Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 03 Jul 2014 04:45:22 -0400

Getting Over It

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from August 1995.)

We hate what we fear. Runners who talk of “hating hills” have lost prior uphill battles and come to fear the force that conquered them.

You never beat the hills, which shrink for no runner. The harder you fight them, the more they strike back. The best you can do is make peace with the hills.

I’m a reformed hill-hater (-fearer). My history is dotted with marathons the likes of Ocean to Bay and Summit in northern California, and Deseret News in Utah.

These races all cross mountain passes. Before seeking them out, I had to get over my hill-phobia.

I first got to know them as a cross-country runner in the Midwest. We were taught to “work the hills,” which meant “fight your way to the top.”

This approach might have worked on the speed-bumps that we called hills back there on the plains. But it didn’t work on the imposing slopes, rising hundreds or thousands of feet, that I encountered on the West Coast.

Those hills shrugged off my feeble attempts to fight them. The harder I worked, the sooner they humbled me.

A veteran of those hills, whose name I wish I’d written down then, turned my thinking around. “You’re making the fundamental mistake that all rookies do on steep hills,” he said.

Curiosity overcame my irritation at being labeled a neophyte. I asked for his advice.

“You can’t fight the hill,” he said. “It always wins if you do. You have to work WITH it, not against it.”

And how did he suggest doing that? By not fighting to hold a steady pace, he said. You obviously must push much harder on the hill than on the flat to run at the same pace, and the cost is too great.

Instead, concentrate on holding the EFFORT steady while going uphill. To use a driving or biking term, shift down into a lower, slower climbing gear on the ascent.

The hill-running vet let me make permanent peace with hills. If I treat them with respect, they let me pass through unbroken.

Hill-haters, take heart. Hear the story of another ex-foot-soldier in your army.

Her name is Shannon, from North Carolina. She had committed to running a marathon, started training and picked a race.

Early excitement gave way to dread when she learned the nature of her choice: one of the hilliest courses on the East Coast. She wrote to ask my advice.

Don’t fear or fight the uphills, I told her. Downshift on them. Make your peace with them.

Take care on downhills too, I added. Don’t let gravity carry you away, but instead hold yourself back to save your legs from taking an awful pounding. Keep the stride low, and let the slightly bent knees act as shock-absorbers.

Practicing all these techniques on hilly training courses builds confidence along with leg strength. I advised Shannon to rehearse the marathon terrain on her long runs.

Check the course profile, I said. Then, as closely as possible, design a training route that mimics it in the number, placement and steepness of hills. If you can handle these hills in training, you’ll glide over them on race day.

Shannon wrote to me again after her marathon. Excitement bubbled off the page.

“I followed the advice about working with the hills,” she wrote. “My confidence was great, and I knew without a doubt that I would have a strong finish.”

She had come a long way from the fear written all over her first letter. She said from the far side of her hills, “They were my favorite part of the course.”

UPDATE FROM 2014

I now coach a marathon training team. Our long runs are nearly dead-flat, for two reasons. That’s the profile of our race courses, and the best route in our town follows a level bike path along a river.

Yet I still recommend seeking out hills on at least one midweek run – again for two reasons. They are speed training in disguise, building strength on the ups while increasing pace on the downs. And regular hill training calms the fear and cools the hate.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Latest released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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