Athlete Suzy Walsham is hard to beat on a flat surface, be it a road or a track. When bounding up steps to the top of a skyscraper, she is virtually uncatchable.
Walsham is the poster girl for tower running, whereby competitors race to the top of iconic skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building in New York City and, two weekends ago, the 330-metre-high China World Summit Wing hotel in Beijing.
Walsham, a former Australian national track athlete, was the fastest woman up the 2,041 steps of the 82-storey hotel in 11 minutes, 7 seconds.
"The race was tough," says Walsham, who works in Singapore as a manager for a computer security firm. "Although the stairs were not very high, the stairwell was quite complicated, with random flat bits of running, changing direction, changing stairwells and so on. But that also made the race interesting."
Who knew stairwells had such intricacies? Stair climbing, in fact, has a global schedule of races comprising 150 events across 25 countries. Michael Reichetzeder, executive director of the Tower-Running World Council, is on a mission to make tower running an Olympic sport.
Beijing was a new addition to and the fourth stage of this year's eight-race Vertical World Circuit, which began in 2009. The premier circuit also includes the race up the Empire State and other buildings in Switzerland, Spain, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and Brazil.
The sport is perhaps tailor-made for Asian cities, with their ever-increasing number of high-rises. Last week, the Shanghai Tower - though still an ongoing project at the Old Docks - topped out at 580 metres to become China's highest building and the world's second-highest behind Dubai's Burj Khalifa (828 metres). Scheduled for completion by 2015, the Shanghai Tower will be 632 metres high. Other Chinese cities are planning or constructing their own megastructures.
The Beijing Vertical Run was a thrilling event, where the 600 entrants jostled and panted their way up the narrow stairwells of the downtown tower. As well as the satisfaction of finishing such an arduous challenge, they were also able to enjoy the rare sight of Beijing on a pollution-free day.
"The race was one of the longest I have done this year, so it was quite different to my last race in Bratislava [in Slovakia] that was only 22 floors and took less than two minutes, 30 seconds. In Beijing, I felt pretty strong up until about the 70th floor and then I started to feel quite tired and slowed down a lot over the last 10 floors," Walsham says. "Often my friends are amazed I do this sport … they say they would get tired after about three floors and think I am crazy."
There is a certain madness - or masochism - associated with the sport, not to mention very real medical risks. Even super-fit athletes are pushing their bodies to the limit by engaging in such intense activity, subjecting the heart, lungs and limbs to a far more vigorous workout than road running, or plodding along on gently moving gym treadmills.
But as with all sports, the danger is part of the appeal, as well as the more whimsical aspect of ascending landmark buildings in major world cities. Hong Kong-based Frenchman Clement Dumont is one such high-rise running tourist, who plans holiday weekends around events. His wife Sabrina also regularly participates.
"As a trail runner, this type of intense and brief effort is not something I usually experience," he says. "At the top of the building, you can barely walk. You try to take back your breath for a good five minutes. But I recover really fast; within an hour I feel fine and can go and visit the city and enjoy the afternoon with the family. The only thing that lasts for a day is the dry throat probably from the dry air."
Dumont does little specific training for stair running, figuring that his regular route, climbing up to Sunset Peak on Lantau Island, is not too dissimilar to tackling a steep stairwell.
But Dumont, who organises the TransLantau trail running race, acknowledges he needs to work on his handrail technique, mastering the art of using the metal wall fixtures to help gain extra speed.
Vertical races attract a mixed bag of athletes, from sprinters to long-distance specialists. Everyone with access to a high-rise building - which means pretty much everyone in Hong Kong, Beijing or Shanghai - can train for a vertical running race, or simply use stair running as a quick and effective workout.
One competitor in Beijing who had a few stairwell location insights was the Wing hotel's general manager, Thomas Schmitt-Glaeser. He also picked up a few tips from German compatriot and champion stair racer Thomas Dold, who won the event in 9:55.
"I discovered that it is best to save your energy for the long run. If you start off like a bullet, you will burn out by the 10th floor," says Schmitt-Glaeser. "You also need to keep rhythm and don't count the steps which distracts and demotivates. Having said that, after 30 floors, it seemed the stairs would never finish."
Be warned: the intensity of vertical running means it is not for neophytes. Walsham had many years of successful track and distance running under her belt before "stepping up".
"I love to challenge myself and this sport is certainly very challenging, and right now, it takes me all over the world for competitions and I love it. I also have fewer injuries now that I am training more on the stairs, although I still do quite a bit of running, so the sport has given me a mini athletic-career revival.
"It is the kind of sport anyone can do, and is especially good for people with busy lives - you only need a building, you don't have to worry about the weather, and in 15 to 30 minutes, you can get a really, really tough workout.
"If you are prone to injuries due to the pounding of running, this is the perfect alternative - it is lower-impact, and builds up a lot of power and strength in your legs," Walsham says.
"Just make sure you catch the lift back down as it is harder on the legs walking down than it is running up."