Last month, while feeling a lack of motivation and training direction, I set a personal running challenge:

Four weeks, 40,000 feet of elevation gain.

The plan was to ditch all concern for distance or time, and focus solely on the vertical gain metric.

Why vertical gain? Because that’s where I saw my weaknesses.

And focus on my weaknesses I did.

What a Vertical Gain Focus Taught Me About Training

I rounded out the four week challenge last Saturday, a day early and with 40,591 feet of combing. On paper, everything looks like a success.

The breakdown went as follows:

  • Week 1: 10,313
  • Week 2: 12,188
  • Week 3: 9,265
  • Week 4: 8,825

Weeks three and four were lower than the first two mostly due to a five day trip to the beach where I didn’t run at all.

But what you can’t see from those numbers is that I experienced countless highs and lows over the course of the challenge (no pun intended). Some runs I’ll never forget — with beautiful sunrises and fantastic company — but others caused doubt, disappointment in myself, and a complete loss of motivation.

My goal was to become a better mountain runner, and while I do think this surge of vertical gain improved certain skills, it also shed light on more weaknesses.

Both mental and physical.

Today I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned from the challenge:

1) Hiking is everything.

What I didn’t anticipate about this challenge was how much it would encourage steep over long. Without an endless supply of time, I found myself resorting to the biggest bang for my buck on nearly every run.

Three of my most frequented routes included between 700 and 1,500 feet of climbing within the first mile, and when I say climbing, I mean steep, technical huffing and puffing.

Speed hiking my way up a climb has never been a strength, and this challenge forced me into a frustrated hike almost daily.

For trail or ultra runners running anywhere near the mountains, hiking skills are just as important as anything else, and the best way to improve is to get out and do it, over and over.

So while I dreaded those hikes, they did serve a purpose and I’m glad to have logged them.

The Sunday morning High Top scramble. Nothing better. 192/366 #trailrunning #gooutsideandplay #embracethespace

A photo posted by Doug H (@rockcreekrunner) on

2) A challenge will keep you going.

In the announcement post, I shared how challenges have shaped many of my successes both in and out of running shoes. The power of the challenge became never more clear than 18 days in, just before we left for vacation.

I was exhausted of basing every run around elevation. My ankles and quads ached, and all I wanted was to move quickly. Trail, road, treadmill, it didn’t matter as long as I didn’t have to get in much vert.

But I kept at it. In part not to disappoint you and myself, but mostly because I felt like I had to.

Nothing horrible would have happened had I failed at this challenge, but failing didn’t feel like an option. I set my mind to something and had to follow through.

That’s the power of truly committing yourself to something, and to building accountability, a plan, and taking action.

3) Mornings are best spent on a mountain summit.

Never in my life have I been an early morning runner. Even when working a traditional job, I’d always choose a post-work run over setting the alarm an hour earlier.

With heat, humidity, and a busy schedule these past several weeks, early morning runs felt like the only option, and hot damn am I glad they were …

… The morning air is crisp and fresh.

… It sets the day up for productivity and focus.

… It’s quiet. Just you and the trees (and the bears).

… A mountain-top sunrise is spectacular.

Seriously, look at these sunrises:

I’m officially a convert.

4) Mileage isn’t everything.

What’s probably the most significant lesson from this challenge is the confirmation that mileage isn’t everything.

As runners we get so caught up in distance — a need to log a certain number of daily or weekly miles — that we can lose sight of other metrics that may fit our needs more. Things like:

The list goes on.

Distance is — and always should be — one of the main metrics runners use for training and progressing … but it isn’t everything.

You should evaluate your training to look at what metrics will serve you best. Chances are it’s a combo, with time being good for long runs, vertical gain for hill days, and distance for easy miles as an example (that isn’t always the case, so you have to come up with it on your own).

Even switching it up week by week may be a good idea.

The bottom line is that vertical gain was the perfect metric for what I desired, and I’ll be using that and other metrics when designing my training in the future.

Now to Put it to Use

Most people take on training challenges with something bigger in mind at the other end — jump-starting a training cycle, for example.

Throughout the four weeks I spent a lot of time thinking about what was next for me, and how I could put this work to good use. I felt a pressure to turn what I was doing into something bigger.

But I came up empty.

Sometimes a challenge is a challenge, just for the sake of putting yourself out there and trying something new. To improve we must constantly push ourselves outside our comfort zones, experimenting with different techniques and testing new theories.

As the saying goes,

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

As much as I wish I could give this challenge bigger meaning and immediately put it to use, maybe the lessons from doing something different is all I need.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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One thought on “4 Lessons from a 4-Week 40,000 Foot Vertical Challenge

  1. I think there is something particularly grueling (mentally and physically) about the steep verticals. I trained for my big summer race by going up the mountain near us (1000ft over 3/4mi) and by the time I got to the race, I was so ready to just run and not go uphill anymore.

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