A Q&A with Alice McNamara

Alice  Eureka2015(2).jpg

Teresa Leese; Total Motion Events; October 2018   

Hi Alice, You had a very long and successful rowing career spanning 9 world championships (and winning two of them), and now you are very successful in the international sky/tower running scene, how do you stay on top of your game for such a long period of time?

Hi! Yes, I found rowing at school and I was hooked by the team element of training, the structure that each week brought, and the physical and mental rewards we got from all that training. Not to mention, the bliss of making a boat skim along water really quickly. We had success early on, and I was quickly supported as one of the top lightweight rowers in my club, state and country. It was an amazing run.

I think when you're passionate about something and surrounded by equally passionate people, the fire continues.

I have always been really in-tune with my body (maybe too much) and I know to jump on niggles when they arise. I have had a really lucky run with injuries because of my attention. We had great strength and conditioning coaches in my rowing career mostly though the Victorian Institute of Sport, as well as fabulous physiotherapists and sports medicine support.

As stair runners though we are really self-directed, and we don't have the luxury of elite athlete support, I really rely on the knowledge and smarts I acquired about biomechanics and body maintenance. I don't neglect patterning work to keep the strong muscles like glutes recruited, which takes the load off my back and knees etc. I use a foam roller, fuel up well, and take rest days where I need!

I could do many parts of my weekly routine better, but this is working at the moment!

Describe the feeling of becoming rowing world champion for the first time in three words:

Gratitude, Elation, Team-Bond (is that one?).

At what point did you make the call to stop rowing competitively?

Well, I can’t stop rowing 100% as I just love it. I own a single scull and also regularly jump in Quads and Eights at my club, Melbourne University Boat Club. I raced at the nationals this year so it turns out I’m not great at quitting. But, in the Olympic cycle that ended in 2016, Australia did not send a boat to the Rio games. My LW2x had an injury in the qualification year in 2015, and missed the qualification spot. I had a decision to make, either invest another (a 4th) olympic cycle totally in rowing, or start my medical career. It was really challenging decision, and one I still struggle with. But, I am really lucky / fortunate that I had a second sport (vertical running!) as well as a medical degree obtained by carefully balancing study and sport. I could focus on the doctoring, and use the stairs for a competitive outlet, a reason to stay fit, the social aspect, and overall wellness and balance during heavy work times. The clincher was, that Stairs allowed me to now do it on my terms. I could live in Melbourne, choose my races, work, and train. Stair fitness for me also translates to trail and mountain running, and now I can use my fitness developed during a decade of rowing across these new pursuits.

With you, Suzy Walsham and Mark Bourne always featuring on podiums across the world, why do you think tower running is being dominated by the Aussie’s so much at the moment?!

Suzy, Mark and I all come to the sport from different backgrounds, but I suppose we all found stairs after a background in another sport. We all had a fairly heavy training history and built a good base during our teens and twenties. Before our time, Aussie Paul Crake was the ultimate stair-weapon. He still holds untouchable records up the Empire State Building and Taipei 101. Paul was an elite mountain runner turned pro-cyclist, before he was involved in a terrible cycling accident leaving him paraplegic. Aussies are a little bit crazy, and once we know how to hurt ourselves we can translate it across sports! I guess we are also opportunistic, positive-thinking, and see that when one sport door closes, another one opens. I love catching up with Mark and Suzy at climbs over the world. We all love the international hunt for Melbourne-standard coffee!

Do you think your years of rowing have helped you with vertical running?

Without doubt. Rowing is the toughest sport. Yes.. probably on par or tougher than stairs. The physiology is very similar; a maximum and sustained effort for 6-20 minutes, depending on whether the rowing race is a 2k race in an 8+ to a 5k time trial in my single!. Stairs replicate the intensity of rowing perfectly, so once you are in the stair pain-cave you have to focus on rhythm and breathing, just like in rowing. The major muscle groups require strength endurance; (quads and glutes) that sustain the push, and I try and use the hand rail as much as I can in rhythm with my legs, just like rowing.

It’s mostly the mental side that helps. Staying calm and smooth under pressure. knowing to pace the start to stay just at your red line (not beyond), and knowing your body and physiology as to when you can do that final push.

Actually I love thinking about this stuff.

You recently competed in the Skyrunning World Championships in the Scottish Skylands”, how was it?

Spectacular, super satisfying, but a real challenge. It was freezing! and we were inappropriately dressed! Scotland turned on some absolutely spectacular hills, but I did not quite expect my last 20mins on the way up would be fumbling around thinking about medical management and prevention of hypothermia. My primary goal was to turn quickly and get down… So because of that distraction I want to do another one! I love the concept of a VK. What is it about stair runners and ascending things?? There’s a great event in the mountains in Victoria, Australia that is called The Bright 4 Peaks. You do one each day; 4 peaks that are 10-15km runs where you gain a thousand metres, across a 4 day event, often having to run down after where there are no roads. All the runners recover by dangling their legs in the creek in Bright. It’s brutal to back up each day but great atmosphere and super satisfying to finish.

So, how did you first get into vertical running?

I’d heard about the Empire State Building Run Up as a kid, and also the Rialto Building race in Melbourne. I thought they were all crazy people who did those races…

My first race was when my rowing team from the Victorian Institute of Sport was entered in the Eureka Tower Climb in 2010 for charity. It was sweaty, claustrophobic and brutal! I tried to get out of the stairwell as quickly as possible, but on review of the days results, they notified me that I had the fastest time of the day! I won the major prize which was an airfare, accommodation and entry into the Empire State Building Run Up 2011! It was my first week of medical school but I got permission to skip that, and went over and had a win there too! It was an amazing rush. The Melbourne Med School then had me earmarked as a different kind of student and the punchline of many stair jokes. But I figured it was better than being anonymous!

From there I obviously kept the rowing training going as it was working, and I was still traveling and racing for Australia. I targeted a few races I wanted to go to outside of the rowing season including the KL Tower Malaysia, and Taipei 101. I found some accessible Asian races on the Tower Running World Assoc website, and worked my way up the rankings as I could. Then, I found the Hong Kong ICC, and the Vertical World Circuit. It is always a challenge living in Australia to get to a lot of the events, but I have certainly been lucky to have some support and also to get do some major ones including ESBRU and Willis Tower Chicago. I’ve gone on to win 7 from 7 Eureka Climbs which is a bit of a sentimental race for me. Unfortunately I’m out this year as Nov is a very busy Sunday.. and for me it clashes with the enormous Shanghai Tower which I’m pumped about!

How do you balance training with such a busy lifestyle and what would a typical training week look like for you?

This is a challenge and one I feel I could do better on a weekly basis!

I would love to have more of a routine like I did when in the VIS/AIS Rowing Program. My work schedule is changeable. Sometimes days, evenings, nights or weekends. I have a few key sessions in the week that I have as a backbone.

There are usually minimum of 2 stair sessions, one to two rowing based sessions, and some running sessions. I try to fit in strength and conditioning a few times in the week but it does occasionally get built into one of the others. When the weather is ok, we socially ride too. I commute on the bike, or by running. Often, a session is a commute to work, diverted into a building to do a few vertical laps up. I like to be creative and don't get too stressed in details.

At the moment I tap into social sessions too, as to make this sport work for me and my lifestyle in the long term, connection with people and friends is key. We do a tough Track-Tuesday interval run session, and I try my best to drag mates into the stairs too. The dream for us in Australia is to create a weekly stair sessions like we see TM Tower Runners do!

I also see the benefit of entering events and races where I can. These are forced “hard sessions” for me, and keep the intensity going from week to week.

Where you don't have much time, intensity is important. Stair sessions are always intense, and have definitely helped me keep my fitness as my work hours have increased.

Are you able to train in the stairs of the hospital where you work?

I work at Royal Melbourne Hospital which is 11 stories. There are multiple stairwells and I would avoid using the main ones as I already have a reputation as crazy, but wish to minimise it where I can haha. I would hate to be sprinting up and down when my colleagues are in the middle of a MET Call or something. It would not be super professional! I try to keep work at work, and train outside. That being said, they are being blended as I use the work commute to be time efficient.

I have found some quieter back stairs at work that are good for sprint sessions. The hand rail is on the right where as in other bigger buildings I use, the rail is all left. The University of Melbourne across the road also has 12 stories (left handed) also good for the same purpose, but you have to pick a quiet time of day!

Where would you like to see tower running as a sport in five years time?

Tower Running / Stair Climbing is hugely growing as a sport, which is super exciting. You just have to spend a weekend in China to realise this. And rightly so! It’s a psychological challenge to ascend a landmark, with a measurable component that keeps you accountable. When you improve a time you get immense reward and satisfaction. It is a time-efficient, all-weather workout, that almost anyone can do. Because of the intensity, the release of endorphins and adrenalin are heightened, making it that much more addictive. And, it’s not hard on joints but instead strengthens glutes, lower back and quads; all super important muscles for general fitness and for preventing low back pain etc. So many wins.

We have just had Stair Climbing Australia incorporated as a new sport in Australia! I have been nominated as its inaugural President, a huge honour and along with the board we hope to help grow the sport in participation, training and events in Australia. For the elites we want to have a few more Tower Running Events for points over here, to help more runners go global. Also, to create a National Series, a ranking, and have a National Championships. For everyone, we want to hold more training sessions / meet-ups and education events. We watch TM Tower Runners from across the globe and are in awe of how you have grown the sport in the UK. We thank you for your support and look forward to some collaborative events and hosting any of you if you come down under! I’m certainly looking forward to a run up the Broadgate on my next visit.

Whats your favourite race that you always make sure to do every year?! (Tower running, sky running, anything…)

In the Australian Rowing Championships I’ve been selected and raced in the Interstate Lightweight Quad Scull for my state Victoria for the last 13 years, so that’s probably my most consistent race!

Running.. Bright 4 Peaks is one, and Eureka Tower I have done 7 times now.

But for the most part I have varied it up! The last few years I have raced in the Vertical World Circuit with up to 5 races per year, finishing at the Hong Kong ICC. I have also loved racing Taipei 101 3 times in the last 4 years, just unfortunately missing this year due to illness.

I’ll usually do several of the half marathon distance trail or road races in a year, but it usual depends on dates and which friends are also free!

Next year? Who knows?! Some more stairs for sure, some trails (I’ll focus on some of the La Sportive events) a few VKs maybe and I’d love to look at a Red Bull 400…

This all relies on if I should be so lucky to stay injury-free, can afford the travel and score time off. Like all of your readers, I find looking forward to events is really exciting and motivating so i’ll keep putting them in the calendar. 

Top tip for any tower running newbies?

Well done, you’ve found an awesome exercise modality, a challenge, and wonderful bunch of people

My advice would be to vary up your training; stairs, bike, gym, row, social sport etc. In the stairs, practice breathing and rhythm. Step two stairs at a time, and focus on what you are DOING rather than how you are FEELING. Stay relaxed under physical pressure and just keep moving up. Your capacity, and confidence in your capacity will improve with practice. So be patient, and stay with it!

Drag in your friends. Repetitive exercise is much more fun and socially appropriate with others!

Please feel free to reach out for any training tips you would like!

If Alice has inspired you to challenge yourself then why not sign up to The Broadgate Tower Run Up on 24th November. This event is for all abilities. You can simply enter directly with us or raise money for a charity of your choice. Challenge yourself today. Sign up here.

Connect with Alice:

Instagram | @_Alice_Mac