Sonja Shakespeare; Total Motion Towerrunners; May 2018
Although Towerrunning started in 1903 at Paris’s famous landmark the Eiffel Tower, this was only the second event of its kind, organised by the Towerrunning World Association (TWA). The race format would be brutal, but the prize of becoming World Champion was worth the fight for many.
The first Towerrunning World Championship took place in 2015 in Doha, Qatar. On that occasion, the race format consisted of a qualifying heat to determine starting positions for the final on an F1-style grid. Male and female winners were Piotr Łobodziński and Andrea Mayr respectively.
In terms of the Taipei 101 race, this was the 14th edition of this well known race but the first time it was hosting a World Championship event.
In contrast to the first world championship, the race format this time would consist of a 35 floor 'sprint' race (824 steps; 152m) followed 90 minutes later by the full distance of 91 floors and a whopping 2,046 steps (391m). Equal points would be awarded for both races based on finishing positions, with total points score determining overall finishing position. In the event of a tie, the finishing place in race two would take precedence. Although not to everyone's liking, this format would at least not overly favour the sprint specialists over the long distance racers or vice versa.
Current world ranked #1 athletes, Piotr Łobodziński and Suzy Walsham were both favourites heading into the race. On the ladies side, the vaunted head to head between 2015 World Champion Andrea Mayr and Walsham failed to materialise as Mayr withdrew from the championships due to injury. Walsham's closest competition was expected to come from Czech athlete, and world ranked #5, Zuzana Krchova (the only person to beat Walsham in 2018) and Italian mountain runner Valentina Belotti, a four-time winner of the Taipei 101 run up. As for the men, Łobodziński's closest challenger was considered to be Mark Bourne who has a number of notable victories over the Pole including twice at Taipei. The other influencing factor could well be a strong performance in race #1 by one of the many sprint specialists in attendance, albeit the general consensus was that 35 floors was not a true sprint distance!
On arriving at Taipei airport the excitement of this enormous challenge dawned upon us. For me as a first timer to this building but also for David who had a score to settle with himself. To ensure we absorbed the full extent of the challenge we took a walk to the base of the building once in Taipei itself. This amazing structure was the tallest in the world from 2004 until the Burj Khalifa surpassed it in 2010. Although no longer the tallest in height alone, it is arguably the tallest green building in the world due to its energy efficiency and it represents a national symbolism that is unmissable. The building was described as ‘intimidating’ by some athletes and I have to say I agree with them. Both on the
structure itself but also on the stairs where the race was held. It's widely regarded as having the steepest staircase of any race on the calendar...more of which later.
On arrival at the race hotel all appeared quiet, then we awoke the next morning to a buzz of international athletes with both many familiar faces and those we'd yet to meet. There were 85 athletes from all corners of the globe at this historic event representing a total of 23 countries and it was undoubtedly the highest quality field ever assembled. This was it...we were all here for the same reason - to compete in the Towerrunning World Championship!
As race day dawned, the enormity of the challenge ahead became ever more real. We left the hotel around 06:00 hours in order to collect race packs, have our pre-race medical and leave sufficient time to warm up for the daunting challenge ahead. On arriving at the 101, it was clear how much work had gone into this event, both from the organisation of the event itself and the extra training hours logged by all of the athletes in preparation.
The heats would run in current world ranking order with the highest ranked first which lead to some interesting mismatches. With heat #1 starting slightly later than planned at 07:08 hours, it was ladies first. As the famous Taipei 101 race gong was struck, Suzy Walsham from Australia (TWA ranked number one) started proceedings and clocked a stunning time of 4:31.43. If Walsham was to be challenged it was likely to be in the shorter race. Could anyone step up to the challenge? World #2 Cindy Harris from the USA could only manage a time of 5:21.27 for 5th. In the end, Walsham won convincingly by over 20 seconds with Zuzana Krchova (CZE) clocking 4:53.06 for 2nd place followed by Valentina Belotti (ITA) in 3rd with 5:01.12. Walsham was clearly a woman on a mission and admitted post-race that she'd probably gone too quick.
World leading Piotr Łobodziński (POL) was first off for the men flying through the start turnstile before reaching the finish line in a blistering 3:39.62. Together with Walsham, the two number ones were both living up to their pre-race billing as title favourites. Nobody could get near to the Pole, with world #2 Frank Carreno (COL) his closet challenger in 3:50.79 followed by Christian Riedl (GER) with 3:55.81. A special mention should go to the evergreen Görge Heimann (GER) who finished within three tenths of his compatriot in 3:56.07. Görge turns 50 later this year which proves age is no barrier to success in tower running!
Despite both Walsham and Łobodziński leading the standings after race #1, things could still change. Had they pushed too hard in the first race, potentially harming their efforts in race two? What of the other contenders, some of whom had clearly pushed harder than ever to extract maximum performance for race one as judged by the number of slumped bodies spread across the 35th floor!
So, onto race #2 where all would be decided. Suzy Walsham once again showed just how strong an athlete she is with a race PB of
13:01.55, this remember after already doing a 35-floor race just 90 minutes earlier! This proved to be more than enough to win race #2 with podium positions this time reversed with Belotti the runner-up in 13:15.67 and Krchova taking third in 13:52.19.
In the men’s race, Łobodziński stopped the clock in 11:11.93. After a disappointing first race, could Mark Bourne turn things around for race #2? It was not to be the Australian's day and he could only manage 5th with a time of 11:49.70, well below his best at the 101. Instead, it was Germany's reigning European champion, Christian Riedl who took second in 11:15.13. Third place was taken by Japan's Ryoji Watanabe in a time of 11:48.33 and given his delight after the race you'd have thought he'd won it! Carreno was sandwiched between Watanabe and Bourne in 11:49.18 with less than 1.5 seconds covering 3rd to 5th places.
With wins in both races races falling to Walsham and Łobodziński, the world title was theirs! The title was particularly sweet for Suzy having been the standout female performer year on year but without a global title amongst her vast trophy collection. He may be used to winning, but Piotr was equally delighted in defending his world title.
A tie on points for second place in the ladies competition, meant the tie breaker came into play. Valentina Belotti's superior performance in race #2 meant she took the runner's up slot ahead of Zuzana Krchova in third. For the men, Christian Riedl's 3rd and 2nd places meant he moved ahead of Frank Carreno to finish as runner up with the Colombian having to be content in rounding off the podium positions.
For GB's two representatives, they were were never any expectations of a podium finish. Although David did settle the score he was here for, knocking over 90 seconds off his result from the full race distance last year with a PB of 16:28.19. He felt he should have produced a sub 16:00 time having faded slightly over the last 20 floors. This after already running a good heat 1 race in 5:15.45 which matched his pre-race expectations. David finished 46th overall out of 62 competitors having been in 41st place after race #1. Although disappointed with my times and corresponding finishing position of 18th overall (I was 14th after race #1 in 6:17.02), I can now say I have completed the most challenging race on the circuit so far with my own score to settle next year. As for the fabled steepness of the 101 stairwell, it really is as they say. Should you ever do this race, don't let the early floors lull you into a false sense of security; once floor 8 appears you'd better wish you've not gone too hard over the first 7 floors!
What amazes me about this incredible sport is the fantastic people you meet, with such a mix of nationalities all coming together as one community. Although competitive in the race everyone is willing to talk about their own experiences and provide advice where they can. It’s difficult to put into words the welcoming feeling that exists in the towerrunning community whether you are new to this sport or old. But it says a lot when you hear someone who came just to spectate start the weekend saying "No, I’m not a runner. I’m just here to watch" change to "You know, these people have made me want to be part of this. I want to give one a go". If you've not tried a stair race before, I highly recommend it...
The community spirit was further emphasised by David joining some fellow tower runners for a trail run the day after the event. They covered 12km with 900m vertical ascent surrounded by stunning scenery but most importantly they had a great time...like minded people just doing something they all love.
If our GB elites, Sonja and David, have have inspired you to try stair climbing then join our online communities to find out more or sign up for our November Run Up event:
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The Broadgate Tower Run Up – 35 floors / 877 steps. And if you really want a challenge enter the ‘vertical mile’ consisting of 12 bottom to top climbs! *20% off entry until end May*