Finally, on the morning of my 4th spring race, I woke up to perfect conditions to tackle the notoriously hilly Danesfield Dash 10k race in Marlow: bright sunshine, birdsong and refreshingly crisp air greeted me as I stepped outside the house. Even better, this time my Hubby has joined me, too, so I was set up for a great start.
This is a relatively new race organised by Purple Patch Running (the 4th one this year), attracting just over 300 runners – however, the strength of this event is clearly not in the quantity, but rather the quality of the competition lining up on the start line. A great race for those who love the occasional hilly adventure – and have been blessed with good knees and hamstrings, I might add!
The race HQ and start line are situated at Danesfield School, just outside the centre of town and on the way to Medmenham, with plenty of parking opposite the road at the SAS building. The race HQ has everything you would expect from a friendly local race: plenty of coffee and cake to greet the finishers (and an opportunity to raise even more funds for the school), a pop up running gadget shop by the local Runners Need shop and of course plenty of refreshments.
The first mile of the route is not exactly a quick dash – after reaching the entrance of the forest at the back of the residential area, I found myself coming to a sudden halt as the path narrowed into single track and the sight of the thick bog made a lot of runners hesitate and slow down. This did trigger a couple of grumpy remarks such as ‘C’mon, it’s just mud!’ from those who wanted to dive forwards. This was slightly frustrating as I could have done the race at least a couple of minutes faster, had I known about this segment in advance. So if you are going for a fast time, do position yourself at the front of the start line (and also try to shoot ahead on the final mile as well because you have to loop back to the finish the same way you came).
Fortunately, after this initial hiccup, the forest path started to widen again, and the rest of the run continued on conveniently mud-free and wide enough country roads in the Marlow Common area. If you have done the Marlow Half Marathon, you will recognise parts of the route and the zigzaggy, up-and-down bits will almost certainly bring home many memories to your long suffering quads, hammies and glutes.
It is worth mentioning that until about 6km, the route is predominantly uphill, and then it becomes mostly downhill as you turn around just before the 6km marker. This is a good opportunity to take in the beautiful views which you may have missed whilst puffing your way up the hills, and most importantly, make up for any time you may have lost earlier. The second half really feels like a breeze, with the exception of one final, ‘heartbreak’ hill about a mile from the finish.
I really liked the design of the route as it gives a variety of challenges to the body, and as a result, I did not feel as broken and shattered as I had expected at the end, and also in the days after. I also felt great mentally – I found myself looking forward to each turn and corner on the way to see what comes up next – sometimes the relentless monotony of a route can be one of the most challenging aspects of a race. I have to warn you though that this race is definitely not for the faint-hearted. You will need a very strong lower body and lungs to be able to push through the first half without slowing to a walk. I even saw a few people reduce to tears on these hills!
I crossed the finish line in 52 minutes and Simon finished in exactly an hour so I could cheer him on in the final stretch. Not too bad given the number of hills, but what makes me really happy is that I felt strong, fast and stable throughout the whole run and my knees were gladly co-operating and patiently putting up with the unforgiving terrain all along. I was able to run at a speed that I wanted to, without the fear of breaking down like an old car at any moment, and that is all I wanted.
My verdict: Danesfield Dash is definitely going on our list of races for next year as well!
For some runners, running up hills is a terrifying prospect and an uncomfortable experience. However, with the right preparation, technique and mental attitude, you CAN conquer these climbs and maybe even learn to love them as they help you build your fitness and endurance. And give you amazing legs 🙂
As a bonus feature, I am going to share with you my top tips about how to tackle hills effectively and finish races like this with a smile on your face, rather than tears!
(1) It is no rocket science: if you want to tackle hills in a race successfully, you need to first make friends with them by adding hilly segments into your training routes regularly, this way your body will adapt to the unique challenges of hill running. (Visit Runnersworld to browse for hill training ideas).
(2) Preparation is key – in your training, work on strengthening your body with special focus on your core, glutes and quads. Please read my previous blog post about why strength training is key to success in running.
(3) When going uphill, try to ‘roll’ with the incline i.e. do not lean forward or backwards too much. Keep your core strong and resist the temptation to slouch.
(4) Visualise your body as a powerful engine and leverage on good form – quicken your cadence and shorten your stride, engage your glute-force and pump your arms to propel yourself forward.
(5) When running uphill, it is inevitable that most of us will slow down. (Unless you are one of those mega-hardcore runners who look like graceful gazelles even on the most uncompromising inclines.) So focus on trying to maintain the same level of effort on the hill as on flat terrain, instead of worrying too much about your pace. Usually, when there is an uphill, there is a downhill segment later which you can take advantage of and make up for any time you may have lost.
(6) Downhills are great to ‘ease off the gas’ slightly and to actively recover. Try not to go totally berserk on steep downhill sections, as this is more impactful on the body. In order to reduce the impact forces on your knees and hamstrings, focus on ‘letting go’ by opening your stride slightly, striking the ground lightly with your feet just behind your hips (rather than under), letting the hill ‘pull you down’.
(7) After reaching the top, the temptation is very strong to stop or to slow down to catch your breath. Try to resist this urge and carry on moving as best as you can once you are at the top – this is called active recovery. It is hard but it works because tiredness is often in your brain so you need to train yourself to push through this mental barrier. This is how you build endurance and grit. Believe me, I know this from those gruesome triathlon spinning classes I regularly subject myself to on Wednesday evenings!
(8) If all else fails and you find yourself getting increasingly tired of or frustrated with hills, the best resource you can draw on is your mind. Try to reframe the experience – embrace those hills and convince yourself that you actually loooove them – they make you tougher, faster, stronger and give you awesome legs. Tell yourself how much you are looking forward to launching your assault on that monster in front of you. It is OK to curse, grunt and puff loudly as you embrace the challenge!
(9) And finally… remember to give yourself plenty of time to recover and to give some TLC to your body after a particularly hilly training session or race. This is how hills can build your fitness rather than breaking you down! Getting acquainted with your foam roller or a sports massage session may not feel like a reward, but your body will thank you for it later, many-fold.