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SO, YOU WANT TO RUN STEEP?

With the trail running niche of mountain running seeing a lot of growth lately, thought I’d chime in with my [unsolicited] two cents regarding the sport. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve spent a considerable amount of time training and racing in the mountains over the past two years, so I thought it might be worth sharing some of the lessons learned that have served me well.

Mountain Running is a highly demanding, but highly rewarding discipline of running. It’s hard. It’s sometimes a bit scary. It’s always (for me, anyway) fun. I love adventure, mountains, and running trails, so my interest in mountain running has evolved fairly naturally over the last few years. If you’re new to the sport, here are a few thoughts, for what they’re worth, in no particular order:

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(Above: Rocky ascents (and descents) during the Rothrock Trail Challenge in Pennsylvania, 2014. Image Credit: Ben Murphy)

UNDERSTAND THAT IT’S A DIFFERENT BEAST: To the uninitiated, mountain running sounds like steeper trail running. It’s not. You are, quite literally, running mountains. The analogy I give is that Mountain Running is to Trail Running as Trail Running is to Road Running. They’re related, but only kinda. Cousins, maybe? Many similarities. But also many (very critical) differences.

KNOW WHETHER OR NOT YOU LIKE MOUNTAINS: This may seem obvious, but there’s a lure to mountains that some people don’t understand before they get in over their heads. Deep in the mountains is not a good place to figure out that they aren’t your cup of tea. The terrain, the weather, the steepness, the margin for safety (or, sometimes, lack thereof), the knowledge set for survival, etc. that has to be had for mountain running is very different from normal trail running. You’re scrambling rocks up and down steep slopes. Empire State Building height climbs in a mile (or less) are not uncommon. Terrain can become very technical. You’ll be out in the open on ridges above tree line, often alone, exposed to the elements. Weather can change radically during a race. Aid Stations are often sporadic at best. Much of this can be in the dark by headlamp. If you like this sort of stupidity, then great! If you don’t, then… well, tread carefully.

CHANGE YOUR ‘NORMAL’: If you want to be good at Mountain Running, you can’t train for Trail Running. There is simply no substitute for climbing hills. Steep hills. Lots of steep hills. You have to be good at this; not only when you’re fresh, but – more importantly – when you’re thoroughly exhausted. Your comfort level in the steeps is where you will succeed or fail in mountain running. So find some 20%-50% grades and scramble up and down them as fast as you can for an hour. Or a few hours. Hell, make them mountains. The longer, higher, steeper, the better. In training for most big mountain races, accomplished runners often base their training weeks around feet of climb/descent -vs- mileage. My peak training weeks for my 2015 training were 25,000′-30,000′ of elevation change (EC) over the course of 50-60 miles. Ideally, two of these weeks back to back. Then rest. Then repeat. (And that may sound like a lot, but the pros who are really good at this are putting in double that climb/descent in a week. Crazy, right?) It sounds totally obsessive, but it’s really not. It’s out of necessity. Your survival in long mountain ultras is totally dependent on what your training has been and what your mind and body can handle halfway up a mountain in the dark in the rain all alone when you’ve already been climbing for the past 12 hours and you’re beyond exhausted. Trust me. And if you live where it’s flat, think outside of the box. I have a friend in Ohio who runs repeats on a local dam incline at a 30% gradient. It’s less than ideal, but he’s crushed some legitimately hard mountain ultras. It works. Run stairs up and down an office building stairwell. Run stairs at the local college stadium. Crank the treadmill up as high as the incline can go and run that for 2 hours. Get creative. You should always be training for the terrain you’ll be racing on, but nowhere is this more critical to success than in mountain races.

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(Above: more rocky trails (surprise!) during the Rothrock Trail Challenge in Pennsylvania. Image Credit: Ben Murphy)

GET TO THE MOUNTAINS: There is no substitute for spending time on steep mountain “trails” in all kinds of awful weather. And doing so safely, getting to a personal place where you’re comfortable in that space and you begin to figure out where your own boundaries and safety margins should be. The mountains are, after all, calculated risk. Everyone calculates risk differently and this is all learned through actual, first hand, real life experience. That said…

LEARN: Read race reports from mountain ultras, read mountaineering and adventuring books, read survival books and articles. Consume these stories. And they don’t have to be in print. Videos, podcasts, picking the brains of local athletes who’ve “been there done that.” You get the picture. This will serve you well. Become a student. Many have gone before you and learned things you need to know; listen. I fell through the ice out snowshoeing on a sub-zero day last year. All alone. The only way I made it out was because I knew what to do when you fall through the ice, all because I’d watched a number of survival shows about it. If not for that I very well could have died (it scares the shit out of me to this day). Your most valuable resources in the outdoors are 1.) Your Knowledge 2.) Your Training, and 3.) Your Gear. In that order (IMHO). Reading and learning from others’ misadventures means you are less likely to repeat their mistakes. You’ll glean “tricks of the trade” on form, technique, strategy, etc. that you can incorporate into your own training. The more you know, the less stress you have about what scenarios you might be faced with during a race. That becomes extra brain capacity to focus on the task at hand. Reading also tunes you into the culture of the mountains and the mountain/trail/running/climbing community. It is a remarkably approachable and caring community. The more you learn and do, the more you become part of it.

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(Above: Colin Bailey descending rocky trails on The Devil’s Path in the Catskill Mountains. Image Credit: Mike Mertsock.)

MATH MATTERS: Pay attention to the math. I have actually heard people say, “Meh, it’s just math; whatever. I run a lot. I’ll be fine.” They invariably have their ass handed to them. Or worse. Understand what you’re training for. Know what “elevation change per mile” means. Know how to read and understand elevation profiles. Most hilly trail running races will have anywhere from 150′-350′ of EC/mile. Once you get up over the 400′ EC/mile threshold, you’re getting into “mountain running” territory. For example, the Escarpment Trail Run is a fairly infamous 30k mountain race that’s been run for almost four decades through the rocky trails of the Catskill Mountains in New York. The cutoff is 6 hours (yes, for a 30k), because it has somewhere north of 10,000′ of elevation change. There are many 50 mile trail ultras that don’t get anywhere near that much climb and descent. If you do the math, that’s 538′ of elevation change every mile. Which puts it in the same type of steepness/mile as iconic mountain ultras like Hardrock 100 and other legendary mountain races featuring 600′ or 700′ or even more elevation change every mile. These are not easy races. And they’re not meant to be. If you’ve signed up for a mountain race, don’t train for it on your local rail trail.

HIKING -vs- RUNNING: A good friend of mine who also happens to be a very accomplished mountain runner once told me, “There’s a big difference between being a good hiker and a good trail runner. Just because you’re good at one, doesn’t automatically mean you’re good at the other. In mountain running you have to excel at both.” So you need to practice both. You need to be able to run long, gradual uphills, but then also understand at what pitch it becomes more efficient to power hike the steeper stuff. This varies for everybody depending on their body geometry, running cadence, fitness level, etc. But knowing which activity (hiking /or/ running) is most useful in which setting will greatly aid you in getting through mountain terrain as efficiently as possible. And the only way to become better at this is to go out and do it. A lot.

GEOMETRY: When you’re climbing, geometry and form matter immensely. I can’t give you a silver bullet on this, but just know that for both climbing and for descending, there are optimal sweet spots for everybody. Things like leaning too far forward or too far back, hunching over, standing up too tall, tilting your chin down too much, or not engaging your core/back muscles are all things that will kill your climbing speed and efficiency. Everyone is different, but there are sweet spots for everyone. Go out and climb. Figure it out for you. Deep into a race is not the place to figure this stuff out; you have to have it dialed in intuitively well before race day.

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(Above: Wet, stormy ascents during the Escarpment Trail Run, Catskill Mountains, NY. 2014. Image Credit: Ben Murphy)

DOWNHILLS: Most people think the ascents are the hard part. But that’s only half of it. Try navigating rocky downhill as fast as you can for an hour and then let me know how your quads feel. You should spend as much time downhilling in training as you do climbing. It’s every bit as critical, not only from a muscular-skeletal viewpoint, but also from a safety perspective. It’s much easier to get hurt going downhill for a number of reasons. The more you practice, the better your muscle memory and balance, and the safer you’ll be. Also, don’t forget that downhilling properly requires proper usage of muscles and tendons and core, not joints. If your joints are hurting then you’re doing it wrong.

TRANSITIONS AND LEG TURNOVER: A great deal of time can be made up in mountain running by being able to seamlessly transition from steep climb or rugged descent right back into trail running on the flats and gradual inclines/declines. The harder the mountain race the less of this “easy” terrain there will be, so being able to bang out flat terrain even if you’re winded and shot from a steep hour+ climb, can give one a critical advantage. This increased leg turnover also works different muscles and tendons than you use in climbing, thereby shaking out your legs and actually helping you to recover a bit before the next steep slog. This is why, although vertical climbing and descending is critically important in training, you can’t ignore your long runs just like you need to train for any ultra distance. The best combination (for me, anyway) is to make your back-to-back long runs a steep climbing day followed by a long run the next day on flatter terrain on tired legs. It’s hard, but that’s kinda the point of training.

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(Above: This is what happens when you fall on rocky trails. Rothrock Trail Challenge, Pennsylvania, 2014. Image Credit: Ben Murphy)

FALLING: Falling on mountain trails is not a matter of if, but of when. So, what do you do if you’re flying down a steep slope on chair-sized rocks and shale scree and you suddenly clip your toe on a hidden root and go airborne? You should know the answer to this. Because it will happen. Knowing how to fall properly is part ninja roll, part [painful] trial-and-error. It’s gonna happen. Figure it out. My advice? Ball up and roll with it as best the terrain will allow, cover your neck/head, and make sure wrists/ankles are not sticking out so they don’t get caught in between rocks as you fall. For obvious reasons.

GEAR: This could be another post in and of itself, but poles are often used by folks and have their pros and cons. Hydration vests are a huge plus (you often need your hands free for scrambling). Obviously, your choice of shoes is going to make a difference (e.g. – don’t wear vibram five fingers to Manitou’s Revenge). Be sure to have minimal survival gear with you; things such as a lighter, an emergency blanket, water treatment tabs, a small/light knife, 20′ of paracord, appropriate clothing for the weather conditions, etc.

KNOWLEDGE BASE: Hypothermia, proper falling, heatstroke prevention, water safety, back country hydration and water treatment, how to start a fire, head injury, lightening strikes, wild animal attacks (and prevention) such as bears, snake bites, wolves/coyote, porcupines, etc., field treatment for sprains and breaks, usage of a compass and map, preventing frostbite, navigating by the sun, self-extraction. The list could go on and on. But, in mountain running, DNF’s are harder to come by. ‘Cause you can call it quits if you’re too tired to continue, but… you’re still stuck in the middle of nowhere, which means you always have to be capable of getting yourself out of any foreseeable situation you could get yourself into.

ATTITUDE: More than anything? Have fun. Seriously. You’re in the middle of the mountains. Enjoy the views. Laugh at the absurdity of it. Marvel at the scale of it all. Breathe it in and enjoy every single moment. One last word of wisdom, go into these things with a bit of humility and gratitude. When we enter wild places, we are merely there as guests. Treat mountains with the respect they deserve. If you don’t, they have a way of putting you in your place very swiftly.

This isn’t an exhaustive or authoritative list. I haven’t touched on things like rockfall or avalanches. But it’s a start, and hopefully it’s helpful. What other advice would you add? What other questions might you have? Leave a comment below!

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