On Tuesday I was at the Olympic Park for a run with a bit of a difference. Instead of running horizontally, I was running vertically – up the Orbit, that is, the peculiar helter-skelter-like structure next to the stadium. It’s 114.5 metres tall with 455 spiral stairs. I did this event last year and knew to expect a strange mix of attendees. 50% of them were Serious Tower Runners (some of them I recognised from last year) who travel the world running up tall buildings really quickly, the remainder were split between regular serious fast runners who spotted this event and thought it sounded a bit different and people doing it in groups for charity, and then there was one podgy runner of sub average ability with a mysterious compulsion for going upwards. That’d be me.
The race begins in the bell shaped dome under the tower. (I always think this looks a bit like it should be where the slide chute ejects you, but it isn’t.) The first section of the tower is a stair-less upward slope (like a wheelchair ramp), then the stairs set in after one circuit. Runners are set off in order of their projected finish times, which are either based on previous tower runs or a recent 5km time. I was horrified to discover I was halfway down the list – maybe I accidentally put 25 minutes instead of 35? – but fortunately my request to be moved to the last slot was accommodated without any bother (although pleasingly at the end I discovered there had actually been three people slower than me). I stood at the bottom and watched runner after runner set off into the whirling abyss of the Orbit. Because the staircase is surrounded in a metal grille, you can catch glimpses of them as they go up and see their feet over your heads. I noticed that the serious tower runners seemed to set off more slowly than the ordinary runners, but then bounded up the stairs two at a time, using the handrail (some wore gloves on their rail hand). You can also see out as you are on the way up, watching the view unfold and the ground get further and further away.
Finally it was my turn and I set off up the tower. I did my best to emulate the Serious Tower People by not setting off too fast (that was easy) and using the handrail (slightly less easy – I kept pulling myself off balance). I did not attempt to take the stairs two at a time because my legs are very short and as you may recall I am quite prone to tripping over and I could just imagine myself falling backwards down the entire tower.
It doesn’t take long for running up stairs to turn into walking up stairs and for that walking to become absolutely exhausting. This is what I like about tower runs and steep hills – it is the only time I feel I am really at 100% exertion. When I run on the flat, my legs can’t keep up a puffing and panting sort of pace for more than 200 metres. My lungs say go, but my legs say “fuck off”. This is not the case going up stairs, for the entire journey to the top I was breathing so deeply my lungs hurt, hearing the sound of my breath echoing round the chamber, working so hard that I almost saw stars. Just when I thought that I couldn’t actually go any further without having a little sit down, there was the “nearly there marshall” who said something encouraging that I couldn’t reply to. With renewed enthusiasm, I bounded up the final spiral, over the finish line and on to the viewing platform where a spectacular view of London from all directions awaited me. I downed water like I’d been lost in the desert for a month and waiting for my breath to return to normal.
But the ordeal didn’t end there – because what goes up must come down and I wasn’t going down in the lift. The orbit is equipped with a 178 metre slide which catapults you from top to bottom at 15mph. The upward journey that took me six minutes was undone in 45 seconds, and yes, I did scream.