I believe in specificity of training. I try to include workouts that prepare me for the specific challenges I’m going to face in a race. For example, if I’m preparing for a race that’s likely to be hot, I’ll do some of my runs at the hottest time of the day.
I do most races on the strength of my current fitness. When you race every weekend, you can’t train for each one. Instead, I focus on a few races that I know will challenge me. I call these my “A” races. One of my “A” races for this year is the Comrades Marathon.
Comrades is an 87 kilometer ultramarathon in South Africa. It’s a point-to-point race that changes direction each year. This year is called an “up” year, because its run in the direction that has an uphill trend. Here’s the elevation profile for the “up” course.
Comrades has rolling hills throughout the course, but most of them aren't that big. The hills that are big enough to get your attention have names.
I’m most concerned about the first 37 kilometers. Besides including three of the named hills, it also has a net gain of about 700 meters. That’s an average grade of about two percent.
Today I did a treadmill workout that should help prepare me for this part of the course. Because my workout was only 10 miles, I ran it at a faster pace than I’ll run on race day.
I generally start slow and give myself about a mile to get up to pace. I do that on a level grade. By the end of the first mile, I was running at 7.5 mph. That’s an 8:00 pace. I like to do workouts at this pace or slightly faster, because that’s my marathon pace.
Once I was up to pace, I started gradually increasing the incline while maintaining the same pace. Over the next few miles, I increased the grade in ½ percent increments until it was two percent. This simulates the miles between the big hills. It’s not very steep, but it’s still slightly uphill.
The first named hill is Cowie’s Hill. It’s 2.1 milometers (1.3 miles) long with an average grade of 4.8 percent. I simulated Cowie’s Hill on the treadmill. I couldn’t remember this off the top of my head, so I took a guess. I ran the next 1.25 miles at a 5.5 percent grade. I backed the speed down to 7.0 mph (8:34 pace). That’s still much faster than I’ll during the race.
After about half a mile, it started getting tough. In the race, I’ll go at an easier pace, and I may take a few short walking breaks. In my workouts, I’ll take it faster, much like doing speed work on a track. The next three quarters of a mile seemed to take forever. When I reached the “top,” I set the include down to zero, but set the speed back up to 7.5 mph.
In the race, there will be a short downgrade, but then the course starts climbing again. Instead, I gave myself about a half mile of level grade, but then gradually nudged it back up. By the time I reached Field’s Hill, I was already on a two percent grade. I was still going 7.5 mph, so my legs were getting fatigued.
Field’s Hill is 3.2 kilometers (2.0 miles), with an average grade of 5.8 percent. It’s actually the steep part of a much longer hill. Again, I couldn’t remember the numbers exactly, but I took my best guess. I ran the next two miles at a 5.0 percent grade, with the speed set to 7.0 mph.
At first it was a relief to decrease the speed. Then the grade began to wear on me. After half a mile, I was already asking myself how much of the hill I had left. After that, the remaining 1.5 miles seemed to pass quicker. It was tiring, but I got used to it. With a quarter mile to go, I tried to imagine that I could see the top of the hill. In reality, there no top. The road levels off briefly and then starts uphill again. I'll worry about that section another day.
After my simulated Field’s hill, I only had a half mile left to finish my 10 mile workout. I set the grade back to zero, but once again increased my speed to 7.5 mph. Besides training for Comrades, I’m continually training for road marathons. I like to run at my marathon race pace or faster as much as I can.
One workout isn’t going to prepare me for Comrades, but it's a start. My hope is that if I continue to sprinkle workouts like this into my training, I’ll be able to handle the real hills on race day.