Running Hills

Hills can make a big difference in how your race turns out. Here I look at three half marathons, some training runs and The Boston Marathon to make some comparisons.

Boston Marathon 2016, Heart Break Hill

Running hills is part of being a runner. We run hills when we train to make ourselves stronger and we run hills during races because they are between us and the finish line. Many people driving by a runner chugging up a hill probably think we are crazy. This is especially true if the runner doesn’t have a bib pinned to their shirt.

A few weeks ago someone asked me about the hills I ran during a few recent half marathons. I hadn’t really given it much thought. I knew that The Half at The Hamptons had fewer hills than the BAA Half, but I hadn’t thought about it much beyond that.

I decided to take a closer look at the hills of three local half marathons that I ran this fall.

Running Hills in New England

The old saw is that New England farmers are experts at growing rocks. Every year the frost pushes a fresh crop of stones into the path of their plows. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of stones between the farmers field and the bed rock. While the stones are handy for building those iconic stone walls, they make farming difficult in New England.

Just like the never ending supply of stones New England farmers find in their fields each year, New England runners have a never ending supply of hills to run. 

Coastal locations like Gloucester and Rockport have many challenging hills for a runner. While the rugged coast may not provide steep or long hills, they are many. Inland we have hills left by the same glaciers that planted all those stones in farmer’s fields. 

The three races I will look at are the Smuttynose Rockfest Half in Hampton, NH. The BAA Half in Boston and The Howling Wolf Half in Melrose, MA.

I’ve added The 2018 Boston Marathon and three training runs for comparison. SLR stands for Sunday Long Run. For my analysis I am simply looking at the hills as measured in total elevation gain over various courses. Even though running down hills is implied, I mostly get questions about running up hills. It’s what many runners dread.

Comparing Different Race Distances

Elevation chart, pace and total elevation gain for The Boston Marathon, BAA Half, Smuttynose Half, Howling Wolf Half and three Sunday Long Runs in 2018.

I will start with The 2018 Boston Marathon. This legendary race is famous for it’s hills and in particular “Heart Break Hill.” On the chart above you will see some killer hills between mile 17.5 and 22.  These are The Newton Hills that begin as soon as you take the sharp right turn from Washington St/Rt 16 onto Commonwealth Ave/Rt 30.

The reasons these hills are so tough on runners is that they come late in the race with mile 20 right in the middle of them. Mile twenty is the magic mile where many runners’ dreams drift away, even on a flat course.

Boston Marathon 2015, Mile 20 Hill
Boston Marathon Mile 20 Hill

The three highest climbs in Newton are approximately 60 ft, 54 ft and 97 ft. Throw in some rolling hills in between and I estimate a 250 foot gain in The Hills.

That’s not a lot of elevation gain, but it’s 40% of the total elevation gain for the Boston Marathon over three miles.

Normalizing and Standardizing data from Running Hills

This analysis focuses on elevation gain during three half marathons. I’ve added the other runs for comparison. 

The first step in turning data into information is normalizing and standardizing the data gathered. Fortunately my analysis is using feet to measure distance and elevation gain. Elevation gain is given in feet, I just need to convert miles to feet.

A mile is 5,280 feet.

The calculation for elevation gain, or grade, is rise divided by run: rise/run. To get the denominator I convert miles into feet. The marathon has 26.2 miles at 5,280 feet each. The calculation is: 26.2×5,280 = 138,336 feet.

Rise over Run

The numerator is the total elevation gain during a run taken from my Garmin watch.

For The Boston Marathon the total elevation gain is 631 feet.

The calculation is: 631/138336 = 0.0045 feet gain per mile. To convert to percent I multiply this by 100 and get 0.456% average grade over the course of the race. Hardly a noticeable incline.

The problem is that most of this 631 ft of elevation gain is done over short distances such as The Newton Hills. If I estimate the elevation gain in the three miles of The Newton Hills as 250 ft, we get 250/15840 = 1.58% grade. This is more than 3x the average grade for the entire course.

This is a simplistic calculation, but it will help compare the different races and training runs. Let’s take a look.

Hill Running Comparison

First lets look at the three half marathons to get an idea of their difficulty. A half marathon is 13.1 miles or 69,168 feet.

Smuttynose Rockfest Half Marathon had 97 feet elevation gain. 97/69168 = 0.14% grade.

BAA Half Marathon had 418 feet elevation gain. 418/69168 = 0.6% grade.

Howling Wolf Half Marathon had 578 feet elevation gain. 578/69168 = 0.84% grade.

Now lets look at three training runs.

Sunday Long Run 10 on September 16th. 452 feet of elevation gain over 16.75 miles. 452/88440 = 0.51% grade.

Sunday Long Run 14 on October 14th. 504 feet of elevation gain over 12.54 miles. 504/66211 = 0.76% grade.

Medford Long Run on November 11th. 352 feet of elevation gain over 7.6 miles. 352/40128 = 0.88% grade.

The Smuttynose Half was by far the easiest run of the three halfs and The Howling Wolf was the most challenging.

Obviously no race has a constant elevation gain. Most races have many miles of basically flat road. The elevation gains usually comes over a short distance. It’s these short bursts of elevation gain that are so challenging to runners.

Mine is a simple analysis: I simply looked at the total elevation gain of the half marathons. Below I cite a more focused analysis.

As a runner I can tell you I could feel the difference between the Smuttynose and Howling Wolf. Even though I finished The Wolf faster than Smuttynose. I was in better condition for the Howling Wolf, but Smuttynose was so flat I was able to run some negative splits. 

To get a better understanding of what these grade numbers mean, lets look at road grades.

Lombard Street in San Francisco. 14.3% grade
Lombart Street – Rick from Boulder

Almost everyone has heard of Lombard Street in San Francisco. It’s featured in movies and commercials often. I was there once and a film crew was shooting a commercial. 

The grade of Lombard Street is 14.3%. Some of the steepest streets in San Francisco have a grade above 30%! The Interstate Highway System generally adheres to a 7% maximum grade. Local roads are usually no steeper than 12-15%. 

For comparison, when you are on the Interstate the grade is normally half of Lombard Street.

Here is a hill in the neighborhood behind Diamond Head in Honolulu. If you ever get to Honolulu you need to check out this neighborhood.

The views are stunning and the hillside neighborhood is a fascinating drive. Keep your eyes open for oncoming cars and make sure your brakes are in good working order!

This is probably a 20% grade, and not the steepest road in this area.

In 2013 Robert James Reese wrote an article for Runner’s World.

He did a closer analysis of the notable hills from five popular marathons.

Here is the link to his article: Just How Bad Is Heartbreak Hill?

Using his GPS watch he looked at just the big hills in these races. For Boston he looked just at Heart Break Hill not The Newton Hills.

In his analysis Heart Break Hill has a 3.3% grade or 91 feet over a half mile. The big hill at Big Sur is 536 feet over two miles and has a grade of 4.6%. The “hill” in The Chicago Marathon at mile 8 is 17 feet over almost two miles and has a grade of 0.2%.

Here is his table comparing the featured hill in these five marathons. 

Robert James Reese, Just How Bad Is Heartbreak Hill, marathon hills

Sometimes when I am out for a run it seems like I am discovering new hills. I often run the same roads I drive all the time. Some hills you barely notice in a car as they may climb a few hundred feet over a mile or more. But if you have to run a long slow hill, you will notice it.

So while your car may barely notice a 7% grade on Rt. 128, you will notice the 3.3% grade on Heart Break Hill. 

Are you a hill runner? Do you enjoy hill running? What is the hilliest race you’ve run?

Run Well my Friends,

Andy

Author: OmniRunner

9X Boston Marathon finisher, 17X marathons total. Sharing my love for running and the fun adventures and lessons that come with it. Helping non-profits increase fundraising and new runners celebrate their First 5K.

2 thoughts on “Running Hills”

  1. Hills are just a part of where we live New England has its share and then some. But so do many other areas of the Country. I know that Bangor has them, Augusta has them and I have found most of them at one point or another. We can all find or at least attempt to find flat courses, but we always seem to find the courses with hills inspite of attempting to avoid them. Then as we get older and the body does not pump oxygen the same way as when we were younger hills that we used to sprint up, now make you stop and go WTFO. See a hill, just smile and put one foot in front of the other.

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