Vertical marathons are like reverse fire drills with everyone up instead of down the stairs. Our correspondent is about to take one on in Dubai.
It's on the eight floor, or step number 96, that the burning pain rips through my leg muscles. I am panting as if drowning, gulping for oxygen like it's my last breath. My feet feel like rocks. No, bigger and heavier than rocks; they feel like great, granite boulders. I stagger and heave myself up another flight. "What is this?" ask my legs. "Why are we bounding up stairs two at a time when this building has a perfectly good lift? Are you mad?"
The reason that I find myself swinging up stairs is that I am in training for Dubai's vertical marathon. The word training, though, is generous. My schedule has so far consisted of several attempts to scale the height of my own building in Abu Dhabi (20 storeys) at a steady pace. So far, I shoot off from the bottom like a race horse at the starting gates, but by floors seven or eight I am reduced to an ungainly stagger.
Picture, if you will, a reverse fire drill. That is what a vertical marathon looks like; instead of sensibly walking down the stairs, those involved scramble up them. The only equipment you need is a decent pair of trainers . It's a relatively new phenomenon, a form of intense exercise that really took off in cities across the world in the 1990s. The longest, most gruelling race among them took place earlier this month in the Taipei 101 tower (509 metres high), where hundreds made their way up 2,046 steps in competition for the winner's cash prize of $6,100 (Dh22,500). Other notable races are up the Empire State Building in New York, The CN Tower Climb in Toronto (strictly no iPods allowed) and one in South East Asia's tallest hotel, the Swissôtel in Singapore, where participants are told that they're more than welcome to "hold on to the railing and take a rest".
On Friday, Dubai will host its very own vertical marathon up the taller of the two Jumeirah Emirates Towers. It's a 1,334-stair, 52-floor ascent of 265 metres from bottom to top: 150 participants will be despatched up the building at intervals of 30 seconds. They will be of all fitness levels and ages in both competitive and non-competitive heats, and all money raised through individual sponsorship goes to Doctors Without Borders. In the marathon's six-year history, over Dh500,000 has been raised.
For the Dubai resident Amit Mulani, charity is the main reason for his involvement with the race. "It is challenging," he says. "After maybe the 20th floor, you still have to go up to the 50th, and I do feel the pain. But what I do is remind myself of the purpose. People have sponsored me, and I remind myself that the purpose of doing this is that going through pain for the next half an hour will relieve pain from children and those in need."
Mulani has so far stumped up the Dh500 minimum required to register for the race himself, but he plans to chase up family and friends through e-mails this week to try and raise more. "The most I've raised for previous vertical marathons was Dh1,100, more still for other Doctors Without Borders events," he says, but adds that raising money is harder now because people have less money to spare. "It will be more challenging this year, but I can't blame them," he says resignedly.
Mulani is a pro with this race now. Beside the other Doctors Without Borders events, such as beach walks and the annual 1.4-km swim around the Burj Al Arab, he has completed the ascent three times previously, once in the competitive heat, twice in the non-competitive one. "The first time, I did it in 12 and a half minutes," he says. "Now I'm going to walk up, meet people and enjoy it. Some people race, and then after five floors you see them sitting down because it's a marathon, not a 100-metre dash. You have to keep your pace consistently. "
Bearing in mind my own inability to maintain a steady speed despite being relatively fit, Mulani's health regime is surprising. "I do yoga," he laughs. "Just hatha yoga. The race has definitely become easier since I stopped doing cardio and started doing yoga classes three times a week." On the other hand, a fellow-competitor, Brook Katzen, 29, is approaching training in a manner that would befit Rocky. "I've been on the cross trainer in the gym for 45 minutes five days a week, and then every Friday morning I run up Millennium Tower," he says in a no-nonsense fashion, explaining his fitness regime for the past four weeks.
"It's 64 storeys, which I do in about 11 and a half minutes." That works out at just over 10 seconds per storey; quite a pace to maintain for any length of time. Like Mulani, Katzen has also completed the Burj Al Arab charity swim, and says he has signed up for the race because "it seems like a lot of fun and it's for a great cause". One of the worst parts of his training, he jokes, was one Friday morning when wafts of cigarette smoke blew down on him from where a resident stood smoking in the stairwell. Happily, the extremely tight security surrounding the event means that he'll probably be spared this on race day. "It's a pretty nifty name, the vertical marathon," he says, laughing. "But really, it's just a sprint up a building."
Indeed. A sprint that leaves quadricep muscles wobbly with exertion and participants gasping for breath as if they're about to have a heart attack. Some talk of being sick once they reach the top of the building, because it's such an intense, quick burst of cardiovascular exercise. Because you are moving vertically in the climb, instead of horizontally, say, with normal running, it's less stressful on the body's joints yet requires more energy and is tougher on the heart and lungs. More challenging still in Dubai is the fact that the stairwell warms up very quickly with the number of bodies snaking up it, despite being air-conditioned from the adjoining fire-doors to each storey along with the odd water-station.
Petra Fialova is an expert on the health-side of things when it comes to the vertical marathon. The 31-year-old Czech woman has raced in the Dubai version for the past three years, once coming first overall, and then last year winning the women's section but coming second to the male winner. Not only this, but last year once Fialova had finished the speedy nine-and-a-half minute ascent she hopped in the lift back down and then walked halfway up Emirates Tower again with her husband and two-year old son. "In Dubai, kids are unfit," she explains, "For me, yes I wanted to raise money for charity but also show that kids should exercise."
Fialova is a triathlete, so she didn't have to increase her training for the race, but even she still admits that it's a painful experience. For her, the 30th floor is the hardest point. "You think, 'Oh no, I have 20 to go,'" she says, "and your throat is killing you. But go two by two on the steps and use your arms." As she has only just given birth to her second child, and she is no longer living in Dubai, Fialova will be missing from the star line-up on Friday. But her flight from the Czech Republic back home to Australia is due to stop in Dubai over the weekend. "Perhaps I'll think about doing it this year then," she laughs over the telephone.
One of the most heartening aspects of the marathon is that it does in fact unite those of all ages. Last year, two of the youngest competitors (asides from Fialova's two-year old son) were the Reid brothers, Dubai residents from Nova Scotia. The younger of the two, Guillaume, was 15 when he took third place overall last year, beaten only by Petra and his older brother, Clifford, then 17. Both are returning to race each other again this year. Guillaume, a track runner, says he trains almost every day of the week anyway in addition to playing plenty of competitive team sports such as hockey and football.
Is youth perhaps an advantage, I ask, when it comes to hurling yourself up the stairs? "I wouldn't consider it an advantage," he replies. "Being younger, I haven't had as many years to train as older people," though he adds that he hasn't had as much time to fall out of shape either. His hope is that he finishes in nine minutes and 30 seconds, roughly the same time that he finished last year's race in. It's unspoken but perhaps, too, he might beat his brother and claim the winner's trophy from him.
The registration form for the Dubai vertical marathon suggests that a time between 10 and 20 minutes is achievable for someone who is of an average fitness level and pushes themselves. Another Canadian in the race, Francois Leblanc, a 35-year-old corporate lawyer, says that he has consequently decided to strive for 14 minutes. His involvement has stemmed in part from a resolve to get fitter over the past year. He has lost a staggering 18 kilograms in 12 months by eating more healthily, shedding body fat and adding lean muscle mass, and he'll be raring to go at the start line on Friday. "I think I am now in the best shape of my life," he says. "Coming from Canada, being able to exercise outdoors almost every day at the park or the beach is great. I now do some form of exercise almost every day, whether it be resistance training, core training, running, swimming, yoga or boxing."
I cast my mind back over my own fitness regime. I signed up for the vertical marathon several weeks ago as a fitness goal to stake in my calendar to help combat the alarming upward trajectory of my bathroom scale. I run several times a week, a perfunctory half-hour bout on the treadmill. This is occasionally interspersed with a brief thrash up and down in a swimming pool. But it's not the all-encompassing regime that those such as Leblanc have embraced. On a preliminary "site" visit in Dubai, I stand outside and squint up at the top of Emirates Tower. It makes me feel dizzy, and slightly sick.
What's wrong, I think to myself, with just taking the lift? firstname.lastname@example.org