Winter has come, the legs have healed somewhat, and it's time for some hill training again.
John Lenihan once famously said: Enjoy your time on the hills, but remember that to be a good hill runner, you must also be a good flat runner; you still need those interval and fartlek sessions. I have found that anything more than two days a week of hill running sees my race performance drop.
The words of the King (no, not Elvis, imagine him running up!) are undoubtedly as true today as they were back when he first coined them and none of the recent advances in coaching would conflict with this.
Hills are good, though, when used in moderation, and I rarely do more than one session per week, and sometimes as little as one per two weeks (other times I'd do two per week, but I can hardly remember any occasion to do it more than three times per week).
The Spiritual Home of MTB
So deluge or no deluge, cold wind or no cold wind, Sharlene and I had coined in a special hill training session for this Saturday. We'd both had a fairly lazy two days and were glad to get out out and do something rough and tumble.
Archie O'Donnell once baptised Ticknock "The Spiritual Home of MTB", and with the many perfect tracks in the Three-Rock/Two-Rock area this is no understatement. We had enough in our own two feet today, though, and I had planted mine safely in a pair of new runners: The ASICS GEL-MORIKO Gore-Tex.
ASICS: The King of Shoes
When it comes to standard runners ASICS is undoubtedly the superior brand of shoe for most runners, even with New Balance, Mizuno, and Saucony now churning out serious contenders. Fashion-producers Adidas have moved on in recent years (and do produce surprisingly well-received Trail Shoes) while the fact that Nike actually works for anyone tells more about the odd variation of human feet than any brilliant feat (pun intended!) from the hands of their designers.
I was surprised to find an ASICS trail shoes in Elvery's, though, as all my trail runners so far have been Inov-8s or Salomons (and I knew of good shoes from Walsh and Puma). My old Salomons have been long overdue a change as the sole is starting to fall off in places, and I was looking for a combo-shoe to replace it (combo shoes being less-specialised shoes than pure fell-runners such as the Inov-8 Mudclaw).
I've had heel pains for five months and generally seem less able to tolerate the constant battering of my foot-soles, so when I saw the grey-black-red ASICS-MORIKO with it's suprisingly thick cushioning pad, and radically designed sole, I thought I had to give them a go. At 105 euro they are pretty much on par with what you'd be paying for most trail runners.
Today then at Ticknock would be their first Litmus test, although, strictly speaking, they were never designed for the total sludge and hard gradients on offer today...
Technical Hill Training
Our aforementioned hero, John, also said: Before you set off think safety. We all think accidents only happen to others; I know I did and it almost cost me my life and I was lucky to get away with a week in hospital.
With these words in mind we didn't go off from Ticknock carpark in singlets and shorts (highland style I suppose!) but opted more conservatively for long sleeves and tights, which still made us look rather exposed compared to the few hikers packed in inch thick jackets or multiple layers of Gore-Tex.
The purpose of the day was to have what I like to call a "Technical Hill Session". I generally find that running technique is a criminally neglected area of most runner's training (a fact you can confirm for yourself by taking a look at the myriad of styles at display at your normal street race). Believe it or not, the rules of physics are the same for everyone, and there's only one correct way of running. This comes less natural to some of us (such as Danes previously labelled "motorically handicapped" by their primary school gymteachers) than others.
We hill runners can be somewhat excused for poor form because, unlike road runners, we can not focus solely on running, we also have to focus on staying alive!
The Art of the Hills
This excuse is only somewhat valid, though, as there is proper technique to run over any terrain. I have never had the privilege of watching Kenny Stuart float over the slopes of England and Scotland, but no doubt he would have been a study in perfect form.
I recommend books such as ChiRunning and "The Art of Running with the Alexander Technique" to understand the basics of proper movement (proper movement means speed for the competitively minded, patience for readjustment is all that is needed!).
For hill running I also suggest taking a look at the Trail Guides "Uphill Techniques for Off-Road Runners" "Downhill Techniques for Off-Road Runners". If you're not convinced, there's always John who pretty much sums up the basics of all these books:
On the climb focus on staying relaxed as possible. Train yourself to focus on what you are doing, short steps, knees close together (except on slippery slopes) lifting your legs on to an imaginary stairs, just lifting the legs not pushing forward. Learn to change posture on the run to relieve tired muscles without having to walk. For example, if running with bent knees for a long time when the muscles begin to scream at you, try reverting to running a few steps allowing the knees to straighten. Feel the instant relief as you imagine that you can feel blocked blood flow moving freely to muscles starved of oxygen.Remember stay relaxed, ease up the hill don't fight it and focus.
This sounds easier than it is; anyone can concentrate for a few minutes but try holding this focus for a 90 minute race! Conserve energy with as little body movement as possible.Let the eyes do the moving, keeping the head as still as possible, and resist the temptation to pump the arms. It might get you off to a flying start but you will soon pay the price on a long climb of fifteen minutes or so. If possible try and find the most solid underfoot route for climbing, using stones wherever possible since running uphill on stones takes less out of you than sinking into heather or bog. In terms of effort put into a climb, in a straight up and down race I always treat the top as the finish line not as the half way stage. Most people will starts their descent slow enough but after a few minutes, will have got their breath back.
Today I wanted to measure up the Winter Route on Ticknock precisely for next year while at the same giving Sharlene and I the chance to practice both uphill and downhill running. The fitness we'd gain from a fairly long run was just a bonus. Focus was technique...
Sadly my first mission faltered as we took a few wrong turns at first before getting back on track for the last 2/3rds making for a long 11.73km run with 495m of ascent, three ascents of Three-Rock and one off Fairy Castle.
The wind on the South side of Fairy Castle was so powerful it almost knocked me straight off my feet and I had to dig my hands out of dirt. This must have distracted Sharlene as moments later only thorough lacing saved one of her runners from sinking into pools of mud that had transformed Two-Rock's paths into an altogether more tricky challenge than on your average day.
"Now I know why you always carry such a healthy glow," yelled Sharlene as the wind turned the skin on our faces and hands into one big blanket of chill.
The Perfect Student
As we emerged back on the fire trails, finally unscathed, counting the number of "near-twists" (3-1 to Sharlene) we had suffered going down, we picked up pace on the easily runnable terrain.
"What was I supposed to do again," asked Sharlene.
"Relax your lower back, lean forward, and let your hip pull your legs back," I cried through the wind.
I spend the next moments barely believing my eyes, as Sharlene took off like a complete rocket blowing a huge gap to me. "It's working," I heard her say, and my amazement grew as I found myself barely able to keep up, nevermind closing the gap, and I was doing my damnest!
Last time I remember thinking "Jesus she's fast" like this, was when I followed Aoife Joyce down the first fire trail at Ticknock Winter back in February, but this was at least as fast, if not faster. And while Sharlene says she's not yet fully comfortable on the difficult terrain, I think I witnessed the moment when another runner realised that they possess an awesome weapon.
When you go at this speed the first time it can be quite disconcerting, though, and a minute later, I heard: "I can't stop".
"Don't!" I yelled. Breaking is the last thing you want to do when running a fast runnable slope.
The "out-of-control" or "avalanche" sensation is created by your brain not being able to receive the signals from the muscles as quickly as it should. We have thousands of nerve connections from each fibre, but the brain is not pre-programmed to fully utilise them all. The brain can of course easily process the signals, but the necessary connections need to be trained up by endless repetition of extremely quick movements.
Birth of a Hill Runner
Back in the car, enjoying hot tea from the thermo and biscuits, there was a terrific atmosphere. I had enjoyed being back in the hills, but Sharlene's enthusiasm for the run was positively infectious, and I meant it when I said to her: "If you liked that, then you're a real hill runner."
I told her the story of Richard Askwith on the hill, and this was exactly what he meant, if you really, deep down, want to be somewhere else when you're running out there in the rain and icy winds, then you shouldn't be there.
As we drove back towards the city lights, I had a feeling that maybe I had just send someone else off on the magical journey that my first year of hill running has been. There's no greater gratification than that.