It was a hot summer day in August of 2010…I had to stop for a bit. I tried to stretch out my quads, balancing with one hand on a tree. F@#$!! Bad idea. That just caused a cramp, and the 34C (93F) temperature certainly didn’t help. I popped an energy gel and continued to walk forward and upward, swearing internally and occasionally out loud.
Suddenly, a 50+ year-old lady trotted past me wearing a sun hat with a red ribbon. I looked up from the ground, did a double take and watched her disappear around a switch back.
I was on the final 10km of my first ultra distance race (50km), also my first long-distance, hilly event. I was overwhelmed and over matched. I remembered slowly jogging/walking up a steep stretch, watching people that were much older and heavier passed by and thought, “these people have superpowers.”
Acquiring the power
I hobbled to the finish line eventually that day. It certainly wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t pretty for a week, but that was the initial step to also acquire this superpower. Since then I have run many more hilly races and incline workouts.
After having labored up mountains enough times, the hurt is less and the movements more efficient, and I’ve even learned to enjoy it a little bit (don’t we all love to hate running hills?). With runner’s amnesia, the pain of these runs subsides yet the improved strength and sense of accomplishment last forever.
Whether your next race is in the mountains or not, hill training is a proven method for running speed, leg strength and overall fitness.
According to studies conducted by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, a 12-week training program of twice-weekly hill workouts raised the tested runner’s running economy by 3%, which translated to 2-minute and 6-minute improvements for 10 milers and marathons, respectively. Other research proved that those who trained on hills developed higher concentrations of aerobic enzymes, the chemicals that enable muscles to operate at higher intensity for longer periods, in their quadriceps.
The “superpower” label is certainly an exaggeration for amateur runners like myself, but please meet the GOAT, ultra runner extraordinaire Kilian Jornet. He recorded a 92 mL/(kg·min) VO2 max, the maximum capacity of a person’s body to transport and use oxygen during incremental exercises. The VO2 max of average healthy men is 35-40 mL/(kg·min) and 27-31 mL/(kg·min) for women.
Blessed with one of the highest VOs max recorded, Jornet invented a new hybrid sport of ultramarathon/climbing.
“Over the next six hours, Jornet ran, scrambled, and climbed more than 12,000 feet up Mont Blanc’s south face. After running past two common stopping points—the Monzino hut, at 8,402 feet, and the Eccles bivy, at 12,631—he traversed along the Innominata Ridge, a technical section of mountain that features an expanse of glacier with a 60-degree slope, where Jornet donned his crampons and used his ice ax. Most climbers who ascend via the Innominata do so over three days, carrying tents and food. Just getting to the summit can take as long as 20 hours, and it’s technical enough that guides often won’t take clients up it. Jornet reached the summit at 10:15 A.M., then took two more hours to run and scramble down the French side to Chamonix. All told he covered more than 26 miles and 24,000 feet of elevation change in eight hours and 43 minutes.” (April 2013, Outside Magazine)
For those that are curious about VO2 max:
Average of elite male athlete: 85 mL/(kg·min)
Average of elite female athlete: 77 mL/(kg·min)
Lance Armstrong: 84 mL/(kg·min)
Running legend Steve Prefontaine: 84.4 mL/(kg·min)
Ultra runner Matt Carpenter: 92.5 mL/(kg·min)
Cyclist Oskar Svendsen: 97.5 mL/(kg·min)
Thoroughbred racehorses: 180 mL/(kg·min)
Siberian dogs running in sled dog races: 240 mL/(kg·min)
With different levels of superheroes, it’s only fitting to have categories for the villains – the climbs. The difficulties of a climb is commonly determined by length of the climb, steepness of the climb, position of the climb within a race, and to a lesser degree the quality of the surface, according to Positive Performance Coaching
Category 4 – climbs of 200-500 feet (70-150m). Length is usually less that 2 miles (3km)
Category 3 – climbs of 500-1600 feet (150-500m). Between 2 and 3 miles (3km and 4.5km) in length.
Category 2 – climbs of 1600-2700 feet (500-800m). Between 3 and 6 miles (4.5km and 10km) in length.
Category 1 – climbs of 2700-5000 feet (800-1500m). Between 6 and 12 miles (10km and 20km) in length
Hors (literally ‘out’ or ‘above’) Category – the hardest, climbs of 5000+ feet (1500m+). Usually more than 12 miles (20km).
My minor-league power
“If you’re like me, you’ve probably found yourself staring at an expanse of landscape, a far-off ridgeline, or a squiggling dirt road and thinking, I want to go there. If so, I have some good news: As an ultra runner, you probably can,” said ultra runner Meghan M. Hicks (Afterword of Relentless Forward Progress – A Guide to Running Ultra Marathons).
I don’t have an off-the-chart VO2max, unfortunately, and I never battled any Hors-category climbs. But my climbing ability was gained through repetition and mileage accumulation since getting whooped by the umbrella lady.
It’s the confidence of seeing a distant peak and knowing that I have the ability to reach it with the power of my own two legs (and it happens to be the best way to experience nature in my opinion).
Running uphill, which was once my weakness, is now the strongest part of my running. During a race, when I’m greeted by a big climb, I usually say this to myself, “this is where the men separate from the boys.”
The increased focus on footfalls and breathing on the way up always helps me zone out make up time and gain position. Strides powered from the hip, lungs filled with fresh mountain air, breathlessness and soreness stemmed from performing an intense activity, and the joy of being humbled by the awesome nature.
“Happiness is pushing your limits and watching them back down” – unknown. That’s how I feel every time I reach the top.
Need a little motivation to head out the door? Here are more fan-favorites from our “Inspiration” section. Happiness happens when you run.