UK tower running 2019 – end of season review

Posted: November 20, 2019 in News

Towerrunning UK 2019

From super-close battles between the UK’s best to record-breaking runs from international visitors, the 2019 UK tower running season has been an eventful one.

We reflect on the highlights from this year’s home races and consider what we can look forward to in 2020.

Sims still winning

The season got underway back on the 24th of February at The Christie’s Tower Run in Manchester.

UK veteran Mark Sims went head-to-head with David Harris for bragging rights at the 798-step Beetham Tower.

Having finished second at the event in 2017 and 2018, the Liverpool-based Sims was eager to finally make it to the top of the podium at the third attempt.

He took the first win of the year with a time of 4:29. Harris was mere seconds behind, clocking a massive PB to finish in 4:33.

The Christie Tower Run 2019 Mark Sims winner

In the women’s division, Spanish runner Marta Cosp set an event record with a winning time of 5:36. Cosp was followed by the previous event record holder Sonja Shakespeare in 5:55, while Elaine Battson was third in 6:03.

Unfortunately, we were to see no more of Cosp for the rest of the year. Another athlete with great potential lost to other disciplines because of a lack of tower running opportunities outside of London.

Laurence Ball makes his debut

One of the highlights of this season has undoubtedly been the emergence of Laurence Ball as a fantastic new tower running talent.

He made his debut on 2 March at the Great Ormond Street Hospital Stair Climb in London’s Walkie Talkie Building.


His 4:19 finish was the quickest on the day. Just a week after taking second in Manchester, David Harris was back in action, but had to settle for silver once again. This time the margin to top spot was just two seconds, as he crossed the line in 4:21.

laurence ball GOSH 2019

David Harris, Laurence Ball and Jamie Hall

In the women’s division, the UK’s top stair climber Sarah Frost got her season underway with a blistering sub five-minute finish that earned her first woman and fourth overall.

Sims vs Harris battle it out in Leicester

St George’s Tower Leicester, venue for the Loros Tower Climb

It’s an unfortunate tradition of late that the bulk of the races in the sparsely-filled UK tower running calendar are crammed into February and March. So just two weeks after the season kicked off, we were already onto our third race.

A week after London’s first event of 2019, the action headed north to Leicester for the Loros Tower Climb (Mar.9).

Winner of the event in 2016 and 2017, Mark Sims had been narrowly beaten by Elliot Slaughter in 2018. With Slaughter absent from the line up (and disappointingly absent for the whole season), the race was expected to be a two-man battle between Sims and David Harris.

It took Sims two runs before he managed to clock a faster time than Harris, who had gone out in front with an excellent time of 1:33.26.

On Sims’ second climb he pulled out a PB to finish in 1:31.96 and take his second victory of the year.

Sarah Frost was also in Leicester. She smashed her own course record by almost six seconds, reaching the top of the 351 steps in 1:43.82.

Sarah Frost Loros Tower Run 2019

Sarah Frost sets off on her record breaking run in Leicester

Soh Wai Ching in London for Vertical Rush

Vertical Rush at Tower 42 is the flagship event of UK tower running and since 2009 it has played host to some of the world’s very best stair climbers.

Less than a week after the Loros Tower Run, all eyes were on the 932-step tower for the most popular race of the year (Mar. 14).

The world number two, Soh Wai Ching from Malaysia, was in attendance following his race at the Eiffel Tower the day before. So too was fellow elite runner, Michal Kovac.

Wai Ching took top spot in 4:17, followed by Kovac in 4:28.

Soh Wai-Ching Vertical Rush 2019

Soh Wait Ching – Vertical Rush 2019 winner

Rising star Mark Howard got his season off to a brilliant start, taking third in 4:48 – just a second ahead of Laurence Ball.

This race marked the first clash between Howard and Ball, which has been another highlight of the season.

In the women’s division, Susie Drinkwater defended the title she’d won on her tower running debut in 2018. She clocked a 30-second PB, to finish in 5:41.

Despite all the brilliant performances from emerging UK talent, there was the slightly depressing fact that over the course of less than three weeks, half of the big UK stair races in the 2019 calendar had already been run.

Vertical World Circuit in London

The London leg of the Vertical World Circuit (VWC) was held on 20 July at Broadgate Tower.

A solid contingent of top internationals were in the capital looking to secure points at the sixth event in the 10-race VWC series.

In the men’s division, Ryoji Watanabe from Japan was the biggest name on the start line. But Omar Bekkali, Takaaki Koyama, Mickael Pourcelot were also expected to feature among the top finishers.

Laurence Ball and Mark Howard were leading the charge for the UK.

In a massively fast race, which saw 16 men run under five minutes, the previous course record of 3:58 was smashed by Watanabe, who reached the top of the 877 steps in 3:41.

In the women’s division, Sarah Frost continued her excellent run of form to obliterate her own course record. She crossed the line in 4:40, a massive 24 seconds faster than her previous best time.

Four other women also ran under the previous record of 5:04, including the constantly improving Susie Drinkwater

All things being well, the Vertical World Circuit will return to Broadgate Tower in summer 2020. It’s a fantastic opportunity (the only one really) for UK runners to compete against top stair climbers from around the world on home soil.

Issues at the Gherkin

The 10th edition of the NSPCC Gherkin Challenge (Oct. 27) saw some controversy over the timing of the event. With live updates at the finish being cut on the day, runners were left in the dark about exactly how they’d got on.

When the results eventually went online the next day, there were big discrepancies between some of the times runners had clocked themselves doing and what their official listed time was.

After a bit of chopping and changing on the leaderboard by the timing company, the final standings showed that debutant Tommy Bryant had won the 2019 NSPCC Gherkin Challenge.


Tommy Bryant – winner of the NSPCC Gherkin Challenge 2019

It was great to see David Harris back on the podium again after recovering from back surgery earlier in the year.

In the women’s division, Jasmine Van Niekerk, also making her tower running debut, took the win.

Hopefully we’ll see Bryant and Van Niekerk back on the stairs in 2020.

Ball and Howard battle at Leadenhall

The ‘final’ race of the season took place earlier this month (Nov. 7) at the Leadenhall Building (there’s another race on Nov. 27 at 1 Churchill Place aka Barclay’s Tower in the Docklands, but it’s only open to Barclay’s employees).

A much-anticipated end-of-season showdown between Laurence Ball and Mark Howard was the focus of the event.

The course record of 6:56, set by Howard in 2018, was expected to fall – but who was going to break it?

In a lightning-fast race, both men ran under that time, but it was Ball who set the new course record.

He climbed the 1,258 steps in 6:30, with Howard finishing slightly slower in 6:36.

Laurence Ball Mark Howard Grate48 2019

Laurence Ball and Mark Howard

It was a wonderful high to finish the season off on. A course record, a cherry on top of Ball’s amazing debut season and another exciting chapter in the Ball vs Howard rivalry we hope will continue across many more races for seasons to come.

In the women’s division, newcomer Nicola Henderson secured her first tower running victory. Building on her sixth place finish at the stacked Broadgate Tower Run Up in July, she ran a solid 8:33 at Leadenhall.

Nicola Henderson towerrunning

Henderson is another one to keep an eye on next year.

Looking forward to 2020

There are definitely things to be excited about as we head towards 2020.

Sarah Frost’s big push into international races this year was one of the best parts of 2019. She has been out as far as Japan to race and it’s fantastic to see a UK tower runner routinely making the top five in highly competitive international events. She only narrowly missed out on third place overall in the Vertical World Circuit.

The big race experience she’s gained this season will certainly benefit her in 2020, so we look forward to seeing more of Frost flying the flag for UK tower running next year.

Back in August, Laurence Ball put in a great showing at the UFO Vertical Sprint in Bratislava, Slovakia.

ufo vertical sprint 2019

In the three-run format, he managed to finish sixth in among far more experienced tower runners.

Hopefully he, and Mark Howard, will head out to more international races in 2020 to fly the flag for the UK.

The World Championship race at Taipei 101 in May would be a perfect place for all three of those to showcase their talents against the world’s best.

International athletes in London

The anticipated return of the Vertical World Circuit to London in July 2020 at Broadgate Tower is another thing to look forward to.

With Vertical Rush once again the day after La Verticale de la Tour Eiffel, we might get to see some international stars in London in March.

But, we’re almost guaranteed to see a big group of them at the Broadgate Tower Run Up in July. With international racers almost never attending UK events anymore, having a decent bunch in attendance at at least one event is definitely a good thing.

Declining fortunes?

Earlier in the year we asked, does UK tower running have a future?

We’ve seen above that there’s plenty to be optimistic about in the UK tower running community. But there are problems, and how much impact some of those may have down the road remains to be seen.

First off, the Christie’s Tower Run in Manchester won’t be returning in 2020. That was one of only two races outside of the capital this year and its absence from next year’s calendar means people in the north of the country will have to travel down to Leicester or London if they want to race. Just as the sport looked to be genuinely expanding around the country, it’s now reversed that healthy position and appears to be shrinking.

Right now there are only five events confirmed for 2020 in our race calendar. At least a couple more will follow on – NSPCC Gherkin Challenge and probably Grate48 again – but it’s not exactly indicative of a growing sport when you only have a handful of opportunities to compete each year.

Two of those five events are scheduled to happen on the same day, and four of them will take place within a two week period from Feb.29 – Mar. 14.

It’s gotten to the point where we’re grateful there are any races at all, but having so many crammed within such a short amount of time is frustrating and disappointing.

There will be four months of inactivity until the Broadgate Tower Run-Up in July and then another long break until the Gherkin Challenge probably happens in October.

But let’s focus on the positives as we head into 2020. Hopefully we’ll see even bigger numbers than ever before at all of the listed events, growing interest in the sport and UK athletes making a mark on the global scene.

Thanks to all the tower runners and race organisers who’ve made the 2019 season a great one.

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