Vertical Rush

I’d heard of it many times before and seen hundreds of people wearing T-shirts proudly showing off the event. However, in the ten years of its existence I’d never actually got the chance to do it. Until a couple of weeks ago when I didn’t only do the race once, I did it ten times.

First of all, to anyone reading this who has no idea what Vertical Rush is, The event is an annual vertical race which takes place at Tower 42 near Liverpool Street. By vertical race I mean one that, unlike your average parkrun, goes upwards – in this case via the staircase of very big office tower.

The event is a set up by Shelter, a charity that helps millions of people dealing bad housing or homelessness, and sees hundreds of people take on the event whilst raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for the cause.

How does it work?

I would say it’s pretty simple, but I did have loads of question before doing it. Basically, it’s a race from the ground floor of Tower 42 to the top floor via an emergency stairwell – that’s 932 steps. The race is actually a series of waves which go on from the morning all the way through to the night – you can only have a certain number of people running in the stairwell at once.

This year, for the first time, Shelter decided to open up a limited number of spots (25 apparently) to people who fancied doing a vertical mile. A challenge that meant “running” up the stairwell 10 times. At the moment of signing up, I thought it sounded relatively easy, it is only a mile, does it really matter in what direction that is? The answer by the end was a very weak “yes”.

How did I get on?

I do a lot of races and some of them are pretty hard if I’m being honest. I’ve run up mountains, done a load of marathons and ran as fast as I could over short distances. I didn’t think Vertical Rush was going to even be on my list of tough events up until about 24 hours before when I started to crunch the numbers in my head. 932 times 10 meant 9,320 steps. The average pace to do that would mean that I’d be running upstairs for at least two hours – half an hour longer than it takes me to do a half marathon on flat roads. I started to get pretty worried.

As I mentally prepared myself I played through my running strategy in my head. No heroics. No speedy running. Just a nice, gentle jog from start to end. That’s all I needed to do. Finish in one piece and enjoy it.

The fact that I thought I could jog up a flight of stairs for two hours just goes to show how little I was prepared for the event – I basically just ended up walking the whole way, and I even then needed to develop a mental strategy to manage it.

Anyway, the events starts in a function room at the bottom of the building next to the tower. Here you drop your bags, have a coffee, listen to the motivational compere and do your warm up. It’s also where you chat to the other people doing the event and try to calm your nerves. That didn’t seem to be an option when you’re one of the 25 people wearing a black t-shirt denoting that you’re doing it 10 times, whilst everyone else is wearing red; the majority of chat focussed around “wow, I don’t even know how you guys do it… I can’t imagine even doing it twice” or “you must have really trained for this”.

Eventually, the waves start and people are ushered to the ground floor of Tower 42 and checked in. Within a couple of minutes, you’re off. Just a load of people running up some stairs. Initially I set of at a fairly good pace until I realised my legs were tiring by about 20 floors. There wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to be able to run this. Especially considering there were people walking far more efficiently than my run, some of which were overtaking me. It was time to follow suit.

Not me – but the very same stairs. That rail haunts my dreams.

Lap 1

Some of the pros run the whole thing in about four and a half minutes whereas others can take over thirty. Nothing in my years of running experience had given me any knowledge on how to pace an event like this so I just tried to carry on without pushing myself too much. By the end of the first climb, I felt fine. Runners and walkers were still heading up the stairs and there were dozens of people cheering on the top floor. It would have been a nice feeling if you were doing it once.

In the stairwell itself, there are no windows. Just the odd sign telling you what floor you’re on and marshals on every five flights of stairs or so. The first time you do it, it’s quite exciting and you’re looking forward to seeing what’s at the top.

If you’re running the mile, you wander past all the finishers, grab a bottle of water, then jump in the lift to do it again. It’s a strange feeling as everyone at the top is chatting and cheering whilst wearing medals. It’s like running across the finish line of a 10k race and then just going back again without stopping.

The other laps

The first three or four times you run up the building it’s actually still quite interesting. There aren’t waves running up with you every time, so aside from the occasional other mile runner, you’re generally doing it alone for the most part. There are of course the marshals dotted all the way up, who I spoke to at great length. They were amazing in fact: happy, friendly and to be honest made the whole experience a hell of a lot easier. Think I arranged a dinner party with a couple of them.

Once I got past the fourth climb I was really struggling. I was pretty much just walking at a steady pace and trying not to rest until I finished each lap, only allowing the four minutes or so transition back to the ground floor again as my break. At the time I thought it was the steps that was sapping my energy, but after speaking to a few people, the constant circular motion of turning left every few steps definitely seems to have a jarring and slightly dizzying effect.

By the time I was on the last couple of laps, I was really in a bad place. I was feeling pretty mentally sapped and I had to keep stopping just to reset myself. I can’t apologise enough to the marshals as my conversation at this point had dipped to the lamest of jokes and I can’t even remember what I was saying. By the time I stepped onto the top floor after the final lap I remember being completely confused as to whether I was actually finished or not. I then did a sort of dizzy wander around before heading back downstairs to find some food – I was starving. You really need to take some snacks with you when you do it. I didn’t.

9,320 steps done

Normally when I finish a race I feel a sense of joy and elation that it’s all over. Sometimes, on rare occasions, I’m even pleased with my time. After the Vertical Mile I just felt mentally exhausted. I wandered back into the function room, grabbed a goody bag then sat down and stared into the distance whilst I thoughtlessly filled my mouth with whatever was in the back. It took me a good hour to feel normal again.

Summary

If I went to do the 932 step race I would have written this account very differently. Both races are tough challenges, and I’ve spoken to some of my fast runner friends that have done the shorter distance who’ve said it was a killer. The mile is a different thing altogether though, it wasn’t so much a race or an endurance challenge – it’s more like a mental test to see how you can handle a very strange and difficult scenario. It’s dizzying, confusing and quite a struggle to imagine even finishing at some points. Two and a half hours of climbing a stairwell is not something I ever imagined doing.

For someone who loves a new challenge, it’s perfect, because there’s not many things out there like this. Even running up a taller building once doesn’t even account to the monotony of doing it 10 times.

Well done to everyone who took part in either of the events and massive kudos for raising money for such an awesome charity. Shelter did an amazing job organising and the whole things ran extremely smoothly. I’d say it’s well worth signing up for the 2020 event either as an individual or a team if you’re looking for a new challenge (most abilities can do the one lap version). If you are thinking about doing the mile though, I’d suggest doing some training on stairs first… 9,320 is a lot when you normally take the lift.

Oh yeah, the view at the top is, as you can imagine, the boon at the end. A site you don’t often get at the finish line of your normal race photos.

For info on the 2020 Vertical Rush event, head over to the Shelter website here.