Today’s interviewee, Tricia O’Hara, is an American stair runner or ‘vertical runner’ who is ranked first in her age group and sixth in the US. Vertical running (also known as tower running or stair running) is a fast-growing sport that involves racing up the stairwells of the world’s most iconic skyscrapers. It even has its own World Series – the Vertical World Circuit – established a decade ago, which awards world ranking status and world champion titles.
When Tricia’s not racing up 100 flights of stairs, she’s running marathons and Ironman triathlons while splitting her time between America and France where she works as a personal trainer. I put some quick-fire questions to the 52-year-old (yes, she really is 52!) below.
1. When did you first start stair running?
Stair training was part of my weekly workouts growing up playing soccer and I loved it. Later on, when I started rowing crew in college, we did a lot of stadium stair running. It was like a ritual in our weekly training.
2. When did you realise that people did this competitively?
When I was 20 years old and stadium running with the rowing crew someone mentioned I should sign up to the [local] stair climb the following weekend. I signed up, did it and won. I was hooked!
3. How did your stair running progress?
I signed up for more races and won every one of them but when I moved back down to California, I couldn’t find any races and that was it for 25 years.
4.Can you describe the effort that goes into a stair run?
It’s basically seeing how fast I can climb with my heart rate redlining in the anaerobic zone while desperately gasping for air! I love seeing how far I can push myself.
5. How did you get back into stair running?
When I moved to New York seven years ago, they were advertising a race up the Rockefeller Centre, which was three weeks away. Not much time to train but I signed up. I trained by filling my backpack with 15lb and running up and down a set of stairs near me that consisted of about 70 stairs. On race day, I was put in the next to last wave but I came in third.
I’ve raced in the Elite Division now for five years winning numerous times, as well as taking many podium spots. I’m currently ranked first in my age division, which I’ve won for the last years, and I’m ranked sixth in the US.
6. Can you explain what a ‘tower run’ or ‘vertical stair climb’ involves?
Tower running or stair climbing involves racing – via an organised race – up a tall building as fast as you can.
7. Do you train specifically for stair climbing or is it a by-product of your running or overall fitness?
For me you need to do both. I’m normally training for a marathon or an Ironman triathlon as well, so the endurance from these disciplines help immensely in stair climbing.
8. How long does it typically take you to complete a tower run and what kind of fitness do you need?
The length of time to complete a tower running event depends on the height of the building. For me, as I mentioned before, I formally used stair races and stair training as training for rowing crew, running races and soccer. Now as I have gotten more sports-specific, I have set days aside where I only train on the stairs, days I do sprints at an incline on the treadmill to mimic the grade on the stairs, long endurance runs to build the endurance for the longer races – 70-100 floors – and weight training.
9. How has your technique changed since your first tower run?
When I first started, I didn’t know there was a certain technique involved with stair climbing; I simply ran as fast as I could to the top – no running every other step, no hands on the rails, just an even pace until I reached the top. I won or podiumed at every race though so I must have been doing something right!
10. Does strength training play a part in your training schedule?
Yes, definitely. Legs – squats, single leg squats, leg press, hamstrings – core and arms. It’s important to have strength and power in your arms to lessen the stress on your legs. For me, anyway.
11. What does a typical training week look like for you?
Tuesday: Stair repeats for 2 hours or tempo run/weights – I’m training for a marathon as well now.
Wednesday: Swim 3-4km. Weights.
Thursday: Stair repeats – 2 hours. Weights.
Friday: Swim 3-4km/weights.
Saturday: Long run – 2 hours.
Sunday: Stair repeats – 2 hours.
12. As a triathlete you were coached by 6 x Ironman world champion, Dave Scott. Any learnings from Dave that stick in your mind?
Haha, one thing that always sticks in my mind when I am racing is that Dave would always say, “Do what you can at the moment.”
13. Last year you ran marathons, finished an Ironman triathlon and competed in stair running. Do you have a favourite sports discipline?
Running! Besides growing up playing soccer for 15 years, I am a runner through and through!
14. Which has been your most challenging event to date?
Probably Ironman Astana and the New York Marathon last year. I was working so much and travelling with my private client that I was way undertrained. For these disciplines, it is imperative you get the training in. I suffered big time in the last 15k of the marathon; it was purely mind over matter. And for the Ironman, I just broke it down into segments and mentally checked each discipline off. Again, mind over matter.
15. You were a personal trainer at the Hotel du Cap in the south of France – what did a day there involve?
I work for myself now, but before, my day would start at 4m as I was training for the Berlin and NY marathon. I would go to work at 7am and finish at 8pm. 6-7 days a week. I mostly worked with celebrities and high wealth business people from NY. It was super-fun!
16. Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
17. What are your must-have items of kit for training and competing?
Good running shoes, or racing flats, a good playlist and GU gel! And massage!
18. What are your insider stair climbing tips for beginners?
Pace yourself, go slower in the first half and wait till you’re 10 floors out – then, if you have the energy, go full throttle!
19. Have you found that stair climbing helps your running?
[When I started tower running again] I was training for the NY and Berlin Marathon but I found the stair training help to propel me as a runner. It made me push myself faster and harder than running alone did.
20. What have you got on the horizon in 2019 and have you set any goals?
I have three marathons, trying to qualify for Boston again and a plethora of stair climbs! And of course always trying to better myself and grab a PR!