About six weeks ago, when the track season was still in full swing and summer still seemed far off, I agreed to fill one of the spots on a team planning to compete at the Ragnar Trail Relay at Northfield Mountain on June 16th and 17th. It wasn’t something I would have thought up on my own: I’m not a trail runner or a mountain goat, and given all the trouble I’ve had lately with short, easy runs in the city, it was odd that I’d sign up for an event that would require three separate runs of 3.2, 4.8, and 6.5 miles, up and down thousands of feet of mountain trails, sometimes in the middle of the night Why would I do something like that?
It was partly the feeling of being wanted.
My friend Sue had reached out in the spring to ask if I would consider running on the team she had put together. She had also asked me a year ago, but then I had turned her down, concerned about my fitness and my ability to run properly in the heat. Her team, which included several people I knew from the Concord area, ran just fine without me and finished 10th among about 150 teams. She had told me how much fun it had been, camping on the mountain, hanging out around the campfire, and enjoying the unique camaraderie of a 22-hour, overnight race through the woods on a summer night.
Sue had signed up a team for this year, too, but several of the folks who had run in 2016 were injured, and so she needed to find substitutes. One of the injured was my old friend and running partner Bob, who finally persuaded me that it would fun. I wasn’t sure about the fun part, but I trusted Bob – one of the most level-headed people I know – to warn me if it really was as crazy as it sounded. In the end, I ran out of plausible reasons for saying no, and so I said yes, not knowing exactly what I was signing up for.
Once I was committed, I took a closer look at what the race would entail. The way the race was organized, each of the eight runners on a team would run three times, making 24 separate legs in all. Each leg would start and finish in the same spot, and would traverse one of three loops: green (3.2 miles – “easy”), yellow (4.8 miles – “moderate”), or red (6.5 miles – “hard”). Each runner would run each of the three loops, although not necessarily in the same order. For example, as seventh runner on my team, I ran green, then red, and then yellow.
As for timing and running in the middle of the night, I knew vaguely what to expect, as I had some previous experience with stage relays, and running several times over a 12-14-hour period. But what surprised me was how much elevation gain and loss there would be on each leg. For example, the easy green loop climbed about 500 feet in the first mile. Never mind that it then descended most of the way back to the finish, 500 feet was a very serious matter. For comparison, the climb up Blue Hill in Milton – which I believe to be the longest climb in the Greater Boston area – ascends a mere 440 feet from base to summit. I know this because one Saturday morning just after sunrise I ran up and down Blue Hill twice just to see what it would feel like. It felt like a very long hill. It did not feel easy, and I supposed that running it in the middle of the night with a headlamp would not make it any more so.
The 6.5 mile red leg, which I would likely run at dawn, went up the mountain further than the green loop, came down, and then went up again, for a total elevation gain of about 1300 feet. With growing concern, I looked at the split times for Sue’s team the previous year, and saw that only one runner had averaged better than 10:00-miles on this leg.
The 4.8 mile yellow leg, which I would run last, didn’t fit my definition of “moderate.” Although it climbed the mountain only once, it had the steepest, most continuous grade, rising about 600 feet in less than a mile. I could only imagine what that would feel like after minimal sleep and after having run 10 hilly miles already. I wasn’t at all sure that my recent “gentleman’s” training schedule of a few miles of easy running every day would be enough to sustain me facing this gauntlet.
It seemed crazy to me that normal, recreational runners did this sort of thing for fun, but I decided that it would be fun for me only if I was better prepared for the specific demands of the event. Thus, I began to train with a purpose. I didn’t care about running fast, but I did care about being able to run, not walk (if I could help it), up mountains. If I wanted to be do that, I would have to find mountains in my own backyard.
My first intentional run to incorporate a small sample of mountain was a seven-mile run from school the week after the track season ended. For the most part, the Town of Concord is annoyingly flat, but across from Walden Pond there is Pine Hill, which climbs about 130 feet in less than 200 meters, with an average grade of about 16%. Beginning at school, I ran for about four miles to the base of Pine Hill and then ran up it, focusing on taking tiny, compact steps and keeping all other flailing to a minimum. Once at the top, I took a circuitous route to wind my way back to the bottom, and then ran up it again.
It was hard to focus on efficiency rather than power, and to imagine climbing for eight times as far as Pine Hill. It was a mental battle not to anticipate the crest of the hill and slip into bad bio-mechanical habits like leaning too far forward, or dropping my head. I needed to make running uphill feel normal, because otherwise it was just too easy to overdo it and run myself to a standstill. I would begin to incorporate a turn or two up pine hill into every other run I did in Concord.
Belmont Hill isn’t anywhere near as steep as Pine Hill but it has the virtue of having a route that climbs more-or-less continuously for a full mile from Pleasant Street up Eastern Ave to the water tower at park Circle. At the top, a runner has only to turn around to receive the reward of spectacular views of the Boston skyline.
One Sunday afternoon, I drove to the Arlington-Belmont line and parked my car on a side street and ran repeats up Belmont Hill. Once again, I focused on running the uphill portions as though there was nothing in the world but uphill, consciously resisting the urge to anticipate the top. It took me about nine minutes, bottom to top, and then somewhat longer as I wound my way down side streets to get back to the bottom. On my last climb, it started to rain, which seemed laughably inconsequential. After I had finished that last climb, and with the rain getting heavier, I jogged back down by a different route and soon got lost. Wandering through suburban Arlington, I ended up adding an unnecessary mile to my workout, which happened to be my second run of the day. When I finally found my car again, I was pretty well soaked, but entirely satisfied with the effort.
Prospect Hill Park
Prospect Hill Park in Waltham is a strange place, harboring sketchy people – like me, I suppose. The Park extends from an old, abandoned ski slope off Totten Pond Road, to the office park along Route 128, to the back entrance off Main Street in Waltham. The park has paved roads and lots of rocky trails. It also has a military radar installation, a couple of huge water tanks, some picnic shelters and fire pits, and who knows what other secrets. Twenty years ago, I used to work in that office park, and I used to run to and from work (a distance of about four miles each way) through the park. I eventually gave it up because it was impossible to do an easy run up into the park (the hills were too intense), and because the run home required running down treacherous trails in the dark. Naturally, it was an ideal place to continue my Ragnar preparations.
It was raining again when I visited the park on a Thursday afternoon. I parked on the lot off Totten Pond Road, which meant that my run would begin almost immediately with a steep climb up the North access road. This suited me because I wanted to simulate the terrain of the Ragnar loops, which also began climbing almost from the start. If my surveying was correct, then my route through Prospect Hill Park would rise about 350 feet in 0.8 miles. I would also be able to practice climbing on trails, which I had not done at Pine Hill or Belmont Hill.
In retrospect, this was my best hill workout. I ran up the hill as planned, descended the other side, ran up the other way, back down to the start, and then repeated the whole thing, with slight variations to take advantage of different trails. Mentally, I was starting to adopt the attitude that running meant either climbing or descending, and that level ground was the weird exception, to be dispensed with quickly. The rain made the trails slick, and I really had to concentrate on stepping carefully to avoid muddy patches and sharp, slippery rocks. The effort was absorbing, and not the for the first time I wondered why I enjoyed days like this. Maybe it had something to do with the intentionality of the run, the idea that it had a purpose, even if that purpose was only to prepare for more of the same a couple of weeks hence. Once again, I ran slowly, but the point was not to run fast, but to run competently over challenging terrain. I was beginning to feel like I could do this.
My final hill-specific run served two purposes. One was to run the longest, highest hill I could find. The other was to do so at 5:30 in the morning, which is when I figured I would have to do my longest run in the relay.
I had decided that another factor in “having fun” would be to manage my sleep and alertness so that I would feel at my best on the hardest run, and still have enough energy to do the challenging final leg. Since I figured that my runs would take place at ~11:30 p.m., 5:30 a.m., and 11:30 a.m., I also considered carefully the role caffeine would play in managing my energy levels. I had already been practicing waking up early and immediately going for a run. A week before the race, I began avoiding caffeine, and planned the following strategy to make the most out of caffeine’s performance-enhancing properties during the actual event: I would stay up late to
get through my first leg (3.2 miles), trying to run as easily as possible, and then grab a few hours of sleep, waking up normally at about 5 a.m. At that point, I would take a gel with 20 mg of caffeine and do the second leg (6.5 miles, multiple 500’ climbs, etc.). After breakfast, I’d have a cup of coffee a couple of hours before my final leg (4.8 miles), and that would help me overcome my sleep deficit.
But everything depended on being comfortable doing my hardest run at 5:30 in the morning, which was the reason I found myself in the parking lot of the Blue Hill Recreation Center at 5:30 a.m. on the Saturday morning six days before the race.
After all the rain, that Saturday was glorious, with cloudless blue skies and low humidity. The workout was very simple. Starting from the parking lot, I would jog the 200 meters to the bottom of the access road that led up to the Blue Hill Observatory. I would run up, run down, run up, and run down. Each segment was about a mile, with an elevation gain/loss of about 425 feet. I might pause for a few minutes at the top to admire the view of the South Shore, but mostly it would be all business.
I was surprised at how many people were already up at that hour, mostly hikers and walkers. I didn’t see any other runners, which suited me just fine. I wondered what the hikers thought of me, if anything. Within a few minutes of starting, that thought and all others disappeared from my mind, as I concentrated on the task at hand. Only once or twice did it occur to me that I might not make it to the top, and each time I realized that I had unconsciously been picking up the pace. I would then settle back into my newfound steady and compact stride and proceed up the hill. Before I knew it, I was done, and felt like I ought to do more. So I tacked on some unplanned trail running, just to enjoy the morning a little longer.
As I drove home, the roads still empty at that early hour, I was almost sad that these few weeks of running hills had come to an end. Now, there was only the race itself to keep my interest.