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Learning to Love Hills Again

Like many runners, I have a love/hate relationship with hills — meaning I love when a nice gradual downhill helps push me along to a fast pace…and hate when those climbs slow me down and leave my chest heaving.

When I moved to Vermont and realized that hills were going to become a part of my everyday running reality whether I liked it or not, I kind of learned to embrace them. I’ll even go so far as to say that after awhile I grew to prefer rolling runs to flat land. Case in point, during last August’s Hood to Coast relay, my least favorite (and slowest!) leg was also my flattest.

But then the holidays happened and this endless winter descended upon us and my love for hills slowly faded away. I don’t really know why or how it happened, but somewhere along the way I completely lost my hill running motivation. It’s impossible to avoid all hills around here (unless you run inside every day), but I quickly figured out how to steer clear of the worst ones. All winter long I finagled my routes — sticking with the slow, gradual climbs and the nice flat treadmill. When you live in a town with approximately 4 roads and only one of them feels flat for any significant stretch of time, running gets boring pretty darn fast.

Not only did my runs grow stale and boring, but my “hill terrors” haven’t exactly been helping my training. Because there’s also a tiny little problem of that marathon I signed up to run in May. It’s not flat. 

VCM Elevation

So last week, after giving myself approximately 2,000,000 pep talks, I finally got pumped up enough to tackle one of the hilliest out-and-back routes around. A route that starts off with a steep climb and continues going up for over a mile. A route that doesn’t have a single stretch of completely flat road but is instead a constant roller coaster of ups and downs. A route that I used to be strong enough to do tempo runs on last fall but I’ve been avoiding like the plague ever since 2013 began.

I strapped on my Garmin to record the data but told myself that I wasn’t allowed to even peek at my splits until the turn around point (which just so happens to be at the base of a very long climb). Then I turned on my most motivational playlist, took a deep breath…and off I went.

I’m not going to lie — it sucked. That first climb, the one that I have to get myself all psyched up to even attempt, was worse than I remembered. And it wasn’t like it got easier after that. Every single incline seemed to have grown steeper and longer in my absence…while the declines were too few and far between. I felt like I was crawling. I couldn’t even pick up much speed on the downhill sections. My legs were so tired that even convincing them to increase their turnover on the declines seemed like too much effort.

It may not look like much according to this chart, but I swear they feel harder in person…

Screen shot 2013 03 20 at 12 11 57 PMHills in elevation chart are larger than they appear

Turns out that when you avoid all major hills for over 3 months, you lose a whole lot of your hill-running fitness. Pretty deep and insightful observation, right?

But even though the run left me wondering how I ever managed to get in quality workouts over this course just a few months ago, it wasn’t all bad. Because there’s a moment on this particular run when you reach the top of the very last climb and the world opens up. You see rolling farmland on your right and mountains ahead and you know that it is quite literally all downhill from here. A moment when every single climb you tackled becomes worth it — for the view, for the fact that you get to cruise down to the finish over a mile away, for the pride you feel knowing that you survived the roller coaster. It was at that moment when I finally remembered why I loved that running route so very much. And where I resolved to start embracing the hilly runs again.

steep grade sign

To keep good on my promise, I headed out on Saturday to tackle another hill that I’ve been working hard to avoid. Remember how I said this run was my favorite route for runs that are under 12 miles? Well, that’s because around mile 6 the road takes a very steep, long drop down for almost 2 miles — which means if I head out that way, I need to turn around and run back up the awful thing. That long, winding climb is the very definition of “soul crushing.” The only thing I can do when I’m running up it is focus on getting through one turn at a time, promising myself that I’ll walk once I make it through that particular section. I haven’t actually walked yet (though my pace may suggest otherwise!), but I’m still awaiting the day when I can run up that hill like it’s nothing. I’m not really expecting that day to ever come…

IMG 1445No the road doesn’t end there. It just drops sharply downward.

But I am going to keep climbing. This post serves as my promise (or my source of public shaming if I don’t follow through). For the rest of my training, I’m going to be tackling these hills at least once a week (probably more). Hills make you stronger, they make you faster, and they give you confidence. If I can tackle these hills in training then surely I can tackle the hills on race day. And I will be a better runner for it.

17 Responses to Learning to Love Hills Again

  1. I feel you on the hills. Seattle is super hilly and my first year and a half that I lived here I avoided hills like the plague. Then I realized how important they were, pulled on my big girl pants, and sucked it up and started integrating hills into all my runs. They still suck but I tell myself I’m getting stronger…hopefully if I say that enough it will actually be true.
    Amanda´s last post ..Not What You Want to Hear

  2. I avoided all hills until they became my only option. Now I actually quite enjoy them. The hills I run are considerably shorter than the ones in Vermont but sometimes a hill is a hill regardless of size.
    Shannon @ Mon Amour´s last post ..Getting Down to Business

  3. I love this post because I am SUDDENLY into hills. My little boy started preschool a few weeks ago in a hilly area and I’ve been doing long runs (10, 11, 12 miles) in that area. The first couple of runs killed me (over a minute/mile slower than usual) but little by little I’m getting stronger and tougher. And then last weekend, I did an 8 mile run in the flatlands and I seriously flew (minute/mile faster than usual). My fastest pace ever for more than 4 miles, and it felt relatively easy. So all of a sudden, I’m all about the hills and am opting for hilly long runs instead. You’ll notice the difference when you do a flat run again! Hills for the win!!!
    Cathryn Ramsden´s last post ..New threads for Spring!

  4. VCM isn’t flat, but the last 5 or so miles are great – a gentle decline when you need it the most and it’s on the bike path along the waterfront. The views are enough to distract you a little bit. Plus, the big hill – Battery Park – at mile 15 has taiko drummers & tons of spectators to power you up it.

  5. When I lived in Colorado, I ran hills all the time – you just couldn’t miss them. Now that I live in DC, sometimes I have to go out of my way to find them. I totally agree that they make you stronger and faster! I try to do hill repeats on a giant hill near where I work once a week and on weekends I try to run hilly trails as much as possible. It always hurts on the hill, but it feels soooo good when you are done!
    Logan @ Mountains and Mile´s last post ..Rock and Roll USA Half Marathon: Crushed it!!

  6. There is one hill by our house that nearly killed me last summer, I’m freaking determined to make that hill my bitch this year.
    Jen@HealthyFoodandFamily´s last post ..5K

  7. Hills are a funny thing. I was irrationally terrified of them when I moved to Greenville and over the last 5 years I have had somewhat of a love/hate relationship with them. Now that I am moving somewhere completely FLAT, I am thinking I am really going to miss them! I like that I can’t really choose a route that doesn’t have some rolling hills. I know it makes me a better runner, despite how much I hate it at times.
    P.S. This post inspired me to take a hillier route this morning on my run :)
    Corey´s last post ..(Un)steady State

  8. I love this post! Being from Houston, we have a grand total of zero hills to train on, so any hill training is done on the treadmill. But I wish I had more routes to run with hills because I know they make you a better runner. Plus, those views you have are tough to beat!
    Rachael @ Happy Healthy Runner´s last post ..Workout Wednesday–Re-learning to Run

  9. I’m with you- I have been hiding from the hills this winter. This week I had a fantastic 3 mile run that was back-to-back super-steep hills. I killed that run!
    I need to make hills a bigger part of my routine- they really do matter and they do make you a much better runner!
    Curly Pink Runner´s last post ..Great Run & Paleo Day One.

  10. Your a champ! I know exactly what hill your talking about. I always had to bribe myself to make it past the broken down bench before the driveway on the left ( and then to the top)! Burtal! You will be such a stronger runner for this!
    Alexandra´s last post ..Flu Madness

    • haha yes!! The worst part is that even after the steepest part is over, the road keeps climbing. The only thing that gets me to the top is knowing I get to run back down. And at least now with all the leaves gone, the views up there (on the way back) are pretty cool.

  11. Hills are the worst…I’m a Chicago runner at heart, and we don’t have hills there! I do think that running them makes you a stronger runner, although they’re definitely hard and almost killed me in my last race. But there’s nothing quite like flying down the other side of the hill…
    Susan – Nurse on the Run´s last post ..2013 Rock n Roll USA Half Marathon Race Report

  12. I love going to distant and remote places like the ones in the picture above since the air is fresh plus its far from the hustle and bustle of the city.

  13. I recently moved to a new neighborhood and it has many more hills compared to my old one (super flat). I hate them…but they do make you a stronger runner. Obviously in DC they’re not like Vermont, but I’m proud of you to keep it up. And this inspired me a bit to think about how it’ll all feel once it’s done and over with. And then how the race will be awesome!
    Evi´s last post ..DC: El Chucho

  14. Good luck on your goal! I support you, and I believe that you can keep that promise. You just need to have the determination and the motivation to make this thing happen. Sometimes you need a support group like your family and friends who will motivate you, and help you to be on track at all times. Even though, the roads are very steep, and very tiring, once you’ve finally reached your goal, there would be a sense of achievement and a feeling of fulfillment.
    Sam´s last post ..Zquiet Complaints: Correcting the Misconceptions

  15. Have you ever heard of Chir running? I just took a workshop on it and the hill technique was so helpful-you change your arm swing to the angle of the hill and fixate on a visual at the top-pretend it is pulling you up-I tried this on hills recently and it was so awesome-it really made them seem easier.

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