By Marina Aagaard, MFT
Il chilometro più duro al mondo.
The world’s toughest kilometer: 2700 stairs, roughly 158 floors. 500 altitude meters. An ultra stair running race … the elite runs up, many walk up and some even crawl to the finish line.
Valtellina Vertical Tube Race, held in the Italian mountains of Lombardy, Montagna in Valtellina, Sondrio. A race on a very steep staircase next to two large water supply pipes.
A race with about 400 participants. Especially Italian elite mountain runners as well as a number of vertical running enthusiasts from other countries such as China, Russia, Poland, England, Germany, Sweden a.o.
This year there was a single Danish female participant. Yours truly. I was a ‘finisher’ and on my feet without crawling. But it was no vertical run. It was an agonizing, slow walk. I’m normally a big fan of stairs, but this race’s nickname “the world’s toughest mile” is very accurate.
Why did I sign up?
Why, how, where and what? Get the story here.
How did that idea occur?
4-5 months ago my colleague Gert sent me a facebook link with photos from this race. It looked crazy tough on the pictures, but to a stair-fan also fairly interesting with a giant staircase of 2700 steps.
But it was a busy time around Christmas and January, so we the idea went into the back of our minds and we did not talk about it anymore.
After a busy January in the fitness centre, in February about two months ago – for fun – we started discussing the possibility of participation. Of course, it was completely unrealistic, especially for me, as my fitness level currently is too poor; limited stamina and too high bodyweight (for this).
By that time I had not seen video clips from the race, if so, the idea had been put to rest immediately.
We talked, but did not do anything about it. However – for fun – we now supplemented our regular fitness training and cycling (Gert) and running (I) with stair training 1-2 times a week in a local high-rise building with an grey, grim, cold stairway with 330 steps (indoors , but with snow on the landings …).
Until then, stair training for my part – due to the winter and lack of stair training facilities – had been discontinued.
There are some “tall buildings” (16-20 floors) in the Aarhus area, but they are virtually all inaccessible (locked doors), so it is not possible to stair walk/run.
When the weather allows, I’m walking or jogging (currently not running) on an outdoor stairway with 121 steps once every other week (a couple of times with snow on the steps). I have not previously used stair stepping machines.
From February working out picked up a bit. About time. For various reasons and lack of mental surplus, I have been training less regularly and intensively for the past 1-1½ year. In fact, I can say to most of my colleagues:
Your warmup is my workout …
Bodyweight has slowly increased; 5 extra kilos: A big behind is an advantage in twerking, but a huge disadvantage in stair training, every extra kilo is tough!
What was the next step?
In the beginning of March we sat down and talked; we could sign up for fun – so we went to the website and looked at the registration procedure.
It was not easy (rather it was complicated). But once you’ve said A, you must also say B; so we struggled and found out to how to get an Italian RunCard, which you need to run in Italy.
Unfortunately, extreme races also require a medical certificate, which we tried to obtain, but our doctors had no non-emergency spots before it was too late!
Alternatively, reading the rules closer, you can make your own health declaration and supplement it with an Italian CSEN insurance. With formalities in order you can sign up. All attempts to file the registration form without the said documents in order failed. We tried several times …
Even though we had both completed the form, paid the registration fee of 25 euros, and attached RunCard and self-declarations, we received emails – with red-letter alerts – that the registration was not valid. Worrying.
Nevertheless we continued with 1-2 weekly stair workouts. Now I replaced stair walking with stair machine training in the fitness gym (a Power Mill). Far from moving the body upwards as on real stairs, but with the advantage that the steps continue endlessly and without landings (pauses).
Until that time our stair training had been walk/jog up and down, up and down, and up and down … so in no way specific for the almost endless staircase with 2,700 steps with no landings …
In addition to machine stepping, I got a brilliant idea – unfortunately too late – we could go to Himmelbjerget (local ‘sky mountain’ of 147 meters) and run up that hill to prepare us for the feeling of going uphill.
Unfortunately, for practical reasons, this only became possible just one week before the race, on the Saturday before. But we ran. Because of rainfall, small puddles were everywhere and we had to run around them up and down the sloping hill …
It was neither a quick nor a smooth run and the training was quite atypical. Result: The next day my partner could feel his knee hurt and I my feet and ankles. Not smart to do alternative training such a short time before a race. Nevertheless, it seemed like a good idea to test the degree of exertion beforehand (it is, but not that late).
The week up to the race
Because we had not yet received confirmation, Gert gave up on it and pulled out, while I sent mails to the race office. Two days later, Wednesday, four days before the race, confirmation came: We were accepted as runners in the race.
I prefer to be in good time so it was not an optimal situation, but we had brought ourselves into it by being so late – as it was just for fun …
Oh. Only one afternoon to make the decision, to go or not to go – and arrange hotel and travel. Fortunately, I have a husband who likes to act from second to second, so I didn’t have to go alone, he offered to go with me and take photos.
I had previously researched several travel options, but the cheapest turned out to be by car this time, even though I would have preferred flying in order not to sit down for so long, which is bad for your health, fitness and the legs (oedema) …
When the trip was decided upon, I booked a hotel in Sondrio on Wednesday afternoon, the first hotel on the organizers list: Grand Hotel della Posta. Free wifi, free parking, spa and restaurant, and the price reasonable, so all essential criteria in connection with this trip were met. Also there was no time for a closer examination of the other places on the list. There were quite a few.
Travel day. Early Thursday morning at 4:00 am we got up and packed with the speed of lightning, made a (breakfast) lunch box and coffee. At about 5:00 we drove off. An approximately 15 hour long drive, but an okay trip.
All Thursday went by in the car and no training, but that was the plan.
In order to recover in the best possible way after a long day of training Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning were scheduled to be completely training-free and I tried to exert myself as little as possible. For once, I took the elevator in the hotel!
We arrived at 8 pm and quickly settled in and unpacked our bags. Had dinner at the hotel. Went a little walk around town and got to bed around kl. 23:00.
We got up and ate breakfast at 7 o’clock. Then we walked around and saw the town of Sondrio. A day full of sunshine and enjoyable sightseeing and photography of the city. It would have been even more enjoyable, if I had not been racing the next day. I was slightly uneasy.
At 17:00 I went to Mazzucchi Sport Store on Via Mazzini 51 to pick up my chip for the shoe – beep to measure start and finish time – my starting number and my goodiebag, a bag from a main sponsor, Berg Outdoor.
It contained a can of Red Bull energy drink, a packet of local bresaola, a small local yogurt, a bracelet (with advertising for the valley’s wine marathon!), a special cooling scarf and a heap of flyers for mountain running races …
In addition, you received a Berg Outdoor t-shirt with the race logo and the endorsement ‘finisher’. I immediately packed it away; you do not have to be overconfident (hybris).
After seeing the absolutely scary stairway in real life, as we drove into town on Thursday night, my courage had evaporated and my thoughts lingered around the risk of falling or stumbling and injuring myself (which I think happened to a couple of people) . Until then, I had set my sights on finishing the race at least – and someone always has to finish last …
I took out my race number. I had not had time to watch the startlist online, but now I saw the big number: 2. The starting numbers were in alphabetical order (I had not given it a thought even though I had read it in the rules):
With the name of Aagaard there was no way around it: I would obviously start this gruelling race as the first (female) runner 1:00 pm. There was only 1 before me; an Italian male elite athlete, who was opening the race.
Now I was pretty shaken. I had expected to hide in the group among 80 other women. Now I was to start as the first woman. If I was too slow, it would mean that, in addition to having to battle with the stairs, I had to step left out of the narrow staircase – on a sloping concrete surface with only a thin steel wire to hold onto – to let others faster runners pass to the right. Worrying.
With that news, I went back to the hotel to calm down. I had expected to eat early, but you do not do that in Italy, so it had to be dining at the first place that opened: A pizza and pasta restaurant at 18.30. It was ok. I had planned my meal to be pasta, fish and vegetables, which is was. And of course water.
In the evening, I had expected to go to the spa to relax. However, I abandoned that plan as the heat in the body can make it difficult to sleep and a good night’s sleep had first priority. Instead, I spent ½ hour on the floor in the room with my legs up resting on the wall, while I took some deep breaths.
Saturday is race day
We get up at 6 o’clock and eat breakfast at 7:00. My pre-competition meal consists of yoghurt with muesli, a banana, water, 1 glass of juice and coffee.
After breakfast I write for a couple of hours to think of something else.
At 10 o’clock I put on my clothes. I had thought of getting a DENMARK T-shirt, but did not; it would be bad publicity for Danish racers, if I did not finish the race or came last.
Outfit of the day, OOTD: X2U pants. Purelime underwear and Purelime tank top. Nike in-shoe running socks and Asic Gel Kayano running shoes.
I secure my chip on the right shoe and put on my starting number with eight safety pins in a way that told a tale of minimal racing routine.
On photos from previous years, I thought it looked cloudy. But this morning, there is not a cloud in sky and the sun is shining brightly. I frown at the idea of having to run in midday sun. Being accustomed to grey Danish weather I’m not the biggest fan of sun and heat in combination with running. What now?
Fortunately, during my express packing I threw a little bit of everything in my sports. I discard a cap in dense fabric and instead choose a scarf, which I roll up and wear as a headband. Black with white skulls and bones; appropriate.
At 11:00 we drive from Sondrio center to Montagna in Valtellina, a small mountain village. It is quite easy to find the green square and the huge tubes. We park. Henrik leaves me to go up on one of the bridges further uphill, so he can take photos photograph downwards and upwards.
The starting area is a sloping lawn with tables and benches, some sponsor tents, a couple of stalls with food, snacks and wine! Sondrio is a well-known wine region with amazing wines.
There is a Red Bull tent where the race management holds office. There is also a black Red Bull truck in front of a tent with a dj playing loud rock and dance music; the music is very motivating.
To the left of the lawn, you see the two huge water supply pipes and the stairs. On the eight bridges crossing the stairs there is room for spectators – and on scaffolds along the stairs there are officials, assistants, photographers and first aid personel … near the starting area, an ambulance is parked …
Around the lawn are superfit runners in advanced outfits, compression stockings, Oakley running sunglasses and high-tech heart rate monitors. Several have t-shirts from earlier extreme races. I feel misplaced …
No one’s warming up as far as I can see? Participants are either resting on the ground or standing around talking to friends. So be it, I lie down on my back with my legs up on a fence for a quarter of an hour, but get impatient and get up and walk around instead.
At 12 o’clock I eat a large handful of raisins and drink small sips of water for the next hour. I also use the toilet a couple of times … just to be on the safe side.
The tube staircase
At half past twelve, officials and participants begin to move towards the stairs, so I do the same. I’m looking hard at the stairs:
Very narrow – maybe 50 centimeters wide and fairly tall steps, maybe 20 centimeters in height – uneven, rough concrete. Around 50 centimeters to the left is one of the large pipes and by its side there is a thin steel wire about 5 mm in diameter. Not a handrail that you really want to cling onto. For every 100 steps, numbers are painted on the steps: 100, 200, 300 …
12:40 and the plastic gate is still locked, so we cannot get to the starting point: the Red Bull portal and starting block further up the stairs. Tension is building.
The speaker talks a lot in Italian. I’m angry with myself, that I have not learned Italian yet, despite having visited the country at least 16 times (on to-do list).
I did not understand what was said and asked an official, who spoke little English. I asked another runner, who simply stated: Running starts soon … but that part I had figured out.
Before the Red Bull gate was inflated at the last moment, I thought we were to start from the bottom. I thought; It’s fortunate, that you just start on the flats with some easy steps as a warm up. This is not the case. The starting point is set right where stairs get steep with exactly 500 vertical meters to the top.
I’m am moving a little about on the spot. I should have warmed up properly, but nobody around me warms up? For once, I only make a short series of dynamic stretches and a couple of knee lifts, leg curls and skips, while the others look baffled at me … (later in the day, however, I do see elite athletes jogging back and forth alongside the starting area).
I make do with 3 minutes of low-intensity lower body movements, which do not get my heart rate up – also I am trying to save my legs a little and think, the walk up the 50-75 steps to the starting block will do the trick. Completely against my own typical advice on thorough warm-ups, I’m not warmed up properly for this extreme race (talk about extreme … stupidity).
Finally with only 10 minutes to the start, the first 10 starts are allowed to go to the starting point. After 3 minutes I start my heart rate monitor, Polar 430, as not to forget it.
Then I am asked to get ready. You do not stand on the starting board, but next it, so on ‘go’ you have to jump to the side and then up.
One cannot begin to imagine how hard this vertical run is, but one may be a little curious: Personally I felt a mixture of excitement and fear. Fear was apt:
The race is unbearably hard physically as well as mentally.
I jog the first 200 steps, but then my pulse is already on its way to the max (race heart rate 86-98% of HFmax) and my legs feel heavy. I slow down.
As I see the number 300, I am suffering; I cannot imagine going another 2400 steps. Jogging is gone and instead I try some double steps (pass one step).
When stairwalking at home, I alternate between taking one or two steps for each series of stair runs. I had expected to do the same here for every 100 steps; It was to be my trump card. However, this did not work at all.
Normally I think double steps are easy, but here it was as though my legs had absolutely no power for bigger steps. As it was, for every 100 steps (and only the first 1500 steps) I only took 10 double steps, then my legs gave up! It was a demotivating experience.
Several times I had to push off on my legs with my hands and even that didn’t help much. I was huffing and puffing …
My heart is hammering away in my chest, I’m gasping for air, my mouth is dry, and my entire body feels like an big, heavy, uncooperative sack of potatoes having to be dragged upwards.
My gaze is fixed on the stairs, I only look up a couple of times, because the staircase seems endless.
Until now, I’ve almost always thought, when I’ve walked on stairs: If only there were some more steps, because it’s so nice to walk on stairs. During this race, I think that I’ll never ever want to see another staircase (never say never again).
I look back down once, early in the race, to see if there are others on the way, so I have to move out. But they are further down, so the next 2000 steps keep my eyes on the stairs, because it offsets your balance, when you turn your head and look down; the stairs are also quite steep.
Amazingly, no one passes me during the first 2000 steps. Even though we start separated by 30 seconds – and the last runner starts over an hour after me – I had expected to be passed a number of times.
During the last 400-500 steps something happens. Before I even see the shadow, a young, slender Italian speeds past me to the left.
An official nearby shouts loudly, it seems like he wants to stop me. I slow down (from slow to slow motion), lose a few seconds, shout to him, that I was not notified by her and, despite his gestures, I continue upwards, I’m extremely exhausted and now worried on top of it.
According to the rules, when overtaken by faster athletes, you must step out on a narrow passage to the left and hold onto the wire. I am aware of this.
But the runner had not called out, she just passed me by. Still, I’m quite upset: Are the 2700 steps in vain? Am I the one being disqualified due to an error? It would be typical of my luck: If I drop a sandwich, it lands on the buttered side!
With less than 100 steps left I hear a group behind me shouting encouragingly, so I figure out someone else is right on my heels. I slightly turn my head and it’s a fact, a faster runner is coming: I have to pull out to the left.
However, the steep, sloping concrete looks tricky, so I try to pick up speed (by 0.5 steps per minute), because at intervals there are large concrete pillars, which support the pipes and I want to get to one of them to lean on.
In fact, I get to pass two of these, but then I have to pull to the side and grab the wire, just before she reaches me and wait until she has passed. I lose 5-10 seconds, but do not care at all. Right now it’s all about survival!
Finally, finally, the last steps up to the pump house and the finish line.
On a positive note: I finish the race without crawling on all fours or pulling myself up by wire or rope. Yeah!
But it is not a pretty sight: With a last painful effort I get to the black platform and a helper holds out a hand for me. Now I understand why people at championships throw themselves on the ground, when they reach the finish line. I sit heavily down on the top steps and with blank eyes I watch while 2-3 other runners reach the top 20-30 seconds apart.
I’m looking at my heart rate monitor. I’m happy to have survived the race. However, now that I’m up here, I think, that the time 33:00 (which seemed like an eternity) could have been a little bit better …
I leave the monitor running for a few minutes to see the recovery heart rate. Then I stop it. Polar Flow graph shows the race from minimal warm-up to stop).
Then I remove the chip from my shoe and hand it over. I drag myself up from the stairs and walk through the pump station and out on the other side.
Here is a table full of freshly cut blood oranges, cookies, water and tea.
I sweat a lot and am extremely thirsty, so I drink four glasses of water, a glass of tea, eat a biscuit and a blood orange.
Now I’m already feeling okay again. The legs are a little bit wobbly, but I walk 600 meters along a narrow forest path to the shuttle bus, which will drive participants back down to the starting area. It only takes 10 minutes, then the first bus is filled with six participants and we drive down through the narrow hairpin road, that passes small vineyards and idyllic houses.
From the target area near the top there is also a steep forest ladder and trail, about 4 kilometers. However, I do not want to use it today.
After the drive I get out of the bus and walk briskly across the grass, I wave to Henrik, who has come down from the bridge to meet me, but I hurry past him and head toward the race office to hear about the situation on the stairs.
Fortunately, I am met by smiles and calming gestures: The situation is not my problem. I can finally relax and get a hug from Henrik.
Then he takes a “happy to be alive photo”.
And one more with the stairs in the background. I indulge in V-signs today only.
On one hand, I would like to see the rest of the race. Especially because a select group of elite runners start in a special heat. On the other hand, I would also like to relax and recover. So we drive off to the hotel.
I eat a protein bar with 30 grams of protein and drink some more water.
I stretch my leg muscles, calves, hamstrings and thighs for approximately 30-60 seconds each.
Then we go to the hotel’s elegant spa. First in the steam room and then a cold bath (here is no tub, so it’s a cold shower). Then we go into the whirlpool. It’s gentle bubbles, so the massage effect is limited, but it’s feels very soothing. Finally we go to the sauna. I do 2 x 15 minutes interspersed by 2 minute cold showers.
Normally I do several rounds. But I want to see the last bit of the event.
After the spa visit I’m revitalized, I put on some clothes quickly and we drive back to the staircase. The prize ceremony is set at 18:30, but before then, there are different speaches in Italian, so it is around 18:50 before the winners and the 2’s and 3’s are on the podium.
That is it … and now we are invited for an after-party. I would love to go, but being boring today, we just head for the restaurant to pig out …
I did not get a podium spot, but am still smiling big. I finished the race and am now wearing my ‘finisher’ t-shirt. Because I’m worth it!
Behind me to the left stands Michele, who started the race.
I see that other runners are standing close together around the table in the race office tent, so I move closer and see, that the result lists are already there.
I take peak.
The winners of the year were in Hannes Perkmann, Italy, at 14:10 and with Gisela Carrion Bertrain, Spain, at 17:25.
Amazed, I discover my own recorded time:
Surprising! Not a super time, but a few minutes better than my recent times at the stair machine back home (and it’s not nearly as hard as the real thing).
When I watched my heart rate monitor and saw 33 minutes, I had forgotten, that I had started my watch about 7 minutes before take-off!
49th place out of 79 starting
A big surprise! Not impressive, but unexpectedly satisfactory, when considering my age (middle age!), my current poor shape and lack of an environment for specific preparation. And all of 30 mostly younger women and 82 men “outrun” by a newcomer!
In fact, I regret now, that I have not kept my former fitness level and weight!
The result, which I think counts as a relative success, an extreme vertical race performed without accidents and with an ok time, was probably possible due to weekly (though limited) 1-2 stair training sessions, 1-2 5 km runs in the local Djursland hills (40-70 meters …,) jump training on plyo box as well as strength and core training … and maybe a little bit of will power.
After the race and the ceremonies are over around 7:15 pm we will return to the hotel again.
At 8:00 pm we have dinner at the hotel’s restaurant 1862 Ristorante della Posta.
Local Valtellina specialties. After abstaining for the last three weeks, I enjoy a glass of white wine for the appetizer, three mini pancakes with cheese, and a glass of red wine for the main course, donkey bits with brown sauce, and polenta. As a finale, a delicious dessert (cake, ice cream and mousse) with some of the world’s finest pistachios from Sicily. A lovely meal with amazing wine and unsurpassed, friendly service. An excellent conclusion to a very special day.
At 22:00 we are in bed and sleep soundly.
The day after
Return travel day.
The next morning I wake up well and rested. I do not feel sore or tired after yesterdays event. This is probably due to rapid recovery measures (spa). Postscript: Fortunately, no soreness the following days either.
We eat our last breakfast at the hotel at 7:00 and after packing we are ready to drive at 8:30. Our drive takes us through Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and finally to Denmark. We stop for fuelling twice, in Switzerland and Germany, respectively.
Furthermore we have one stop from 7:15 to 8:00 pm, when we have dinner at the little restaurant Schweinske in Hamburg. Grill plate and beer and spaghetti bolognese and water. Then quickly back into the car and head for home.
23:00 we are back home and go to bed immediately.
Why did I, a middle aged Danish woman, no elite runner (actually not even a recreational runner), currently only moderately fit and without a competitive gene, take a 1415 kilometer, 15 hour drive by car from Roende to Valtellina, to participate in a race, which is described as extreme, steep and risky?
- I really like walking on stairs, especially when I walk at my own pace.
- I was curious. How does that many steps feel like?
- I am crazy (my sister called it ‘stupid’) and did not really think it over.
- I would like to take put attention to stair walking (running) exercise:
- Stair climbing is an excellent, functional exercise, which improves body functioning in everyday life, improves cardiovascular fitness significantly and reduces the risk of illness and premature death.
Stair climbing can be done by almost everybody, it is free, and you can do it anytime and anywhere where there is a staircase. You do not have to be in good shape or have special training there is no need for equipment.