The effort you need to ascend you can not find in any other sport. It is purely athletic, because it demands from the champion as much strength as speed and as much agility as endurance – Le Journal
The third edition of La Verticale de la Tour Eiffel takes place this week on Thursday 16th of March. Among the racers taking part this year will be the reigning world champion, Piotr Lobodzinski, who’ll be aiming to make it three wins in a row in Paris.
With its narrow field of participants – only 128 this year – and, of course, its iconic venue, entrance to La Verticale is one of the most sought after in the tower running calendar.
Tracing its origins back as far as 1905, the Eiffel Tower stair climb is probably the world’s oldest tower run. Though the first organised stair climb goes back a couple of years before that, when an outdoor stair race was held at Rue Foyatier in Paris 1903. You can read about that event here.
Combining reports from multiple newspapers and magazines from 1905, we have put together an account of that first race at the Eiffel Tower.
Le Championnat de L’Escallier 1905
Organised by a magazine called Les Sports, the race took place on Sunday 26th November 1905. It was a cold day with very heavy rains and strong winds. Yet despite the bad weather, large crowds gathered at the foot of the Tower, and on the platforms on the way up, to witness this ‘unique spectacle’. This comes as no surprise. At the time, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world, with the longest staircase. Those in attendance were witnessing history.
Newspaper Le Journal said ‘Les Sports had the unique idea to have athletes from all sports battle it out on a new ground…the stairs.’ The magazine’s aim was to pit champions and elite athletes from various sporting traditions against each other in the ultimate test of fitness. Runners, cyclists and footballers were all among those who took part in the event.
Of the 300 entrants who were due to attend, 283 made it to the start line. Those who took part did so in ‘racing outfits and espadrille shoes’.
The race involved running up 729 steps to the second platform (of three) at the Eiffel Tower. The reason they didn’t run to the top is the organisers felt the stairs on the upper levels were too narrow, and that it could have proved dangerous once the stairwell got crowded.
One newspaper report states that ‘competitors at this challenge were not allowed to pull on the railing’. There are some pictures that show competitors holding the railing, but we believe they were promotional shots taken before the event itself. None of the in-race images show runners holding on to the railing, although in one of the pictures below a runner looks dangerously close to reaching out and grabbing it. If, indeed, they didn’t touch the railing at all – and if the post-race report felt it worth mentioning, we may assume they didn’t – then the times they clocked in 1905 become all the more impressive. Ultimately it remains unknown.
The day was split into two sections; in the morning (9am-12pm) ‘veterans and novices’ took on the climb, and in the afternoon (2pm) ‘professional and amateur champions from different athletic groups’.
La Vie au Grand Air (a sports journal from the time) explains how the organisers handled the issue of timing:
The organisers had a great idea to avoid problems of classing. The runners had attached on their back a small bit of cloth on which was written a letter followed by a number – the minute of the start of their race. The runners went every minute, timed by MM Salomon & Richard. The timer at the second platform only had to calculate the difference between the start time marked on the back of the climber and the time of arrival.
Some racers really struggled on the day. This excerpt from one report will sound familiar to those who have set off a bit too fast at the start of a stair race:
Those who reach their fifth landing can conclude that it is relatively easy and with a bit of courage you could reach the top. Alas! They were disillusioned by the reality at hand- the leaders set aside, you could see the fast runners compared to the exhausted lads before even the first platform, who dragged themselves to the top painfully with sighs and desperate hiccups.
The exertion proved far too much for some runners. Apparently two or three passed out at the top and had to be resuscitated with CPR.
Aside from the stair climbers taking on the challenge as a test of their fitness, there were also ‘some eccentrics’ there on the day who ‘amused the public with unique variations: One man climbed it in 9mins 59secs while carrying a 50kg bag of cement on his back, another climbed it backwards, and a third, a waiter, did the ascent holding a tray with six full glasses.’
At the business end of things, the morning waves were highly competitive, with times from the amateurs rivaling those in the elite category later in the day.
The veterans and novices category was won by Luiz in a time of 3.19, he was followed by Pieli in 3.23, with the veteran A. Thiebaud reaching the second platform in 3.29. As seems customary of the time, competitors were largely mentioned by last name only.
Controversy at the elite race
The main event of the day was widely anticipated. Leading Parisian papers had write ups on the day of the event talking about the upcoming race. One even featured it on the front page.
According to Le Journal, ‘The champions of all sports fully understood the challenge and began training in a different way for this championship’.
Heading into the race, an amateur cyclist named Forestier was the favourite. He had won the Paris-Dieppe cycling race in 1903. Having done some research, he may well be Eugene Forestier, who later became a professional cyclist and came 15th in the 1908 Tour de France, competing for the Peugeot-Wolber team.
Another report said ‘Menu did a baffling performance: 3mins 3 sec, but was disqualified…the difference in time between the first and the second – 16 seconds – had caused doubts from the start.’
The 16 second gap refers to the difference between Menu and Luiz (winner of the novices category). Presumably, Forestier hadn’t even set off before speculation arose over the speed of Menu’s time. Perhaps he was disqualified for pulling on the railing? It’s hard to think how else he may have ‘cheated’. It will remain a mystery.
With Menu disqualified victory went to the pre-race favourite, Forestier, who finished in a time of 3.12. He was followed by Lepage in 3.16 with Louis Prevost finishing third in 3.17.
The morning papers and weekly magazines were full of praise for the performance of the athletes. One even calculated how quickly Forestier would have climbed Mont Blanc by stairs had he maintained the same pace – 2 hours and 15 minutes, apparently.
One paper asked, ‘Is this to say that ‘on the stairs’ cyclists are better than regular runners? This is possible. What is certain is that the ones who came first were especially trained at this sport.’
Le Petit Journal concluded, ‘The event was remarkably organised… It allowed us to see the endurance and agility of all the sportsmen – cyclists, footballers, runners, walkers – that took part in this unique competition.’
We finish with the best quote from all the coverage:
After all, why would it be stranger to race up the stairs than to run on the road or on a track?