This past weekend we traveled up to Maine to take on (and take over!) the Mount Desert Island Half and Full marathon (MDI), and what started out as a routine team trip turned into a much more unique running experience than many of us had anticipated.

Mount Desert Island is the largest island off of the coast of Maine. Bar Harbor is a breathtakingly beautiful town on its eastern side, and this is where we stayed and where the full marathon began. The half marathon start was in a town called Northeast Harbor, a little further south. I was signed up for the half marathon, so my perspective on the race is skewed toward this course which was essentially the second half of the full marathon course. However, I talked to enough people who ran the full marathon to gain a good sense of what that experience was like. With over 600 feet in elevation gain (and almost as much elevation lost) the half marathon course was challenging, if not daunting, but it also provided a valuable perspective on racing these types of courses. Here are a few of my takeaways from this weekend’s race:

Know the course, but don’t obsess over it

It was good to get a general sense of where the hills were going to be, but because of the sheer number of them, and all of varying distances and gradients, it didn’t make sense to try to game-plan for each one. Running a hilly course does not allow you to get into the kind of running rhythm you can enjoy on a flat surface, which makes it hard to target a specific pace. You almost have to treat each climb like its own separate challenge and run the race on feel. The hills in this race didn’t stop until mile #11, then it was a very welcome descent to the finish. Courses like this are hardly ideal for personal best times or conducive to time goals, unless you’ve run the same course before and know exactly what to expect.

Train on hills

There’s really no way around it. If you’re going to race on a hilly course, you have to train on hills. You can do a fair amount of strength work (i.e. lower-body weight training and specific strength endurance workouts on flat surface) but the best way to prepare for the physiological demands of running hard uphill is to mimic this in practice, and to do it often. This can be done either in interval training (hill repeats) or as a longer run (a hilly tempo run or fartleks on hills). You can also incorporate hills into your long run as a way to challenge your aerobic base; long runs are the second easiest runs of the week in terms of pace (after recovery runs) but a hilly course can add a dimension of strength to this “easy” run.

Work on your core

Hills are notorious for challenging us to the point where our form breaks down, but it doesn’t have to. The hills at MDI were so relentless that it felt like someone was pounding my form into submission. I began to feel the strain in my hamstrings, then my glutes, and on the steepest hills there was even the temptation to lean forward and try to approach the hill with my upper body first, as opposed to my hips first. This is why all-around core strength (abs and lower back) is very important; it allows the body to maintain form even when it is fatigued. Bottom line, work on your core and you will last longer on those hills!

Be mentally tough

I have to admit, there were a few points during the race where I was almost broken, mentally. I still felt within myself physically, but there were thoughts running through my head that would have forced me to slow down had I entertained them long enough. I stopped 3 times to adjust my shoes (I was starting to develop blisters) but beyond that I did not allow these thoughts to take over. When you’re running on a challenging course, especially when you’re running in “no man’s land” or alone/in between groups, you have plenty of time to think, and when you’re struggling, the dominant thought is to alleviate this struggle and bring you closer to a state of comfort. You have to be mentally tough in order to ignore these thoughts and tendencies, because you’re in a race, and as they say, “no guts, no glory”. This is especially true of hilly courses. The harder you push yourself, the more you will have to celebrate when it is all over.

Look around you

Most hill courses are scenic, and part of the reward for training for these challenges should be the ability to enjoy where you are and what’s around you. Especially during the longer-distance races. Take a moment to look around, even for a brief moment, and appreciate the environment that you're in. It might be a clearing in the woods, or a cliff overlooking the ocean, or simply a pristine stretch of road filled with fall colors. As a friend alluded to this weekend, these races tend to be over before you know it, so enjoy them as much as you can.

Our team rocks!

Despite such a challenging course, a lot of people ran very impressive races and it’s a testament to the hard work that has gone into their training this year. We had multiple personal bests (believe it or not), near personal bests, runners in their marathon debuts (what guts!), multiple age-group awards and a two-person relay team that tore up the course! I can’t say enough about what I witnessed up there at the finish line!

The conclusion: I would go back and race MDI in a heartbeat, and I would also recommend it to anyone, as long as you train for it first!

Run better. Run smarter. Run for life.

Coach Mwangi


Images courtesy of Mount Desert Island Marathon.

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