Uphill struggle will be worth it on race day
I had a horrible dog-ate-my-homework sensation a couple of weeks ago. In the same week, two separate running friends (Boston Marathon veteran Warren and running coach Andrew) contacted me with training advice for the Boston Marathon: make sure you work on your hill running, specifically the downhills, or woe betide your beaten quads when Heartbreak Hill arrives at mile 20.
As I've been using a pace-based training plan for Boston, I have to admit I have somewhat neglected hill work. With just a few weeks to go, I have decided it's time to unbury my head and cram in a couple of long runs simulating race-specific conditions.
Accumulating miles on the correct surface is important for a good race: for trail races this may seem obvious but road runners often choose to log lots of miles on softer surfaces to avoid injury.
Part of marathon (or indeed any road race distance) training is preparing your legs and feet for the shock of smashing them against a hard surface for up to 26 miles, so it's good to do at least some of your long training runs on road or pavement.
If you're taking on a race which is not flat, it's important to take in the kind of terrain you'll face on race day during your long runs (she cried, as the Fat Lady began to sing).
For example, the recent Connemara half-marathon is a point-to-point course with net uphill: a steep hill right after the race starts, then another uphill at mile 10 (the infamous Hell of the West). It's naive to assume that you'll be able to hold your normal, flat run pace on this kind of course, so it's important to train on hills to improve your speed and strength on the inclines, but also for a more realistic estimate of your finishing time.
Even the Dublin Marathon, which is fairly flat, has two hills which will add a minute or two to your goal finishing time if you haven't incorporated them into your race strategy.
For the Boston Marathon, another point-to-point course which, unlike Connemara, has net elevation drop over the course, I've been advised to practise running hills, specifically some fast downhills, to help my quads and IT bands adapt for race day.
A lot of bigger road races will have formal elevation charts (or you can check out people's Strava or Garmin data online). If you don't have hills nearby, try doing a hill workout on the treadmill or make a diversion for your long weekend run to a route that incorporates hills. The more experience you have, the better you will deal with a tough race route without slowing your overall pace.
Only a few weeks left till M-day, but thanks to the timely warnings, I crammed a couple of good hill-centric runs into the last two weeks before tapering.
Four weeks out, I directed my 18-mile long run around Lexington Reservoir near Los Gatos. With several steep climbs and descents over the first 14 miles, it was a tough run but perfect conditioning.
This week, just back in Ireland on a whirlwind work trip that brings me up to the marathon, I fought off the jet lag with my last 20-mile Sunday run. At home visiting my parents in the foothills of the Comeraghs, there wasn't much choice but to run hills as all of the suitable running roads lead either upwards or downwards. Ably assisted by Lil the dog for part of the run, we set out around the back roads of the local parish.
Working hard on some slower uphill kilometres, I offset them with fast-paced running on the downhills. Holding my goal run pace with the added hills, and getting an increased sense that my legs can deal with some fast downhill sections, was a nice booster as I head into my first week of taper.