Downhill Race Prep: alas, the taper.

The best part of retirement is that you can determine your own schedule. No alarm clock, there’s time for an afternoon nap, and entire days can be dedicated to reading a book, watching movies, or working in the garden, if that’s all you really want to do. It’s just lovely.

Hurricane Matthew started pouring rain on our house at 5:00am – although the radar didn’t realize it was raining here for hours.

The alarm was set for 5:30a on Saturday. We had studied the weather patterns and plotted a strategy to maneuver last Saturday’s 20-mile run around the backlash of Hurricane Matthew. The key was getting an early start. By the time I accepted that the run had been rained out it was 6:30a, we had already had our coffee, and I had already been wearing my running clothes for a solid hour.

The new strategy for adding miles to the beginning of the run included an 8-mile stretch on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a beautiful place to run – were it not for the hills. (Photo taken through my Jeep window while scouting the new route.)

The alarm was set for 5:30a on Sunday. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it was a pleasant 40 degrees, the wind was steady at 15mph with gusts strong enough to blow me over, and my fall running gear is packed up in boxes somewhere at our new house.

Starting at Balsam Gap near US 74 (elevation 3370), I took a right towards Cherokee for about a mile, and then left toward Asheville for 2 miles before I abandoned this new route at the Rabb Knob Overlook, elevation 3725. (image courtesy

About 5 months ago we packed enough clothes to last the summer and moved back to Western North Carolina where we feel most at home. For me, this meant running in the place I feel most at home with all the things, good and bad, that go along with living in the mountains.

This year’s marathon training has been measured in feet rather than miles. It was a strategy that evolved because our little cabin (and temporary home) sits conveniently off the all familiar road leading up the mountain. Week after week my plan was to drive 20-30 minutes across town for a better (flatter) running route. Then the days would get busy and I’d drive to the end of our road, run up the mountain and back down again to save time.

My favorite long-run route takes me past the historic Balsam Mountain Inn (Courtesy

Three years ago, marathon training carried me 11,700 feet uphill. The marathon of 2014 included 1,438 feet of total elevation gain (with 1,439 ft of loss), and I still can’t believe I survived that race. This season’s total training exceeds 30,000 feet of total elevation so far.

The strategy of all of these uphill runs wasn’t meant to just build strength and (hopefully) speed, but to practice the downhill part of running. . . and adjust to its undeniable abuse. My left calf was sore for several weeks early in the season, one knee or the other hurts from time to time, and the top of my right foot has become sore – the latter two issues courtesy of the extreme camber of these old, mountain roads.

Fortunately, my marathon training program includes a 3-week taper that begins this week. The ever-dwindling mileage scheduled throughout the taper gives my poor body plenty of time to recover before the marathon, and while we’re waiting on recovery there will be plenty of time to organize my new home. . . alarm clock optional.



Marathon Training: Up and Down

My husband (very reluctantly) sent me a CNN article this week about Ultra Marathons, “Ultramarathons go above and beyond.” The author compared the 100-mile run to a relationship. “It’s great at first, and then you have your ups and downs. Near the end, you tend to hate everything about it. And when it’s over, you forget how bad it was and sign up for another.”

Marathons can leave us mere 26.2 mortals feeling the same way, and whether it was just a bad day or training error we almost always believe we can do better if given just one more chance. Here I am 33 days from one more chance.

I corrected the errors in my training program, and then wisely corrected them again.

My plan was to peak at 55 miles per week with three 20-mile runs before I redacted everything in my calendar four weeks ago. Now my calendar includes no more than 35-mile weeks, no more than 4 days of running each week, and one 20-mile run.

Having already completed a 16-mile run before the redactions, I found myself with oodles of time to reach that pinnacle 20-mile run. To fill in the blanks, I’ve run a second 16-mile run, two 18-mile runs, and the lone 20-miler is next weekend.


The benefit of downsizing from a 6-day running schedule to 4 is that there is energy to spare (runners don’t do well with spare energy). Enter intensity.

Weight-lifters add weight. Runners add hills.

I’ve traditionally been a fan of the theory that running flat surfaces builds running economy – and it’s been a conveniently comfortable theory to hold onto – but plenty of coaches recommend hill training to build strength and speed; a strategy reinforced for me when I ran with my friend in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya where the marathoners use the road leading up the mountain for their speed work.

So this season I’ve added hills. The mostly downhill long-run route has been reversed once a week for repeats up the mountain, and because my next marathon is predominantly downhill, half the repeats are run back down. (Total elevation gain over the 2.5 mile uphill climb is 457 feet.)

The following week I go to the track for level footing.


My long-run route challenges have been well documented by now, and I reluctantly write one further word. Adding miles to the pleasantly shady/quiet/blissful/if not steep first half of my run continues to be an issue, however, and this week I had the idea to run the same 2-mile stretch that was added to the last rather disdainful 18-mile run twice. Unfortunately, my little water bottle wouldn’t take me this far.

The new solution was to begin the normal route, add the 2-mile stretch along with a new 1-mile section, then back up the mountain where extra water and Gatorade was left in the Jeep. This unknowingly added an additional 450 feet of elevation for a total of 1,200 feet of elevation with several 6- 8% grade hills in the 18-mile run.

Those first few miles were really tough, although I felt strong through the rest of the run (and there were 2 successful potty breaks along the way if you must know). Still, it’s unclear if this route will remain in the portfolio of long-run routes. . .

The first 4-1/2 miles of last weekend’s 18-mile run.
The last 6 miles are flat, all sun and 35-45mph traffic (U.S. translation: 55-65mph traffic)

This season has reminded me of the importance of the one-stressor-at-a-time rule, something I had failed to incorporate into last season’s training. If not for the reduced mileage my body would never survive the hills, and if not for the extra rest days my legs would be toast.

It has been said many times that marathon training should be tougher than the race itself.  It’s great at first, and then you have your ups and downs. Near the end, you tend to hate everything about it. And when it’s over, you forget how bad it was and start the process all over again.


Scratch The Itch

3 weeks ago. . .

I missed a full week of training. I’ve never missed a full week of training. Things started with a migraine-style headache that led to nausea followed by several days of fever, chills, and lots of sleep. Day after day I promised my husband, and sometimes my Dad that I would visit the doctor. By Friday I was feeling better though, and I volunteered to take the early shift of meeting workers at our new house – giving me the opportunity to finally uncover the beautiful swan on the patio wall.

48 hours later. . .

The poison oak was evident along both arms, although my left arm took the brunt of the blow and was swollen twice its size replete with welts and blisters. I remembered from EMT training that poison is basically a chemical burn – I had a 2nd degree chemical burn on my left arm. It was the first day I was to get back to my training schedule, so I dutifully strapped my watch onto my right, less affected arm, and went for a run.

For all the miraculous benefits of modern medicine, I still consider it a last resort. I managed to control the urge to scratch the poison using topical creams, although that poison has taken its dear, sweet time to heal.

Meanwhile, the contractor finished installing the fence around our property, which includes a generous parcel of land up the hill behind the house that is all forest (and a good bit of our neighbor’s yard debris). We loaded the dogs into the Jeep that Saturday after my long run, and let them explore what will become their new territory. The boys were a little timid, so Dakota and I walked to the edge of the forest to show them there was nothing to fear.

24 hours later. . .

Dakota was miserable, and irritable.

. . . the itching began. It was everywhere – on her stomach, ears, head, feet. I couldn’t see a thing, but she was obviously miserable. I held a cool cloth on her stomach, rubbed her with ointment, and tried my best to have her swallow a small piece of Benadryl. She was in such misery I couldn’t bear it.

I held her in my arms while she nestled her head under my chin and we’d walk around the house until she fell asleep in total exhaustion. Sleep lasted about an hour and we’d start the process all over again. I didn’t know whether to cry or scream.

It was chiggers, and every one of those nasty, little devils must have jumped off her and onto me. She was all better the next morning while I had red itchy bites everywhere – down my back, on my stomach, both arms and legs, chiggers on top of poison, but mostly on my neck and face. Whatever control I had over itching the poison oak was lost on these damn chiggers. They are surely the worst demons on earth.

I have learned everything there is to learn about chiggers, tried every remedy (including turmeric, which turned my fingers orange), spent inordinate amounts of time at the pharmacy counter, and I’ve taken enough Benadryl to kill a horse. I jumped out of bed at midnight the first night, stripped all the linens off the bed, stuffed them in the washer to contain the miserable critters, sprayed the whole house with bug spray (which I’m told will kill those still lurking in the shadows), and took a shower believing I was being attacked all over again. I won’t admit how many times this process has been repeated in the days since.

By this time my face and throat feel more like sandpaper than skin from the remedies that best relieved the itch. My face is red, sensitive to the sun, swollen, splotchy, and hurts so bad that I haven’t been able to run for three more days. I can honestly say I would have never believed there would be a time I couldn’t run because my face hurts.

My husband has spent the past few days in Chicago babysitting our dog that became an only child (who is doing absolutely fabulous by the way), and I’ve been relieved he hasn’t been subjected to the sight I have become.

Today is the last day I could withdraw from the upcoming marathon, but I have decided to refuse to give in. Who could have known just how far it would go when I decided to cut back on my training this season?

My husband and I have decided that if I survive this marathon, it will be an incredibly eye-opening experiment as it relates to how much training is enough, but if nothing else, this experience has given me an entirely new appreciation for “an ounce of prevention.”

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.

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.

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:

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.  
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. 


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.


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.
Boston Marathon Mile by Mile Course Elevaations  Courtesy:

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.

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.


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.

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