18 & 19 April 2014
Dr Ross Tucker is a well known Sports Scientist, working with UCT and the Sports Science Institute. He has done extensive research into the performance of the human body during exercise - both in normal conditions as well as extreme and endurance events.
For 14 years, the Half-marathon has been punctuated by the climb of Southern Cross Drive, starting at 10.5km and winding up to 13km. The 2012 edition of the race, however, is a little different.
This year, there are two "punctuation" marks on the route, and the first is very early indeed. Ever since the route change was announced, there has been much talk about the impact of Edinburgh Drive on the race - the race was named "Two hills" by some and people are wondering how the addition of the climb will affect their race strategy and performances. I would have loved to get out with the camera and provide you with video of this section, but unfortunately, time and weather conditions sabotaged by two attempts, so that will have to wait until 2013.
However, I do still want to talk you through the climb, and explain some of the key factors that will help you overcome this "bump"
The profile: 1.6km long, with varying steepness on the way up.
The climb is not, it has to be said, as difficult as Southern Cross Drive. In terms of length, it's shorter at 1.6km (Southern Cross is 2.5km), and the steepest section, while similarly steep, is also shorter at 300m, so it doesn't feel as relentless. It helps that you tackle it on very fresh legs too, though this is a double-edged sword because those fresh legs will want to push hard up here, and that's not a great idea!
So it's not easy, certainly, and the second phase of the climb as you make the pull to the third traffic light is pretty challenging, but deal with it step by step.
It starts as you turn left at the Shell Garage onto the M3. We will call this traffic light # 1. This first section, from Traffic light # 1 to traffic light # 2, is not nearly as steep as what lies ahead - it runs for 620m at an average gradient of about 5%, with a short (100m) section that is up at 8-9%. But that's no problem, it's over almost before it begins.
Once you hit Traffic light # 2, then the road straightens out in front of you, and this is where it gets steeper and more challenging. This long straight section takes you to the footbridge that crosses the M3 (your targets are Traffic Light # 3 in the distance followed by this bridge), and it lasts just under 1km (980m, to be precise). The average gradient is around 8%, and there's a section that is REALLY steep, about 200m after those first two traffic lights, when it kicks up to 10% or more for 300m.
This is the hardest part of the climb. Once you get to the traffic light # 3, and see that footbridge against the sky (assuming it's not too dark!), then you know that you are pretty much at the top. The road will level off and then you get the drop down past Wynberg and off into Constantia.
This steep section is important, however. As I mentioned, it starts on that long, straight section, and I think a few people can already, at this early stage, see their race plan go out the window if they're over-eager here. The reality is that you're running up a 10% slope. That's hard work and you'll run slowly! So don't get pre-occupied about hitting your target speeds here, expect to slow down and relax.
Pace judgment on the way UP
So the question on people's lips, especially those gunning for silver, or a 1:45 or even sub-2:00, is "How much time can I expect to lose?". The short answer is that it's impossible to say, but that's unsatisfactory, so let me try to sort through it. I have run the hill dozens of times and tried various "experiments" to see if I could match the effort levels or heart rates from a flat road to the hill, to get an idea of what kind of "damage" this hlll does to pace, and here are my thoughts.
The first section, from Traffic light # 1 to # 2, is not too severe. I found that if I ran this at the same effort or heart rate as on a flat road, I was around 40 to 60 seconds per kilometer slower. So when I was running 4:40/km up here, it felt like a 4:00/km effort/pace. Running 6:00/km felt like 5:00/km and running 7:00/km felt like just over 6:00/km.
Then once I hit Traffic light # 2, it was a little more severe, especially on the very steep part. Here, I was able to run at 5:00/km and felt like I was doing 3:50 - 3:50/km effort. At 5:45/km I felt like I was running 4:30/km and at 6:30/km it felt a lot like a 5:00/km.
So, what does this mean? It means that in the first 600m, you can expect your pace to drop by 40-60 seconds per kilometer, and then for the second 1000m (Traffic light # 2 to # 3), expect a drop of 1 min/km to 90 seconds/km, depending on your pace. All told then, your time "loss" on the climb of 1.6km will be in the range of 1:40 to 2:30, depending on your speed (less for faster runners).
Note that this does not factor in time lost due to congestion and traffic. I was able to run with clear road, no hassles and so you might add a few seconds to take into account the presence of 16,000 other runners around you!
The most important thing here is that it's NORMAL to lose this time - you're looking at 1:40 to 2:30 over the 1.6km, and so if your target was to hit the 4km mark in say 20 minutes, on this route, it's going to be slower and closer to 22 minutes. If you push harder than this, I feel you'll be running too hard, pushing yourself beyond your conditioning, and that will come back later, so be patient!
The descent - even more important
Then comes the descent. Now, in the larger scheme of the race, this is the most important section of Edinburgh Drive, if not the whole event. It is much the same as the descent from Chapman's Peak for the Ultra runners, in that it's the place where a lot of races are going to be "lost" because of overly aggressive running!
That is, you can do a real number on your legs dropping down the M3. It's steep enough to really fly down, and if you're frustrated at losing time on the way up, you can make up a lot of it here! But in my opinion, that would be a bad idea - the pounding on your legs will weaken them, and 6 km later, you'll start the climb of Southern Cross Drive wondering why you're feeling so "empty". So pace judgment and discipline here are really very important.
The descent is pretty much a mirror image of the climb - its gradual at the top, then it drops really steeply as you make the sweeping left hand bend. It's here, incidentally, that you'll be able to look out and actually see the Ocean - the first time the Half Marathon route has had a view of the ocean, so take it in (if it's not too dark, of course!0.
The descent is 1.9km long, and is followed by a second "descent" on the M3 as you head towards Kendal Road. That's a fairly flat section, so not one where you will be able to keep pushing, however tempted you are. I think the prudent thing is to run it as a 2km descent after the hill, and then to "start over", because by this stage you're over 8km into the race and you can reassess and continue on the flat section.
Pace judgment on the descent
So, pace judgment on the descent. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this COULD make or break or entire race. I can't emphasize enough that if you overdo it here, then even though you might make the time back, you'll just lose it later on because of the effort. Running downhill exacts a pretty heavy toll on the legs, and with Southern Cross to come, the last thing you want is to butter up your quads and find that you're struggling when you should be thriving.
So, my estimate is that a runner who would normally run 5:00/km on a flat road will go UP at about 6:00/km, and should probably go down at about 4:30/km, perhaps slightly faster depending on technique. The end result is that for every minute lost on the uphill, I would estimate that you'll make up around 30 to 40 seconds on the descent.
So if we return to our scenarios from earlier, you're looking at losing a total of between 1:30 and 2:30 on the way up, and regaining about 1:00 to 1:30 on the way down. A net loss of 30 to 60 seconds, perhaps, which is probably reasonable given the additional climbing meters as a result.
Note that once you finish the descent and find yourself on the long flat road of the M3, you may actually be able to make up a little more time compared to the old route. This is because the old route included a very gradual 2km pull past Constantia, plus the U-turns, which probably cost 5 to 10 seconds per kilometer. That won't happen on the new route, and so it may be that a little more time is made up here.
The end result is a slower time, but perhaps not by as much as one would think. Certainly, the idea that the new route will cost "5 minutes" more is probably a little exaggerated. But equally, I'd be surprised if it was quite as fast, because it's rarely possible to make back every second lost on a climb. Overall, I'd say you are looking at a 1-1.5% slower time (so a 1:40 runner will do 1:41, a 2 hour runner does just under 2:02 and a 2:30 runner is running 2:32).
But that's if you get the pace judgment right - I can't stress enough that if you fly down this hill and run it a minute per kilometer faster than the uphill, there's a good chance that you'll lose that time back in triplicate later on! So be patient, enjoy the amazing view and wide open roads and try to package the race into the first 7km taking you up and over this hill, then 3km of flat running, and then the second half begins, with Southern Cross standing before you!