Monday, August 15, 2011

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. This 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.


  1. Excellent analysis of the race Jeff. I am still trying to figure all this out for myself. I have found speed hiking to be easier, and depending on the grade almost as fast as running. But I was surprised on my second lap that running a bit of the Summit Trail didn't kill my lungs any more than walking.
    Let's dial this in more on our next hill venture.

  2. Or... you might have just been faster last year. You are getting older afterall, Jeff. That being said, you'll still blow me away at any race at any distance.

  3. First, you have issues. Second, I think your point about training sums it up: you don't train for races in which you need to walk. Racing B2B isn't exactly good training for the Breaker, for example. One additional factor is that the Summit Trail is fairly short, so you won't see the same "energy savings" from walking as opposed to a 2-mile long Summit Trail. Oh, I walked. I'm soft.

  4. Interesting analysis, Jeff. I walked both times around, with the exception of the very bottom. It's just so steep it seems more appropriate to hiking to me! But then I never trained to run up it, so who knows?!

  5. You need a new hobby. Older=slower is not news and needs no analysis.
    Obviously the difference is I was there last year and not this year. Sorry man, I let you down.

  6. Jeff has way too much spare time on his hands. Lace up and headed out for a run next time you start to ponder some other theory.

  7. The problem is that you are trying to draw conclusions based on statistical analysis of 2 individual experiments with no controls. If you were to take the time it took for each person in each year then you might have some sort of relevance, but I think that going slower has already been explained: It was a different race on a different day, you are a year older, you don't have experience walking during races, etc.

    The trail is too short and too steep to waste energy running it. Look at your own differential for your first time only lost 8 seconds walking than you did running. That you don't know how to transition back to running and didn't take advantage of the Tote Road as much as you should have just goes to show that next year we need to do some race specific training!

    For me, I think that walking the Summit Trail makes a huge difference over trying to run it. Last year, I don't recall who was near me the first time up the Summit Trail, but Mike Dowling was right behind me the second time. On a road course, he can beat me handily (and usually does.) Despite him being right behind me at the bottom of the Summit Trail, I walked up it faster than he ran it (I do run pieces of it but walk more than I run.) I wound up putting a few minutes distance between us from the Summit to the Finish.

    This year, I was passed both times up the Summit Trail while I was walking. I also retook my position within a few minutes of getting on the Tote Road and beat both of those runners pretty handily because I was able to take advantage of the downhill grade of the Tote Road without having wasted energy or lost that much time on the Summit Trail.

    I'd be interested to see your 2012 data if you spend the month or so before the race practicing getting through the aid station, race walking to the Summit as fast as you can, and getting yourself used to going into downhill speed mode as soon as you crest. I bet your times will improve despite the walking.