One of the first questions I normally get asked when people find out I’ve done / am doing the Barkley Marathons, is how I train for something like that. My training has evolved over the years, from 2015 when I had no idea what I was doing and just ran every hill I could find all the time at any time of day no matter the impact to personal life, to this year when I had a very set routine and fit my training around family and job rather than vice versa.
I also take a bit of a different approach to it, in that I do place a priority on mileage and intensity in addition to elevation. I think that over the year’s the pendulum has swung so far towards just focusing on elevation and nothing else that a lot of people spend their training hiking / walking up and down hills without any actual running. This could be debated ad nauseam, and there are too few datapoints from finishers to draw any real conclusions, but I believe that you have to do a significant amount of running and have some amount of high intensity work as well. Your body needs to be able to take the mileage, and your VO2max and lactate threshold have to remain high enough so that you’re not bumping into them when you do run (if you want to have a chance, you have to run whenever there’s an opportunity) or when you’re going up Rat Jaw with a full pack in hot temperatures.
Barkley has so many different physical demands, that I fear focusing on a single area is likely to result in failure. Of course all I’ve done so far myself is fail, and this could also be me trying to justify the fact that I don’t live in the mountains and the only way I have time to train on weekdays is to run to/from work on a relatively flat route. I get most of my mileage in on the weekends with a combination of long sets of short hill repeats and an incline treadmill. Essentially, my entire Barkley training block consists of the three runs and the traditional capstone described below. I don’t know if this is optimal, but to me it seems to be optimal for the time and resources that I have.
My total training this year, from January 1 until Fool’s weekend, was just over 1,000 miles with over a quarter million feet of climbing. Unfortunately probably about 40% of that climbing was on a treadmill, though, so my descent does not equal my ascent. The max distance and elevation below doesn’t reflect the 112 mile / 30K ft TWOT100 practice race I did in early February (awesome race by the way), which I saved as four separate runs on my watch.
Run 1 – Commute through Rock Creek Park
I have the incredible fortune of being able to run to and from work. It uses time that I would otherwise be sitting on a metro (and saves me money from the ridiculous WMATA fares at the same time), and it’s perfectly fine if I show up to the office sweaty, wet, or muddy from a run. I also am able to do most of the run through Rock Creek Park. The shortest route is just over 16 miles, with about 3 miles on road, 8 miles on bike path, and 5 miles on trail. It has roughly 1,500 feet of elevation gain (depending on the direction). I can of course make the route as long as I want, but generally stick with the one route due to time constraints. Effort varies all the way from easy recovery to high intensity intervals.
It’s amazing to have such a great route cutting through a dense metropolitan area where most people are stuck in horrible traffic. The daily time on the trail gives me exactly the recharge I need from work. On a typical week, I do this run 4 times usually. Occasionally I’ll do it twice in one day and go up to 6 times for the week.
Run 2 – Lake Bernard Frank Hills
One thing I originally did for Barkley training is to get on Google maps and find the tightest contour lines I could find in my area, and then narrowed those hills down based on accessibility and distance from my house. For the past two years, I’ve relied on a hill about 2 miles from my house that’s about 95 feet up over 0.05 miles. I do it 10 times to get 950 feet and one mile. It gets pretty monotonous, but it gets the job done. Getting both steep ascent and descent on proper terrain is invaluable to me in strengthening those stabilizing muscles that don’t use as much use on asphalt or treadmill.
If you look at the picture below you’ll see a trail. That wasn’t there before me, which is one of many reasons why training off trail in Frozen Head is strictly prohibited.
Run 3 – Treadmill at 20% Incline
There’s really not much to explain here. I absolutely hate running on the treadmill, and this is the first year I’ve done it. The upside is that I’ve caught up on quite a bit of TV that I haven’t otherwise watched at all for the past three years. The real motivation here, though, is that it allows me to stay home one day on the weekend so that my wife can get out of the house or catch up on sleep or whatever else she needs to do while the kids nap or play in the room right next to me.
Capstone – The Mar Lu Marathon
When I was scouting hills in 2015 I landed on Mar Lu Ridge. It gives about 550 feet of elevation gain in half a mile. It’s not as steep as my hill near my house, but it’s 10 times as long and comes with some great views (on a clear day you can make out the Washington Monument about 40 miles away). The main problem is it’s about a 45 minute drive, so doing that once or twice every weekend like I did in 2015 before we had kids is out of the question. I’ve gone back each of the past two years for my final big run, though, to do 26 repeats. That gives me roughly a marathon of hill repeats with around 14K ft of elevation gain.
This year the size of the field at the Mar Lu Marathon doubled, with Mike Wardian joining me. It was great to have some company out there and to share one of my favorite training spots with someone. Hopefully it gave us both what we needed. He even came to the traditional post-race meal with me at Sonic (to further simulate Barkley of course), but we unfortunately found that they really don’t have anything to offer vegetarians other than drinks / desserts and sides. I guess those are by far the best items that Sonic has to offer, though.
Addendum – Cross Training
In order to try to not entirely lose my bike and swimming fitness and form over the winter, I did do one day a week this year of a short strength session, followed by a swim and a ride on the trainer. I also use that as my “recovery” day from running. I don’t expect the swimming will help much at all (maybe a little with core strength), but I actually have some hope that the biking and strength training helped get my quads in better shape for Barkley, as those have been the first muscles to start feeling fatigue both of the last two years.