Posts Tagged ‘Swissotel Vertical Marathon’

1980s westin stamford

Home to some of the biggest races in tower running, Asia is fast becoming the main arena of the sport. But stair running is nothing new to the region – Singapore has been hosting races for over 30 years.

Swissotel The Stamford hotel in Raffles City, Singapore is famous in the lore of tower running, most notably as the venue for the stair racing debut of the incredible Suzy Walsham in 2006. But the Australian superstar’s first race at the Vertical Marathon was actually the 20th edition of the event.

Read on to find out how the Asian tower running scene began in Singapore in 1987.

Back in 1987, the now Swissotel The Stamford was part of the Westin chain of hotels. William McCreary was managing director of Westin Stamford and the nearby Plaza, and under his stewardship the two hotels jointly designed to organise the first stair race event in the region.

As the tallest hotel in the world at the time, the 226-metre high Stamford was selected as the venue for the event. With 1,336 steps spread over 73 floors, the building would prove quite a challenge to the first time runners in Singapore.

All the funds raised by the ‘Vertical Marathon’ would go to the Community Chest, which had been established in 1983 to raise funds for social welfare projects in Singapore.

The trial run

Practice sessions in buildings hosting tower runs aren’t unique and nowadays a number of large events, particularly in the United States, grant participants access to the stairs weeks in advance of the race.

But the Vertical Marathon in 1987 was slightly different in that it appears to have officially timed the trial run, which was held in February a full three months before the big race in May.

The fastest man and woman at the trial run even got their pictures in one of the biggest English-language newspapers in Singapore, The Straits Times.

Time trial winners 1987

David Cheah Fook Choy, a 25-year old technician with the Public Utilities Board, was fastest to the top with a time of 8:20.

Mr Cheah said he was exhausted after the first 40 floors and had to walk the remaining 33. ‘But the heavenly view you catch at the top of the building makes it all worth the while’, he added.

The fastest woman in the trial was a 31-year old British athlete, Helen Gilbey, a lecturer at the College of Physical Education. Already a well-established athlete in Singapore with a number of road races of varying distances under her belt, Gilbey finished with a trial time of 10:05.

‘After running 50 floors, oooh! I had to pull myself up using the safety banisters’, she told reporters.

The pair would head into the main race as firm favourites.

Vertical Events Sports Association

Before the main event had even taken place, an industrious group had got together and formed the Vertical Events Sports Association (VESA). The stated aims of the association were to promote and organise ‘all forms of vertical sport, including climbing steps or walking and running up high buildings’.

The Association was met with incredulity. It took six months for the Registrar of Societies to sign off on it – double the usual length of time it took to register a new association.

But Kenneth Jalleh, President of VESA, was determined to show this was no joke. ‘In no way are we going to try and push this as a fun thing. This is serious’, he told reporters. ‘Nobody realises just how good an exercise this is. It’s aerobic, it builds up a lot of strength and it’s dirt cheap’.

‘And we’ve got some of the tallest buildings in the world and most Singaporeans live in high-rise buildings’, added honorary secretary Kelvin Tan.

Jalleh also referenced the growing popularity of the sport in the USA and said that in 1986 a stair climb event at the World Trade Center had attracted 26,000 participants (Ed. note – this number seems almost impossible and we’ve been unable to find additional references to this event happening).

A public health warning

A little under a month before the race took place, The Straits Times carried an interview with two doctors, under the headline – ‘Vertical run only for very fit’.

The pair advised that those thinking of taking part in the upcoming Vertical Marathon should be very fit and train for the event.

Dr Low Lip Ping from the Singapore National Heart Association said: ‘I would not recommend anyone to take part in such an event as stairs racing, because it gives the person little chance to warm up and thus cause the blood pressure to go up too fast.’

Dr Giam Choo Kiong, Head of Sports Medicine and Research at the Singapore Sports Council added: ‘Running up stairs has been shown to be up to three times as strenuous as running on the level. Therefore, running up stairs continuously is not recommended for people who are unfit or do not train for such an activity.’

By this point, less than four weeks out from the race, 100 people had already signed up. They did so by picking up an entry form from the HR departments at either the Plaza or Stamford hotels.

The first Singapore Vertical Marathon

On Sunday 3rd May 1987 the first Singapore Vertical Marathon took place. 180 of the 250 available spaces had been filled, with 130 men and 50 women at the start line.

Participants had to be between 16 and 40 years old and each was asked to raise at least $73 – a dollar for each floor of the hotel they would be running up.

The prize for the fastest man and woman was a two-night stay at the Executive Suite of the Westin Plaza with American breakfast included, plus a year’s free membership at Raffles City Health Club.

The event got underway at 9am, with batches of four runners setting off every two minutes. Officials from the Singapore Amateur Athletic Association acted as marshals, timekeepers and recorders.

Spectators were gathered on the ground floor of the hotel to follow the action. Seven cameras had been set up at various points throughout the stairwell to relay the event live.

With her marathon-running background and strong trial run time of 10:05, Helen Gilbey was favourite to take the win in the women’s division. She told reporters she was hoping to finish in under 9:30. Gilbey did even better than anticipated, reaching the rooftop finish in 9:04.

Helen Gilbey SVM 1987

Helen Gilbey exits onto the rooftop of the Stamford hotel to win the first Singapore Vertical Marathon in 1987

Leong Siew May finished second in 10:25, and Tan Meow Liang was third in 10:41.

In the men’s race, Kenneth Keng took victory in 7:20. A successful athlete for a number of years, Keng had won the Singapore triathlon from 1983-1985.

Ken Keng 1987

He edged out the February trial run winner David Cheah who finished in 7:47. Another triathlete, Martin Hagger, finished third in 8:12.

Keng told reporters that the race was ‘grueling’, but that he’d do it again next year.

The organisers put forward Kenneth Keng’s and Helen Gilbey’s name to the Guinness Book of Records, and apparently Keng was listed in the 1987 edition.

The whole event raised $20,000 dollars for the Community Chest of Singapore.

1988 Singapore Vertical Marathon

Both 1987 winners returned on Sunday 8th May 1988 to defend their titles.

Kenneth Keng secured victory in a time of 7:35.

‘I went too fast in the beginning’, he said. ‘I should be very happy with the time as I’ve just recovered from the flu.’

Helen Gilbey said before the race she was aiming to finish in ‘anything under nine minutes’. She did just that, setting a new course record of 8:46.

‘I’m very pleased, and very relieved it’s all over as well’, said Gilbey. ‘My husband and I live in a 14-storey apartment block and we have been running nine times up the stairs three times a week. This has been going on for the last six to eight weeks.’

1988 singapore winners

Helen Gilbey and Kenneth Keng celebrate winning the 1988 Singapore Vertical Marathon

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