Ryan Woods

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mountain Running: The How and Why

By Ryan Woods

Let’s say you’re a runner residing between Georgia and Maine or maybe between California and Oklahoma.  You’ve got several notches on your belt from your local 10k but your times have dipped or the excitement has gradually faded as the city blocks blend seamlessly into monotony.  Maybe the excitement remains but you’re looking to add an event to your calendar to keep motivation high throughout the year.  Well if you live in or near the aforementioned states you may be missing out on a running challenge that will take your breath away.  Literally.  I’d like to formally introduce you to mountain running.

Fifteen years ago I signed up for “The Bear,” our local western North Carolina hill climb covering 5 miles and climbing 1500ft.  I finished at a snail’s pace up the grueling final climb with a burn in my quads and calves I’d never experienced or imagined possible.  My lungs burned and my heart raced as my 36 minutes of misery had finally ended.  I staggered through the chute and then took a look around.  What I saw was North Carolina, Tennessee, and even a little of Virginia.  Miles and miles of Blue Ridge Mountains provided the backdrop for the most rewarding finish of my life… at the time. 

The event in its 3rd year at the time had just over 100 finishers.  Today it sells out at over 800 runners within a few weeks of registration opening.  Back in 1997 I swore I’d never subject myself to that kind of burn again.  By 2011 I’d subjected myself to it an additional 13 times.  The number one reason why this event brings me and 800 of my peers back year after year and the reason you should consider mountain running is the finish.  All runs give you a finish line but only mountain running gives you a finish with a view. 

Right now mountain running is booming.  More and more events are popping up each and every year providing runners with short hill climbs to ultra runs involving several peaks.  Here’s how the road warrior turns into a mountain man:

--- Find your event.  Trailrunner magazine provides a detailed list of trail runs and mountain climbs.  Google is also a decent source for information.  Try typing your destination state + mountain run.  You know how to Google.

--- Research your event.  All mountain runs are different and thus preparation should differ.  You want to take into account the elevation profile, terrain, distance, and time it takes like competition to cover the distance.  Here’s why for each:

          -- Elevation profile – prepare your body (Quads!) for the type of ascents and descents the race provides.  Try and find local runs to simulate your event with climbs and descents.  If you live in the flats of America and are going to travel to an event then try and simulate what you can on a treadmill.  Be prepared on steep climbs to cross well beyond your lactic threshold.

          -- Terrain – Rocks, roots, mud, and snow will slow you down and will require proper footwear.  Rocks and roots should put you in a protective shoe while mud and snow will require you to outfit your feet in a shoe with lugs.  Pavement requires, well, just your normal racing shoe.  Single track trails will keep you focused on the trail and can make time go by quickly while wider paths may lead to speedier times and a steadier pace.  Keep in mind the more technical the terrain and the more aggressive the elevation changes the more your pace will suffer.

          -- Distance and time.  Most races you prepare for by looking at the distance.  For mountain runs time maybe a better judge of how to prepare than distance.  Look at some of your event’s previous results and search runners on athlinks.com for an idea of how much a course slows people down.  If a 2:20 marathoner wins an 18 mile mountain race in 2:20 then you should prepare for a marathon effort and for marathon fueling.  Search a few names in the results and try to determine a time you may run.  Prepare your training for a race lasting that time.

--- Enjoy the climb! 

Take a moment to look around as you grind your way up and down in the mountains.  It will hurt on the way up but nothing makes you forget about the burning in your legs quicker than a 360 degree view.  Afterwards sit back and enjoy a well earned beverage of your choice.  Mine’s a double IPA that always seems to taste better with a few thousand feet of elevation change.  Next time that road event feels a bit stale I hope you will consider joining me in the mountains.

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