Is Piotr Lobodzinski killing tower running?

Posted: September 5, 2019 in News
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Lobodzinski Empire State Run Up 2019

Piotr Lobodzinski is unbeaten so far in 2019 and now appears practically invincible. Is it a problem for tower running or does it add to the excitement of following the sport?

Speaking after winning silver in the 400m final at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, GB athlete Roger Black admitted that he and six of his fellow athletes had been competing for second place. They all knew they stood no chance against the incredible Michael Johnson from the USA, who won the gold medal in a new Olympic record.

Johnson didn’t finish any lower than second in a 400m race from the start of the 1993 season to the Olympic final in 1996 (a total of 37 races). And those second-place finishes were in the heats or semi-finals of major championships where he was likely just doing enough to qualify.

This is just one example of extreme one-sidedness in athletics. Usain Bolt had a 45-race win streak from 2013-2017, which came after his complete dominance at the World and Olympic finals before that period.

Going back a little further, Ed Moses dominated the 400m hurdles for a full decade, amassing a win streak of over 100 races.

Great runners

Moses, Johnson and Bolt all dominated for years

But dominance in the track and field sprint events is a little different. Even when Moses, Johnson and Bolt were winning repeatedly, the margins of victory were quite often small. That’s expected in the 100m and 200m (although Bolt of course had some famously massive wins in those events), but in the 400m races, Johnson and Moses were also often only winning by less than half a second.

That is, their races were still highly competitive…for the most part.

What about tower running?

Two-time tower running world champion Piotr Lobodzinski has been on top of the sport for over five years.

He’s been beaten before – Tomas Celko, Christian Riedl and Mark Bourne have all bested the Polish star over various distances on occasion in recent years.

But this season Lobodzinski seems to have elevated himself to another level that has him out of reach of almost all of his rivals.

Has the competitiveness gone out of men’s tower running at the very top?

Is a sport dominated by one person in danger of becoming boring, or does this display of individual brilliance serve as a welcome inspiration for tower running fans and participants?

Lobodzinski’s season so far

After winning his second Towerrunning World Championship title in 2018, the Polish superstar headed into the 2019 season with confidence high.

He got things underway in February in Dubai, with a perfunctory win at the 1,600-step Vertical Run Almas Tower, where he finished 91 seconds ahead of the second-placed male. High level international competition was largely absent from the event.

Next was the Rondo 1 race in Warsaw, Poland. Back on home turf, Lobdodzinski was expected to be pushed a bit harder on the mid-length course by some of Europe’s top tower runners, and he was.

But he still came out on top relatively unscathed, finishing 14 seconds ahead of runner-up Görge Heimann. Although it may not seem that big a gap to the uninitiated, considering the length of the course – 836 steps – it is fairly significant.

In March, he was back in Paris at La Verticale de la Tour Eiffel to attempt to win the event for the fifth time in a row.

A very serious test was anticipated ahead of this race. Only Mark Bourne was absent from the full list of elite tower runners from around the world in attendance.

At previous editions it had been Germany’s Christian Riedl who had come closest to toppling Lobodzinski. In 2016, less than six seconds separated the pair. In 2017, the margin of difference was just under 10 seconds, while in 2018 it was 15 seconds. Although the gap was growing, it was still manageable, and an improving field of competitors was expected to launch a stiff test.

Lobodzinski La Vertical Tour Eiffel 2019

La Verticale de la Tour Eiffel 2019

But Lobodzinski finished an unbelievable 50 seconds ahead of Jakob Mayer in second to secure a fifth straight title. Conditions on the day were bad, and it clearly impacted the runners, but Lobodzinski was unfazed. Once again he dipped under the eight minute mark, clocking a time very consistent with all his other wins.

It was this performance that made keen observers sit up and really take in how supreme he was becoming. Yes, he had been on top for some time, but this win was different.

Dominating the Vertical World Circuit

With a couple of solid wins at European venues in the bag, Lobodzinski headed to Asia to compete on the Vertical World Circuit.

First up was the 2,919-step Lotte World Tower International Sky Run in Seoul, Korea and a face-off with Australian star Mark Bourne.

Lotte World Tower run up race 2019

Lotte World Tower, Seoul, Korea

Bourne was the record holder at the tower, having set the best time of 15:44 in 2017.

Lobodzinski had beaten Bourne at the 2018 edition in a personal best of 15:53.

At the race on 6th April, Lobodzinski set a new course record of 15:37 – a huge 16 second improvement on his previous fastest time. Bourne himself ran a magnificent race to finish just two seconds behind in 15:39.

A week later the pair went head-to-head again in Milan in another leg of the Vertical World Circuit. The 1,027-step Allianz Tower serving as the venue this time.

At the finish, less than a second separated them. But once again it was Lobodzinski who came out on top, setting a new course record of 5:16 in the process.

Allianz Vertical Run 2019 Lobodzinski win

Lobodzinski celebrates his win in Milan alongside fellow winner Suzy Walsham

Bourne was proving Lobodzinski’s biggest rival. Each time coming so close, but just not getting the breaks.

Two weeks later the Australian had another chance to attempt to beat his rival. The action returned to Asia for the inaugural Vinpearl Luxury Landmark 81 – Race to the Summit in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 2,383 steps stood between the bottom and the top of the world’s 14th tallest tower.

Bourne and Lobodzinski had been splitting victories for a number of years now in some of the regions tallest towers, so another close contest was anticipated. Especially after the particularly tight race in Seoul.

But once again Lobodzinski pulled out a performance for the ages. His finishing time of 11:35 was a massive 50 seconds faster than Bourne’s.

Pulling away in May

A week later on 5 May it was the Taipei 101 Run Up, where Lobodzinski had won his second world title in 2018.

He completely dominated again. This time running a personal best 10:46. Bourne was once more his nearest rival, but he finished 41 seconds back in 11:27.

A gap was opening up.

Taipei 101 Run Up 2019 Lobodzinski

Piotr Lobodzinski wins the 2019 Taipei 101 Run Up

On 14 May the Empire State Building Run-Up welcomed Lobodzinski. There was no Bourne in attendance, but Soh Wai Ching and Fabio Ruga were there to keep Lobodzinski on his toes.

But in reality they didn’t. Lobodzinski ran one of the fastest times ever at the venue (becoming the second-fastest man ever behind only Paul Crake). He crossed the line in 10:05, a full 1:13 ahead of Wai Ching in second place.

Lobodzinski Empire State Run Up 2019

Lobodzinski crosses the Empire State Building Run-Up finish line in the fifth fastest time ever

Had there been a shift in the dynamics of the competition? Were the other runners competing for second place? It was beginning to appear that way. Three races on the trot and nobody had come even close to challenging Lobodzinski.

At the end of the month he returned to Wroclaw, Poland where he clocked another straightforward win, this time against almost exclusively Polish competition.

A quiet June and July followed, with a break from tower running.

Another level of dominance

On 24 August he returned to action at the 1,704-step Ostankino Tower in Moscow.

Lobodzinski had finished second there in 2018 behind Christian Riedl, trailing the German by just a second.

Riedl was absent this time around, but even if he had been in attendance it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Lobodzinski was on another level and he set a new course record of 9:36, taking 15 seconds off the previous best time.

The perfect season?

So let’s ‘punch the numbers’, so to speak.

  • Ten races
  • Ten wins
  • Four course records (Lotte Tower, Allianz Tower and Ostankino Tower, plus default record at the inaugural race at Vinpearl Luxury Landmark 81)
  • Two additional personal bests (Taipei 101 and Empire State Building)

Lobodzinski has been on top for a number of years now, but this season he is showcasing an unprecedented degree of dominance. It feels like he is now competing on a level all of his own. There may even be more PBs in some of the races, such as Wroclaw, we’re unaware of. It’s unbelievable.

As a fan of the sport it’s exciting to see an athlete at the top of his powers, breaking records and getting closer to marks such as the mythic sub 10-minute ESBRU finish.

Personally, we like to see athletes like Lobodzinski raising the bar, bringing new levels of excellence to the sport and showing what’s achievable. But there’s a limit to how long it can go on for before things start to get a little dull, and we think men’s tower running is fast approaching it.

A key element of the appeal of following elite level sports is the competition. Take that away and what’s left?

To be fair, it’s not 100% clear that Lobodzinski has completely pulled away. But he’s been winning almost everything there is to win for close to five years and his most recent set of performances this year do indicate a shift of some kind.

If he completes the ‘perfect’ season by going unbeaten in 2019, and does so by continuing to clock significant winning margins along the way, it will be hugely impressive, but it might also have a negative impact on the appeal of the sport from the fan’s perspective.

Yes, Mark Bourne was just one or two seconds away from winning a couple of those races earlier in the year, but Lobodzinski has since opened up a gap. Bourne is capable of getting back to winning ways, but if he will or not remains to be seen.

Christian Riedl is off the scene, only dipping in for the occasional race here or there.

Soh Wai Ching and Ryoji Watanabe are making great gains, but they still appear some way off being considered strong enough rivals to topple Lobodzinski.

There are four races left in the Vertical World Circuit where we might get to see Lobodzinski and Bourne go head-to-head again. Other races outside of the VWC will also likely see Lobodzinski face the best in the world.

Will they be able to rein him back in or will we all just be following the Piotr Lobodzinski Show until he calls time on his glittering career?

But let’s be clear. Despite the slightly provocative title of this post, we are massive fans of Showtime Lobodzinski. He is a brilliant ambassador for the sport and we thoroughly enjoy following his stair climbing exploits around the globe. He’s making the most of his powers to reap the rewards and accolades of years of hard work and training, and long may it continue.

We’d love to see him complete a perfect, unbeaten run in 2019, but maybe he could falter at least once in 2020…just to keep things interesting.

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Comments
  1. Bruce Northrop says:

    I’m curious. Is there prize money? And/or significant sponsor money? And if so is there a sanctioning organization and drug testing? I’m asking out of complete ignorance…not to be accusatory.

    • Some races have prize money, but it’s not the norm – the famous Empire State Building Run-Up has none for example. Those that do don’t offer massive amounts. The recent race at Ostankino Tower in Moscow (a 200 point race in one of the two global ranking systems) offered 1,000 euros to the winners. Some of the big races in Asia may occasionally offer more. I believe the top male and female are sponsored by Adidas and Nike respectively, but I imagine they just receive free gear rather than money (might be wrong). I also know of some athletes that have local sponsorship that helps with money for air fare to race internationally. But participation at all levels is almost exclusively self-funded.

      There is no drug testing in place across the sport. There are two organisations that work independently and have separate ranking systems: the Vertical World Circuit (VWC – https://www.verticalworldcircuit.com) which is a series of 11 races around the world. Points are assigned to runners depending on their finishing position in each event they compete in. Each runner’s top five scores are added up and the one with the most points at the end of the series is the VWC winner.

      The other organisation is the Towerrunning World Association (https://www.towerrunning.com) – which would be closer to a sanctioning body than VWC – although in no way comparable to a body you may find in most other sports. They arrange a World Championship race every two years (began in 2015 in Doha, Qatar and then following a delay it ran again in 2018 at Taipei 101, where it will return in 2020). They also have an annual ranking system. All stair races around the world are assigned a set of points (40 the lowest, 280 the maximum) depending on level of competitiveness and some other factors. Runners accrue points throughout the season and the one with the most points from their top 8 races is declared winner of the Towerrunning World Cup.

      Despite the long history of the tower running (first race at the Eiffel Tower over 110 years) it has failed to really take hold, despite considerable growth in the past 20 years. Hence the fact you won’t find a single independent website like this one writing about the towerrunning as a legitimate sport. Although participation levels are high, no one is really paying much attention to it from the perspective of a fan following results etc.

      Professionalism and all the associated structures and systems, such as drug testing and major sponsors, are likely still some way off. Hopefully it will come one day.

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