Running on Tilt

Channeling Tergat

How to run a hill, racing off the clock

Listen | Time: 4:05 · Format: mp3

With slightly less than a mile to go in the 8k on Saturday, I targeted a fellow Central Park Track Club teammate about 50 meters ahead of me. Several runners from other track clubs were between us, but I was most interested in catching the guy in the same Creamsicle-orange singlet that I was wearing.

It seems paradoxical that one’s teammates are rivals in races. But they are, and it helps. At the four-mile holiday race in December a different teammate was my target. I didn’t recognize either of these guys—the Central Park Track Club is a big club, I’m a new member, and not all of the club’s runners go to the same workouts—but by simply wearing the uniform these guys did what teammates are supposed to do. They helped me run faster.

My goal for the race, which was just short of five miles, was to beat the 6:21-per-mile pace I had run in the four mile race. I started at the back of the first corral, and it took 15 seconds from the blaring of the horn to get to the start line. Twice during the first mile I was blocked by slower-moving clusters of runners, but I bided my time, resisting the urge to dart around them and waste extra energy.

Approaching the mile mark, I saw the digital timer tick 50…51…52. The minutes figure was momentarily obscured from view. I wanted it to say 5, but when it became visible, it said 6, meaning that my chip time was about 6:40 for the mile, well off my target pace. I sped up and resolved to not look at the clocks at the other mile markers, as I didn’t want the information to cause further disappointment or to alter my effort. I would race against the clock, so to speak, by ignoring it.

Big Sur is hilly, so Central Park’s moderate hills are useful for my marathon prep. I struggle with uphills, and the rote advice I’ve received for running them is to shorten my stride. On the night before the race, while flipping through a book about Paul Tergat titled “Running to the Limit” I caught some additional advice. The book says that when running uphill you should “push the foot with more intensity from the ground” and that “If you push with the ankle joints, the thigh muscles will get a welcome relief.” This sounded good to me, particularly coming off a high-mileage week, in which I knew my leg muscles would not be entirely fresh. Usually when I had run hills, I had imagined pulling up with the quads, rather than pushing up with the ankles.

On a hill at the two-mile mark, I put Tergat’s lesson to the test—my mental energy went into my feet and ankles instead of my legs. It worked. Whether the advice had physical benefits or whether simply channeling Paul Tergat while racing has a positive effect on the psyche, the little breakthrough gave me renewed vigor and turned what I thought was a bad race into what I thought, as I passed dozens of runners, would be a great race.

Of course, thinking you are having a great race and having a great race are different things, and it’s been my experience that thinking about how well a race is going during a race doesn’t help.

The final mile was downhill, allowing me to apply the downhill lesson in the Tergat book—to lean back slightly, and to land on the outside of the foot. I passed a few more runners, but couldn’t quite catch that teammate before I reached the one clock I wanted to see, the one at the finish line. My final chip time was 31:30, for a pace of 6:20 per mile, besting my 6:21 average from the four-miler by the narrowest of margins. I was on target, no better and no worse, a little disappointed that I hadn’t been closer to thirty minutes, but eager to attack the next four weeks of intensive training before the taper.