Chasing 42

Life, the Universe, & Running

Archive for the tag “hill work”

Initial Reflections on Delaware

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in Wilmington for two months now! The summer has truly flown by, and now that I’m caught up on my final Iowa escapades and the amazing experience that was the Race Across the USA, I can return to my regularly scheduled programming. It’s been a simultaneously relaxed and eventful transition, complete with all of the chaos of setting up a new home and figuring out the world around us. We’ve slowly begun to carve out a home for ourselves, figure out how to meet our regular needs, and begin to navigate a completely new part of the country and new stage in our lives. The epicurean’s new position at the Winterthur Museum, Library, and Gardens has been a wonderful transition and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen her more happy day in and day out. I completed my summer teaching responsibilities online at Iowa State, and have now officially left that position and am on the hunt for a new professional adventure (if you have any leads, I’d be happy to forward my resume 🙂 ).


Amidst the unsettled nature of hitting reset on the life button, I’ve found time to continue my training in a way and have learned quite a bit about my new running home along the way. There are many new trails, hikes, races, and running friends to look forward to, and I’m certainly excited for the new running opportunities that living on the East Coast presents. It’s been a profoundly different and challenging experience to run so many miles without my Vardo partners in crime, and I still miss them terribly. When I first undertook the challenge of running, it was the friends surrounding me that kept me going, got me out the door, and motivated me on a daily basis. Throughout my growth as a runner, my biggest joy has been the relationships I’ve built and the opportunities to witness others accomplish their own running goals and grow closer to them with each passing mile. It’s strange, then, to find myself in a new area of the country where I know no one and am now running more solo miles than I’ve ever run before. I often find myself, out of habit, thinking about who I would share any new discovery, route, or trail with and then realizing that Facebook is truly only a shadow of life, always shifting as the earth turns each day and the sun rises and sets. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to discover some pretty exciting locations and opportunities in my short time in Delaware and I’m optimistic about what the future will bring. So, let me give you the Cliff’s notes version of what still feels like an extended vacation!

Heat & Humidity

Technically speaking, we aren’t that much further south so I didn’t expect the summer weather to be all that much different. I should have known better. It was in the 90’s the day I drove up in May, and it has been consistently hot all summer with little sign of relief until fall. I’ve never been a huge fan of the heat, and it’s always taken me what seems like far too long to acclimate, but it’s been an entirely new challenge in Wilmington. In addition to the heat, the humidity is rather atrocious. I’m used to a few days of high humidity every once in a while, but I seem to be bathing in a dog’s mouth every time I step foot outside. It doesn’t matter if I’m beginning a Saturday morning run at 6AM, or heading out for a short afternoon run. My body has been struggling to cope, and it’s definitely left me more exhausted than normal. I realized just how bad the humidity was a few days ago when it dropped to around 40%. Despite temps that hovered around 90 degrees, my run felt almost effortless by comparison. It really does make quite the difference!


Hello, hills! 

It’s no secret that Iowa is a pretty darn flat state. I’ve spent my entire running life in Iowa, which meant I was far from accustomed to any sort of variable terrain. It wasn’t uncommon for me to log 25 or 30 miles and see a grand total of 300 feet of elevation gain. Delaware, however, is a different story all together! My legs are now, after two months, beginning to adjust to the fact that every single run I go on here is the equivalent of a hill workout in Iowa. I’m not sure there is a single stretch of flat land anywhere to be seen, and I’ve been racking up the elevation gain! The result is a new-found confidence with a wider variety of races, and the realization that I might be able to tackle some of my mountain-running bucket list items after all.


Trails, my old friends

Since my first ultra and first trail race several years ago, I’ve been hooked. There is just something incredible about hitting the trails for a run and losing yourself in the miles that I can’t seem to replicate on the road. Unfortunately, living where we did in Iowa meant very limited access to trails and spending most of my time on the road. The landscape around Wilmington is a totally different experience! There is a wonderfully high concentration of state parks within running distance of our house, and even more access simply by hopping in the car for a few minutes. We bought a state park pass, naturally, and I’ve already had the opportunity to hit the trails in 5 different parks. It is a strange feeling to have such incredible access to so many legit trails, complete with switchbacks, stream crossings, and relentless hills. I’ve been in trail heaven!


A New Running Community

I’ve made it crystal clear how important it is to me to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who share my passion for running. So much of my motivation comes from the efforts of those around me, so it was quite hard to leave such a tight-knit community behind. Luckily, I’ve begun to connect with other runners in the area, with the hopes of cutting back on my far too regular solo runs! I took it as a great sign that our next door neighbor is also a runner, and I even had the chance to run with her and a friend the first Saturday I was here. Since then, I’ve found the Delaware Running Club, and have run with them on numerous group trail runs. I even had the chance to participate in the Festival of Miles, which was my first official track race and led to my new mile PR of 6:08. Obviously I need to get it under 6:00 now! It’s a large group full of wonderful people with diverse running and life backgrounds, and I’m really enjoying getting to know folks!

Scenery & Orientation

The most shocking thing for me out here, even more than the hills and humidity, has been the overwhelming beauty of this area. I’ve lost track of the number of times I found myself stopping in the middle of a run to simply take in all of the beauty around me. It’s common to find a random historic marker, the remains of an old mill, or the remnants of a luxury amusement park from the turn of the 20th century (more on that in a future post!). The lush, green forests, rolling hills, and streams everywhere make each run something special. Unfortunately, stopping to gawk at the beauty of the area isn’t very good for my already tenuous sense of direction. When I left Ames, I could tell you how to get anywhere on foot, and how far it was within a tenth of a mile. I knew that area like the back of my hand. I’ve now found myself in an area where grids and city planning were an afterthought (Delaware is the first state, after all), and the winding roads mean I often don’t know north from south. I’ve begrudgingly started carrying my phone with me on most runs, and have needed to pull it out on several occasions to see just how turned around I really am. On one particularly ominous evening, I left my phone (and water and nutrition) at home for what I had intended to be an easy 6-mile run out and back. However, my curiosity got the best of me and one wrong turn led to another. Before I knew it, I had basically made my way to the PA border, and I had logged 18 dehydrated miles before I finally got home. Epic fail! I’m hoping that won’t become a regular occurrence 🙂


Running @ Winterthur

One of my favorite places to run thus far is actually a place I find myself every single day (and jealous of the fact that the epicurean takes her lunch breaks on the grounds!). I wrote about Winterthur back in December when we traveled out so the epicurean to visit, and I was mesmerized then. However, the gardens truly shine in the spring and summer, with something new in bloom practically every week. There are countless paved and single-track trails meandering around the 1000 acre estate, and I truly feel as though I’m in another world, whether I’m out there running or curling up with a good book as I listen to the birds sing. I’ll be sure to highlight the beauty of this place in a future post, but few words can truly do it justice, especially for this Midwestern flatlander!


So there you have it…it’s been a hilly two months, if you will, in more ways than one but we are finally beginning to settle in and get to work on making Wilmington our home for many years to come!

My SF Chronicles: A Golden Gate Kind of Day

As I mentioned, I recently traveled to San Francisco to attend a professional conference with 14,000 other educators from around the world. The sheer size of the conference was a bit overwhelming, and the choice of sessions was incredible. My days were completely packed, and my mind was left racing with ideas for future research and new ways to analyze and interpret my current work. I even had the opportunity to hear from Claudio Sanchez, NPR’s education correspondent, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The NPR nerd in me was pleased beyond belief!

Despite the packed schedule, I still found time for several amazing runs around the city. Running in a city is by far my favorite way to explore a new place, and San Francisco did not let me down! I arrived on Friday, and had most of the afternoon and evening free, so I took the opportunity for a longer run down to Golden Gate Park. My hotel was only a few miles southeast of the bridge, so navigating my way there was relatively easy (even for the directionally challenged individual that I am!).

Boats ready to head out at Fisherman's Wharf.

Boats ready to head out at Fisherman’s Wharf.

I headed generally north and found my way to Fisherman’s Wharf before heading west towards Golden Gate Park. By the time I had reached open water, I was already reminded of the fact that Iowa is a very flat place, and there happen to be quite a few hills in San Francisco! I’ve said repeatedly that I need to incorporate more hill work into my workouts, and I was left thinking about how much stronger I’d be if I had to train in San Francisco on a regular basis!

The Golden Gate Bridge from a distance.

The Golden Gate Bridge from a distance.

I made my way down to the beach, and ran down along Crissy Field on the wonderful trail system, heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge. I, of course, stopped plenty to take pictures, and it was incredibly refreshing to be running in a new area with new sights. The air was certainly cool and windy down by the water, but I was so enthralled by everything around me that I didn’t mind in the least. As I got closer, it was great to see all the other runners out, enjoying the day, as well as the windsurfers out on the water. I followed the winding road past piers, and ended up at an abandoned factory near the base of the bridge. The sign I found made it clear that this was a frequented running route for locals!

Soaking in the SF sun! (and wind :) )

Soaking in the SF sun and wind!

I slapped the sign, and then turned back around to head up an amazingly steep set of stairs to another trail that led to the entrance to the bridge. There were plenty of observation points along the way, which provided breathtaking views of the bay and the bridge, as well as Alcatraz in the distance. I made my way to the top, and paused to take a few pictures. Just then, a young man noticed my Chicago Marathon shirt, and we started chatting. He had just recently gotten back from the Boston Marathon, and had finished a mere 10 minutes before the bombs went off. It was an incredible reminder of the close-knit community of runners that exists throughout the country, and how it brings everyone together in times of struggle. We are a hardy bunch not to be trifled with, as if the fact that we voluntarily run for 26.2 miles (or more) wasn’t already a good indication!


A turn-around point if ever I saw one!

A turn-around point if ever I saw one!

I ran to the middle of the bridge, and then turned around and headed back. The sun was about to set, and I wasn’t quite comfortable enough with this new city to go running around at night. I made my way back via some new trails, and now some even steeper hills as I worked my way to the other side of Crissy Field. There was a beautifully wide running path, along with an excellent bike bath as well, and I found my way back to Fisherman’s Wharf, and retraced my path back to the hotel. In the end, I had logged around 12 miles, and it felt like I had been going up hill the entire way! My quads were certainly burning, but it was a satisfied burn after an amazing first run in San Francisco.

Such beauty by the bay!

Such beauty by the bay!

Heading West: A Break in the Action

I’ve mentioned before how much I love to travel, and how much I love to explore a new destination on foot. Tomorrow, I’m hoping on a plane to San Francisco to attend a conference, and I’m looking forward to squeezing in a few runs while I’m there! The schedule is jam-packed, but I won’t be able to pass up running through Golden Gate Park, and exploring the many different scenic treats that the Bay Area has to offer. I considered registering for a race while I’m there, but the logistics just didn’t make it feasible or cost-effective.

I think I'm going to get a bit more hill work in, eh?

I think I’m going to get a bit more hill work in, eh?

So, you can expect a break in the blogging action while I head out west for a week or so, but look forward to hearing about my running adventures in San Francisco when I return! There may just be some other exciting news to report when I get back as well, so stay tuned…

That's not a grain silo in the background!

That’s not a grain silo in the background!

T & T Chronicles: Dancing with Lady Chancellor

While we were in Trinidad, it was quite clear that Carnival was right around the corner. The steel pan drum competitions were in full swing as teams practiced for the finals, Soca artists were performing for free in the main square in Port of Spain, and every other radio announcement was advertising a Fete (think GIANT party with live music). Perhaps the most noticeable sign of the impending festivities was the plethora of activity on the Queens Park Savannah. The Savannah is a large park and open-space located in Port of Spain. During Carnival, performances and vendors set up shop and it becomes party central. Vendor space is at a premium, and although it is supposedly a democratic selection process, it sounded like knowing someone in the Ministry of Tourism certainly didn’t hurt.

All smiles before heading up the hill!

All smiles before heading up the hill!

Around the outside of the Savannah is a large walking/running path. The elaborate and revealing costumes of Carnival mean people love showing off their bodies, and subsequently become quite focused on making their bodies as attractive as possible. The fitness industry is huge in the months leading up to Carnival, but for those who don’t want to drop a nice chunk of change on equipment or classes, running around the Savannah works quite well. In the evening, once the sun has gone down, the paths get pretty darn crowded, as we learned during an evening stroll to work off a delicious dinner.

Just off of the Savannah pathway is Lady Chancellor Hill. This 2.0 (I measured it at 2.2) mile hill ascends 700 feet to a lookout point that provides absolutely stunning views of Port of Spain and the Gulf of Paria. Whereas most of other roads in Trinidad & Tobago lack sidewalks and any room to run, Lady Chancellor Hill actually provides a bit of room to move out of the way when a car is heading straight for you. This is a good thing considering the high speeds and blind curves that seemed to characterize Trini drivers and their roads! The hill is typically more quiet since it is a residential area, so it has become a focal point for Trinis looking to test their athletic ability or simply shed a few more pounds before Carnival.

Port of Spain the the Gulf of Paria

Port of Spain the the Gulf of Paria

While on the way up, I saw a few other walkers/runners, but I basically had the hill to myself. The incline was definitely intense and it never really let up. At times, I felt like I was running up a treadmill that wasn’t going to give me any sort of break. As I ascended the hill, the views to the right became more and more breathtaking, although I wasn’t fully taking them in because I was extremely cautious of drivers and trying to actually maintain a running pace.

Views on the path

Views on the path

However, when I reached the top, the view was everything I was hoping it would be and it made the killer run completely worth it. I’m sure I’ve commented before about how flat Iowa is and how I wished I had more choices for hill work. More than that though, I was just struck by the natural beauty of my surroundings. Perhaps Trinis eventually take the beauty for granted after living there for a certain amount of time, but I almost don’t know how that’s possible. There is just so much to stimulate the optic nerves and keep you engaged with your surroundings. Although the path was paved, I felt just as engaged in my surroundings as if I had been running a trail race. It was absolutely incredible!



How can you compete with views like this?

How can you compete with views like this?

After some time at the top to take in the view, I began my descent. I knew it would be a whole lot easier going down than it was coming up, but I don’t think I was prepared for just what a difference it made. I would describe the run down as more of a controlled fall than anything else, and it felt great. I knew my quads would be screaming at the bottom, but I didn’t care. I was flying 🙂 I had averaged about 9:58/mile on the way up, and about 7:23/mile on the way down. That should tell you everything you need to know.


When I reached the bottom, I continued around the Savannah, taking in the people, the traffic, and all the glorious sounds of a bustling urban environment. I passed by children in their school uniforms, food vendors getting ready for carnival, and folks out for an afternoon run/walk in preparation for the upcoming week. The loop took no time at all, in part because I was so enthralled by my surrounding. I simply didn’t want to stop running and I probably could have continued running around the Savannah for hours.

Still smiles at the end!

Still smiles at the end!

When I reached my starting point, the beautiful epicurean and our amazing friend turned tour guide were waiting to greet me. Now, if only I had a bottle of water or something refreshing to finish off my run. Oh wait, I just walked over to the nearest coconut vendor and bought a cold nut! He lopped off the top with his machete so I could drink the deliciously fresh water straight from the nut, and then he opened it up so I could eat the delicious coconut jelly and flesh hidden inside. Yes please! I’m pretty sure that if every run ended with fresh coconut water, I wouldn’t have a job because I’d be running all the time. Except then I couldn’t pay for the coconuts, so that would be awkward. Just sayin’.

Fresh coconut water...amazing!

Fresh coconut water…amazing!

Sneaking Up On Hills

Of all of the lessons I learned from my most recent ultramarathon experience, the most significant was the importance of hill work for trail running. Without question, the trail races I’ve run have included far more significant elevation change than any of the road races I’ve tackled. This is not to say that hill work is not important for road races, because it certainly is, but it seems much easier to avoid hilly courses when you are looking at all road races! Despite my significant training for Surf the Murph, my lack of preparation for the hilly course proved to be a major factor in my overall experience. Granted, I thought I was familiar with the area because I grew up there, and I clearly blocked out the actual terrain from my mind, but had I done more hill work, I would have seen even better results.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for 6000 feet of elevation!

What’s probably most ironic about my hilly experience is the fact that I thought I had done more hill work than in past training cycles. In looking back at my elevation changes, I wasn’t wrong, but I also wasn’t nearly as intentional about the hill work as I could have been. Arguably, this is no easy task in a state like Iowa, where the entire central region is about as flat as can be, and actual trails are few and far between. However, there are enough hills to provide me with a challenge to negate any excuses I might come up with during my run. Ultimately, all it will take is a bit more planning on my part, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.

I’ve actually been thinking more about speed lately, and am toying with the idea of picking an early spring marathon I can use to break the 4-hour barrier for the first time. This will involve some more significant speed work over the winter months, which I have traditionally avoided. However, being more intentional with my hill work is going to help me reach my goal as well. The benefits of hill work for running are rather significant and well proven, and I hope to reap all of them. In addition to more generally building strength and speed, various running sources have found that hill work has the following more specific perks:

Physiologically speaking, hill running…
1) Increases your aerobic capacity that enables you to use less oxygen at increasingly longer distances.
2) Improves your running economy that enables you to use less oxygen to run at a faster pace.
3) Increases your stamina that enables you to run farther at a given pace.
4) Builds strength in your gluteals (buttock), quadriceps (front of thigh), gastrocnemius (upper calf), and soleus (lower calf) muscles.

Biomechanically speaking, hill running…
1) Improves your stride length (from uphill running) and your stride frequency (from downhill running).
2) Increases your ankle flexion that enables you to “pop” off the ground more quickly, so that you can spend less time on the ground and more time in the air.
3) Teaches you how to run relaxed.

All of these results make it a no-brainer that I would work more intentionally on hitting the hills. One of the struggles folks have with hill-work, both going up and coming down, is maintaining an effective stride and avoiding the “braking effect” that can cause additional stress on your knees. The trick for me seems to be shortening my stride, paying attention to my posture, and focusing on a mid-foot strike as I go uphill, and then letting the hill do more of the work downhill while keeping my feet and center of gravity under me on the way down (thus avoiding a more forceable foot strike). My stride inevitably lengthens on the way down, and that is ok. I’ve also experimented with running up hill with my feet at a 45-degree angle, while maintaining a mid-foot strike. This has the added bonus of using different leg muscles, which are fresher and ready for the task. This works much better on smooth surfaces than on trails, but is still a viable option. Ultimately the combination of good technique and a structured plan is hopefully gong to pay off!

I’ll be traveling to the Phoenix area over the holidays, and looking forward to hitting the area trails, elevation and all! Hopefully, with more focus, I’ll be ready for them 🙂

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