Posts Tagged ‘history of stair climbing’

Tower running is celebrating its 50th anniversary in the UK this year, with the first recorded stair race having taken place in April 1968 at the GPO Tower (now BT Tower).

With the stair racing season about to start, we take a look back to 1968 to find out a bit 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 first race 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.


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.


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

The first 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.

Unfortunately, there is a limited amount of information to be found about this monumental event in this sport’s history. We did find a couple of short excerpts below when searching through newspaper archives, both of which appear to be based on a GPO press release.

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 that first UK stair climb 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, but we were unable to find out what athletic events, if any, she was involved in.

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.

Sheila Duncan took victory as the fastest woman in a time of 7.06. She may well have been the only woman who took part.

Memories of the race

We managed to get in touch with Andy McKean, a first year architecture student at the time, 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.


Andy McKean in action (image courtesy of

“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!”

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.

The event organisers managed to run the event again in 1969 and 1970. A bomb at the BT Tower in 1971 is the likely reason it didn’t continue beyond that, as the venue was closed to the public.

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