Marathons, half-marathons, fun runs and triathlons. All are starting to make inroads into an increasingly health-conscious Vietnam. Now it’s the turn of a different type of running, vertical running or stair climbing. Imagine running up 49 floors to the top of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest building. That’s what 500 runners will be doing on Sunday, Oct. 29 at the HCMC Skyrun, when they race up 1,000 steps from the ground floor lobby to the observation deck of the Bitexco Financial Tower.
First known in the 1970s as “vertical races”, stair running has emerged over the past four decades, as a global sport, with elite athletes training all year round to be the first to reach the top of the world’s tallest buildings. Part of the allure of this gruelling sport is the novelty of competing in unique urban settings — the world’s tallest structures.
At the inaugural event in the Bitexco Tower back in 2011, Germany’s Thomas Dold made it to the top in an awe-inspiring 4 minutes 51 seconds, while the leading female, Italy’s Valentina Belotti, completed the race in 6 minutes and 19 seconds. For the non-pros, just getting to the 49th floor without collapsing halfway up was a blessing, and if by some stroke of physical luck you could do it in less than 15 minutes, then you were near superhuman.
Elite runner Suzy Walsham. Photo by Mike Allen
With the HCMC Skyrun on our doorstep, we decided to talk to one of those super-humans, sorry, elite runners, Suzy Walsham. Hailing from Australia, Suzy is presently the top-ranked woman on the Vertical World Circuit.
How long have you been on the circuit?
Suzy: My first vertical run was the Swissotel Vertical Marathon in Singapore in November 2006.
Why vertical runs as opposed to horizontal runs?
Suzy: I raced track for many years and also road races, but I was looking for a new challenge, so I tried vertical races. I loved it from my first race and am still enjoying it 11 years later. The other bonus is that because it is relatively non-impact (unlike horizontal running) I don’t get injured, so this is also a big positive for me.
What makes vertical runs so challenging?
Suzy: It’s the lactic acid that builds up as you propel yourself upwards that is the most challenging to deal with. Lactic acid is what makes your legs feel like jelly — learning to manage this is key. Your heart rate also goes up quickly and can reach very high levels in a short period of time, so you can feel out of breath after only a few floors. It is also important to have strong quads and glutes as you need a lot of power to push up the stairs.
Where have you competed? Is it possible to make money out of running the vertical run circuit?
Suzy: Over the past 11 years, I have competed in more than 90 stair races across five continents, and hold course records in more than 20 international stair races. I am fortunate to do well in a lot of races so I win some prize money and often get travel assistance. It’s not possible to make a living out of it, but I get to travel all over the world, cover my costs and make a bit of pocket money.
What’s the competitive spirit like between the various top runners?
Suzy: The stair running community is a very positive and supportive group, even at the elite level. It’s quite an individual sport; the real race is between you and the building. We all know how hard the races are, but also that if someone is better on the day, there is not much you can do about it. At the elite level, we all know each other pretty well and usually hang out after the races and explore the cities we have travelled to. It’s a lot of fun.
How do you combine training and competing with your day job?
Suzy: It’s a challenge. I get up at 5.30am every day to train and also do two afternoon sessions. I train approximately nine times per week for around 1.5 hours a day. I am fortunate with my job in that so long as I have an internet connection, I can work from anywhere in the world, so I am usually still working when I travel to races. But it’s a bit of a juggling act managing training, competing, work and family.
What kind of exercise routines do you use to help you prepare for a race?
Suzy: I always have a day off two days before a stair race — the races are intense and I like to be both mentally and physically rested. Prior to the race, I just do my normal warm up; 10 minutes of jogging, some stretches and drills, some strides/sprints. If I can, I also like to try to run about 10 floors of stairs around 30 minutes before the race to get my legs firing.
To register or find out more about the HCMC Skyrun on Sunday, Oct. 29, click on sportingrepublic.com/HCMCSKYRUN
Thomas Dold - winner of the Bitexco Vertical Run back in 2011