They had only known each other for a few weeks, but the three women sweating and struggling their way up the stairs of the Lipstick Tower had well and truly bonded.
Now they were feeling the heat and pain, thundering thundering – and they admit often staggering – up and down the 30 odd flights of the city’s other landmark building.
‘It was really narrow and really hot and I was coming down with something at that point,’ says Catherine. ‘It was tough but we kind of kept each other going – that was really important.
‘It was a competition but to be honest, we never felt that competitive – although I don’t know if they’d want us to say that. We wanted to do well, but we were friends and wanted each other to do really well.’
The Lipstick Tower challenge was a few weeks into Portsmouth’s version of Biggest Loser, run by gym chain 24/7 Fitness.
The annual contest, inspired by the ITV show, puts contestants through a strict diet and exercise regime.
Designed to be a short, sharp kick-start, the seven-and-a-half week programme gets contestants moving, weight-shedding and vying for the title Biggest Loser and a year’s free gym membership.
So from January, Emma, Lara and Catherine exercised every week day and took on Sunday challenges, including running around Southsea Castle and dashing along a rain-lashed seafront.
On Fridays, gym staff invented more exercise challenges.
So in the first week, and a few days after they met, the women found themselves running up and down the stairs to the Gunwharf Quays’s gym carrying weights.
‘I ached for days after that. We were all sweaty and dragging ourselves up,’ laughs Emma. ‘And we were making these weird noises, we sounded like a herd of cows!’
The diet was also designed as a short-term solution. Reducing carbs through a five-day cycle to give the body a better chance of burning fat, it included eggs, tuna, salad, chicken, vegetables, water and very little else.
It was a drastic change of gear for the women, who in recent times had been more accustomed to sofa-settling and biscuit-munching.
Lara, 38, Emma, 34, and 53-year-old Catherine all had their own reasons for entering.
For Lara it was particularly tough as she lost dad Tony to a terminal illness before the contest started.
‘It was hard but the competition gave me focus. I couldn’t help feeling guilty at times but I think he would have liked it.’
The women were all delighted with the results. Lara, from Copnor, started at 15st 11lb and lost 2st 1lb and Catherine, from Cosham, started at 18st and lost 20lbs even though she was ill for some of the programme.
Emma, from Gosport, started at 17st 13lb, lost 3st 2lb and was crowned winner of the contest, which also measured the percentage of body fat lost.
Another contestant Sarah Boxall had to drop out due to sciatica, but still managed to lose 22lbs.
Not surprisingly, at the end there was a big celebration, with the women breaking open the booze after a weigh-in and then enjoying a carb-laden Italian meal.
Catherine says: ‘We were all dressed up drinking champagne at 10.30 in the morning. Until then we’d only seen each other in sweaty T-shirts and trainers.’
They deserved their treat, having been through weeks of dramas.
Emma and Lara had completed a six-mile run with rain and wind battering their faces.
Emma almost hadn’t finished a dash around Southsea Castle.
‘Lara did some more laps to run with me and keep me going,’ she says.
Catherine had to drop out for a while with a bad chest infection. And she collapsed in one class, she believes because of blood pressure medication, which has now been modified.
But they say gym staff really looked after them, especially personal trainer Jess Eacott who often gave up free time to help them on their Sunday challenges.
The girls are thrilled to have met each other and become friends. ‘We’re planning another meal and night out,’ says Emma.
Presumably it won’t involve tuna, water or going anywhere near the Lipstick Tower.