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Training for the Mt. Washington Road Race, n=1

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

We're 3 months out from the most competitive mountain running event in North America: the Mount Washington Road Race. It's a unique event in the already unique discipline of mountain running, as there's no technical trail running skill required (it’s all uphill and paved). I believe that if you really want to achieve your full potential at this race, you should have started uphill specific training over the winter, or better yet, year-round. Training to finish this race is cool too but if you're really "going for it" you need to respect this event by building your entire training around it, in my opinionated opinion. Much as a marathoner wouldn't spend half their time on a bicycle, uphill mountain runner specialists shouldn't train like other runners. I digress. I'm writing this post because I'm not running the MWRR this year- I intended to return after skipping 2018 but am recovering from a broken foot- but a few buddies of mine are racing. I planned to send them my thoughts and decided just to write it up as a blog post for the handful of folks who'd like to read this too. So here I’m sharing my uphill-specific workouts for the 4 months leading up to my favorite of the 3 years I’ve raced MWRR: 2017, where I finished 6th in 1:08:35.

Disclaimers: Obviously I’ve never won this race, I’m not a coach, and my thoughts are based on an experiment of one conducted over 3 years in a decidedly unscientific fashion. But I’m proud of the performances I’ve squeezed out of myself at this race, and from 2015-2018 I was obsessed with preparing for this event, so I’ve thought a lot about it. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the real first-person experts in the Northeast are Dave Dunham, Kevin Tilton and Eric Blake. The first two have shared their expertise in blog form, and my workouts are based very loosely on Eric’s plan as he has communicated it to me. Also, they have all run much faster than me, with Dave and Eric having multiple victories.

The race: physiology and psychology

Running physiology is a hobby for me, so I won’t speak as an expert here. I did dabble in the physiology of mountain running as a fun academic exercise in the form of a published paper (link here). You can find some other neat papers on the biomechanics and phys of mountain running on one of my blog tabs. But in short: for top 10 runners, MWRR is run just harder than anaerobic threshold. Race winners have told me that they need to be hurting very early on, and then just hang on. For me, I need to be uncomfortable by mile 1, but not full-on suffering until halfway (3.75 miles), to race to my potential. When I’ve suffered earlier, I was too mentally worn out to really fight later in the race. Your mileage may vary. Weather is a big factor here too but I haven’t run it enough to pontificate here.

Training: March through June (race day), 2017

Here’s an overview of my training, to provide the context in which the specific workouts occurred.

Volume: 12- 12.5 hours per week, with 8- 8.5 hours of running and 4 hours of mountain biking, and one day of weight lifting (squats, single leg squats, deadlift, pullups, etc).

Long runs: 2 hours to 2.5 hours on trails, moderate effort. In 2017 the long run was not a priority, because in 2015 and 2016 I found that I was always tired for the uphill-specific workouts, which were my focus.

MWRR-specific workouts: March through June 2017

My uphill specific workouts were (still are) of 2 types: continuous treadmill hillclimbs of 30-75 minutes, which began around anaerobic threshold effort and finished at or near maximal effort, despite not speeding up much; and real-world intervals of 5-10 minutes per, up local “mountains”.

The treadmill hillclimbs, being run in a gym at 68 degrees (winter) and 70+ degrees (spring) without any air flow, always become heat limited. You can’t work hard for an hour in these conditions without cumulative heat load slowing you down. This won’t happen in the race, but there will be altitude effects, as you’re at a measurably-performance-limiting elevation by halfway. I guestimate that these 2 things are equally limiting, so overheating during treadmill workouts and fighting the urge to slow down will prepare you for the decreasing oxygen above treeline, and performances in these workouts are roughly indicative of performance in the cooler but hypoxic race environment.

The main real “mountain” intervals I do are Mt. Toby phoneline trail reps. This is the hardest workout I do and I’m proud as hell of it. The trail is 0.85 miles, averaging 18% and gaining about 900’, up a rocky trail on Mt. Toby in Montague, MA. It’s variable, with one or two flat spots and some pitches exceeding 35%, which is not at all similar to the quite even terrain of Mt. Wash, so really this is better training for trail mountain races like Loon. But it’s SO hard that it’s worthwhile for Mt Wash training as an over-the-top gut check and VO2-max stimulus. Each rep takes me about 9 min 30 sec, with a 15 min run down a tame trail for recovery. I run 4 reps, which gives me 38 minutes of maximal uphill effort and over 2 hours total workout time, something you really can’t do in a flat-ground interval workout. Regardless of what I’m training for, I need a few of these workouts to know I’m prepared physically and mentally for competition. I only did one in the leadup to MWRR 2017.

So here they are, the weekly uphill specific workouts (and a few races on the USATF-NE mountain circuit) leading up to Mt Wash 2017, taken straight from my training log, with the notes I wrote at the time. Treadmill climbs are described in terms of % grade per mile, so 11/12/13 means I ran 11% for one mile, 12% for the 2nd mile, etc. Pace is described as proximity to goal MWRR race pace- for example, MWRR +60 means one minute per mile slower than goal race pace.

3/3: treadmill hillclimb- 7.5 miles, MWRR goal pace+60 sec. 11/12/13/11/12/13/12%: 1:11:56 (9:35's), 4752'. Like last time, slight progression (neg split 2nd half and hard last .5). Again, felt strong, this pace/grade/distance is comfortable. Losing weight and tired earlier this week so ate a gu at mile 3. 12.5 miles/1:54/4900’ total.

3/7: treadmill hillclimb- 2x2 miles @15%, MWRR+20 (though prob MWRR effort today): 20:36, 1/2 mile/5 min walk/jog recovery, 20:30 (w/ hard finish). Tired--hard to do mtn workouts 15 hrs after sqts and deadlifts. 3400’.

3/10: treadmill hillclimb- 7.5 miles MWRR+60, 11/12/13/11/12/13/12%: 1:12:22 (9:39's). First 3 miles just a bit faster than last week (28:55), felt strong, but got tired and this became hard…near race effort last 1.5 miles, didn't neg split, just maintained. 12.5 miles/1:56/ 4900’ total.

3/15: treadmill hillclimb- 3 miles @ 15%: 28:58--new PR by 1 sec. Unlike a few weeks ago (28:59), this was hard from the start, and race effort near the end; legs strong but labored breathing throughout. Big warmup (54 min) on snowy sidewalks due to late gym opening after snowstorm, then stressed/pressed for time so decided to run this as MWRR/TT effort today even though that wasn't the plan. 11 miles/ 1:37/2700’ total.

3/17: treadmill hillclimb- 7.5 miles @ 11/12/13/11/12/13/12%, MWRR+60/progression: 1:10:50 (9:27's). Neg split- 9:40's (28:58) thru 3 miles, felt great, so turned it up a bit. Never super hard. Cranked 8:30's, then 7:30's last 3/10ths. Afternoon run, gym empty, nice and cool. 12 miles/ 1:48/ 4900’ total.

3/21: treadmill hillclimb- 2x 2 miles, 1x 1 mile, @ 15%, w/ ~4:30 walk/jog rest: 20:47, 20:59, 10:27. 4000' hard work. Legs and esp. quads thrashed right away, have been tired since the first step of Sunday's run, hot in there today (70.5 hallway temp) so aimed for a modest pace (which became rather hard regardless, close to MWRR effort). Surprised I was game for the 5th mile. Happy with my focus and toughness this year. 10 miles/ 1:34/ 4200’ total.

3/24: treadmill hillclimb, half a Mt Wash- 3.75 miles 11/12/13/12%. (2376'). Progression- moderate-->hard. 34:16 (9:08's). Feeling fresh and strong. 7 miles/ 1 hr/ 2500’ total.

3/28: AM- treadmill hillclimb, 3 miles@ 15%, mostly just survived: 30:57. Legs and lower back very tired (from last night's lifting mostly?). Also, a bit hot in there.

PM- treadmill hillclimb, 4 miles 11/12/13/12%, progression from moderate to race pace.

36:25 (9:06 avg). Feeling very strong, rather easy. Day total: 15 miles/ 2:11/ 5300’.

3/31: AM- treadmill hillclimb, 3 miles@15%: 30:57 (10:19's). Again, pace wasn't impressive but legs are really tired (and this workout is damn hard at 8 AM!).

PM- treadmill hillclimb, 4 miles 11/12/13/12%. 36:40 (9:10's). Progression from moderate to harder; only hit race pace (8:40's) near the end. Legs feeling good, just a bit limited in breathing prob due to a big lunch. Day total: 14.5 miles/ 2:07/ 5200’.

4/4: treadmill hillclimb, 4 miles @15%: 39:58 (9:59's). Psyched to do 4 miles straight thru; never tried that before. 30:33 at 3 miles, last mile in 9:24 to get under 40 min. Felt strong. 9 miles/1:22/ 3400’ total.

4/7: treadmill hillclimb: 5 miles, 11/12/13/11/12, (~3100') progression/MWRR+60: 47:48. Thru 3 miles in 29 per usual, planned full 7.5 miles, but just too tired this week. 12 miles/ 1:47/ 3400’ total.

4/10: Toby phoneline repeats! 9:52.9, 9:45.8, 9:53.1, 9:51.4 (avg- 9:50.8). Quads tired from the start (from reintegrating into mtn biking?) and not totally accustomed to steep trails right now…so unimpressive splits. Recovered fast after each, actually, and didn't feel totally knackered at the end. (4-repeat PR is from 9/24/16…9:28.5 avg.) 15 miles/ 2:10/ 3704’.

4/14: treadmill hillclimb- 7.5 miles 11/12/13/11/12/13/12%, progression (4752'): 1:10:50 (9:27 avg). Matched time from 3/17. Thru 3 miles in 29:00, then prog faster/harder, last mile in 8:40. Didn't hurt until last .5 but then it really hurt. 11.5 miles/ 1:44/ 4900’ total.

4/18: treadmill hillclimb- 4 miles @ 15% (3168'): 39:38 (9:54 avg). Started at 10:20, quickly down to 10:00, ran the rest at 9:50, 9:40 near the end. Felt great, barely breathing first 1.5 miles, would have hammered near the end but new shoes made R foot feel like a gimpy claw. Lifted right after workout, so a bit limited. 10 miles/ 1:26/ 3500’ total.

4/21: treadmill hillclimb- 7.5 miles, 11/12/13/11/12/13/12% (~4750): 1:12:33 (9:40 avg). Thru 3 miles in 29 flat per usual (MWRR+60 pace), not a big neg split today b/c really fatigued. Backed off a bit at mile 5.5 to ensure a finish; big pace jump only in last .25. 12.5 miles/ 1:56/ 4900’ total.

4/25: treadmill hillclimb- 2.5 miles @15% MWRR effort: 24:21 (9:44 avg). Planned 3 miles but hurting from the lifting last night and it was goddamn hot. Opted to keep the effort high (lips numb/anaerobia by 1.8) rather than slow down and get in 3. 9 miles/ 1:18/ 2250’ total.

4/27: treadmill hillclimb- 5 miler v1- 10/14/10/14/12% (3168'), hard prog/MWRR: 44:50 (8:58 avg). New PR (old- 44:53 from April 2016). Very hard last 1.25, near all out effort, but overall I think it wasn't as gut wrenching throughout as previous years (in this workout and all in 2015). Hot- 71 in the gym. 9 miles/ 1:17/ 3300’ total.

5/2: 6x Sugarloaf Repeats (NOTE: this is a .8 mile paved “mountain” road): 6:24.7, 6:21.7, 6:22.9, 6:23.2, 6:27.1, 6:28.6. Avg: 6:24.7, new 6-repeat PR. (Old PR- 6:34.8 from Aug 2016; 6:40 from Dec 2014; 3 repeat PR is 6:07 from May 2016). 7:35 mile pace, for whatever grade this is (8.5% per some maths, 11% per Strava seg, who knows.) Prob could have run harder. Felt good after a sluggish warmup and 1st rep, got heavy/fatigued last 2, but enjoyed the effort and felt good. 13 miles/ 1:42/ 2641’ total.

5/5: AM- treadmill hillclimb, 3 miles @15%: 30:50. Legs still tired (and sore, even) from Tues; legs limited this one, couldn't go too hard.

PM- treadmil hillclimb, 4 miles 11/12/13/12%: 35:43 (8:56 avg). Planned for MWRR effort/pace but ran more conservatively. Feeling better than this morning but def still limited. Day total: 16 miles/ 2:21/ 5300’.

5/12: treadmill hillclimb- 5 miles 11/12/13/12/12% (3168'), hard prog/MWRR: 43:50 (8:46 avg). Felt really good- could have pushed harder, never fully race effort. Ran at Planet Fitness- different treadmill may have helped. Either way, good stuff. 8.5 miles/ 1:12/ 3200’.

5/15: (NOTE: this is a long run, but I’m including it in this post b/c it’s a climbing-focused workout. It's my favorite hard long run and I run it a few times a year.) Bull Hill/Toby RFT, starting from the North. Just an OK outbound run (1:06:59; PR- 1:04:55, 9/5/16) but a very strong return (1:06:47; old PR-1:10:46, 3/20/16) made for a roud-trip PR (old PR- 2:18:45, 9/5/16). 50 and raining; a great day in the woods. 14.5 miles/ 2:14/ 4000’.

NOTE: in this last month of training before MWRR, I ran a few workouts at Planet Fitness because it is way cooler and has more airflow; I wanted to see how these last workouts would go without a huge heat load.

5/19: treadmill hillclimb (at planet fitness): 5 miles, 11/12/13/12/12%, 3168', 44:03 (8:48.6 avg). Felt strong for most of this despite fatigue from the week (foam roller still reveals residual soreness from Monday) and hot weather; but suffered bigtime last 1/2 mile, was beyond redline last few minutes. Workout was great but started to fall apart in the cooldown (L achilles/calf mostly). 10 miles/ 1:34/ 3300’ total.

5/24: treadmill hillclimb- 4 miles, 10/14/10/14% (2534'): 35:57 (8:59's). Skipped planned 5th mile (12%); was near all-out effort by the end of the 4th mile and didn't need to do a deathmarch during a semi-down week. Accumulated fatigue from recent big workouts, not to mention beat up L quad/knee/calf/achilles. 10 miles/ 1:29/ 2800’ total.

5/27: Wachusett Mtn Race (NOTE-3 mile paved hillclimb)- 1st, 20:56 (lost 10 sec missing a turn at the finish-- again). Way slower than 2015 (18:56 or 19:08, my watch or official timing), but didn't go as hard this year. No lip numbness, etc, only hurt the last 2 min (though I did fade near the end which isn't great). Wasn't really challenged. Tempo-ish run back up on sloppy trails and ski slopes. 16 miles/ 2:07/ 2523’ total.

5/30: treadmill hillclimb: 5 miles 11/12/13/12/12% (3168'), Planet Fitness: 44:05 (8:49 avg). Pretty good result- a bit fatigued/not feeling super strong at the start, 8:57's thru first 3 miles (which became hard for the 13% mile), was able to recover a bit at this pace for the first bit of the 4th mile (12%) and then press considerably harder/faster. My endurance is good and I can recover and press so long as I don't bust through the redline. 10 miles/ 1:29/ 3250’ total.

6/6: treadmill hillclimb: 5 miler v1, 10/14/10/14/12%: 44:28 (8:53.6 avg). Solid PR (old: 44:50 on 4/27/17, 44:53 April 2016). Have run this many times, so a soid PR is very encouraging. At Planet Fitness. Ran in control, could have hammered harder. Lifting felt easy. 9 miles/ 1:16/ 3300’ total.

6/10: Asctuney Mountain Race (NOTE: paved mountain hillclimb)- 1st, 30:43. Purposely started more conservatively than years prior per Mt Wash plan. See Drive doc-- slowest first 2 miles ever, PR last 1.6, for 6 sec off total PR. Didn't make it hurt til last mile; no lip numbness etc; rather warm/humid 2nd half. So, endurance is good, so if I start slow and work/suffer 2nd half, I'm in PR shape for Wash. 9 miles/1:22/ 2700’ total.

6/13: treadmill hillclimb (planet fitness): 2 miles @15%, 18:49 (9:24 avg). Mile 1 in 9:37, mile 2 in 9:12. Felt great. Certainly could have kept this up thru 3 miles w/out being a race effort, which would be a big workout PR (PR is 28:58) and prob a better equivalent performance than last Sat's race!...(9:24's for 3 miles @15%= 8:24's for 4 miles @ 12%!...) 6 miles/ 50:00/ 1700’ total.

6/17: Mt. Washington Road Race: 6th, 1:08:35. Executed the plan: PR-slow start and first half (33:13), 1-min PR over 2nd half. See google doc for splits- deleted from watch so they're from memory. The plan worked, actually did some racing in the 2nd half. Started ~20th, moved up to ~10th by mile 2, caught and passed Simon Guitierezz at 4.5, Newbould and Nacho Hernandez around 5 (on the dirt road, where I usually get caught). Should have pushed a bit harder; pushed enough to maintain the gap but had a bit left in the tank (lips only started getting numb at 7, guts ok) despite ending up on the ground at the finish. Hard bonk/ brain shutdown shortly thereafter though so likely did tap the well dry.

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