Monday 1 May 2017

It's All Downhill From Here - Revel Mt Charleston Marathon Write-Up

It's a while since I blogged and I wanted to make sure I had something other than a standard race report to write about. So that's the case with the Revel Mt Charleston Marathon outside of Vegas. It was my 109th road marathon, so I have plenty to compare it too, but it was completely unlike any of the others, as you can tell from the course profile below. Yes, that's a 5,126ft net elevation drop!

I tend to prefer the downhills in general since I find them more fun and tend to have strong legs for absorbing the impact plus decent technical ability for rugged trails. This obviously wasn't technical, but that amount of pounding on a hard surface can destroy the quads and calves, leading to a huge slow-down nearer the end. So I focused on a couple of tactics to deal with this in my training:

1. A lot of hilly weight vest power-hiking - virtually daily for around two miles with a 10lb or 20lb vest for two months prior to the race (like this).

2. Downhill speed sessions around five times in the month or two before the race, often on interesting Strava segments (like this or this).

The danger with the latter training method is that it greatly increases the chance of injuries as well as causing a lot of muscle damage that takes a little longer to recover from and undoes some of the hard work in flatter speed sessions as a result. I have a good sense of what my body can handle regarding downhills so was able to use years of experience to refine things.

However, despite committing six months to train for this (which includes my off season, so really more like four months), I picked up a traumatic calf injury at the start of March in a race. That meant March was limited to mainly hiking and almost no running, which isn't ideal for a race at the end of April. Yet there's no point in rushing things as it's not possible to 'catch up' on lost training, so I restarted again in April, having lost minimal speed and gained stronger legs.

All that specific training paid off and race day had very good running weather. The start area is at 7,500ft altitude and it was just below freezing, so I ended up wearing a jacket the whole way. That only worked because it was a surprisingly cold day in Vegas for April, with the temps at the finish around 60 degrees F. The race starts with the sharpest hill of the day, a quarter of a mile, 60ft uphill. So it's not smart to push too hard up that then it's mainly downhill at around a -4-5% gradient for the next 21 miles, except for tiny hills at miles 3.75 and 12.

Everything felt amazing through the first half and I was very surprised to drop a couple of sub 5-min/miles as well as most miles around 5:10-5:18. I'd hoped to maintain just under 5:30s, but things felt comfortable so I went with it. On the way I ran quicker than my 5k (16:20), 10k (32:30), 10-mile (51:50), half (1:08:20) and 20-mile (1:44:58) PRs - those times were from this marathon and all are way faster than my flat race times.

The last 10k involved a tail-wind for most of it, but a reduced gradient of around -1-2%, which felt a lot harder, so the wind really helped. At mile 23 there was an out-and-back for half a mile than was insanely hard at that stage with a headwind and a slight uphill followed by more uphill, so much so that my mile split was 6:50. Then wind-assisted, gentle downhill for the last couple of miles and a 2:21:34 finish, over 11 mins under my PR from 2009.

This type of race is a fantastic variation on the standard flat marathon, especially for trail and mountain runners whose legs can take more of a pounding than most road runners. It was also very beautiful along mountain roads for the majority of the distance.

A few people have asked me how much I think the downhill helped and I'd estimate it made me about 15 mins quicker than if I'd raced a flat marathon on the same day...but I didn't train for a flat marathon and didn't have a huge amount of speed (compared to what I'd want) for that type of terrain. When I looked through times from last year I saw that runners in the 2:30s were around 5-6 mins under their previous PRs, but I'd expect a specifically well-trained runner to do better than that, especially with the weather conditions this year (the second and third placed runners in 2017 look like they were 8 mins and 7 mins under their PRs, respectively, according to Athlinks). Someone who hadn't trained for downhills at all might run this race slower than a flat marathon, especially runners with slower PRs and lower mileage training.

I'm ecstatic with this result and thought that 2:25 would have been a great day if things went perfectly after the injury, but without running the course previously it's always difficult to judge. The gear choices were all perfect too, especially the Altra Escalante shoes, which absorbed the impact really well and remained comfy throughout.

Congrats to all the finishers and here's the Strava file for my race. One I'll cherish for a long time...or at least til I run this race again.


Shoes - Altra Boston Escalante
Apparel - Altra, including the Men's Performance Half Zip jacket
Shades - Julbo Aero
Nutrition - Clif Bar Shot Energy Gels
Socks - Drymax Max Protection Running
Lubrication - Squirrel's Nut Butter
Post-race recovery compression - OS1st Calf Compression Sleeves
Arm sleeves - Buff UV Arm Sleeves

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