The last day in August saw the 7th edition of the UFO race in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. The inaugural event back in 2013 was a standalone event but in the intervening years, the UFO Tower has typically been the final instalment of a three-race series following on from the Donauturm in Vienna, Austria and Brno’s AZ Tower in the Czech Republic. Last year was an exception to this rule, with just the AZ Tower joining the UFO Tower for the combination Tour race.
So, for the second time, this year would be a standalone race…but with one significant difference. The race format would see athletes run up not once, not twice but three times! Finishing positions would be determined by aggregate time from the three rounds. To add to the challenge, both the women and the men would run all of their heats consecutively meaning minimal recovery between efforts. If that wasn’t enough to make grown men (and women) whimper, then the temperature would most certainly do that; the ambient temperature next to the Danube river was 32 degrees Celsius with the stairwell interior almost certainly exceeding 40 degrees Celsius on the higher floors of the tower…
The UFO Tower was completed in 1972 and stands at a height of 95m; the tower also houses a bar and restaurant. Adrenaline junkies are also able to do a 360-degree walk around the roof of the tower! The stairwell itself totals 430 steep steps over 23 floors. A novelty of this race is that as well as going up, runners are also moving ‘backwards’ as the stairwell sits in the west pillar of the tower which rises on the diagonal. The stairwell is quite technical in nature as a result, so for those running it for the first time there was a welcome chance to recce the tower beforehand.
As race time approached, the athletes prepared themselves. The race format meant this was not just a test of sprinting prowess but one of both stamina and strategy too. Slovakia’s own Kamila Chomanicova (who placed a superb second in the June Benidorm race to World Champion Suzy Walsham) was expected to challenge for the win but unfortunately illness prevented her from competing. With Kamila absent, the standout competitor in the women’s field was Austrian sprint superstar (and Olympian) Veronika Windisch. The race also saw the welcome return of Lenka Burianova (née Svabikova) who last competed back in January. On the men’s side, another Austrian sprint specialist would be up against the king of the UFO Tower, and record holder, Tomas Celko from Slovakia. Showing the international nature of this event, ten different nationalities were represented across the elite field with athletes coming from as far as Mexico and the USA to compete. The question on everyone’s lips though was what effect both the race format and heat would have on those taking their place on the startline…it was time to find out!
Starting order, which would remain the same across all rounds, would be based on TWA rankings. So with ladies first, it was Poland’s Ilona Gradus who set off first with intervals set at 30 seconds. One by one the female elites reached the UFO summit each eager to find out the time they’d set. As expected, Windisch set the pace with a time of 2:39.6. The only other two runners to break the 3:00 barrier were Burianova and Gradus with the Czech athlete ahead by a couple of tenths in 2:59.6.
Just 15 minutes later, the girls set off for round two. This time Ilona topped the timesheets with a 3:03.1 effort whilst Veronika could only manage 3:08.0 but still maintained a healthy 15 second lead over Ilona. Lenka slipped back to third with a time of 3:10.1, and consolidating her 4th place, the UK’s Sonja Shakespeare clocked 3:16.7 within two seconds of her first round time. The youngest elite competitor running, Jonine Hofstra from the Netherlands, who is just 16, maintained her 5th place from the first round.
Once again, with recovery time limited, the ladies lined up for their final round which would determine final finishing positions. Could Windisch hold on to first place, or would her fast first round time come back and bite her? This time Gradus stopped the clock in 3:04.5 meaning Windisch needed to go below 3:20 to take the win. She did this with relative ease, posting a third round time of 3:06.4 to take the win and be the only lady dipping under 9:00 for the three runs. With Gradus finishing as runner-up, the final podium place went to Burianova with a solid 3:10.5. Shakespeare’s 3rd round time was her slowest but she was still well clear in 4th place and dipped under her pre-race target time of 10:00. Hofstra maintained her 5th place with another consistent run.
With the female athletes taking a well-earnt recovery, it was time for the men to show what they could do. As the top ranked runner, it was Mexico’s Alexis Trujillo who departed first. He set a time of 2:09.1 to top the leaderboard but wouldn’t stay first for long. Pole Mateusz Marunowski improved slightly on this with a 2:07.3 before local boy Stefan Stefina posted 2:00.5 to take the temporary lead. The first sub 2:00 time of the day came from none other than Tomas Celko posting a time of 1:56.7 but within two minutes Christof Grossegger knocked off 4th tenths, clocking 1:56.3. With round one done and dusted, the boys took the lift back down to earth ready for round two. Trujillo again took a temporary lead improving to 2:02.2. Although slower than his round one time, Stefina jumped into second place for the time being but with Celko and Grossegger still to come. Celko was over 10 seconds slower on his second effort but still maintained a four second lead over Stefina with one round remaining. Could Grossegger maintain his lead? Cristof could only manage a time of 2:20.1 so slipped down to 5th place likely due to having gone too hard in round one… Slovak Michal Kovac ran almost a second faster than his round one time (2:04.8) to go into 3rd place. Trujillo ended the second round in 4th place.
So, the male athletes took the lift down again in readiness for the third and final round. The top four were within only eight seconds, so all podium positions were very much still up for grabs. Could Slovakia maintain their podium lockout from round two? Trujillo ran strongly again recording a time of 2:03.3. Marunowski failed to improve against his second round time, managing only 2:21.2. However, this compared well to Stefina who faded significantly and could only reach the top in 2:40.4. Kovac leap-frogged Stefina to move into a provisional 2nd place with a solid 2:16.2. Next up was Celko who only needed to be marginally over 2:10 at worst to record the win with no serious competition now starting behind him. As he broke the timing beam, Tomas lived up to his billing as pre-race favourite, stopping the clock in 2:02.4 with a combined race time of 6:06.4, take victory. Alexis had overtaken both Michal and Stefan to take the runner-up spot with the two Slovaks having to settle for 3rd and 5th places respectively; however, the Mexican may rue his somewhat conservative first run and could well have pushed Tomas far closer when it mattered. Mateusz improved by two places in the final reckoning to finish 4th.
A worthy mention goes to Great Britain’s Laurence Ball who climbed from 10th after round one to finish a creditable 6th in only his fourth tower race showing better consistency against far more experienced rivals. We are also very happy to report that Klaas Jan Hofstra, who took a nasty fall at the start of his third round effort, has fortunately fully recovered.
Following the prize giving ceremony, the Towerrunning family enjoyed some food and drink on the UFO beach and took time to relax, socialise and not to mention recover, as both competitors and friends. Once again, a memorable weekend in Bratislava.
The next instalment on the 2019 Towerrunning Tour takes place on Friday 13th September in Keutschach, Austria for the Pyramidenkogel race…expect more hot competition…
Top 5 Women:
- Veronika Windisch (AUT) – 8:54.0
- Ilona Gradus (POL) – 9:07.6
- Lenka Burianova (CZE) – 9:20.2
- Sonja Shakespeare (GBR) – 9:59.6
- Jonine Hofstra (NED) – 10:34.3
Top 5 Men:
- Tomas Celko (SVK) – 6:06.4
- Alexis Trujillo (MEX) – 6:14.6
- Michal Kovac (SVK) – 6:26.7
- Mateusz Marunowski (POL) – 6:42.8
- Stefan Stefina (SVK) – 6.48.8