Climbing Hills – Taking on the Cary March Madness Half Marathon

Climbing Hills – Taking on the Cary March Madness Half Marathon

by Jeff R.

I love to run hills. That’s a lie. But I love the challenge for running up and down hills, and what it reveals about us as runners and people.

My previous half marathon racing strategy was something akin to, “Run fast and hold on tight.” And that kind of worked. I saw PRs in two 2020 Half Marathons on courses that were mainly flat. Then in 2021 I decided to race the Cary Hillstriders March Madness Half Marathon. I knew going in it was a hilly course, but I wasn’t too worried. I planned to let it rip and see what happens. The thing about the Cary course however is that it starts downhill, which in 2021 led to two things for me: a false sense of a sustainable pace, and massive force impact which took a lot of life from my legs. I couldn’t climb the hills at all that day. The race organizers put up signs for the seven biggest hills on the course. I remember getting to “Hill 1” about 5 miles in and thinking my legs were gone and couldn’t believe that this was only the first hill. I struggled most of the day and fell apart in the last four miles.

I wanted another crack at the course almost immediately. Having run it once, I had a better idea of how to prepare for it and how to attack it. I committed myself to running as many hills as I could on every long run. Coach Joe put in a lot of hill repeat workout so I could train running up and down hill. Over the course of this training cycle, I climbed over 2800 more feet than last year. I found the biggest, nastiest hill by me and I ran it 21 times. And when snow and ice made it impassable, I found the next hardest hill and ran that one over and over. If a long run had to be done indoors due to extreme conditions, I worked in inclines throughout the treadmill run. I was going to do whatever I could to run those hills better. I was also going to have a better racing strategy. I studied the course map and talked to Joe about how to handle that first big decline – how to protect my body at the beginning to ensure I could keep running.

Then two weeks before the race, I got a text from my wife as I was stretching after my long run. “Hustle back if you can”. Someone in the house had tested positive for Covid, and over the course of the next 7 days everyone in the house would get it. My wife and I were the last to test positive – 8 days before Cary. Thankfully, everyone’s symptoms were mild and everyone recovered quickly. (My wife and I are vaxxed and boosted, our daughters aren’t because they are under 5).

I emailed Joe immediately for advice and support. We took it one day at a time. My initial symptoms were very mild, more of a nuisance than anything that would take me out of commission. I did my scheduled indoor ride (by myself) on Sunday, a nice walk on Monday, and my normal (solo) run on Tuesday. Everything felt normal and racing Cary felt very much on the table. Then my Thursday run – an easy 35 minutes with a few pickups – felt awful. Legs felt tired, body was drained. I had no idea if this was Covid or my mental state, but no way I could run 13.1 on Sunday especially on the Cary course.

Joe’s message to me after that run report was pretty simple, as long as you were healthy enough and out of isolation, to show up and try. I was able to end my isolation the Friday before the race as my body felt normal and I no longer had symptoms, so I was going to give it a go. [Note: I am not a medical professional and wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to others recovering from Covid]. I got a nice easy swim in on Friday morning and a shakeout run on Saturday where I felt really strong. I figured if I took precautions in the start corral and at packet pick-up, it would be safe for me (and the other participants) to run. Would I have the legs and fitness for the course? Time would tell.

As I drove up to Cary on race morning, I found myself being overcome with gratitude to the point of tears. For so much of my life, there was no chance I could run a half marathon, and there may yet come a time in my life where I can’t run half marathons. But not today. Today was my day.

Remarkably, I had very low stress all race morning. I slept well the night before, and as I was chatting with a fellow ET Athlete pre-race I realized just how relaxed I was. My warm up mile felt great. I bunched into the start corral (mask on), took a couple of deep breaths and off I went. The small field spread out quickly and I soon felt comfortable removing my mask.

My legs felt so fresh during the first mile, but I stayed patient and controlled. I knew what was coming my way this year. I wanted to run a 7:10 first mile – actual time 7:09. Then comes the two mile downhill. I eased up on my pace and made sure I landed softly. It was hard to see people pass me here when I knew I could slam down the hill faster, but I remained true to my plan. Mile 4 is the first real test and where I knew I was in trouble last year. There is a long false flat for much of the mile. My legs were hurting a touch and I started to worry, until we rounded a corner and I realized we were running uphill. As soon as the terrain turned favorable my legs felt amazing again.

Now it was time to climb. I remember in 2021 having to walk up the first marked hill. As I approached the first sign this year, I knew I was ready. I powered up that hill passing people as I went. That’s when I knew I was in this race. The second and third marked hills went well, but as I approached the halfway point (uphill, of course) I grew very tired. I knew there was an aid station at 7.5 miles. I would take a gel, walk the aid station, and get back after it. As I came out of the aid station, my legs were rejuvenated. I cruised through miles 8 and 9.

The last four miles of this race are the hardest. Nearly all uphill, starting with a soul-crushing hill at mile 9.5. I made it about ¾ of the way up before I had to relent to it. “10 seconds and then get back at it”. I kept grinding my way, and while the last 3.1 miles were still a major challenge, I ran them a lot faster than in 2021. Official time was 1:36:12, a full 4 minutes faster than the year before.

I really do love running hills. They take patience, preparation, determination, and strength. They can crush your soul, but there is no feeling like getting to the top of a hill. Feels like there is nothing you can’t do.

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