Last fall, I ran a 19-mile trail race in Crested Butte, CO, which was by far the hardest course that I have ever finished. Crested Butte is at about 8500' of altitude, and the course was a winding, tough, rocky single-track trail with a few thousand feet of elevation gain and loss. I ran out of gas about two-thirds of the way through the course and had no choice but to run-walk to the finish, miserably stumbling my way through the final hour to the finish.
Fast forward to July of this year, I ran the Evergreen Mountain 15k race, which for me is a moderate distance (15k), at a moderate altitude (7200'), and a moderate elevation gain (1000'). That is to say, the race was well within my ability to run hard and push my pace for the entire course.
Once the initial pack of runners sorted out into their natural positions, I came upon another runner up ahead. He was walking the uphills, then running hard once the terrain leveled out. Numerous times I would close the gap on the uphills, and he would stretch it back out at the top of the hill. I figured I would eventually overtake him. After all, he's walking! But his lead of 100 yards or so never closed. The final three miles of the course is all downhill and he extended his lead to the finish. I never did catch him. He was fresher and stronger in the end.
I started to question my preconceived notions about walking uphill. I had always assumed that people who walked uphill were not fit enough to run the whole course. I'm not judging them, I have certainly done my share of races and training runs where I struggled to the end. The aforementioned Crested Butte race is the perfect example.
I could never catch this racer despite the fact - or perhaps because of the fact - that he walked the hills, while I ran the whole course. That was eye-opening.
What the Evergreen race showed me is that walking can be faster.
Fast forward again to September of this year, back to Crested Butte. I wanted to test the theory myself. I still had a bad taste in my mouth from last year's race. I trained less for this particular race than I did last year, and I felt less confident.
From mile one, I walked all of the steep uphills. My definition of steep loosened up as the race went on. I went from "power hiking" the hills to simply walking and enjoying the short break. I was behind last year's pace at the three-hour mark by a few minutes. On the final three-mile descent to the finish, I knew that walking those hills and saving some energy was paying off. I had run a smarter race and was able to cruise into the finish feeling so much better than last year. It hurt, of course, but wasn't a repeat of the miserable experience. I finished a little over three minutes faster, all of which came from that final three miles when I had a bit more gas in the tank.
Managing your strength over four hours of running is hard, it takes practice. I imagine the longer the race the more nuance and practice it requires. Walking is very energy efficient. Running uphill is not. I've learned that when I'm using a disproportionate amount of strength to ascend a hill, or overly spiking my heart rate just to gain a second or two, I'll pay that cost later on. I'm excited to have a new strategy to play with - when to walk, and how fast, and when run.