Since my last half marathon in Alaska, Skinny Raven Half Marathon, Anchorage, Alaska-43rd state, I’ve been training for my next half marathon, which is in November. The race in Alaska was in August, which I trained for during the hot, humid summer and I went straight from that into my current training cycle with no break. Where I live, it starts to get cooler in mid-to-late September but there are still plenty of days where it’s pretty warm until October hits. Then, for the next month or so we have pretty much ideal (to me) running conditions where the nights are cool and the days are warm with a bit of a chill to them some days and the humidity has thankfully dropped.
All of this means after suffering through the heat and humidity to train for my race in Alaska, I’ll finally get a bit of a break weather-wise for my next race. Lately I’ve been thinking about the best routes to take for my long runs. While there are of course many places I can choose to run my long runs, there are a couple of obvious choices to me. The first choice is a place I used to run all of my long runs on before I moved a few years ago (I only moved to the next town over, so not far). The trail is part of a converted railroad bed that is now a perfectly straight, what looks like mostly flat trail with crushed gravel and/or paved asphalt. The second choice is a greenway that I’ve been running my long runs on for the last three years. It’s full of hills, hills, and more hills along the asphalt trail.
Last weekend I was supposed to run 11 miles, with the last 5 or 6 miles at race pace. I thought maybe I should try running on the flat trail because it’s nearly impossible for me to hit race paces on the extremely hilly trail but I might have a chance on the flat trail. Here’s the elevation profile in grey with my pace in blue from my 11 mile run on the flat trail:
The elevation changes from 237 feet to 374 feet, so there’s a difference of 137 feet over the 11 miles that I ran. My average pace per mile was fairly consistent, with a difference of about a minute and a half from beginning to end. However, I was certainly not hitting anywhere near what I would like to be race pace for the last 5 or 6 miles. I think my mind wasn’t really into the run, but more on that later.
Last month, I ran 11 miles on the hilly trail and here’s the elevation profile in grey with my pace in blue from that run:
The first thing that strikes me about this run compared to the run on the flat trail is how much more consistent my pace is on the flat trail (unsurprisingly). My average pace per mile on the hilly trail (shown directly above) differs by two minutes from my fastest mile to my slowest. The elevation changes from 326 feet to 466 feet, so there’s a difference of 140 feet over the 11 miles that I ran. Hmmmm. It looks like my “flat” trail isn’t really so flat after all, just more consistent, without the sudden increases and decreases in elevation I see on the hilly trail.
Here’s where things get interesting. My fastest times on the “what I thought was flat but isn’t really that flat” trail, which I will now call the “not really flat” trail, are not as fast as my fastest times on the hilly trail, because of running faster downhill. Since there aren’t really any steep hills to run down on the “not really flat” trail, I don’t get that boost of speed that I get on the hilly trail. Sure, I’m going much slower when running (and yes sometimes walking if I’m going to be totally honest) up the steep hills on the hilly trail, but because of the speed I get when running down hill, the average is not as bad as I once thought it was, before I did this analysis comparing the two trails.
Bottom line, I ran the hilly trail an average of 21 seconds/mile slower than the “not really flat” trail but moving time was almost 20 minutes longer on the hilly trail, because of walking, I’m sure. Elevation gain for the hilly trail is 676 feet and 284 feet for the “not really flat” trail. All of this makes me question whether I should run on the “not really flat” trail for my long runs. Since the idea was to be able to hit my race paces, but that didn’t happen, I think I may want to continue running on the hilly trail.
As I mentioned earlier, my mind wasn’t really into it during my long run on the “not really flat” trail. What I mean by this is the run seemed very ordinary and mundane. There wasn’t a whole lot of change in scenery and there were many other walkers, bikers, and runners on the trail. The hilly trail, on the other hand, is mostly much more quiet with maybe a handful of other runners or walkers along the way. More importantly, the scenery is more varied, with twists and turns, glimpses of different neighborhoods, ponds, often rabbits and birds, and yes, many hills.
I used to hate hill running but several years ago I began to appreciate hills and what they can do for me as a runner. I think hills definitely make me stronger and I feel more of a sense of accomplishment when I can run all the way up a long, steep hill rather than just running along what seems like a flat trail. So in the end, I think I’ll stick with the hilly trail for my long runs after all. The scenery is better and I love the peace and quiet. Now if I can just tell my brain that I can run up the hills instead of giving up and walking the harder ones.
How about you guys- where do you run your long runs, or does it vary from week to week? Do you choose where to run based on trying to hit race pace? Do you think I should go back to the “not really flat” trail to work on trying to hit race pace or just keep running on the hilly trail and work on trying to run up more of the hills? I’d really love some input!