Running Up That Hill

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Hills. As a runner, you either love them or you hate them. Or you have a love-hate relationship like I do.

My first introduction to hills came before I started running. I think I’ve mentioned it before in a previous post, but there is a little thing that we in Adelaide like to call Mt Lofty (or “Lofty” for short). It’s kind of an ironic name because it’s not actually that high (727 metres above sea level to be exact – thanks Wikipedia) but it is the highest point in Adelaide. The hike/run/crawl from Waterfall Gully to the summit is extremely popular (475m elevation from bottom to top, approx. 3.5km walking/running distance). So much so, that on weekends the track can be likened to Rundle Mall (for non-Adelaide people, Rundle Mall is the major shopping precinct in Adelaide’s CBD) and parking at the bottom can be an absolute nightmare.

So anyway, many years before I took up running, I used to do the Waterfall Gully to Mt Lofty climb semi-regularly – usually with a group of friends. I never found it particularly easy and I rarely ran any of it – I think from memory my best time for the climb was just under 40 minutes. I got to the point where I could go the whole way without stopping or using the very temptingly positioned trees for support. There was always a sense of achievement in reaching the top, and on the occasions where we stopped at the café before commencing the leisurely descent, the iced chocolate tasted particularly good! I always marvelled at the people who tackled the climb dressed in street clothes (clearly they must have been tourists who had NO idea what they were in for!) and also the crazies who did it with weighted backpacks. And of course those who did the climb/descent multiple times in one go! At the top, I always felt like I’d earned the spectacular panoramic views over Adelaide and felt seriously ripped off when dense fog robbed me of said views!

Other than Lofty, I hadn’t had much experience with hills. Certainly not RUNNING up them.

That all changed when I joined the SARRC (South Australian Road Runners Club) Friday morning group. I have mentioned this previously but this was my first experience of running up hills. I went out like a bull at a gate, trying to run at ‘flat run’ pace, and I was spent by the time I reached the top of the ‘warm-up’ hill! I then went out the following Tuesday to the group run which was normally a flat course, but naturally I picked a week where we did one of the few hilly runs! That day, though, I managed to run the whole way, almost 12km, including the uphills.

Over the weeks, months and years I grew to despise the hills less and less. Even now, I don’t feel like I have ‘conquered’ hills, but they don’t fill me with quite the same sense of dread as they did in the beginning! When we hit the daylight saving months, the Friday hill runs move onto the beautiful trails, and the views are truly magnificent. Rarely does a Friday morning trail run go by without a group selfie being posted on Facebook – we feel the need to share the joy with the world!

I feel like I’m getting stronger. Hill running builds up leg muscles including calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes, coincidentally also the muscles used for sprinting. As I’m finding the uphills easier, at the same time I’m also finding my short, flat runs are getting faster.

Still, there are things I like and things I don’t like so much about hills.

I love the sense of accomplishment that comes from having reached the top of a particularly nasty ascent, and the knowledge that ‘it’s all downhill from here’ (for runners, that’s actually a GOOD thing!). As mentioned earlier, the views often make the climb worth it. The muscle soreness that often follows in the following few days, is a reminder that I have worked hard! The downhill that usually follows the hard uphill slog, is a joy and a chance to run FAST and feel the wind in my hair!

Then there are the things I don’t like so much, such as running downhill on trails. I am still a relative newbie when it comes to trail running, and running downhill on a steep trail (especially a gravel one) is a completely different kettle of fish to running down a bitumen road. I have learned to run in a zigzag rather than trying to run straight downhill. Previously I would walk, very cautiously, but I find the zigzag running is easier and safer. I am always amazed to watch experienced trail runners flying down the hills – hopefully I will be as adept as them one day! There are also days when running up hills just seems too damn hard – I like to run fast (relatively speaking – I am no Usain Bolt, that’s for sure) and running up hills makes that very difficult!

One particularly important lesson about hills, especially over long distances, is sometimes you just have to walk. Other than the real elite runners, everyone walks sometimes! It’s better to walk the really tough uphills than try to keep running, because otherwise you will struggle to get to the end. The added benefit of walking up hills is it gives you the perfect opportunity to get some food in. When I say ‘food’ I’m not talking about gels (something I have yet to try and hope I never have to!), I’m talking about actual, real food. Stuff you actually have to chew and tastes good! I personally like nut bars and nut butter sandwiches on white bread – never have those things tasted so good as when I’m walking up a steep hill!

It is definitely getting easier, which is a really good thing because I have my first trail ultra coming up, Yurrebilla 56km, in September. That involves a few little hills! 1865m of ascent and 2060m of descent, to be precise! I have completed the first two of the three training runs that take in the entire course, and have managed to get through them at reasonable pace, so I’m hoping to complete the 56km in under 8 hours. The final section includes a particularly nasty little ‘surprise’ at around 50km – a little speed bump known as ‘Black Hill’. I’ve run up Black Hill a few times (not running all the way – there has definitely been some walking!) but never after having already run 50km, so I’m fully expecting that it will be particularly brutal come race day!

My next big ‘hill’ challenge after that is The North Face 100km in the Blue Mountains, hopefully in May 2016. This will be not so much a hill run as a mountain run – and I am fully aware that this is a completely different beast! 4200m of elevation, eek!

I’ve written before about running solo vs running in a group. Last Sunday decided to go for an impromptu solo afternoon run, because I’d volunteered at an event in the morning and it seemed like a beautiful day. I planned to do about a 2 hour run.

I thought I might head towards the aforementioned Mt Lofty, and turn around at around 70 minutes (given that the first half would be uphill and the second half downhill). The beauty of that was that I could tackle the climb without having to battle for a parking space!

I ran all the way up to Waterfall Gully. Waterfall Gully Road is somewhat hazardous, a narrow road with no footpaths in places, and cars and cyclists go down there pretty fast! So, while I ran the whole way up, I did stop and move to the side every time I saw a car coming. Then I got to see the falls at Waterfall Gully – the first time I’d seen them in a long time (our Friday morning group runs up to the falls semi-regularly but as it’s normally dark when we get there, we only hear them, we don’t see them!) and commenced the climb towards the summit.

I ran/walked it and I think it took me about 40 minutes from bottom to top. When I reached the 70 minute mark I was about 1km from the summit so I thought it would be silly to turn around now and I had nowhere I needed to be, so I pressed on. The view of the city was a little bit hazy but still I felt that sense of achievement, pausing for the obligatory selfie before running pretty much the whole way down. On the descent down Waterfall Gully Road it started raining but I didn’t care. (In hindsight some gloves or long sleeves might have been a good idea – unlocking the front door and untying my shoelaces were challenging given how cold my hands were by then! I really need to invest in a good waterproof running jacket!)

I guess this is a bit of an indication of how my attitude to hills has changed. 2 years ago, if I’d even contemplated going for a solo run, I probably would have driven to the beach to get as flat a run as possible! Instead I headed for the hills… I probably would have hit the trails but I am still quite wary of going out on trails on my own without anyone knowing where I’m going. You can be pretty sure, on the Waterfall Gully to Mt Lofty trail, you’ll never be alone!

Actually, come to think of it, I really quite like hills!

Today’s blog post is dedicated to my good friend Kieron who is off to India this weekend to run an ultra. There are a few hills in this ultra. You may have heard of them – some little hills known as the Himalayas. Now I may like hills now but that’s just insane! If you want to know more check out http://kieronultrarunner.com/

I think I’ll end this post as every good blog post should end, with a Miley Cyrus lyric – no-one says it better than Miley!

There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
There’s always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose
Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side

It’s the climb

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