Posts Tagged ‘history of stair climbing’

It’s 50 years since the first fully-recorded stair race in the UK took place in April 1968 at the GPO Tower (now BT Tower).

Although an undocumented event involving London students took place the year before, 1968 serves as a key point in the sport’s history in this country. We take a look back through the archives, and chat to some of the participants, to find out more about that historic and trailblazing race.

Read on to find out more about the sport’s history in the UK, including who took part in that race in 1968 and what the winning time was.

The GPO Tower

The tower had been commissioned by the General Post Office to support microwave aerials carrying telecommunications transmissions from London to the rest of the country. Work began in June 1961 and was finished in July 1964, at a cost of £2.5 million.

bt-tower-under-construction-1963-136385688702102601-140204102451

The tower under construction in 1963.

Upon completion the tower became the tallest building in the UK – a title it would hold until the completion of the Natwest Tower (Tower 42) in 1980.

It wasn’t until October 1965 that it would officially open, in a ceremony with then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in attendance.

wilson-136400927618602601

Prime Minister Harold Wilson officially opening the tower, with former Prime Minister Clement Atlee (seated) and a young Tony Benn watching on.

The first documented tower race in the UK

The race took place on Thursday 18th April 1968. It was organised by students from nearby University College, London as part of the RAG Committees activities that year. RAG is a longstanding, and still popular, tradition at UK universities, where students engage in a variety of activities, including sports events and sponsored challenges, to raise money for charitable causes.

The small piece pictured below featured in the Aberdeen Evening Express on Wednesday 10 April 1968, just over a week before the event.

tower run 68

The next one is taken from the Coventry Evening Telegraph on Friday 12th April 1968.

Coventry evening tel_10 Apr 1968

Details about who was involved at the University of London, and how they managed to organise the event, have proved hard to come by. But we do know an invite/challenge was extended to students at the University of Edinburgh, who tied it in with their own Charities Week initiative up there.

By the time the event finished, the Londoners may well have regretted their choice of competition. Edinburgh sent down a team made up of members of the athletics and cross-country teams. They were among the best athletes in the country at the time.

Earlier in 1968, the University of Edinburgh Hare and Hounds cross-country team had won the British Universities Cross Country title. They had also won the team title at the Scottish National Cross Country Championship, becoming the first and only university team to have done so.

The Edinburgh team that attended the event was made up of: Hugh Stevenson (high hurdles), Jack MacFie (800m and cross-country), Iain Hathorn (400/800m and cross country), Andy McKean, John Exley and Ken Fyfe (all cross country). Also in attendance was Sheila Duncan, the only woman racing on the day.

1968

The Edinburgh University team celebrating their success

The seven-person Edinburgh team completely dominated the event. The men filled the top six places on the leaderboard, with cross-country athlete and 800m track specialist Jack MacFie taking the overall win, and establishing the course record, in a time of 4.46.

The previous record, set in 1967 by an unknown University of London student, stood at 6.02.

Behind him were Andy McKean (4.59), Ken Fyfe and Iain Hathorn (5.10), John Exley (5.32) and Hugh Stevenson (5.35).

runners

The six men of the University of Edinburgh team (note – our name spellings are correct)

Sheila Duncan finished in a time of 7.06. She was a multi-eventer on the university’s athletics team, but was better known as a hockey player who went on to represent the Scottish national team.

sheila

Sheila Duncan

Memories of the race

We got in touch with Andy McKean, a first year architecture student at the time, and team mates John Exley and Hugh Stevenson, to find out what memories remained of that race 50 years ago. Following the event, Andy went on to win four Scottish Cross Country titles, represented Scotland at international races, and competed in the inaugural World Cross Country Championship in 1973.

Good-Andy-724x1024

Andy McKean in action (image courtesy of www.scottishdistancerunninghistory.scot).

“I think our participation may have been in some way associated with the Edinburgh Charities Week – i.e as a kind of charity stunt. I recall receiving a t-shirt emblazoned with the GPO Tower and a charity name, although I cannot remember which one. It must have been organised rather at the last minute and on a shoe string: we all traveled down by car the night before (fortunately with other friends driving), and back to Edinburgh again overnight the night after; so I was absolutely knackered when we got home!”

Remarkably, Hugh Stevenson still had his 50-year old t-shirt when we heard from him. He told us the team had been sponsored by the Scottish Milk Marketing Board in aid of Edinburgh Student Charities, and the t-shirts had ‘Edinburgh Charities Strong Pintamen up GPO Tower’ written on them.

For those of you who have raced the BT Tower in recent years, you will recall how narrow the stairwell is. A problem that hindered McKean on the day:

“In truth I was a bit too tall for it, as the space was fairly confined and actually felt quite claustrophobic at times.”

But he recalls the victorious Jack MacFie was well suited to it:

“Yes, Jack was indeed the fastest on the day, and I remember us all reflecting afterwards that he had exactly the right build for the event, slightly stocky (by distance running standards) but sufficiently strong and agile for managing the steps and turns at the stair landings.”

Yes, those pioneers immediately recognised the importance of quick landing turns to success in stair running.

There was lots of media coverage on the day from newspapers and national TV, including the video below.

Hugh Stevenson recalled well-known TV presenter Alex Mackintosh interviewing race winner Jack MacFie.

“‘Well Jack, now that you’ve got your breath back, how does it feel to be World All Comers Record Holder for the Post Office Tower?’. To which the reply was, ‘All right I suppose.’ The nightmare continued with, ‘How are the team going to celebrate your victory tonight?’ Jack replied, ‘Have a few drinks I suppose, then drive back up to Edinburgh’ Cue panic cries from producer, ‘Cut! Cut! Can’t have that!’.”

Despite the large amount of media coverage on the day and the morning after, we found it hard to get hold of, with practically all of it kept behind the pay walls of multiple archive search engines. But thankfully, Hugh shared with us several newspaper clippings from the event he had in his scrapbook.

ed team 68

Thigh and mighty: the imposing Edinburgh team

Funnily, one journalist commented:

In years to come the Tower Race could take the place of the old-styled boat race between Oxford and Cambridge.

50 years on and disappointingly nothing close to that has materialised, and the sport in the UK is still very much in its infancy in terms of numbers of participants, media coverage, recognition and respect.

GPO Tower race 1969 and 1970

The organisers managed to run the event again in 1969, expanding it to include students from eight universities, but without the participation of the University of Edinburgh.

John Pearson of Manchester University was fastest in 1969, reaching the top in 5.07.

1970 would be the last year this University of London-organised event took place. Scottish athlete Norman Morrison, at the time a mathematics student at Imperial College, won the event and set a new course record of 4.21.

The only woman at the event that year was Hilary Tanner, representing Hull University. Like the fastest man at the race, she also set a new course record, with her time of 7.00.

An IRA bomb at the BT Tower in 1971 led to its closure to the public, and the event never returned.

Unfortunately, it would be decades before tower running returned to anywhere in the UK. In the intervening years the sport took off in North America, with the 1978 Empire State Building Run-Up being the first event, and now the longest continuously running stair climb event.

Advertisements