I have always sucked at moving up anything steeper than a gradual grassy knoll. In my recent return to distance running, I’ve blamed it on my heavy post-powerlifting physique – when I was a much lighter and faster runner, I blamed my inability to move away from sea level on my short legs. Whatever the true reason, I’m very aware of my sluggish upward scrambling. When I set the route, I tend to avoid it.
But I’m also easily persuaded, and I have a well documented masochistic side when it comes to grueling training, so when my friend Trevor (an avid trad climber and Munro bagger, but inexperienced runner), asked if I wanted to try some hill running on East Lothian’s Lammer Law, I quickly agreed.
The Lammer Law
The Lammer Law is one the Scottish Borders’ many Donalds. It’s 529m high, and from the shoogly sheep gate at the bottom to the cairn at the top if offers runners 352m of ascent over almost 3km of trails. Our route up and back comes in at 5.8km.
That’s a lot of hill for someone more used to routes like Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park circuit that offers around 100m of climbing across 5km.
Lesson 1: You need to walk (up hills) before you can run (up hills)
Specificity of training is not a new concept to me, it was a big part of making progress as a lifter, but when it comes to something as simple as walking it can be easy to overlook.
Trevor’s hill walking background very quickly gave him an advantage I hadn’t anticipated. He was innately aware of what a ‘normal’ amount of effort for walking up a hill was – so he knew how far beyond that he could push his pace in the climb. When he suggested a slower pace at the start or our run, it wasn’t a lack of running ability – it was a sense of ‘normal for the hills’.
A bit farther on, as things got tough – Trev’s conditioning, built up from years of walking on equally intense terrain, kept him moving forward. The burning sensation and unusual weight in my quads was new to me, and it quickly forced me to drop the pace.
Lesson 2: You don’t need to run the whole way, just farther than you ran the last time
“If I make it round that corner up there, I’ll be buzzing!” Trevor had panted as we struggled up the first steep section.
On my first run up the hill I had taken this attitude as pretty defeatist, but I didn’t say anything. We had seemed strong up to that point and I couldn’t understand why he seemed fixated on this landmark when we both seemed to have more in the tank.
Lesson 2b: things change quickly when you’re running something steep.
As we reached the corner my legs felt twice as heavy as they had been on the approach, and 200m farther along it was me who brought us down to a slow walk.
“Sorry!” was about all I could manage to wheeze. I was upset and frustrated by dropping the pace but Trevor was just enjoying his progress.
It wasn’t until our second run that I could experience a similar happiness – as we both moved around 500m closer to our current target: reaching the summit without walking.
I’m not used to celebrating making small progress, and have always held off feeling good about my effort until after reaching the goal. If I can learn to more readily enjoy small success as part of the bigger picture from running hills I’ll be thrilled.
Lesson 3: You’ll enjoy your progress more if you think about hill running as a different activity entirely
In 2023, I’ve been working on consistently posting 5km time’s under 25 minutes, and bringing my half-marathon time under 2 hours. It was massively disheartening the first time I finished this route to see a time of almost 45 minutes for less than 6,000m of distance.
“How can I be almost twice as slow on this type of run?!” I wondered. “Why has all my other training not made this easier?!” I moped. “Why have my 2 hour long runs not prepared me to run slowly up a hill for 20 minutes?!” I sulked – and grilled my running partner, as though he should know the answer.
Having run it since I’ve improved both my time and my mindset. This isn’t running in the way that I have always considered it – my experience on flat roads does mean I am entitled to success here, and I also shouldn’t be too cut up if I find it difficult.
In reality, I’m an experienced runner learning hill-running as a total beginner. I’m loving it, and I’m hoping that (like most cross-training) it will help me move that little bit faster the next time I sign up for a race.