Lessons from Mountaineer and Ultra Runner Ben Clark
How To: Run Faster in the Mountains
Just after my thirty-third birthday I started to think I should take up running. I had some immediate second thoughts: On this ankle? At this age? After all those years of baseball and skiing and hiking and climbing? But it was worth a try. I wanted to explore my potential, and the decision to run prevailed; the answers to all those other questions got hammered out on the pavement and the trails.
I am not recreational about my activities. Running long distance was a skill I had hoped to develop and use in my twilight years as an explorer. But when I was half this age, I struggled to pull 8-minute miles in gym class in Tennessee. I still struggled with them on my thirty-third birthday. But now, after two years of all-season running in the mountains, 20 pairs of shoes and (thankfully) zero injuries, I’ve won my first 5k, improved my time dramatically in the 10k and trained for a 100-mile distance run in the mountains, Nolan’s 14. I have a family and a job, too.
The way I arrived at this point, tuned up and prepared for attempts at goals is very attainable. Here are some useful tools and insights that helped me go from average results to exceeding expectations in the mountains.
1Meditate. Learn how to throw doubt and other garbage in your brain out so you can focus on the performance. Whether you choose guided or solo meditation, the point is that focusing on breathing and learning to calm the mind can move the feet faster. Try reading this book and a secret or two may enhance your speed and stamina. You might find yourself feeling — Ohm — a little more relaxed overall.
2Fuel. If you feel underpowered you may just need to eat or drink better. Eat gels while you run and carry a bottle of water. If you’re going long, eat solid foods every three hours; you’d be amazed at what it can do for you. Clif Bar, Gu and Hammer all make easy-to-carry nutrition gels in 80-100 calorie doses, so choose your flavors and rock it. Save the infamous “silver bullet” double espresso gel shots for that big hill at the third hour, and you’ll enjoy the finish a bit more.
3Mind your feet. You can wear through a lot of shoes, but you only have your two feet — so take care of them. The first step is to be aware that not all shoes are built alike or wear the same. Sometimes changing between two or three shoes in a season is best for your feet. Using a soap stone to wear down callouses is a smart move that will ensure better mechanics, while a great hand cream will do wonders for cracks. Finally, try using Body Glide on your feet when you are testing out new kicks, or ones that you’re putting to work in a new environment. More than once I’ve had some shoes that could handle the ups and flats with aplomb — but when I turned to crush downhill I would roast a hot spot in less than a mile. Reducing friction from the outset can reduce recovery and ensure you stay in form no matter what you’re wearing.
4Hire a coach or trainer. Finding the right coach is a matter of knowing your goals and deciding how much you want to invest in yourself. When training for any distance, there are several schools of thought with different coaches available online or in person. A solid place to start looking is the USA Track & Field coaches registry. A coach can show you when to push and when to hold back — without objective feedback, it can be difficult to see the onset of injury. Plus, it never hurts to have somebody else motivating you.
5Don’t just run. Much of my life has been spent hiking mountains, so I’ve always felt that cross-training is important. Three days a week I do core work, squats and pushups. It’s those fundamental muscle groups that will keep you charged up and maintaining efficient form when the rest of you wants to break down. A classic way to keep strength is to do a 50s or 100s workout, mixing sets of crunches, pushups, squats and burpees into the least amount of time you can pull them off (expect at least 20 minutes for the 100s). Even if you just have 10 minutes, do an around the world workout each week that rocks your core.
6Step outside your comfort zone. If want to get better at something, be aware you are a wannabe — and that’s okay. Everyone has to want to be something. I wanted to be able to breath easier and run faster. The only way to do that was to hit a wall at least once a week. If I don’t have at least one trying “Why would anyone do this?” period in an 80-mile week of running, then I don’t feel I’ve pushed hard enough.
7Do the time. I run the same 3.8-mile local trail twice a week. It favors my strength — hills — with 1,300 feet of vertical climbing and descent. My best time on the trail is 40:43, as is my PR for a trail 10k with 200 feet of vertical. The other four days a week, I run varying terrain on trail and road depending on that week’s goals. The bottom line for me each week is to get around 70 miles or more and more than 25,000 feet of positive vertical gain, with the ultimate goal of a 100-mile mountain endurance event, Nolan’s 14. Although I can run 12 mph and hold it on the road, during trail training, if I can average 3 mph I’m smoking it. It’s most important to get the time on your feet, even if a 20-mile day takes seven hours instead of three. Of course, at some point you must prepare for a specific amount of time at a specific intensity; if you know you can hold on for a long time at any level of difficulty, you can run with confidence.