Vertically Challenged by Richard Moore

On initial reading of the “Not The Club Championship” events there was one in particular that stood out to me – the Vertical 100m Dash. As anyone who trains regularly with the club will know, Corsham is “blessed” with a range of hills for the Hill Sessions. In fact, it is impossible to plan even a 5k without encountering one. However, a hill with a 100m ascent is another matter.

Some folks, such as the fell runners Messrs Mackie & Wood, or the hill-lovin’ Stewart, clearly encounter such ascents frequently, often several in the course of a single run. But for me this is more of a rarity and the descriptive text stating that is just over 2 Stings-worth added to the intrigue. The challenge was on, to find single course 100m ascents in and around Corsham.

One question is whether the course should be short and brutal, or gentler but longer. Therefore, a bit of research was needed which led me to an article in Runner’s World (2015):

“There is an obscure, but cool-sounding, type of race called a “vertical kilometer,” where the idea is to race uphill as fast as possible until you gain 1,000 meters of elevation. The current men’s record is 29:42, set on a course in Switzerland that is 1,920 meters long with an average slope of 27.5 degrees; the women’s record is 36:04.

The question is: what type of course is best for such races (or, more generally, for gaining elevation as quickly as possible)? Should you find a relatively gentle slope where you can go fast? Or a steep slope where your progress will be slow and difficult, but you’ll gain lots of elevation with each step? Where is the sweet spot?

That’s what researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder wanted to find out in a study just published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The team … jerry-rigged a treadmill to be able to reach a slope of 45 degrees. For context, a typical gym treadmill can reach about 9 degrees, while a black diamond ski run is about 25 degrees. (In practice, runners had a hard time balancing at 45 degrees, so the study only went up to 39.2 degrees.)”

That brings a whole new dimension to the Dreadmill – 45⁰ – strewth!!

The basic upshot/conclusion is:
“But for all angles above 15 degrees, walking was actually more efficient than running. The sweet spot with the lowest energy expenditure was between about 20 and 35 degrees—which puts the 27.5-degree angle of the course where the record was set perfectly in the middle.”

Time for some caveats here. The trials involved quality athletes and to say that I am nowhere near that level is somewhat of an understatement. There are many runners in the club better than me at hills so I reckoned that slopes less than 20 degrees would be best. However, anyone who has run the Slaughterford 9 can take some reassurance that the most efficient way to ascend The Sting is to walk. I know that I have never got up it in a single run and am feeling slightly smug that I was right!

Now to find some local hills to test the theory. After some checking for routes using plotaroute.com I started with Quarry Hill out of Box. Running from the lowest point on the A4, starting towards Corsham then turning right into Bulls Lane and then continuing up Quarry Lane, and up, and up some more, it is possible to just achieve a 100m ascent past Woodland Adventures and White Ennox Lane (average gradient of 7.6% with some tasty bits).

Second Route – bit serendipitous as the Solstice Run takes in Solsbury Hill which has the initial ascent of more than 100m (average gradient of 13.6 degrees).

And lastly – of course the route suggested in the NTCC blurb…The Sting (twice and a bit)…gradient of 25%…gulp…

Comparative Gradients of the 3 Courses

First attempt – Quarry Hill. Warm up, short pause at the bottom of the A4 then go! Up the easy starting gradient then into the steep bit which always takes my breath (not in a good way). Onwards and upwards, round the bend past the entrance to Hazelbury and the run out past White Ennox Lane. This really felt like a huge effort and I needed a good recovery to say the least. Still, managed to get in the Strava top 10 so some consolation there.

Next the Solstice Run and the attempt on Solsbury Hill. Setting off in a small group with Jane C, Matt, Jake and Gary was great and set me up nicely. It was then a case of gritting my teeth, setting a good rhythm and keeping going. One advantage was having Jake running alongside, playing “Solsbury Hill” on his phone and it really distracted from the effort. Felt as good as is possible for such a climb and what a view as a reward!

So, the last (and first) course. Managing to pick the day after Storm Bella was perhaps not such a good move as I have never seen the Bybrook valley so sodden and muddy. After the initial warm-up, sloshing through mud and surface water, I stood at the bottom of The Sting which is intimidating enough when you have to do it just the once. Remembering the bit about walking being most efficient I set off at as best a pace as I could muster, knowing that I would have to do it again. First time up, not too bad but the psychology of turning left down the green lane back to the bottom, which was a fast-flowing cataract, was not great. Starting off the second time at least I had some recovery and knew where the slippery zones were, and so cresting the top was very satisfying.

The results – which course was best/worst? Strava shows the following times for me:

  • Quarry Hill – 8:26
  • Solsbury Hill – 5:53
  • The Sting (twice, ignoring the recovery descent) – 5:11

Ok, so if I had to do the Sting twice without any recovery it would have taken longer but the results do bear out the theory of a sweet spot at 27.5 degrees. Quarry Hill also rated highest on the vom-meter due to the long run out at the top to gain those final few metres.

In summary, hills close to 15% for running do seem to be the best option around here. Walking The Sting was surprisingly quick in comparison as well. But the main conclusion is that I have had enough of the 100m Vertical Challenge for 2020/21 and will leave it to others to push on and take up the mantle. Now to dry out my shoes, get back on the trails, and enjoy all the mud glorious mud that Corsham has to offer.