The Running Question of the Year

This has been the year for me to question the experts: How much is enough marathon training? I’ve done my research, made my choices, and accepted the consequences. But how do you know you’ve reached the proper conclusion without also testing the limits to the opposite extreme?

Experts seem to agree that roughly 150 minutes of aerobic exercise and two days of strength training each week is a healthy minimum requirement. It always depends on something, however. If you want to lose weight, more exercise may be needed. Do you want to win a gold medal? Absolutely, more exercise is needed.

I just want to finish a marathon in the fastest time possible based on my age, sex, and genetic endowment. How much running does that require? It has been the 2016 question of the year.

On the other side of the coin, a guiding rule is to limit exercise to roughly 10 hours, or 600 minutes each week – a limit I have tested often. Sometimes it goes pretty well.

Several years ago I was cycling up to 50 miles each week and running 30 miles. I ran my fastest marathon that year. Two years ago, I went back to school and spent two days each week hiking, climbing, swimming or paddling in addition to marathon training. That year I set a new personal best time at the 10k distance, and achieved a 2nd place age group award in the toughest marathon I’ve run yet.

So I’ve been thinking, maybe the better question is not how many miles to run, but how much time should we devote to our dominant sport?

We Know MORE, But It’s Still 26.2 Miles

In 2007 Jonathan Beverly sorted through the marathon training articles published in Running Times for the past 30 years to find “the essential, core principles by which to make all those four-page, four-month, four-point-font charts simple.” While the details within the most popular marathon training programs have changed over the years, four elements of marathon training remained constant from that first 1980 article to 2007: mileage, long runs, speed work and tapering.

To use this data to answer my question of the year, I dissected mileage.

The experts seem to agree that how much mileage depends mostly on your goals, which in turn are dependent on how much mileage you can handle without injury. If you aspire to a sub 3-hour marathon, most coaches have settled on an optimum training range of 60-70 miles per week. Depending on the course difficulty, my marathon times are usually between 4:00 and 4:30 hours. These same coaches indicate 30-40 miles each week is all that is required to get me to the finish line. Indeed this is the most mileage I have run when training for some of my best marathon finishes, and is barely half the mileage I ran when training for my worst.

What if I run those 30-40 miles in 4 days instead of 6, or 3 days instead of 5? What if I supplement running with other sports? Will I be more fit?

Because cycling burns more calories than almost any other sport, I dropped to just 105 pounds and down a full dress size when cycling was added to my training regimen. And during the 2014 Fall semester of paddling rafts, kayaks and canoes, I completely eliminated core strengthening exercises because paddling strengthened my core better than any exercise I had ever done. In the absence of these diversions of years past, I have filled 6 days of every week this year with only running.

My friend, Jono, is training for his first marathon using the Jeff Galloway run/walk/run program, which calls for 3 days of running per week. Currently, Jono’s 3 days of running totals roughly the same mileage as my 6 days of running. Jono had said to me, “You only need to run three times a week – it should be fun!” I couldn’t stop thinking about his advice.

In the interest of running experiments everywhere, I have subjected the remainder of this season’s marathon training to another experiment in hopes of finally answering the question of how much. I’ve taken my trusty calendar out, erased the remaining 10 weeks’ schedule, and re-written 30-40 miles of running into just 4 days – allowing blissful extra days each week for the cross-training of my choice.

Stay tuned. . . again.

Color Me What?

 

The renovation of our new home is minor, relatively speaking. It was only the kitchen and master bath that would be demolished, while a downstairs powder room and the upstairs guest bath got new fixtures and paint.

Then I decided it would be a shame to go this far and not replace the dated floor in the guest bath, which destroyed the pink cove tile along the bottom, and exposed the rotten sub-flooring around the toilet thanks to a previous leak.

After the vanity was removed in the downstairs bath we were left with less than a complete floor of tile, and when the remaining tile began to crumble we knew it too was a lost cause. And because these things are literally happening by the hour, decisions must be made straightaway, or work stops altogether.

Left to his own devices, my husband would duplicate everything from some previous home. Same colors, countertops, cabinetry, flooring – ditto finito! As you may have gathered, I embrace change.

For several weeks my focus has been on color.  For me, a home’s color palette is one of the first decisions to be made before the rest of the design can fall into place.  To that end, I’ve brought home one of nearly every color card available at Lowe’s. Some of them have been turned into a sample of real paint, which I have painted onto a section of wall in almost every room. Finally, after days of exhaustive frustration, I heard what color this house wants to become: neutral. It seems the color for this house should come from everywhere except the walls.

Our last home had 2 exterior colors, which were also used in 3 interior rooms, along with 8 more colors throughout the rest of the house. In an unprecedented move, our forever home will consist of just 3 interior colors, and one new exterior color on the front doors. Our contractor is counting his blessings at this very moment.

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I found beautiful draperies for the dining room and left them draped across the dining room table for more than a week hoping they would inspire this home’s color palette. They did not.

Meanwhile, dozens of color cards were collected and swaths of paint dotted the walls. The color for the front doors came about relatively easy, but to this day they look just like this. . .

The plan was to finish the 1st floor powder room so there was one working bath during construction. Sadly, there’s no ‘before’ and by the time we had snapped a photo, this little bath had bourne the wrath of my color quandary.

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Three of the workers warned me those dark colors would make this little room feel even smaller. . . they didn’t realize I had exotic bathroom images swirling in my head.

In progress . . .

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The upstairs guest bath carries a similar tale with it’s irreplaceable pink tile (there’s actually a movement to savethepinkbathrooms). I’ve spent hours researching how to design around the pink – mostly because the bathtub was in good shape and I didn’t want to replace it. When I stumbled onto this photo, I knew there was hope for my pink bathroom.

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Pinterest.com

Another photo we sadly missed the opportunity to capture was the original 1970s guest bath vanity and medicine cabinet, and now they’re long gone. A new vanity is on order, and will fit perfectly if we all hold our breath (there’s only a 1/2″ to spare).

Next week the floors will be covered in Carrerra Marble, the walls will become pure white, and somehow I’ll mix in a little of that beautiful green – maybe on the ceiling.

 

 

By the time we reached the Master Bath design, a common theme had begun to emerge: not an inch to spare. This bath has been designed, and re-designed with every inch accounted for. I couldn’t imagine the design for this room until the layout was correct, so now the fun work begins here.

This process has reminded me that houses, like people, show their personality in different ways. Some people are outgoing, verbose and lively while others may be quiet showing their spirit through tattoos, hobbies, knowledge, or clothes.

My last home was fairly monochromatic in its furnishings while the walls spoke volumes. This home speaks differently, quietly . . . albeit no less beautiful.

The Long Run

My week begins on Monday, despite the compelling argument my husband has made on the subject. And it clearly seems I’m the odd man out among the masses, despite the fact that even Sunday was a day of rest after a long week of creating the universe in the beginning of time. Why would one begin the week with a day of rest?

For me, the week begins with the shortest run of the week, which was 7 miles this time last season, but just 3 miles this season. The long run was on Sunday last time, but our favorite long-run-day-restaurant isn’t open on Sunday, so this season’s long run has been moved to Saturday followed by lunch at Lulu’s on the patio.

This week there was also . . . an urgent run on the shoe store when I realized my old pair wouldn’t last one more week. . . a new water bottle with room for a snack because I got so hungry in the middle of the run last week that I thought I’d die, and. . .  a last minute update of my husband’s phone settings when I realized the Australian version of Siri he had been using might send me over the edge when we set the alarm for 5:30am.

I’d like to be one of those souls that can roll out of bed and go for a run, but a good amount of time is always devoted to morning coffee before my day can begin. The dogs wouldn’t get out of their beds on the long run day this week when we woke up in the dark to have our morning coffee.

My husband reads the news during morning coffee. I catch up on email, and research whatever topic is top of my list. Once I’ve gathered myself together, I eat breakfast, brush my teeth, put on my new shoes (despite my husband’s warning), and head out for the longest run of the week.

Most folks want to know what we runners think about for hours of running. Sometimes I solve the world’s problems, or my own. Sometimes I decorate houses, or write a post in my mind. But these random thoughts are typically sandwiched between long intervals of absolutely no thought whatsoever.

Sometimes I keep a count of the number of dogs that reach my ankles (5 this week), how many piles of poop in the road must have come from a bear (1), or how many dead animals I must jump over (4). I’m surprisingly conscious of what appears to be poison ivy along the edge of the road and doing my best not to let it touch me anywhere, although this was the week I was forced to jump into the middle of the ivy to avoid a last minute collision with a truck and the ivy drooping from a tree limb swiped me across the face.

Music usually occupies the silent, thoughtless moments, although this week I listened to the sounds of the creek until mile 9, which was also when I ate the peanut butter crackers I had stashed in my new water bottle even though I had smooshed them trying to find a comfortable way to hold this new bottle. And even though going to the bathroom one more time is the last thing I do before leaving the house, sometimes all I can think about is finding a good spot for an early potty break, which came along at mile 4 this week when I used a couple of large rocks to jump down the creek’s bank below road level and back up again.

The shoe strings of those new shoes were adjusted twice, the water in my little bottle was gone long before the run ended, and Lulu’s was closed due to air conditioning problems.

I’ve always said that life is a lot like training for a marathon, and you just never know what’s going to happen during that long run.

Nine Rooms and a Roof

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The listing read, “Beautiful, first time on the market, quality constructed french provincial home with awesome curb appeal.”

‘Provincial’ means a person who lives in or comes from a place that is far away from large cities. How appropo.

The French Provincial style tends to be simple, square, and symmetrical – resembling small manor homes. My husband wanted grand, but within a modestly small footprint. I wanted romantic, elegant. We have found the perfect home. . . except that no home is completely perfect until it has been sufficiently renovated.

This French Provincial includes nine elegant rooms with floor to ceiling windows on the first floor, dormers with window seats in each of the upstairs rooms, and original hardwood floors.

There’s also popcorn ceilings, lime green carpet, a 44-year old kitchen, and 44-year old baths.

Our belongings have been stuffed into the garage and scattered here and there while we re-organize a bit. . .

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The mansard style roof is in good condition, and the dormers are copper clad. A good trimming of all the trees and shrubs is scheduled for this week.

We think the front door needs some color (??). Valspar’s Rogue Blue and Pitch Cobalt blend well with the slate of the front porch. A test-size container of both colors is in our future.

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Sometimes, as in our last renovation, the house seems to scream the color it wants to become. This house has been quietly timid causing me to spend hours coaxing it into divulging its thoughts. To some degree or another, I think the scheme will follow the northern, cooler side of France’s color palette.

 

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The Entry Foyer: there’s a fabulous broom closet behind the door that only needs an electrical outlet for charging the vacuum battery to render it perfect. A coat closet to the right of the front door will be demolished to make room for our oversized armoire – something a French home should never be without.

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When I read that most French homes include an armoire in their design (originally due to the lack of good closet space), I knew this part of the design was in the bag.

When working with large pieces of furniture, of course, every good designer knows the height of the ceilings they’re working with (our ceilings are just 8 feet).

Oh well. It’s a tight fit, but it does fit.

 

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This living room is fabulous with its floor to ceiling windows and large doors that lead to a slate covered patio. Looking through the doorway to the left you can see the coat closet we’ll demo to create an alcove for the armoire. The doorway to the far right leads to the dining room. . .

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The Dining Room, which connects to the Kitchen.

 

You’ll hardly recognize this kitchen in a few weeks. . .

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Some things become a “jumping off point” for the design, and this was one of those things – our refrigerator of choice is already on order.

(Heartland Refrigerator in Cobalt.)

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This room is adjacent to the kitchen, and is the room under the most debate. My husband wants to rip out the paneling, I want it to stay. I think it will look fabulous with a good cleaning, maybe paint the bookshelves, or do away with them altogether, replace the light fixture, and possibly beef up the crown molding. With the right furniture and drapes, it could be a show stopper. (The door to the right leads to the attached garage – something that’s been missing from our homes for years!)

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Ideally, we’ll find the perfect runner for the stairway. . . maybe charcoal grey or black.

The Master Suite with its green carpet, window seats, and original light fixture. I had been in the house several times before I realized the slant of the mansard roof creates a significant decorating opportunity.

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The Master Bath will be re-worked while this adjacent bedroom becomes the master closet.

Two more bedrooms, a mauve guest bath, and a generously sized bonus room over the garage all await our magic wand. . .

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The perfect home, and a sweet neighborhood in the mountains.

The Big Training Shuffle

Something wonderful happens when you start training for a race. Any race really, but especially the marathon. It’s a tough road to travel indefinitely, but a few months here and a few months there . . . there’s nothing like it.   

Every run has a purpose. There are short recovery runs and middle-distance runs at pace. Some runs are designed to improve the fast-twitch muscles that make us run ever faster while others train our bodies to go the distance. . . and I would stand on my head if it meant I would never miss a solitary run ever.

When there’s a hike on Wednesday, the first medium-long run is moved to Thursday, which moves the second short run to Friday (instead of a rest day which was moved to Monday) followed by housework, unless Kung Fu wasn’t on Tuesday, then it’s off to Kung Fu Friday afternoon followed by a nap. Saturday is the second medium-long run of the week, which at week 14 is 10 miles with the second 20-mile run on Sunday, except in this semester because our backpacking trip starts on Friday with 21 miles of hiking, which moved the second 20-mile run to earlier in the week so the taper can begin next Monday.
The Fartlek  (April 10, 2014)

Despite my valiant efforts, life happens and sometimes my running calendar suffers the blow.

Week 3 of this season’s marathon training coincided with Week 1 of this year’s relocation schedule. Every item under the roof of our lovely, old home was destined to be evaluated & eliminated, or packed & moved. Little time was left for running, and two runs were missed.

They say where you are in your training program determines whether runs should be made up, or skipped. I can honestly say I don’t ever remember making up a run, although a fair amount of thought goes into how to shuffle runs to different days, and which run(s) are forfeited when all else fails.

Hal Higdon defines 7 stages of the marathon cycle:

  1. Rest: an extended period of active rest after a marathon, 3-6 weeks, before training hard again.
  2. Endurance I: miles, and lots of them.
  3. Strength: to run fast, you need strong muscles. Run hills, interval training on the track but with reduced overall mileage.
  4. Speed: test yourself with shorter races during a time when you are not increasing mileage. Strength and Speed may overlap.
  5. Endurance II: the final mileage buildup – we know this as the 18-week marathon training program.
  6. Taper: you can’t achieve peak performance unless you are well rested.
  7. The marathon: run your fastest; then Periodize your training again.

Even though I am already in Stage 5 of this marathon cycle, there have been lots of hills and fast repeats at the track. Once each week I run up the mountain and back down for the benefit of building strength, and hopefully expanding aerobic capacity.

The goal has been to maintain a slow enough pace uphill to keep the effort aerobic vs anaerobic, and to maintain a steady, even pace going downhill. I have read it is important to learn how to guage and control the downhill pace to avoid muscle fatigue and be successful in a predominantly downhill race, such as my scheduled Peak To Creek Marathon this October.

Snapshots of this season’s hill training:

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For the long run at the end of Week 2, I made the decision to run towards town first because it gets hot without the benefit of shade, and traffic picks up as the morning grows late. This left a roughly 5-mile climb up the mountain, which was not ideal except that it was quiet, shady, and the downhill finish was highly appealing.  
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This out-and-back, 3-mile route follows a portion of the same road up the mountain as the 11-mile run from above.  The route has a total ascent of 290.38 ft and a maximum elevation of 2,592 ft. 

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Once in awhile I’ll walk to the end of our road to begin the 3-mile route shown above, and walk back up our road again at the end of the run – roughly 6 miles total. I won’t lie, this is a tough workout.

 

The House That Changed Everything

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Our agent emailed a picture of a house to us last February. The subject line said, “This might be the one!” We had put our dream home in the mountains of Western North Carolina on the market a few weeks earlier having made the decision to move ourselves to the beautiful city of Greensboro, North Carolina.

It would be a gross misrepresentation if I admitted to you now that my husband was anything less than furious when I had said to him, “What if we moved to a larger city?” For several weeks I failed miserably at answering his question, “Why?” He remained reluctant through the entire house hunting phase until we walked through the front doors of this lovely, old home. This home changed everything.

We bought the house as-is. There was no inspection, no need for due diligence really. Bees had set up residence in the 3rd floor bedroom walls, the kitchen flooded when the water was re-connected, the key broke off in the back door when we tried to escape the flooding kitchen, yet it was the garden that frightened my husband more than anything we faced inside the house. It was perfect.

The previous owners had left a note on the counter wishing for us all the same happiness they had enjoyed here for nearly 50 years. After four months of renovations that took the house down to its bare bones, we had created the perfect home. We moved in the first week of the hottest August I’ve ever met.

imageWe had barely gotten unpacked and settled when the doctors discovered his cancer. Working our way through this experience made us realize life is short, and ultimately the same question entered our discussions again. “What if . . . ?”

It was after we had bought a little cabin in the mountains to escape the summer heat that I discovered the answer to my husband’s question of Why? It seemed to me our move to Greensboro had served its purpose, to discover and treat the cancer all previous doctors had missed, and now it was time to go home.

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On May 4th we put our lovely, old home up for sale. May 6th it went under contract, although that contract was sadly terminated on the 24th. After a 10-day silence, the 3rd person to see this house extended our 2nd offer, and we finalized the deal on June 24th.

Every square inch of this nearly 100-year old home was poked and prodded; every nook and cranny analyzed, discussed, and debated. There were a few surprises. For example, excessive moisture was creeping under the foundation courtesy of the torrential downpours we’ve had all summer. Due Diligence deadlines came, went, were extended, and sometimes extended themselves all on their own. Experts were consulted, repair lists amended. All the while, we waited. It was on July 4th when my husband said to me, “We should write a book on how to inject stress into life.”

We became experts on the installation of a French Drain, compiled a thoughtful reply to our Buyer’s list of concerns, and fiinally finalized the deal four days ago. This weekend our belongings will be moved back to the mountains. . . just shy of 12 months from the day we left.

Our lovely, old home was a good investment, my husband is in good health, we’re ecstatic about returning to the mountains we love, we can finally move into our ‘forever’ home, and as our agent back home says, “Yeah!!!!! Maybe life can go back to simply remodeling.”  My thoughts exactly.

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Our first picture of this lovely, old home. . . It was “the one.”

 

 

Peak to Creek: Downhill Race Prep

At this very moment thousands of runners are singularly focused on the Boston Marathon; qualifying for entry, surviving the cut, getting there, and finally running Boston.

The course starts at a height of 462 feet above sea level in Hopkinton, drops precipitously, particularly in the first mile and a half, rolls, descends again through about 4 miles, then flattens somewhat with an occasional hill before bottoming out at 49 feet above sea level at Lower Newton Falls (16 miles). Then begin a series of four hills–what Coach Bill Squires calls the Killer Chain–culminating in the infamous Heartbreak Hill (21 miles). It is not so much the height of the hills (Heartbreak is only 236 feet above sea level), but where they come in the race that poses difficulty for marathoners who have failed to prepare for them. 
from Hal Higdon’s Boston Bound Marathon training program.
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Boston Marathon Mile by Mile Course Elevaations  Courtesy: archive.boston.com

I’ve never been taken away by the thought of running Boston, my preference being for the smaller, more rural races. Local races have a personality of their own developed over time by the race director, or sometimes punctuated by the course itself, which can become legendary all on its own.

The process of choosing my next race comes about slowly. It has to be the right course to peak my interest, within the correct month to match my training, and the perfect proximity to home to coincide with whether or not we have a babysitter for the dogs.

Last summer I spent weeks researching the courses of every 50k in a 5-state area before settling on what I deemed to be the best (nearby) 50k for a virgin Ultra runner. A few weeks ago, I set that 50k aside in favor of a marathon re-do; a ‘getting back on the horse’ kind of thing.

It didn’t take long to locate the North Carolina marathon that’s a bit infamous in these parts, Peak to Creek Jonas Ridge to Brown Mountain Beach, N.C. (formerly known as Ridge to Bridge); the name being a dead give-away of its most notable course feature. . . downhill.

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Peak to Creek Marathon Course Elevation: the orange vertical band just past mile 4.5 represents roughly 15.5 meters of climb, a 2% grade. The yellow and greens represent flat or descending; the darker the green, the steeper the descent.

No more than 300 runners, a limit enforced by the U.S. Forest Service, will run on quiet, unpaved country roads that pass through dense forests and open fields; climbing a total of 285 feet (87m) with 2,946 feet (898m) of down.

Downhill races promise to give us fast finishes, Boston Qualifying finishes. Right?

Racing a predominantly downhill course is no easy task. Wear and tear on the quads and calves can be devastating. Preparing for this race requires thoughtful planning, and training.

Boston Marathon training programs are designed specifically to condition your legs for the torture they’ll endure on the downhill course, including fast 800 repeats at the track, and uphill repeats that push you into the 80-90% maximum zone. Every other week, downhill repeats are used to strengthen the legs. In fact, some coaches warn to not include weight lifting to further strengthen the quad, calf, and hamstring muscles will result in certain failure come race day.

Mastering the skills of downhill running involve learning not to brake, leaning slightly forward (at the hip) so that gravity pulls you downhill, and moving your legs fast enough – using a short, light stride – to keep you from falling forward face first,  however scary this may be. Even the best downhill runners can still crash and burn on race day if pace is too fast too early in the downhills.

These downhill courses are rarely all downhill, however, and unlucky for us, we can never make up as much time on the downhill as we lose on the uphills.

Treadmill tests conducted by British researcher Mervyn Davies showed that each 100 feet of climbing costs the average runner (non-elite) 30-40 seconds, while downhills only speed you up by about 55 percent as much as the corresponding uphills slow you down. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that every good freefall must start high.

A team led by kinesiologist Francois Peronnet of the University of Montreal conducted a mathematical analysis of the effect of altitude on running, and found that up to elevations of about 8,000 feet (2,438m), the amount of slowdown is directly proportional to the altitude. (Above 8,000 ft, it increases sharply.) Although performance improves at the 400m distance within certain altitudes, performance is reduced over the middle and long distances (800m to marathon).

Specifically, each 1,000 feet above sea level was found to slow the middle and long distance runners by about one percent.

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Courtesy: archive.boston.com

My long run has followed the same rolling downhill route for many years. It’s a strategy I learned in Ecuador where my runs began at home just below 10,000 feet (3,048m), continued down the mountain, and into the nearby town of Cuenca at roughly 2,500 meters elevation (8,200 feet).

The North Carolina route is similar, albeit with the welcome relief of significantly less altitude. At 3,317 feet (1,011m) at the start, this route follows the creek to the heart of the little town next door at roughly 2,010 feet (613m), including 2% and 3% uphills and up to -9% descents making it an excellent training route for a peak to creek race.

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The first 12 miles of the Balsam to Sylva training run.
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Peak to Creek Marathon.

The lesson I have learned from this marathon’s race prep is that the marathon is always a race between you and the course. You may be over-trained, under-trained, or have carried out a flawless training effort. It is still you and that race – on that day, on that course. . . uphill, downhill or flat. The only question is whether you will beat the course, or will the course beat you, and I simply adore the challenge.

 

Sample Calculations (taken from “Downhill All The Way” by Richard A. Lovett):

Going Up
Every 1% upgrade slows your pace 3.3% (1/30th)
Every 100 feet of elevation gain slows you 6.6% of your average one mile pace (2% grade/mile).
Example: A race that climbs 300 feet would slow an 8-minute miler (3 x .066 x 8 x 60 seconds) = 94 seconds slower at the finish

Going Down
Every 1% downgrade speeds your pace 55% of 3.3% = 1.8%
Every 100 feet of elevation descent speeds you 3.6% of your average one mile pace (2% grade/mile).
Example: A race that descends 300 feet would speed an 8-minute miler (3 x .036 x 8 x 60 seconds) = 55 seconds faster at the finish

Running High
Every 1,000 feet of altitude above sea level slows you 1% (up to 8,000 feet, then all bets are off)
Example: A race at 3,000 feet would slow an 8-minute miler (3 x .01x 8 x 60) = 14.4 seconds per mile, or 6:20 total in the marathon

 

Additional ‘Downhill’ Reading Across the Web:

Downhill All The Way, Runner’s World

The Science of Hill Running and How It Impacts Your Race Times, RunnersConnect

Three Tips for Running Downhill, Runner’s World

The Secret to Running Downhill Fast, Triathlete