Runners are connoisseurs of hills. We’re always on the lookout for the best combination of length, grade, surface and mystique to create effective and memorable workouts. PodiumRunner is gathering favorite hills from top coaches and athletes around the country to serve as models for butt-kicking workouts on similar grades in your neighborhood.

Runner: Gordon Bakoulis, masters runner, 5-time Olympic Trials qualifier, editorial director and coach with the New York Road Runners

Hill: Ascent of Skytop, Mohonk Mountain Preserve, New Paltz, New York
Length: 5.94 miles
Elevation Gain: 1640 Feet
Average Grade: 5.2%
Surface: Dirt road
The workout: Run to the top
Bonus credit: Run back down

Strava route of Skytop

The ascent of Skytop provides an incredibly powerful training effect for several reasons:

One, it’s gradual, which makes it deceptive. I tend to start off at what seems like a manageable pace/effort, and within a mile I’m sucking air and having to ease off, not because the hill is steep or the terrain rough but because the incline is so steady; it just keeps going up and up and up, gradually but relentlessly. This forces me to run the workout patiently—going out slower than I feel I should in order to get in quality work, trusting that the training effect will be more powerful if I conserve energy for the later stages.

Two, the scenery is so gorgeous it can distract from the mental effort needed to do the workout correctly. At times, in order to maintain a steady, measured pace, I need to mentally block out the views (telling myself I’ll enjoy them on the return downhill journey).

Skytop road curving through fields
photo: Gordon Bakoulis

Three, it’s a long workout—these days it takes me close to an hour to reach Skytop, so the round-trip journey requires mid-run fueling and hydration, something that I need to continually practice, despite my 30+ years of serious running. This is not a hill to run underfueled or underhydrated, due to its length and the lack of water fountains and fueling stations along the way.

When I can run this workout well, I know I’m in great shape for a half-marathon and on my way to marathon fitness, and that fitness comes without the quad pounding and soreness that I might typically get from a similar-length hill workout on asphalt or concrete because of the dirt surfaces and gradual uphill. Even running back down doesn’t produce excessive quad soreness because of the soft surface and gradual slope of the hill.

I get a great training effect from running this hill even when I’m not in great shape—no matter how slowly I run it, I’m breathing hard and focusing on my effort continually for close to an hour, which doesn’t generally happen on other training runs.

Gordon Bakoulis on Skytop
photo: Gordon Bakoulis

Since the trails are wide, it also works well when running with a partner or a group—plenty of room to run side by side and chatter all the way.

The scenery on the long ascent is stunning and inspiring in every season. I love the sweeping views in the winter, the astonishingly bright greenery in the spring, the cool overhang of fully leafed tree branches in the summer, and the riot of color in the autumn.

Gordon Bakoulis has coached thousands of runners at all levels since 1985. She has PRs of 2:33:01 (marathon), 1:11:34 (half-marathon), and 32:45 (10K). An eight-time NYRR Fred Lebow Runner of the Year, Gordon was named the NYRR’s 2000-09 Runner of the Decade in 2010. The editorial director of NYRR and the former editor-in-chief of Running Times, Gordon is the author of three books on running.