Stair climbing and vertical running? For you, for me and everyone!

By Marina Aagaard, MFE. Photo: Henrik Elstrup

Stair climbing is an excellent workout. I knew that. Last week I found out that stair running, vertical running, is an extreme workout.

The event was a cool running event, Zoo Tower Challenge, in Copenhagen, Denmark. As the event organizers put it: A race you won’ forget right away!

Apart from unbelievable exertion, I got to see flamingoes, an elephant, a warthog (?) and a beautiful view over Copenhagen city, although there were no time to enjoy it.

During the event I had one sensation only: Borg-scale 19-20 (maximal exertion). And one thought: Why on earth am I participating?
Immediately after the event I thought: When is the next time?

Polar_Pulskurve_taarnloeb_Marina_Aagaard_fitness_blogThank you organizers for letting me establish my maximal heart rate (Polar M400). 

Expectations before the race
My motivation for signing up was to 1) try something different, to challenge myself a bit,
2) take part in a tower run and visit the Zoo-tower and 3) support a great ‘local’ initiative.


Race-wise my expectations were low, as my cardiovascular fitness at present is below par – the body weight momentarily too high – and preparation minimal: I would be very pleased to just complete the race; if possible in ~1 hour for a 6,5 km run plus stairs.

When I was almost at the finish line after the second (last) round, I looked up at the town hall clock and could not believe my own eyes: It was only 7:10 pm (my start was 6:30 pm). This gave me the power to speed up and I finished in 0:42:42.


I was met by officials “that’s a good running time”. Not what I had expected to hear at all. During the race I was too busy running to even look at my heart rate monitor.
So a ‘good race’ was a huge surprise to me. Two days after I saw the result lists and to my amazement; in my class I ended up 3. place and 1. place for women.
That’s quite cool for an infrequent, middle-aged (older than most of the other runners), novice race-runner. The will to survive is obviously a very powerful force!

When I accepted the invitation to race around 3rd of June, I had big hopes of proper preparation. Work life and life wanted things to be different, so time got scarce and amount of running stayed low; apart from the usual fitness workouts training came to only 1-2 5 km runs per week; far from impressive.

From around 3rd of July I added stair climbing once a week. I drove to a beach and forest area near Aarhus, Oernereden; 121 steps, walk/jog up, walk down.

From around 3rd of September until right before the race 3rd of October  I got the opportunity to work out in a local block of flats, 214 steps, walk/jog/run up, walk/jog down.


So running preparation was limited, stair climbing preparation was a bit better, so I was partly ready for the 182 Zoo Tower steps – it was still incredibly hard – and in the days after the race there were no soreness of the thighs or calves.

In the week up to the tower run I sadly only managed one 6 km run and two stair climbing workouts, the last one on the Thursday before the race. I took two days off (no workouts) to recover and get ready; no training at all Friday or Saturday before the race at 6:30 pm.

Thoughts on strategy
On the day before the race I thought a little about what would be the best strategy in this, my very first, tower run; a special combined event with running and vertical running.

Zoo_Tower_Challenge_start_foto_Henrik_Elstrup    Zoo_Tower_Challenge_start_foto_Henrik_Elstrup Frederiksberg Town hall Square with little groups of real runners, with the right gear, compression socks and real running headlamps. And me somewhere in the back.

My chosen distance, 6,5 km, meant 2 rounds around Frederiksberg Have (park) plus 3 tower runs. That is, the tower should be passed at least once to get your event medal (race bling) (!) and all three times, if you wanted to be rated and avoid ‘time adjustment’.

It was a tower run, so I thought to myself, that no matter how hard it would be and how long it would take, I would of course complete all three tower runs.

On the copenhagentowerrun website there is a suggestion for the 6,5 km route;
1 tower run in the first round and 2 tower runs for the next round. A sensible model: You complete one tower run at the start to play it safe, when you complete that you have done a tower run. And then you can use your stamina on running and take two tower runs next time around, if you have more energy.

My thought, however, was, that running exhaust me! So to complete the tower running part, I had to start out with them … maybe at the expense of the running part.
At the same time I thought it would be awkward to run in a pitch black tower, even if I had a headlamp. So my plan: Early Zoo-tower runs, preferably all three tower runs in a row.

Ergogenic aid: I normally run without music, but for once I thought that it would maybe be a good idea (research shows that music increases motivation and performance) and brought my iPhone with an up-tempo techno/electronica playlist. It helped!

Before and during the race
Right before the start of the race, I warmed up (very) lightly for 6-7 minutes, short dynamic calf and hamstring stretches, low-intensity jogging, knee lifts and leg curls on the spot, to get ready, but also save my limited energy reserves.

The first start was at 6:00 pm for the half marathon distance (photo below).


At 6.15 pm the 10 km runners started and at 6:30 pm the 6,5 km runners started:

I am not used to races at all (have only tried it once before, 5 km, locally). So I started in a very conservative tempo for the first 150-200 meters to conserve energy and run tactically, but then I thought “no, I will just run as fast as I can, and slow down, when it becomes necessary”. Real amateurish, but the result ended up being o.k. anyway.


As planned, I chose to complete all three tower runs in sequence. Except for the fact that I accidentally ran past the tower entrance and had to run back, all was fine:
I fought my way upwards and jogged down. There was a great atmosphere and people made room for each other in the narrow tower.

I was almost alone in the tower on the first two runs, but on the last run, there was a queue at the top and on the way down with no real chance of overtaking; probably a good thing, there were not much energy left. And a good thing that the heart rate went down a bit before I had to run the last 1½ round.

We had been warned that the Zoo hill could be tough and it was not exactly fun to run upwards (it must have been bad for those poor 21,2 km runners who had to run it six times), but my end of the country is quite ‘hilly’, so to me it was not as bad as expected.


At the top the Zoo-hill you run into the Zoo and (preferably) directly into the tower.

Copenhagen_Tower_Running_Zoo_foto_Henrik_ElstrupCopenhagen_Tower_Running_Zoo_taarn_foto_Henrik_ElstrupPhoto: Talk about surplus energy. A couple of the long-distance runners ran with baby-joggers AND took their child on their backs during the tower run.
There is to you less trained runners!

After ~ 6,5 km and 1092 steps (up/down) later I come gasping towards the finish line.

Copenhagen_Tower_Running_mod_maal_foto_Henrik_ElstrupDrenched in sweat, ugly and heart panting, but feeling good right after having passed the finish line 42:42 minutes after the race start AND after 1) a warm welcome, a medal around my neck and a 2) recovery snack; apple juice, banana, bun and muesli bar.

After the race: Reward and medal
The fine thing about race events is, that everyone wins just by participating. If you finish the race, you have accomplished something and oftentimes you get a ‘medal’, too. Then you have tried that, great feeling. And normally there is a very wide time frame, so everybody can finish – even in a very slow tempo. So I can only recommend participating in a run/event (this one though, was for serious extreme runners, too, I could tell).

I would have liked to take it easy and just jog along in my usual tempo, but I got bitten by a race bug, and then the race suddenly got disgustingly hard. But I survived.

My reward: A very different experience (and a markedly improved fitness level), a cool medal and my start number with three crosses for three completed tower runs.
I will save this for a while to remind me of a (to me) challenging and surprising (tower) run.


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DR LEV NU: Vanvid eller vanvittigt spændende nyt motionsløb

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