Men (and women) to match my mountains

by Greg Hitchcock ( 4.28.01

"But we are all insane, anyway. Note the mountain-climbers."
-Mark Twain.

I woke up feeling very groggy and nauseous. There was Dr. M with a mile wide smile. And next to him was my wife who wore a relieved smile with a worried look. It was three years ago. I was out of surgery for the removal of a bone spur on the back of my heel. The surgeon was smiling because he had "nutted" it or some such comment lost in the fog of that morning.

The spur had basically crippled me. I could not jog more than 200 yards before the pain would start from the jagged edge of the spur jabbing into the bursa under the achilles tendon. The remedy seemed little better than the problem. The doctor pulled the achilles off of the bone and shaved off the spur and then some, and then reattached the tendon with dissolvable staples.
There was time on crutches and in a cast, followed by a slow recovery that stretched on for close to two years before concern eased about rupturing my achilles tendon. Where did this story begin? We can start in the middle.

I was running the Tahoe Ponderosa Ridge Run which starts at Spooner Summit (elevation 7100 feet), climbs to over 9,000 feet and then descends to Kingsbury Summit (elevation 7300 feet) and covers 9.5 miles. I had the bad luck of finding Steve Pradere in that race and he ran away from me about half-way up the climb. Steve was an outstanding runner from Nevada who specialized in shorter races so I was surprised by his strength as my legs felt dead on the climb. Those hard runs in the rolling hills that week were not doing me any favors as I slid and slipped over the snow banks near the crest of the ridge. I could not even see Steve at the top, which meant he had at least a minute lead. There was a spectacular view west and east from the top; the Carson Valley on one side and Lake Tahoe on the other. I missed it as I took off in a mad dash down the steep inclines. I think both Steve and I were shocked at how fast I caught him: it had taken less than two miles of furious downhill sprinting. We made the sensible decision (perhaps my only sensible thought regarding running that week) that this most definitely was not a course for a mano a mano race and we ran and finished together.

Even though the last few miles were run at an easier downhill pace, my quadriceps were in agony after the race. I could hardly walk let alone attempt a run for several days. It was a week before I was back to my marathon training. But while the downhill sprinting caused temporary muscle damage, it was the damage caused by the uphill running that was more lasting.

I have always loved running hills, mountains even. But unrelenting and intemperate attacks on vertical challenges led to the constant yanking of my achilles tendon on its attachment to the bone, which led to the formation of the bone spur. Sometimes I sought out hills, and other times I simply lived in undulating areas and could not avoid hills without the trouble of driving to a flat area.

Hill training can be very effective in building fitness (and future articles will explore some of these strategies), but before getting to that point consumers are advised to read the warning label.

There are three cautionary principles for hill training illustrated by my experiences with the doctor and the Ponderosa Ridge Run. First, the achilles tendons need rest after hill running. Any day with significant hills should be treated as an interval day, and should be followed by an easy day or two with running only on a flat surface. Triathletes can use this time to focus their next two days on swimming and cycling. Resting the achilles tendons on iced gel packs while reading or watching television will aid in the recovery, and is prudent even if no pain is felt after the run.

The second principle is based in physics, namely, what goes up must come down. Downhill running provides added jarring on the joints, especially the knees and hips, as well as the strain the thigh muscles can feel. This is why easy downhill running is advisable. There is nothing to be gained by running fast down hills, except when a race makes such demands (and then you should be rethinking the race!).

The third principle is similar to the first: do not do hills during a race week. My pre-race muscle fatigue was only a minor obstacle at the Ponderosa Ridge Run. I have had worse experiences in flat road and track races with muscles tired from the strain of going uphill. This is why most coaches include hill work early in a season to build fitness and then reduce or eliminate hills at the approach of big competitions. Everyone is different in this regard, but the typical runner should avoid even modest hills for at least five or six days before a race in order to ensure rested muscles.

Whether hill running is done for the challenge, for the superior fitness obtained, or for the convenience of running from home, the smart runner will treat those hills with the respect they deserve, rest when needed, and find suitably flat places to run to recover. The effort is worthwhile -- it will beat waking up to a smiling doctor someday.