Does tower running have a future in the UK?

Posted: September 12, 2019 in News
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London skyline

This year saw the fewest number of stair climb events in the UK since 2014.

In 2015, a then record 14 stair running events seemed to herald a new era for the sport in the UK. This boom continued for a spell and in 2018 there were 16 pure stair races.

But this year the number of events has dropped off and the looming loss of another big race next year is casting a shadow over the future of tower running in the UK.

What’s the problem? Is it just a blip or is UK tower running in trouble?

Tower running is too London-centric

While it makes sense that the ‘home’ of tower running in the UK should be London – the proliferation of tall buildings is ideal ground for an HQ – it’s a necessity for the growth and promotion of the sport that opportunities are available for people in other parts of the country to take part as well. Unfortunately, these opportunities are disappearing.

In the last six years there have been stair races in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester, Manchester and Portsmouth (we’re not including stadium stomps in this analysis, but Edinburgh would be included if we were). Planned events for Middlesbrough and Liverpool didn’t quite come to fruition for varying reasons, but for a time the scene outside of London was seemingly healthy and growing.

But in 2019 only Leicester and Manchester have hosted stair races outside of the capital. And, at the time of writing, the Christie Tower Run at Manchester’s Beetham Tower won’t be returning in 2020.

Not only has the sport’s spread throughout the country ceased, it’s fallen apart completely. It’s a massive disappointment.

Fortunately, London should be hosting a good set of stair races for the foreseeable future. But there’s a catch.

Tower running poverty: the reliance on charities


Although saddening, it’s no massive surprise that almost all the events that were once run around the country have ground to a halt.

Apart from the Spinnaker Tower-thon event in Portsmouth, every one of those events was put on by a charity. The events teams in those often small organisations are solely focused on getting the maximum return from every event they organise. If for just one year they don’t get the sort of return they expected or needed from the work and investment they put in, they often call time on their venture into stair racing and move onto promoting alternative activities that are more profitable for the charity.

But it’s not just a problem for charities. Even without any charity connection or fundraising minimum, plus a very reasonable entry fee of around £15, the Spinnaker Tower-thon struggled to attract the sorts of numbers needed to make it worth their while to continue hosting it. After a handful of years they called it a day.

Sometimes a charity will ride out a small turnout in the first year or two and dig in to see the event grow and grow. The LOROS Tower Run in Leicester is a brilliant example of this. They’ve been growing year-on-year since they launched in 2015, and hopefully 2020 will be their biggest event yet. They even offer a highly reasonable flat entry fee with no fundraising requirement, which has been very well received by the tower running diehards here in the UK.

But fundraising continues to be a challenge for committed stair climbers. Of the six stair races in London this year (we’ve excluded the multi-event Guy’s Urban Challenge that finishes with a stair climb), only one of them offered a straightforward non-fundraising entry at a reasonable price; the Broadgate Tower Run-Up back in July.

The Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) event at the Walkie Talkie Building, Shelter’s Vertical Rush, the NSPCC Gherkin Challenge and the Rainbow Trust’s Grate48 event at the Leadenhall Building all require, for the most part, a commitment to raise at least £130 for the charity (GOSH are asking for £250).

There are some small exceptions, though. For £149 you can take part in the Gherkin Challenge without having to raise any additional funds – the alternative is to pay £20 entry and fundraise £250.

For most of the regular UK tower runners who tend to pay outright for their events, to save them the hassle of constant fundraising, the self-funded option provides a not insignificant saving of over £120. But paying £149 for a race lasting less than six and a half minutes for most of them isn’t really sustainable, especially if you’re hoping to do multiple races each year.

The race organiser on behalf of the Rainbow Trust’s Grate48 has managed to secure 10 male and 10 female entry fee only places for that event in November, which is fantastic. Everyone else, though, will have to pledge to raise £130 to take part.

Access is everything

"Security staff at the Shard, London."

The fact is, there wouldn’t be a tower running community in the UK if it wasn’t for these charities putting on these events. So there is a deep gratitude there, for sure. It’s highly unlikely anybody would be racing inside the Gherkin, Leadenhall or Tower 42 if it wasn’t for the charity connection. But that’s also the problem.

Vertical Rush and the Gherkin Challenge have each been running for over a decade, but will they run for another decade? If, for whatever reason, these charities decide this means of fundraising isn’t working for them anymore and stop organising the events, the ‘sport’ of tower running in the UK will very likely disappear.

Will any of London’s big towers open up for non-charity affiliated stair climbing events? So far, only Broadgate Tower has done so. Perhaps others will in the future, but its a precarious position to be in for a ‘sport’ whose followers and advocates have ambitious notions of international legitimacy and even Olympic participation.

You simply can’t build a sport on the back of just a handful of venues that could potentially deny participants access at the drop of a hat, with nobody in the tower running community having any say or impact in the decision making process.

Of course this isn’t a problem for the UK only. Tower runners around the world face the same issues, whether its the dominance of charities in the organisation of races or just general issues with access.

Hope for the future?

Hopefully, the fantastic London-based Total Motion Events will continue their excellent work putting on events at Broadgate Tower, regardless. Their Total Motion Towerrunners group has seen a big rise in interest and they’re now hosting training sessions at Broadgate Tower in London two nights a week. The relationship between Total Motion and Broadgate Tower is certainly a cause for much needed optimism.


London’s Broadgate Tower is host to weekly tower running training sessions

Participation at Vertical Rush, LOROS Tower Run, the Gherkin Challenge is all on the rise, so that’s another positive. But if the number of events held each year continues to fall, the tower running eggs begin to drop into one basket held by the charities, and that’s a problem. If they call time on their respective events, the bottom falls out of it all.

The loss (still to be fully confirmed) of the Christie Tower Run is a blow, but 2020 may yet see the return of other races, such as the popular UpSlideDown event at the ArcelorMittal Orbit in London’s Olympic Park which didn’t run this year. It’s to be seen.

Perhaps as tower running garners increased attention, more race organisers will sit up and explore options for putting on stair climbs at alternative venues. There are certainly enough options in London. Tower running doesn’t just have to function around the high-profile towers – although it would be nice.

People have been running stairs in the capital since at least 1730 and one of the first competitive stair races in London was organised back in 1968. Ideally, with this rich base, the sport would be further along in its development.

Ultimately, towers aren’t purposely built for people to race in, so, in order to take part in their chosen sport, tower runners will always be reliant on people whose main interest isn’t tower running. Benevolent real estate moguls with a diehard passion for stair running aside, that means the power will forever be out of the hands of tower runners.

Tower running could have a bright future in the UK, but unfortunately achieving that doesn’t rest solely with those who have a love for it. And that’s a real tough spot to be in.

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