I don’t like hills; I don’t know anyone who does.

I train in Hong Kong: a flat urban mess of concrete and encroaching jungle where the ‘hills’ on my daily running route are the paths beside the overpass. Our running group once did a hills session: attendance halved the next week, and from then on we stuck to the track. We plan hikes around Hong Kong’s peaks like we’re preparing for Everest Base Camp: only in X weather, with Y supplies, and there better be a bar at the other end to pull us through.

So when I signed up for my first half-marathon, it was perhaps an odd choice to go for the Pasuruan Bromo Marathon. The race takes place in the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park in East Java, Indonesia, on trails and roads in the volcanic mountains surrounding the active caldera of Mount Bromo. Cool as running around a volcano sounds, a mountainous national park is maybe not the best place for someone whose hamstrings seize up at the thought of an upward slope.

‘But I can say I ran around a volcano’ won out. I had six weeks to train for the race – another story, another time – and planned six lengthy trail runs. I didn’t do them: I put that energy into creatively making up excuses to run my usual flat routes along Victoria Harbour instead.

A photo of a horse in the Bromo plateau | Image by Rebecca Cairns

I freaked myself out in the days leading up to the race by studying the course map: the first nine kilometres were entirely uphill, as were the final five. I didn’t really comprehend the steepness of the slopes until I’d arrived in Tosari, a mountain village where only mopeds and four-by-four Jeep wranglers roam, and the open pickup truck that arrived to collect us on the race morning had us nearly toppling out the back in a near-vertical pile up. I began to wonder if I was prepped for those inclines.

Race running is as much psychological as it is physical. By the time I’d arrived in Indonesia, there wasn’t much more I could do physically, so most of my pre-race training revolved around how to mentally tackle the course – well, the hills.

First, I broke down the course. I looked at it as a race of three parts: the long uphill where I needed to keep a slow and steady pace, the downhill break where I could both make up time and rest, and a short uphill sprint where I could focus on the impending finish.

Image courtesy of Rebecca Cairns

The second mental trick was a tactic I’d only read about the night before in a last-minute panic: focusing on effort rather than time per kilometre. The idea is that whether it’s flat, an ascent, or descent, you’re exerting the same energy, which means you’ll slow down or speed up accordingly. This is different to flat road races, where you’d traditionally focus on maintaining a consistent speed. I didn’t know if it would work, but it was in the back of my mind as I went to sleep.

The race village at Teras Bromo was bustling with photo booths, sports drink sponsors, food stalls and athletic wear advertisers. I found a quiet corner to stretch and warm up. I stood around the start line with the other racers. The organisers sang the Indonesian national anthem, blew a foghorn, and we were off.

The first few kilometres were so steep, I stopped after 10 minutes to stretch out my calves again. Most of the people I had started with were walking well behind me. With my legs burning, and 90% of the course still to do, I wasn’t feeling great about it. I’d started too fast, still stuck in a mindset of making certain times.

‘Running intuitively’ sounds a bit hippy-dippy but it’s just knowing the difference between your body complaining about being uncomfortable or warning you because it’s in real detrimental pain.

We’ve all heard the phrase “No pain, no gain,” and this is both true and false: working through discomfort will make you a better athlete; ignoring injuries will put you on the bench.

Learning to recognise when that pain is strain and when that pain is just, “Bloody hell Becca, another hill?” gets easier the more you run, and the more you understand your own limits and walls. It’s not giving in to the part of you that would rather chill on the sofa, have an extra hour in bed, or take the escalator instead of the stairs. I put away my watch and started listening to my body instead.

This is what got me through the first part of the race: had I been trying to achieve a certain time per kilometre, I would have been hugely disheartened. I completed the first 9K in 90 minutes, which is possibly the slowest I’ve ever run: however, I could feel in my body that this was the same kind of effort that I’d put into personal bests at the track.   

I stopped for a selfie at the Mount Bromo viewpoint and posed with fellow racers before running on, relishing the fact I was on a road and it was flat. Not for long, though: what goes up must come down. After the strain of uphill, the downhill sprint felt a lot like snapping the rubber band lose in a catapult.

The effort level mindset again helped here: where I would usually treat downhills as a rest period, running on pure mechanics, I knew I could actually put in more and increased my speed instead of holding back.

Uphill endings are always a cruel twist – add to that the fact I’d never actually run more than 16K in my life, it was an intimidating finale. This part though was about the same length as my everyday ‘easy’ running route: breaking it down into that smaller chunk made it much easier to mentally picture finishing it.

My mantra in this last section was to just keep moving, even if it was the slowest jog in the world. When the flags started appearing, all the nights at the track came back as I summoned a sprint to reach the finish line.

Image courtesy of Rebecca Cairns

The effort-over-speed approach helped me conserve energy in a way I couldn’t have otherwise with so many inclines. I thought the hills were going to be my enemy in this race, but as a runner whose strength lies in stamina and endurance rather than speed, they actually helped me focus my energy in a way that made me run more efficiently.

Based on previous year’s finishing times, my goal time had been anything under three hours: I only knew I’d made it because my playlist was still blasting. Only six of 164 women finished in under three hours in the 2017 half marathon, so I was pretty elated to be one of them: placing third was a bonus.

Hills are hard and uncomfortable, there are no two ways about it. But they create focus, challenge your limitations, and if you can overcome them they make you a better athlete. Embrace the hills: you’ll come out on top either way.  

For more information on the Bromo Marathon, check outbromomarathon.com.

Follow me on Instagram at @jetsetcreate.

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