I did the 2013 Gherkin Challenge for the NSPCC this year.  This was my first ever ‘stairs’ challenge event – and it was really fun! And it helped me prove to myself that I can overcome not only the external challenges of the event, but the internal challenges that have sometimes prevented me from taking them on in the first place.

I’m reasonably fit but after the 5×50 Challenge I eased off my daily physical activity and have been focusing on work, on managing disruption from local building works, and on doing some writing for a course in Functional Therapy for personal trainers and therapists.  My cardiovascular fitness is absolutely not what it should be.  I signed up rather late and embarrassingly -with the exception of a few optional stairs excursions at Regent’s Park Tube station – I didn’t train much.  I thought I’d just ‘wing it’ and see how it went.

The morning of the event I was really nervous.  I think I was particularly nervous because I knew I hadn’t trained – I didn’t have to be at the Gherkin until 11a, but I was up at 4am! As the morning wore on my nervousness changed to excitement.  I stitched my running number to my NSPCC vest.  (Why, you ask? Because I’m allergic to nickel and didn’t want the pins irritating me and giving me a sweat-overlaid contact dermatitis!)  I had my coffee because I didn’t want to suddenly change my routine. And because I love it.  (And before you scold me,  it doesn’t dehydrate you – read my post on water myths and on coffee consumption !)  I was sure to wear my cycling over shorts as all of my running shorts had pockets that were too small for the phone – and I wanted a photo at the top! (Rules specified that any items carried had to get zipped into a pocket for safety reasons).   I slipped the timing chip into my Salomon Crossmax and I headed to the Gherkin!

I got off at Bank and walked the few minutes from the station.   That part of London is eerily quiet on the weekends – it makes it a great time to go and photograph streetscapes if you are into that kind of thing!  I signed in and as I was early I went for a walk to use up some time and nervous energy.  After a quick fresh squeezed OJ on the bench outside and admiring (fearing!?) the tall and shiny obstacle in front of me, I went in and they were preparing to call our group.  There were children with parents, adults of various ages, some people in costumes and some people clearly prepared for an athletic event!

When our group was called we rounded up and were led through the metal detector to the start of the event.  We were asked to sort ourselves according to how competitive we felt – those aiming for a fast time toward the front, those not bothering with that nonsense at the back.  This was to prevent holdups that might be caused by people dressed in bear suits obstructing those who wanted to be first to the top! We then got a bit more detail, and a pep talk! The pep talk was much needed after the detail, that is for sure.

The 38 floors of the Gherkin is NOT equal to 38 flights of stairs.  It is equivalent to 64 flights of stairs.  And there are no landings – just corners to turn.  Yes so it really was straight up, just like the advert said!  It was 180 m into the London sky.  Everyone pranced in position, then stepped over the timing mat and were off!

I started paired with a woman who ended up doing an amazing time.  We paced one another for the first few flights – and then she took off ahead of me.  Pacing me was her warmup !  She was wearing cycling gloves, which was now part of the obvious technique she was applying to this challenge.  As she moved ahead of me, she began to skip stairs in her stride – and using her well protected hands to pull herself up along the handrail.  She was fast so didn’t have to worry about being overtaken – and she cut the inside corner going around the corners that linked the flights together.  I didn’t see her again until the finish !

Every handful of floors there were cheering volunteers there to encourage us all to keep going, and every now and then there would be a sign on the wall saying ‘You are now higher in the sky than the top of the London Eye’ or something along those lines.  Aside from the signs on the wall as I rounded the corners, and the cheering volunteers I just concentrated on the steps and taking each flight as consistently as possible.  I didn’t want to rush some, get tired, and then have to go very slowly on the others.  And when I did get distracted – for example meeting the eyes of one of the volunteers and trying to smile back in appreciation – I lost my stride and stumbled on the stairs.  – so after the first few flights I found a comfortable level of ‘windedness’ and kept with that and tried to maintain only a slight awareness of anything else.gherkin medal

By the fifteenth flight I was really feeling it, but I was excited to be passing someone who had taken off at lightning speed ahead of me – and had to slow down to catch his breath.  For me and my motivation, the consistency thing pays off in the end because he never caught me up.  I just kept my legs moving consistently, kept breathing consistently, and tried to not count!  Some people were counting – up, down, flights, steps, etc.  I had planned to do that but actually found it distracting to do and so returned to the ‘zone’ of awareness I had gotten to and just kept moving.  I did smile inside when I hit the halfway point – I was feeling good.  By the time I got to ‘only eight more floors to go’ and someone yelled ‘yeah but how many flights of stairs is that?’, I was really puffed and tried to not hear the answer!  I just kept my thoughts on my breathing and kept moving.

By the time I hit the top, I hadn’t realised I was there – I had hit a flat landing and my legs wanted more stairs and so I tripped onto the timing mat with a thump (so graceful) and turned the corner to a loud cheer.  The volunteers were amazing – massive smiles, loud cheers, big cameras.   And of course – the finish spot was amazing.  We went up one floor in a lift (!) to the top of the Gherkin, looked out across all of London, and shared champagne and our iPhones so we could tweet or post to Facebook announcing that we had finished.

I finished in 10 minutes 26 seconds, so roughly 100 steps per minute. I was 22nd out of 84 women that day, but not sure where I fell in the full ranking – Sunday was for ‘competitively spirited’ challengers!  The experience was a really good one for me in a lot of ways – I proved to myself I could overcome some physical obstacles and get back into living a physically active life.  My knee didn’t hurt me! I did something wacky (which always appeals!) and fun.  I did it for a good cause.  It reminded me that if I put my mind to it – and to training – I can do even better.  And it revved me up for my next challenge.

What will it be?  I’m open to suggestions!  Please leave a comment!