There is a sect of intrepid adventure runners who call themselves “tower runners”. Some even call themselves professionals. And there is even a governing body for this running discipline.
Probably the most famous of these tower running events is the annual Empire State Building Run Up in New York, which challenges runners to take on its 1 576 steps up to the 86th floor observation deck. One of the most famous, or infamous, buildings in Johannesburg must be the Ponte City Apartments, recognisable in any view of the Johannesburg skyline – standing at 173 metres tall. Every few months Dlala Nje and Microadventure Tours host the Ponte Challenge, a race up the just-over-900 stairs to the 54th floor.
Although the event might not match the renown of the Empire State Building Run Up, my curiosity to test my endurance on the stairs of this once notorious crime-ridden apartment block was too tempting to ignore. I have visited the building before and it has to be made clear it is no longer an urban slum and is safe to visit.
Joining me for the adventure, my 11-year-old son was more daunted by the thought of physically climbing the 54 storeys than any notion of crime. After being ushered to safe parking in the building, we made our way to a reception centre for registration and joined about 50 people as we were taken to the ground-floor of the fascinating science fiction-like hollow core of the imposing concrete structure. Here we were given race instructions, regarding the race and Covid-19 compliancy, and competitors took some time to marvel at the architecture, taking photographs and posing for selfies.
Being relatively fit, but not quite an athlete, it was appeasing to note the mix of other competitors – all age groups, and all fitness levels. Some were there to attempt to break records, and some were there for the adventure. We were then guided to the start of a steel and concrete structured stair case exposed to the hollow core that would form the first part of the race.
Runners start at intervals with the presumed fastest in your group going first. And we were off. Up above, echoing through the stairwell, I could hear the more competitive athletes racing up the stairs – jovially making their way to the top. Despite telling myself I would take it easy from the start, within five flights of a slow jog my quads and calves were on fire. This was proving quite the test. After a few storeys in the core, the race then diverts to the stairs adjacent to the lifts – here you get to see the neat and well kept corridors to the apartments themselves.
You might also encounter some of the residents – who cheerfully offer much-welcomed encouragement. About halfway up, my son was managing much better than me – easy to understand considering I was having to lug my body weight of almost 100kg in this constant uphill. But, I couldn’t have been doing too badly as I began overtaking runners from earlier groups.
After some running, but mostly walking, I made it – the 54th floor! My son finished before me, but I finished in about 13 minutes. Following the race participants are invited to enjoy a breakfast with refreshments in a venue on the 51st floor, where you can take in the remarkable views.
There is also a prizegiving with sponsored prizes for the top climbers of the day. The winner of our race finished in seven minutes, 30 seconds, but the overall record is five minutes, 16 seconds. On our visit it was a misty day, which made for a unique take on the city views, but it was wonderful to dine in the clouds and gloat about our own tower running accomplishment and having satisfied our thirst for adventure.
Upcoming Ponte Challenges will take place on 7 February and 28 March. Visit dlalanje.org for more information.