, sharing a common passion that outsiders are unaware of, or don’t understand.  Often even their closest friends outside of the towerruning fraternity are unaware of the level at which these athletes are competing.

Today only one man and one woman who can win, but all are so happy to be here, competing with their friends, and when the winners are declared there are cheers, celebrations, they are as happy as if they won themselves.   This is truly an amazing atmosphere, and one that I thank everybody that I met for allowing me to become part of, if only for one day.  The Towerrunning World Association, the organisers Sports Evolution and of course the athletes themselves welcomed me into their world, and became friends…as for the sport, I’m hooked.  

I hope to see my new friends again soon, Hopefully I will see some of you in London at the next Total Motion Stairclimb at The Broadgate Tower on Sunday 29th May, 2016.  Entries are open now for all and give amateurs the opportunity to race alongside elite towerrunners as we raise money for Give Them A Sporting Chance.  Stairs Up!

Matt Hudson 

matt@totalmotionevents.co.uk