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On the up: The intense urban sport of tower running

The high-intensity urban sport of Tower Running has a growing following among athletes of all abilities, as Kath Hudson discovers

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 22 feb 2016 issue 114
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The Empire State Building Run Up has been going 39 years and is still the best known Tower Running race in the world / mandritoiu/shutterstock.com
The Empire State Building Run Up has been going 39 years and is still the best known Tower Running race in the world/ mandritoiu/shutterstock.com

Tower running is a striking new trend in the global running scene. The objective is not just racing, but also improving general wellbeing and fitness, by encouraging people to take the stairs whenever they can,” says Tom van Daele, director of marketing and public relations for the TowerRunning World Association (TWA) the international governing body and global marketing network for the sport.

This year more than 140,000 athletes and running enthusiasts are expected to take to the stairwells of towers and skyscrapers in this glute-burning sport. The US is the birthplace and continues to lead the field, but the sport is getting increasingly global, with 300 events expected for 2016 and new markets, like India and China, coming on board. The number of tower running races have almost doubled over the past five years and 2015 saw more than 250 races held in 45 countries.

The sport appeals to three main tribes: amateur sportspeople who like a different challenge, charity fundraisers and then a small band of fiercely competitive elite runners who travel the world, collecting points for the TowerRunning Tour, a competitive global ranking system. Last year Tower Running UK, the unofficial guardian of the sport in Britain, also grouped four races into a Championship Series, to crown the first UK champion.

Tower running has been steadily gaining popularity in the UK since 2009, when homeless charity Shelter started organising Vertical Rush at Tower 42, a 42-storey, 932-step skyscraper in London. Other charities have followed suit, with the NSPCC organising the annual Gherkin Challenge, as well as events at Great Ormond Street and Guy’s Hospital.

Last year there were 14 events in the UK, of which all but two were geared towards charity fundraising.

However, according to Patrick Gallagher, head of Tower Running UK, the charity aspect is also holding the sport back. He says there are only 10-15 regular tower runners in the country and most people only do one event a year, because they can’t keep fulfilling fundraising obligations of upwards of £150.

“This year there will hopefully be at least four races which will be entry fee only,” he says. “Buildings tend to like events to have some affiliation with a charity - probably for CSR reasons - so it is unlikely the link will be fully broken. However, as events become more popular we might see a shift where building management can see the potential in perhaps hosting their own events or at least monetising the process and allowing sports event companies to hire sites and put on races throughout the year.”

Broadgate Tower race organiser, Matt Hudson, founder of Total Motion Events, is one organiser looking to run entry-fee-only events, or events for multiple charities with a smaller fundraising element.

“I’d like to get an established race series together which includes London’s most renowned landmarks: Canary Wharf, The Shard, The Gherkin, Tower 42, and which ties in with international events” he says. “The iconic buildings draw the elite climbers and the elite climbers are good PR for the sport.”

Hudson says it’s currently a hard sell, as the iconic buildings only want to partner with charities, but going forward he hopes more awareness of the sport and more competitors will give them more clout when negotiating with building owners and managers.

Last year Total Motion Events ran a race in partnership with Nuffield Health and Fitness, in Surbiton, doing virtual climbs on stairclimbers of both iconic buildings and the 40,000 steps to the top of Everest. Hudson believes more events of this type at clubs and gyms could get the sport on the radar of more people, as well as encouraging active lives.

As the sport gets more recognised it’s likely to gain more traction, because it’s so easy to fit into city dwellers’ lives: they can run up steps in the office block and take the stairs at tube stations.

John Allison, founder of Street Gym, has competed in the Gherkin Challenge and Vertical Rush, and trains people for the challenges, by taking in steps during his outdoor, urban gym training sessions.

He rates it as great training: “Tower running is short, sweet and exhilerating. It’s a great HIIT workout, developing the calves, glutes, core and triceps,” he says. “There’s no let up – you get to about level six and a burn starts which doesn’t go away. Your quads are on fire by the end. But then you get the satisfaction of the view, which is a wonderful reward.”

Biggest races in terms of runners:

Taipei 101: 4,000
Bogota, Torre Colpatria: 3,500
Chicago, Willis Tower: 2,500
Melbourne, Eureka 88: 2,500
Kuala Lumpur, Menara: 2,000

• The Empire State Building Run Up has been going for 39 years and is still the best known race in the world.

• The Eiffel Tower Stair Climb is only open to 100 participants, is the most sought after on the tower running calendar.

4,000 people enter the Taipei 101 tower run. The climb is 391m/91 floors. The race record is 10’29” (male) 12’38” (female) / Sean Pavone/shutterstock.com
4,000 people enter the Taipei 101 tower run. The climb is 391m/91 floors. The race record is 10’29” (male) 12’38” (female)/ Sean Pavone/shutterstock.com
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