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A Downhill Marathon (Probably) Won't Help You Get a PR or BQ


graphic describing that a downhill marathon probably won't help you PR or BQ

Not all marathons are equally-difficult – we all know that. Some are steep and technical, others are flatter and repetitive, still others are on pavement or a track! Some are incredibly well-marked, and others you will need to navigate by yourself, and may not even have a single set 'course.'


However in recent years we've seen an influx of extreme net-downhill marathons.


"PR's all but guaranteed!"


One particular race company, Revel, only organizes net-downhill marathons (and half-marathons), and uses nearly identical marketing language for each:


"This incredibly fast and remarkably beautiful road race takes runners from X Location to X Location. Featuring a smooth downhill slope and spectacular scenery in X geographical area, this race will be sure to help you set your PR and finally hit that Boston Qualifying time.

X Race is the fastest and most beautiful marathon and half marathon in X State!"


"Will be sure to help?" Are these races really as easy as race-directors and marketing gurus would have you believe?

The short answer is... almost definitely not. I have seen very few runners run their best races on these 'easy' courses. In fact, the DNF rate is often higher among these 'easy' courses than among more moderate courses. I also see much higher rates of 'blowups,' by which I mean anytime someone with big goals has to slow down so much they are solely worried about merely finishing. That's not to take away from the accomplishment of simply finishing, but it can be dispiriting to have happen when you are hoping for a faster race. Additionally in some cases, there is a significantly-increased risk of injury.

Some will argue that that higher rate of DNF/blowups and even injury risk is because people who want to seek out these 'easy' courses are more likely to show up under-prepared.


That could be true, and indeed the best way to think of these courses is having more headroom for a potentially fast time, but being more difficult to prepare for and actually run that fast time.


However, the actual data doesn't lie, and I took the time to get you that data!



Framework

As a runner and a coach of hundreds of athletes on 70+ different marathon and ultramarathon courses, including dozens of Boston Qualifers across many age groups, I've acquired a great deal of anecdotal data on a wide variety of runners and courses.

In both this article and next week's article outlining the rest of the categories, I'm going to dive into the pros and cons of various elevation profiles and course designs.

Like all things, there is no black and white here. Just because I list something as having significant negative attributes, doesn't preclude the possibility of having an amazing day on that course.


Additionally these pros and cons may vary depending on your speed, experience and preferred training. What's an easy course for a world-class athlete may not be the same for a mid-pack runner, and vice-versa.


Above all, you should choose a course that makes you excited not only to run the race, but to train for it. If you like running on hilly trails, don't do a track ultramarathon. If you prefer running on smooth trails and roads, don't do Hardrock. If you don't have long sustained downhills to practice on, don't choose a downhill race.


Finally, I don't intend to take away from the worth of any event. Every race has its place, it's pros and cons, from the course to the atmosphere, swag to the finish line party. For most courses, there is a type of runner and variety of training that will experience success. If your reasons for doing a race go beyond personal performance, that's entirely valid!

My aim with this article is only to offset what I see as extremely misleading marketing, and offer athletes information from a coaching/running perspective, rather than a race-directing perspective.


 

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Considerations

This is just a broad overview of some of the considerations, and I go into a bit more detail in each section of next week's article. If you are choosing a race from the extremes (net-downhill, flat or extremely hilly) it's going to be especially beneficial for you to have an experienced coach. A training plan will almost certainly fail you in those cases.


First, the more extreme a race, meaning outside of your normal training terrain, the more specific training it will take to succeed, or perhaps even survive. If you normally train on rolling terrain, succeeding at an all-downhill race OR an extreme mountainous race will take more specific training than a race that is similar to your home terrain.


Second, that specific training may take away from your training to make long-term athletic progress. This is again most dramatic at the extremes, as you can imagine. Long-term progress requires working on what is most likely to improve your overall athletic ability, based on a long convoluted list of factors from your athletic history to your current fitness and physiological responses to training. However in the vast majority of cases, it is probably not the same training that's required for success on one of these extreme outlier course.


Third, specific courses, again mostly at the extremes, have specific structural demands of your body, and may have increased injury risk even with adequate specific training. That's not a guarantee of course; it's just degrees of risk. But a 50k of flat pavement is going to be a very different kind of stress on your biomechanics than a 50k in rural rolling hills or a 50k in the mountains with 10k ft of elevation gain.



Net Downhill

Point-to-point, net-downhill races have been seen in the marathoning world for awhile now, generally promising a huge percentage of Boston-qualifiers. (Implying of course, that you will too).


The race company I mentioned in the introduction exclusively organizes these events, and uses that same language that nearly promises a PR/BQ for each.


Now we're even starting to see some ultras being created this way.


These courses come in a variety of flavors, from the gentle net-downhill to the extreme.

The gentle ones generally still have plenty of rolling hills in them, so I lump them into that category.


Really it comes down to the intent. Some point-to-point courses end up being net-downhill, but you can tell that was a side-effect, not a goal, say The Boston Marathon or Western States 100. That said, Boston is notorious for requiring somewhat more specific training versus other marathons due to the downhills, and many world-class runners run slower at Boston, even though on paper, it's too-fast to be a record-eligible course!


But the races I'm really referring to in this category are the ones that were clearly specifically created to be net-downhill, such as running from a mountain into a valley. The five current Revel Marathons have an average of 5,043ft of vertical drop. On pavement. Compare that to Boston, which has only 1275ft of elevation loss, with 815 of gain to mix things up.


These more extreme courses might have the potential for faster times. However it takes extremely specific training to succeed at a race like this without ending up DNF'ing, sustaining an injury, or both. The training required also may prevent you from making long-term progress. In essence, you may be sacrificing your fitness next year and the year after for a slim chance at a fast time now.


Regardless of how specifically you think you've prepared, anecdotal evidence suggests there is a much higher rate of injuries, DNF's and blowups at these extreme net-downhill races. Notably, marathons generally do not report DNFs, so there's no way of knowing for sure. However in my perusing a wide variety of race reports, reviews, blog posts, etc., I see many mid-race injuries causing DNF's at these courses.


But in writing this article, I was unhappy with only having anecdotal data. After seeing a brand-new all-downhill race be marketed near my home in the Northeast, and seeing a lot of runners fall victim to this marketing, I decided to crunch the numbers.




The Data

I spent about six hours compiling data (by hand!) from the four primary Revel races from 2018–2022. I have nothing against Revel in particular, however they're the most well-known company that organizes primarily net-downhill races, and they offer really clean data. I did not include Virtual races during Covid, for obvious reasons.


I went further and compared the data from three US marathons known for being fast courses: Baystate, Cheap Marathon and Eugene Marathon. These vary in size, however are widely regarded as great places to get a PR. There are plenty of other races that fit this description, and I may add to this dataset over time.


Notably, these three are NOT net-downhill, and indeed all have some elevation gain through rollers.

Cheap Marathon: 526ft of elevation gain

Baystate Marathon: 440ft of elevation gain

Eugene Marathon: 496ft of elevation gain


I also added two gentle net-downhill courses, both of which are actually eligible to run an Olympic Trials Qualifying time. Obviously that may skew the results quite a bit, particularly in the Men's Sub-2:30 and Women's Sub-3:00 categories. California International Marathon (CIM): 366ft vertical drop

Grandma's Marathon: 130ft vertical drop


In addition, I have added additional races since my initial calculations, so if you're interested in data, check out the full set below.


So which race is fastest - these flat-to-rolling marathons, or an extreme net-downhill? Well, the data doesn't lie. Check it out.



First, the average finishing times, reported either by the race itself, or by Marathonguide.com. These are all averaged across each year I collected data.

Bar graph comparing average finish times of fast marathons.

Let's ignore Grandma's since it has a longer time limit, but otherwise... Whoa! And it's not even close! What's going on here?


Well a few things are happening. First, simply put, these extreme-downhill races just aren't faster for most athletes. Period. I'll dig into more about why below.


Other factors may include faster athletes avoiding these extreme races out of concern for their body, or knowledge that they don't truly offer faster times.


Here's an overview of percentages of the following for the same races:

Men running 2:30 or faster

Men running 3:00 or faster

Women running 3:00 or faster

Women running 3:30 or faster

Full Pie is all finishers


Bar graph comparing percentages of fast finishers at various fast marathons, including net-downhill and Revel races

As you can see, even excluding CIM and Grandma's due to their attracting OTQ-level talent, Baystate, Cheap and Eugene have nearly-equal or more fast finishers in each category than the Revel Series. Remember, none of those three are net-downhill, and indeed two have notable elevation gain.





Why Aren't They Faster?

The most basic reason is that the benefits of running downhill simply can't overcome the drawbacks and risks, likely leading to big blow-ups, mid-race injuries and DNF's.

Some other reasons include decreased breathing efficiency, poor running economy (which is strongly correlated among most grades), and a leveling-off of downhill benefits as grades get steep enough athletes begin braking. The latter is particularly relevant when races start with the steepest downhills at the beginning, at which point athletes are not fully warmed up, and likely intending to start conservatively.


There are probably more reasons, but would be pure speculation.


Let's explore why these races may lead to higher injury and DNF rates. Net downhill races have a higher injury risk due to mechanical stress on the body.


Obviously impact is the first concern that comes to mind. No matter how perfect your downhill running form is, it's still higher impact than running flat or uphill. This can increase the risk of not only stress fractures, but also soft-tissue injuries due to eccentric contraction to absorb shock. No, not just in your quads.


In addition, you are stressing your legs via a longer stride than you are used to. You are also compounding that with an un-changing stride - consistently using the same muscles in the same proportions for hours on end. That's a recipe for early fatigue, sometimes in muscles you didn't even know existed. In some cases those muscles can overload in a manner that results in a long-term injury.

Think of it like a 70mph speed limit on a really bumpy and rutted out, but downhill dirt road. Sure, you could legally go faster but also... you can't really go faster or you'll blow the struts on your suspension, smash your bumper, etc. Except in this case, you probably won't realize until you're halfway through and already hurt yourself.

You may think "okay, this is a higher risk but injuries and DNF's are still uncommon..." but Revel specifically advertises numerous sag wagons roaming the course to transport runners who cannot continue to the finish line. A perusal of various reviews and race reports also shows a significant 'failure rate,' which in this case is just my catch-all term for a runner DNFing or missing their goal by a wide margin.


Obviously it's possible to train your way into decreased risk of a blowup or soft-tissue injury at the race itself, however that involves increasing your risk of injury during training. Risk of impact-injuries like stress fractures is also higher, and notably specific training may increase that risk rather than decrease.


Thats not to say you can't succeed – plenty of people do – but fewer than those training for and racing on a reasonable course.




Should You Race One?

So, is it worth the risk to have a very slim chance at a really fast race? Only you can answer that. But I think there's a reason you don't see many elite and sub-elite runners racing these types of races. The injury risk is too-high, and preparing for the race takes away from the kind of training most of us like to do, and may even hold us back long-term.


As a coach, I strongly recommend my athletes NOT do downhill races. With a focus on long-term fitness growth and truly effective training (not training plans,) almost all athletes can make progress from year-to-year and reach their goals on a reasonable course, without a need for dangerous downhill races.


Note, I am deliberately NOT taking a strong opinion on the psychosocial considerations of setting a PR or fast time on an extreme net-downhill course. Some runners say they would consider that time to have an asterisk next to it. Or perhaps it's that many runners would consider another runner's time to have an asterisk... who knows! Perhaps if you are taking away space from someone else, such as with a BQ, there's some reasoning there. But in general, we're all in this for our own fulfillment and life happiness. If it makes you happy and fulfilled, without adversely affecting others, that's what matters!



Finally, if any race company hosting these types of events is able to provide me statistics on entrants, DNFs, goal time vs. actual time, and injuries sustained during the race. I'd LOVE to sink my teeth into that data.





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