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How Not To Prepare For A Hill-Ridden Race

Respect the inclines...and the declines!


Respect the inclines…and the declines!

Written by: Linzay Logan

Two weeks ago when the running world was preparing to watch or run the Boston Marathon, I was getting ready to run the La Jolla Half Marathon, a small race in San Diego with a reputation for having one of the most difficult courses in California. Having lived in San Diego for three years and trained on the very same roads the course would be taking us on I was well aware of what to expect—long and torturous hills. I trained and trained for this race and felt confident the mileage I had put in would be more than adequate to get me through the course. Not until race day, would I truly understand how torturous the race would be and how poorly I had prepared for it.

Come race day, I was excited and ready to put my training to the test. I thought I was mentally and physically ready for anything the course could throw at me.

The several months leading up to the race I was putting in 30 to 40 miles a week and I included hill training as often as I could in preparation for the hilly half-marathon course. Once or twice a week I would sprint up and jog down hills all over San Diego. Typically the sprints were 20 to 45 seconds in length and at almost full-out effort. I thought the hills in the course would be no match for me after all the hill sprints I had put in.

At Mile 5 of the course came the hill of all hills—a steep grade taking us from sea level to 420 feet in just over a mile and a half. The first step I took up in elevation hit me over the head with a ten-foot pole. I told my legs to move faster like they did when I trained, but they refused to pick up speed. I pumped my arms, I tried picking up my knees as high as I could—nothing helped. The hill had completely defeated me. The best part was the cameras set up waiting to take pictures of my distraught face with the picturesque view of the ocean behind us. Honestly, I was in so much pain I forgot the view of the Pacific was even there and barely managed a half smile for the photographers.

What goes up must come down, and in the case of the La Jolla Half Marathon goes up and down again.

Mile 10 took us back to sea level from the 420-foot hill in less than a half-mile. Several people were experiencing so much pain from the steep grade downhill they were walking–mind you, before that point they were keeping close to a sub-eight minute pace. At least I wasn’t the only one experiencing anguish.

The final half-mile of the course was again straight up for 150 feet and then downhill to the finish. My legs were trashed by the end and I felt overall just terrible. How could a race I trained so diligently for go so wrong? Please learn from my mistakes so you don’t have a similar race experience.

My first mistake was not respecting the importance of a taper week. The week before a race is typically a week reserved for tapering—a time when training time decreases and rest time increases; ideal for peak race performance. In my case, this was not an option as I am also a group fitness instructor. I typically teach two weight lifting or boot camp classes a week. However, the week when I was supposed to be resting I found myself teaching five classes. Looking back, this clearly was not a smart move in preparing my body for a tough half marathon. I should have dropped my mileage down by at least 60 to 70 percent of what my weekly mileage in training was and I should have kept weight training to the bare minimum. Ideally, holding off on lifting weights during a taper week is a good move.

My second mistake was not doing enough variety of hill training. I certainly did enough, but not the most appropriate type of hill training for this specific course. On this course there was one main hill that lasted for quite some time. A mile and a half is a long time to run uphill and my 30 to 40 second hill sprints were nothing compared to this. I should have incorporated longer hill repeats that more closely mimicked what I was going to experience along the course. When training make sure you look at the course and elevation maps and tailor your training to them as much as possible.

My third mistake was standing out in the sunny 85-degree weather for hours the day before the race. The expo was outside and the line to pick up my bib was long. I should have known this, worn sunscreen and not gone during the middle of the day when everyone else goes to pick up their bib.

Mistake number four was going for a run the day before the race after standing in line for hours to pick up my bib. My legs were tight, clearly from teaching too many weight training classes that week, and I thought a quick three-mile run would loosen them up. I should have known that running on a hot day would only make me dehydrated and my legs more tired. I should have forgone the run, gone home and put my legs up.

The final mistake I made and probably the biggest mistake was not mentally preparing myself for the race. I knew the course was going to be tough on my body, but I never considered how tough it would be on me mentally. Even from the first step into the 13.1 miles I was going to endure, I knew my legs were not going to perform as well as I had wanted them to, nor as well as I thought I had trained them. My body wasn’t performing the way my mind thought it would and I let it get to me. I let that hill beat my mind down and being physically destroyed before the race even began did not make for a very promising combination. Instead, I should have thought more about the course and give the difficulty of the course the respect it deserved. Of course it is important to pump yourself up mentally into feeling ready and prepared, but it is also key to understand that not every race is going to feel great and it is okay to not finish every race the way you intended.

The most important thing is to know you gave it the best shot you could at the time and there is always room for improvement at future races. Keep training and keep smiling; there might be a photographer right around the corner just waiting to take your picture.