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I’m headed to Colorado for most of August, and of course will keep training for the New York City Marathon while there. I’ve run at high elevations, and hiked up mountains at Rocky Mountain National Park and Brainard Lake, but I’ve never run up mountains that big before.
So I asked Scott Johnston, a mountain climber and coach, for some advice — for both me, and for runners who might be training for hilly marathons but live in places that he calls “vertically challenged.” Johnston is the author of “Training for the Uphill Athlete: A Manual for Mountain Runners and Ski Mountaineers,” which he wrote with the mountain pros Steve House and Kilian Jornet. Our interview has been lightly edited.
JAM: What is mountain running? And how are mountain runners different from runners who run uphill?
SJ: There’s no real hard and fast distinction, but mountain running tends to be done in mountains in moderate to higher elevation above the tree line. Mountain running will typically require quite a lot more elevation gain and loss over the course of a run than most people’s normal trail runs.
JAM: What, then, is a skyrunner?
SJ: That term came about because of a series starting in Europe that now races in the U.S. called Skyrunning. It’s meant to evoke notions of people running across the sky — it’s just a sexy name. It’s a World Cup equivalent for mountain runners.
JAM: I get a lot of questions from readers about how to train for hills when they don’t live near them. How do mountain runners do this, or do they all live with a mountain in their backyards?
SJ: Quite a large number of the folks we work with live in vertically challenged places. We coach an amateur who lives in Florida and just ran the Cascade Crest 100 (a 100-mile endurance run through mountains). So it’s possible. The best way to prepare is to spend time going uphill and downhill, even if it’s a simulated uphill or stair machine or treadmill. I understand the boredom factor can be huge, but if they’re looking to achieve their best results, it’s their best bet.
JAM: What about safety? I know there have been a number of deaths on Mont Blanc recently.
SJ: That kind of accident is so infrequent in the mountain running world. People have a better chance of being hit by lightning. So know your limits and understand your skill level. It’s one of the downsides of social media and things like Strava. It creates this competition. Someone posts this stuff, then someone else says, “I can do that,” when they have nowhere near the skills.
The most likely danger for people running in mountains, especially above the tree line, is afternoon lighting and thunderstorms. If you’re not familiar with it, you can get yourself well into that danger zone and hardly even notice it because the weather can come in so fast. Things like going early, carrying a rain jacket, that kind of stuff — those are pretty common-sense ideas.