As race day approaches, it’s time to start preparing your mind, and your body, for the challenges thrown at you by the race route.  I’m talking specifically about the hills, though obviously the length of the run, half or Ultra, is another major challenge.

But what makes these races particularly tough is that they put some pretty tough climbs in your way in the second half of the race.  The Ultra marathon is especially brutal this way – a flat and relatively easy first half, and then you have to conquer Chapman’s Peak and the big one, Constantia Nek, after halfway, on tired legs.

The half is not quite as dramatic, but it’s no cakewalk, either.  You have a climb pretty early – the pull up Edinburgh Drive, in the dark, will test you within the first moments of the race, and then you deal with Southern Cross shortly after halfway.

Both races than take on the ‘bumps’ past Cecilia Forest, some pretty steep descents at Kirstenbosch, and then the gradual pull up to the UCT finish line, which would be barely noticeable on fresh legs, but after 18km or 53km, may seem a lot steeper than it is!

The key to the hills is –fold.

First, you must manage the effort.  You have a budget, spend it wisely. The mantra I always though of was “Run over the hill”.  What that would remind you of is that you need to have energy in reserve at the top, so that you can keep going.  It’s pretty pointless to spend all your energy to the point of being bankrupt at the top, because no matter whether it’s Chapman’s Peak, Constantia Nek or Southern Cross drive, there is a lot of work to be done from the top onwards.  So aim to hold yourself back and get to the top feeling ‘dominant’, ready to go.

Second, be patient.  Or disciplined. Or relaxed.  Preferably all three. Whatever helps you run the hills the most efficient, economical way possible.  The sooner you find a new rhythm on the climbs, the better. The mistake many people make is to start fast, as if they want to hold their pace from the flat roads for as long as possible.  Obviously, gravity never loses, and so eventually, the runner ‘blows’, and then slows down dramatically. So if your pace on the flats is 6:00 per kilometer, don’t try to run the first kilometer, or even the first few hundred meters on the hill at 6:00 per kilometer.  Drop it to 6:15, or even 6:30, depending on steepness.

It’s about finding a new comfort level, and then settling into that pattern as early as possible.  Accept the slow down, and it’ll help you reach the summit in dominant mood, as I mentioned above.

Third, don’t get too preoccupied with the up, while forgetting the down.  This is often the cause of bad days out – you’ll be so focused on getting to the top that you’ll make errors on the way down.  Both the Ultra and Half will ask you these questions, because in the Ultra, once you get to the top of Chapmans, you have a pretty fast and long descent into Hout Bay, and the temptation is to fly down and make up the lost time.  Similarly, in the Half, you get to the top of Edinburgh Drive at about 4km and may feel the need to really push on the long and quite steep descent along the Blue Route.

In both instances, you’re inviting trouble, because as you fly down, you’ll pound your legs, loading them hugely, softening them up.  Next thing you know, you’re on the lower slopes of Constantia Nek or Southern Cross, wondering why you feel so deflated and ‘empty’! That’s because you were too aggressive on the descent.

So having said above that you want to reach the top of these climbs feeling dominant, it’s really important that you don’t throw that wise management away by pushing too hard, too soon.  You need to be just as patient going down as you were going up! I can assure you that if you feel your pace is just right, you probably need to slow down a bit more!

The aim of training in the next few weeks is to practice this.  I want you to learn that rhythm I spoke of – how much should you be prepared to slow down?  What does the “right tempo” feel like to you? The training is teaching your legs and lungs to deal with the stress, but it’s also teaching your mind to accept the hill, and to spend your energy as well as possible.  So take the hill training days on with that in mind, and build your confidence ahead of race day!