Monday, July 19, 2010

I have a problem...and it's downhill mountain running

Good news/bad news to report.

Good news: I logged another quality 100-mile week. That bodes well for my training for the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run, which is now just a month away.

Bad news: I had a very poor showing at Sunday’s Barr Trail Mountain Race, a 12.5-mile run on Pikes Peak that I finished in 2:03. You run from Hydro Street in Manitou Springs up to Barr Camp (10,200 feet) and then back—all on the Barr Trail except a short paved section at the beginning and end. You gain 3,630 feet. My sense (and I could be wrong on this) was that the BTMC didn’t attract a lot of ultrarunners of the 100-mile variety. Most of the runners out there were very fast, shorter-distance mountain runners with highly developed technical trail running skills. The talent was very strong. Let’s put it this way: the greatest mountain runner in recorded history, Matt Carpenter (who is a very accomplished ultrarunner and Leadville 100 record holder), finished third. His Barr Trail Mountain Race record fell to 24-year-old Ryan Hafer, who finished with a mind-blowing 1:29.

My time on the up—1:15—wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad either. My time on the down, however, was hideous. If it takes you 48 minutes to descend, you’re going to get passed and lose a lot of ground. And did I ever get passed. It was discouraging and embarrassing having runners blow past me when I was giving the downhill what I thought was my all. I have never been so discouraged in a race. But I also had 100 miles on the legs that week.

It is clear from my Barr Trail Mountain Race and Leadville Trail Marathon results that my downhill running skills are very poor. On the ascents, I’m strong. I have good endurance and excellent mental and physical toughness. The problem is that my downhill running is so poor that it negates my strengths and actually costs me quite a bit of time. I should have EASILY broken 2 hours on Sunday.

Out east, the hills are so short (yet they can be very steep) that if you’re a poor downhill runner it’s not going to affect your performance too badly. Out west, where the descents can be several miles in length, poor downhill running skills will kill you regardless of how strong you might be on the climbs. This is what we’re seeing with me.

It is said that the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging the problem in the first place. I obviously have a problem with downhill running. I need to find someone—a coach?—who can help me improve in this area. If I can become even an average downhill runner, I think I would still be a reasonably successful Colorado ultrarunner since my climbing is so solid—and the desire is obviously there.

My hunch is that my downhill mountain running problems come down to over-striding. Because the trails are often littered with loose rocks, I think it’s critical that you have quick turnover, let gravity take over, and avoid over-striding. If you over-stride—a problem that has plagued my running for a long time though my form has improved some—you’re going to be less in control and pull back just a little as a precaution. I also think confidence is a huge factor. Experience is a huge part of confidence. I’ve been running mountains for only three-and-a-half months.

I believe that in time my downhill mountain running skills will develop and improve. It may be that 2010 is going to be a year of learning. But I need to learn from someone who can help me.

I am taking today off to rest and recover from yesterday’s race, which I supplemented with an additional 7.5 miles for a total of 20 for the day.

This Friday, I’m going to Leadville to run the critical Twin Lakes-to-Winfield-and-back section with a few others. This will involve a double-crossing of Hope Pass.

I wish I could say I’m in good spirits, but I’m not. I am very frustrated by what happened at the Barr Trail Mountain Race (and the Leadville Marathon) and think it’s time to ask for some help from someone who excels at downhill running but perhaps had to work hard to achieve success in this area.


  1. My nickel ... you have identified the issue, and now you just need to go fix it.

    Certainly downhill running and over striding do not bode well.

    A few sessions where you come down say Gregory Canyon, where you practice quick short almost dance like turn over, with a lean forward approach ... will help. A lot. The first couple of times, I think, it will feel foreign, but then I think you will see the brain adapt (even more than the legs) to handle it.

  2. GZ: I appreciate the suggestion and I will follow your advice. Form has been a battle I've waged for years. I've come a long way but still have a ways to go. Last year I finally got out of stability shoes and into neurtral-cushions.

    I think your suggestion is a great one. I will check out Gregory Canyon (maybe this Sunday) and practice with a shorter, quicker stride and leaning forward.

    Thanks for your help!


  3. I ran the same Barr Trail race that day and just ran Pikes Peak Marathon yesterday (same trail just to the top and back down). I went into it with poor training due to having a baby recently and an injury, but I did ok and placed in my age group. I am a strong hill climber too but loose much ground coming down as so many people pass me. I know that embarrassing feeling. It is frustrating to know that I can kick butt going up and loose going down. I want to do Leadville 100 summer of 2012. If you find an answer on the downhill running, post it :) I'm thinking it has to do with experience and confidence for sure. I lack that as I fear twisting my ankle (been there before) and not completing the race. You still put up a great time!