... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Saturday, August 16, 2014

It's All Uphill From Here: Overcoming My Aversion to Running Hills

Nothing strikes fear into a novice runner's heart like hills. You can train and train and train but when the road rears up in front of you, all bets are off. I spent my first year and 4 months of triathlon training planning runs based on where the flattest ground was. Where could I run that was free of ups and downs? Where could I get my miles in on level ground? These were the questions that governed my routes.

That's all well and good, except that race directors do not design their run courses based solely off of finding zero elevation change. I learned this the hard way at Keauhou and at the practice triathlon back in May, when hills beat me into walking submission long before my legs should have given out. And so it hit me: would I rather aim to be good in the easiest conditions or in the most difficult? And, being the perfectionist that I am, the answer was clear; I never want to take the easy way out.

I approached my new project like I approached swimming back at the beginning of my triathlon training: I knew I was going to be bad, so I just set out to do the best I could in each session, putting my faith in the assumption that eventually, it would get easier. My first hill run was a re-trace of the Aloha Tri Club Practice course, which had us running up and down short but steep hills for about half of the course, and also included one long, gradual hill. At the time of the race, I had made it through by running the flats and downhills and walking the uphills. I flashed back to one point during that race when a guy passed me and said,"sure glad I run this spot every week!" as he disappeared, and at that moment I hated him with every ounce of my being. This time, I was determined to become that guy. I cut the flat part of the course out of my plan and succeeded in making it over all the hills without walking. Bolstered by my success, I decided to make that my 2x/week pre-work run, and the next weekend I tackled the hill leading up to my house. I huffed and puffed and had to walk twice, but felt like I'd made a major accomplishment. When I looked at my running tracker, I was horrified to see that I'd covered only 2.5 miles at an 11:20 pace. Damn.

Since then, I have incorporated hills into most of my runs, and the results are astonishing. First of all, it has changed my attitude. I am learning to be tougher, and to remind myself that just because it hurts and it is hard for a while doesn't mean I should stop. I am now running through a lot more discomfort than I could before, accepting those moments of pain and knowing that I will transcend them. I stop to walk less often, and I am much better at convincing myself to keep running instead of giving up.

Second, I can finally run anywhere I want. I do not have to eliminate entire portions of the island (including the area I live in) to find a suitable run course. I am seeing new things on my runs, going new places, and enjoying new scenery along with new challenges, and it feels great not to have fear of hills dictate what I do.

Third, and most obviously, the hills get easier. Your legs and lungs adjust to the extra stress and learn to step up. By focusing on using my butt and legs and releasing tension in my upper back, shoulders, and chest, I can usually keep my breath under control. If I completely lose control of my breathing and start gasping, I walk until I can get it back in rhythm, and I'm happy to report that those walking breaks are getting less and less frequent. My legs feel stronger, both to the touch and in function, and I feel like I can run faster and longer. I'm getting so used to the hills that they feel normal.

And last, since the hills have become normal, the flats feel like flying. Gone are the days of huffing and puffing away on a flat road - my lungs are so used to dealing with hills that breathing on a level course feels light and easy. I am no longer fighting for breath. I fully attribute my 10k PR at the Hilo Tri to my hill running, because despite some pain in my knee and hips, the flat run course felt amazing. Running on a flat road now feelings like a luxury.

I decided to face down my hill fear to be better prepared for race courses, but I have been totally surprised by the overall improvement it has made in my running, both technically and subjectively. Now instead of dreading the upward slope in front of me I take it on with confidence, relishing the challenge.

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