Aug 142011

by Jeff Walker –

Just run, baby

Ever since my first Mt. Washington, I’ve been intrigued by the performance differences between running and walking steep climbs. Without diving into the research, I did my own experiment (non-randomized, two replicates that are confounded with year) using the summit trail of the Bradbury Mt. Breaker. First, here are my splits from 2010 and 2011. The 2010 splits come with an asterisk as I went off-course for 2:41 but I’ve removed that from all the data below (I’m still trying to hack into cool running so I can remove it from the results as well).

The first two miles were respectably faster this year than last year (a goal). During the first mile I felt like I was going the correct pace but I was questioning this because a group that I knew I’d be passing started even faster than I. By 3 miles (1/2 mile over the top of the summit) I had lost the time gain and was dead-even with the previous year and basically maintained this through the first 5.25 miles. The next three miles, and especially the 2nd climb up the summit trail were painfully slow compared to last year. The only bright spot over the last 3.5 miles was the last 1/2 mile which I first was pushed by and then pulled by Jeremy, who I was glad to have along for the ride to the finish.

The major difference between years seems to be the summit trail. Last year I ran almost all of the summit trail on lap one and most on lap two.┬áThis year I had decided to walk most of the summit trail and save my energy for the descent. Part of my reasoning came from talking to others and part came from a paper that I had read that used O2 consumption data to argue that runners climb too quickly and descend too slowly (of course these were on grades of only a few % – not 25-40% like the summit trail).

What was interesting, and I noticed during the race and commented on to several people afterwards is that I didn’t feel any fresher after having walked the summit trail than after running it last year (at least as far as I can remember last year). Running it slowly or walking it quickly doesn’t matter; the summit trail is a lung buster.

So I looked at my splits climbing the summit trail (starting a wee past the aid station) and the 3/4 mile descent down the other side to see if walking the summit trail allowed me to descend faster (unlike the switchback or S. Ridge trail, the Tote Rd? descent from the summit can be as fast as you want it to be). Here are the data:

On the first ascent, in which I ran the flatter sections and made the effort to walk the rest, I lost 8s to 2010. But then I lost 16 seconds on the descent! The second time around, in which I walked all of the summit trail, I lost a whopping 17 seconds on the climb and still lost 6 seconds on the descent. So these data suggest that no, walking not only slowed me down going up but slowed me down further going back down!

I talked to Judson Cake after the race and asked if he walked any of the summit trail and he said no, only because he finds it hard to transition back into running. The 2 sec that I walked at Mt. Washington in 2009 I had the same feeling, and decided I’d be faster running the whole thing. Is there something physiological to this or is it only mental (yes I recognize that mental is physiological but I know what I mean). One caveat to these results is that I never walk in races because I don’t really do any races that this is necessary. So I never practice fast hiking and in fact Jamie, and Ian, and Stephen, and probably everyone else are much faster hikers than I. So maybe an experienced fast hiker would have different results but I’m not practicing fast hikes for 5 minutes of one race. I’d rather just run, baby.

  3 Responses to “Bradbury Mountain Breaker – Jeff Walker”

  1. Jeff, Interesting stuff.

    I thought I’d throw in some thoughts about the last three years I’ve raced the Sugarloaf uphill climb. The climb is said to be 3 miles but I think it’s less than that. The grade is way steeper than Mount Washington and Sugarloaf is dirt with loose rocks. The first year I went out way too fast and ended up walking about a 3rd of the race and this was my slowest time in 28:42. In 2009 I thought like a biker and told myself I’d run the whole thing by getting myself into whatever gear I had to and stick to it. I ran the entire thing including Chicken pitch. Chicken pitch is a very steep switchback, probably over 40% grade. I ran 27:05. Then in 2010 I decided to walk chicken pitch to try a new tactic and I ended up running 28:02, almost a minute slower. Given that the weather in 2010 was actually better than in 2009 and that Chicken pitch isn’t that long I really felt like transitioning back into running after my brief 20 second walking break really slowed me up. I am a fast hiker and hike a lot but once I start walking it’s like a switch that is hard to turn back on to full. I notice the same thing biking up some of the mountains I’ve been doing. If I have that low gear and use it, it’s hard to get out of it. Before Mount Washington(the bike race) I took my 11-32 cog off and put on an 11-28. Sure it was hard sometimes when I didn’t have that 32 tooth gear to go into, but I made it up just fine and 5 minutes faster than in July. I think at 26 or 27 cog would be even better since I spent most of my time in the 25 and switched to the 28 when on the steeper sections. There were times I looked down and wished I had the 32 but since I didn’t have to stop and walk I obviously didn’t need it. So I think the mental part of the whole thing is huge too. You still have to have the tools to do the work and be smart about it. Another strategy I use is zigzagging my way up steep things. You may cover more ground by doing so but it keeps me running and if you cannot run straight up it’s better to zigzag yourself up and keep running instead of walking.

    As for downhills, I try and grab a tree on the inside of the switchback so I can throw myself in the direction the trail is going to go. There isn’t always a tree small or big enough. So as you’re flying down find a tree that is straight ahead, the tree you’d run into if you didn’t switchback and jump up as you get close. If you have to switchback right kick off the tree with your left foot and push. If you have to switchback left kick off with your right. Make sure the tree is big enough or you’ll just go right through it. This works wonders once you’ve mastered it and keeps you momentum going.

  2. Good advice Jackie Chan, I’ll have to try it!

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