Peak to Creek: Downhill Race Prep

At this very moment thousands of runners are singularly focused on the Boston Marathon; qualifying for entry, surviving the cut, getting there, and finally running Boston.

The course starts at a height of 462 feet above sea level in Hopkinton, drops precipitously, particularly in the first mile and a half, rolls, descends again through about 4 miles, then flattens somewhat with an occasional hill before bottoming out at 49 feet above sea level at Lower Newton Falls (16 miles). Then begin a series of four hills–what Coach Bill Squires calls the Killer Chain–culminating in the infamous Heartbreak Hill (21 miles). It is not so much the height of the hills (Heartbreak is only 236 feet above sea level), but where they come in the race that poses difficulty for marathoners who have failed to prepare for them. 
from Hal Higdon’s Boston Bound Marathon training program.
Boston Marathon Mile by Mile Course Elevaations  Courtesy:

I’ve never been taken away by the thought of running Boston, my preference being for the smaller, more rural races. Local races have a personality of their own developed over time by the race director, or sometimes punctuated by the course itself, which can become legendary all on its own.

The process of choosing my next race comes about slowly. It has to be the right course to peak my interest, within the correct month to match my training, and the perfect proximity to home to coincide with whether or not we have a babysitter for the dogs.

Last summer I spent weeks researching the courses of every 50k in a 5-state area before settling on what I deemed to be the best (nearby) 50k for a virgin Ultra runner. A few weeks ago, I set that 50k aside in favor of a marathon re-do; a ‘getting back on the horse’ kind of thing.

It didn’t take long to locate the North Carolina marathon that’s a bit infamous in these parts, Peak to Creek Jonas Ridge to Brown Mountain Beach, N.C. (formerly known as Ridge to Bridge); the name being a dead give-away of its most notable course feature. . . downhill.

Peak to Creek Marathon Course Elevation: the orange vertical band just past mile 4.5 represents roughly 15.5 meters of climb, a 2% grade. The yellow and greens represent flat or descending; the darker the green, the steeper the descent.

No more than 300 runners, a limit enforced by the U.S. Forest Service, will run on quiet, unpaved country roads that pass through dense forests and open fields; climbing a total of 285 feet (87m) with 2,946 feet (898m) of down.

Downhill races promise to give us fast finishes, Boston Qualifying finishes. Right?

Racing a predominantly downhill course is no easy task. Wear and tear on the quads and calves can be devastating. Preparing for this race requires thoughtful planning, and training.

Boston Marathon training programs are designed specifically to condition your legs for the torture they’ll endure on the downhill course, including fast 800 repeats at the track, and uphill repeats that push you into the 80-90% maximum zone. Every other week, downhill repeats are used to strengthen the legs. In fact, some coaches warn to not include weight lifting to further strengthen the quad, calf, and hamstring muscles will result in certain failure come race day.

Mastering the skills of downhill running involve learning not to brake, leaning slightly forward (at the hip) so that gravity pulls you downhill, and moving your legs fast enough – using a short, light stride – to keep you from falling forward face first,  however scary this may be. Even the best downhill runners can still crash and burn on race day if pace is too fast too early in the downhills.

These downhill courses are rarely all downhill, however, and unlucky for us, we can never make up as much time on the downhill as we lose on the uphills.

Treadmill tests conducted by British researcher Mervyn Davies showed that each 100 feet of climbing costs the average runner (non-elite) 30-40 seconds, while downhills only speed you up by about 55 percent as much as the corresponding uphills slow you down. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that every good freefall must start high.

A team led by kinesiologist Francois Peronnet of the University of Montreal conducted a mathematical analysis of the effect of altitude on running, and found that up to elevations of about 8,000 feet (2,438m), the amount of slowdown is directly proportional to the altitude. (Above 8,000 ft, it increases sharply.) Although performance improves at the 400m distance within certain altitudes, performance is reduced over the middle and long distances (800m to marathon).

Specifically, each 1,000 feet above sea level was found to slow the middle and long distance runners by about one percent.


My long run has followed the same rolling downhill route for many years. It’s a strategy I learned in Ecuador where my runs began at home just below 10,000 feet (3,048m), continued down the mountain, and into the nearby town of Cuenca at roughly 2,500 meters elevation (8,200 feet).

The North Carolina route is similar, albeit with the welcome relief of significantly less altitude. At 3,317 feet (1,011m) at the start, this route follows the creek to the heart of the little town next door at roughly 2,010 feet (613m), including 2% and 3% uphills and up to -9% descents making it an excellent training route for a peak to creek race.

The first 12 miles of the Balsam to Sylva training run.
Peak to Creek Marathon.

The lesson I have learned from this marathon’s race prep is that the marathon is always a race between you and the course. You may be over-trained, under-trained, or have carried out a flawless training effort. It is still you and that race – on that day, on that course. . . uphill, downhill or flat. The only question is whether you will beat the course, or will the course beat you, and I simply adore the challenge.


Sample Calculations (taken from “Downhill All The Way” by Richard A. Lovett):

Going Up
Every 1% upgrade slows your pace 3.3% (1/30th)
Every 100 feet of elevation gain slows you 6.6% of your average one mile pace (2% grade/mile).
Example: A race that climbs 300 feet would slow an 8-minute miler (3 x .066 x 8 x 60 seconds) = 94 seconds slower at the finish

Going Down
Every 1% downgrade speeds your pace 55% of 3.3% = 1.8%
Every 100 feet of elevation descent speeds you 3.6% of your average one mile pace (2% grade/mile).
Example: A race that descends 300 feet would speed an 8-minute miler (3 x .036 x 8 x 60 seconds) = 55 seconds faster at the finish

Running High
Every 1,000 feet of altitude above sea level slows you 1% (up to 8,000 feet, then all bets are off)
Example: A race at 3,000 feet would slow an 8-minute miler (3 x .01x 8 x 60) = 14.4 seconds per mile, or 6:20 total in the marathon


Additional ‘Downhill’ Reading Across the Web:

Downhill All The Way, Runner’s World

The Science of Hill Running and How It Impacts Your Race Times, RunnersConnect

Three Tips for Running Downhill, Runner’s World

The Secret to Running Downhill Fast, Triathlete

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