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The Bridge and I

November 2, 2012

Most runners are quick to tell you that running hills is beneficial, if not crucial, to developing strength and speed for runners. Unfortunately for me, hills are hard to come by in my part of the world, so the only way to practice hill running is to either run on a treadmill or find a man-made hill. Since many local runners do their long runs on the beachfront road, we can incorporate the drawbridge over D. R. Road quite easily. Its span begins about a quarter-mile from the running / triathlon store where most runners start their long runs, and from that plaza to the opposite side of the bridge is almost exactly one mile. A runner who starts the run from the store, heads west over the bridge, and then returns, is already two miles into the run, with some decent hill miles on her legs. Alternately, a runner could also choose to do the early miles on the beachfront road, then reserve the last two miles for the bridge. There’s something to be said for the experience of running up the bridge on tired legs: as long as you do it wisely, it’s extremely good training.

Until last year, I hadn’t done a lot of strict hill training, though I’d regularly incorporated the bridge into most of my long runs. But last year, my training partner Little G asked her physical therapist to give us some training tips, and she started by giving us specific hill training tips as we prepared to take a run at our half marathon bests.

She prescribed increasing repetitions of bridge runs, which required that we run the uphill portion of the bridge at a fast but controlled pace, then walk the downhill portion. Because running downhill requires a runner to brake to avoid tumbling head over heels, its mechanics are much more stressful to the joints, and the risk of injury is magnified. Running uphill, especially at this quick but controlled pace, increases leg strength, and therefore, develops speed.

We started doing “bridge sprints” again in October this year, again following a schedule designed by PT H. We started by doing eight reps on October 15, then did ten the next week, and twelve this last week. It was hot the first week, hot and windy the following week, and then cool but still windy the last week, so each week brought its own challenge apart from the increase in repetitions.

The bridge has its idiosyncrasies, beginning with the fact that it can be tough to find a way to find enough flat land to put in a mile’s warm up and cool down between the Dunkin’ Donuts where I park my car and the spot where the bridge begins. (The Dunkin’ is in the same plaza as the running store.)

As the distance of the bridge runs increased, and the temperature refused to decrease, even into late October (it was 78 degrees on the day I did 10 reps), I started leaving water at the base of the bridge, along with a pack of gel. Since going over and over the bridge gets repetitious, I thought about bringing sidewalk chalk to mark my repetitions, but I never did. Instead, I sometimes had to check my faithful Garmin 205 to see how many reps I’d done and how many I still had to go.

Another of my bridge’s delightful idiosyncrasies is that it isn’t quite even. On the eastward side, the first side you encounter as you’re running from the running store (or the donut store, if you’re so inclined), the bridge rises for about 0.29 miles before coming to a crest. On the westward side, the “coming home” side, the uphill portion is shorter, only about 0.22 miles until the rise flattens out. As you can see, the difference is negligible; either way, the bridge’s span is about a quarter-mile, so PT H has encouraged us not to worry about which side we’re running. Run hard uphill, hit the lap button on the 205 when you crest, walk down the hill, turn around and run up the opposite side.

The goal of the workout is to get stronger, but also to control both our pace and our speed, and it’s really the second of those goals that I’m dialing in on. PT H said we’d hit her target for the workout if our times at each side of the bridge remained fairly consistent, and that has been my goal throughout the month of October–not necessarily to get faster as I ran up the bridge, but not to let my times vary from repetition to repetition by more than three or four seconds.

Unfortunately, with both kids in soccer this season, making it to the bridge in the evenings has become impossible for me, and so Little G and I are attacking the bridge separately, she on Tuesday evenings, me on Monday mornings, with a flurry of texts in between to encourage and report each other in between. We discovered that, as always, we came away from a month of hill work with completely divergent attitudes and opinions, but that’s not entirely surprising, since we’re entirely different breeds of runners. I’m all fast-twitch muscle, a fact that might not surprise you if you know me. I live for the go-from-the-gun, give-it-all-you-got, gun-to-tape hustle of the 5k, or even the half marathon. I love to run speedwork, and you can give me mile repeats to run any day of the week and I’ll bust them out until my lungs burst. Between the two of us, I still own the 5k PR. But Little G owns me at the marathon, and probably always will. She’s all slow-twitch and endurance, and, if common sense and her schedule allowed it, would run 20-milers every weekend. She’s a workhorse, made for long distances.

When it comes to the bridge, we found out I prefer the longer side, and Little G likes the shorter side. Here’s my logic, though: on the longer side, the incline takes much longer to build up, so as I attack the hill, I can get into a fast pace, settling into a sub-7 pace on what feels like fairly easy territory before the incline of the bridge hits 8% and all the air begins to get sucked out of my lungs. Then all I have to do is hold that pace, controlling my breathing and pulling myself up with my core, saying to myself, “fast but controlled, fast but controlled,” as the hill crests, I hit the lap button, and the rep is mercifully over.

Little G, on the other hand, prefers to hit the attack head on, which is necessary on the shorter side. Its incline rises almost immediately, hitting 5% incline from the get-go and then rising quickly to meet the upper iron girders in the shorter distance. Little G’s no glutton for punishment: she just likes for it to be over quickly.

Each time we’ve done the hill workouts, I’ve met PT H’s goal of keeping my bridge intervals close in time: consistently two to three seconds apart on each side of the bridge. My fastest times on each side have been wind-aided. The winds were howling out of the east on October 22, when we did eight reps, and on that day, fighting the wind, my times on the short side were slow (between 1:34 and 1:36), but my times on the long side were steady (1:53 the first 3 times and 1:49 to finish the day). On October 29, with Superstorm Sandy pulling out of the area, the winds were gusting out of the west (up the 20 mph), and my times on the long side were terrible (1:52 to 1:54, with one interval at 1:50 just to show I could do it), but my times on the short side were fast as the wind pulled me along (1:31 as I started and 1:29 as I finished).

Overall, as Hill Month ends, and we move on to shorter-interval speedwork, I’m satisfied, not only because the hill speed is beginning to show up in tempo and long runs but because the consistency is. And as we move from the humid long days of September and October into the drier days of November and December, I’m dreaming of marrying my fast-twitch muscles to someone steady and predictable. Someone I picked up on the bridge.

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