The 9% Solution: Take the Tough Option

I sent Vince this selfie after the second time I did this 9% workout. Notice the extreme color difference between my face and my neck. Can you say: REDLINE?!
I sent Vince this selfie after the second time I did this 9% workout. Notice the extreme color difference between my face and my neck. Can you say: REDLINE?!

Last year, my coach Vince scheduled a treadmill-specific hill workout that had a series of different inclines, from 3% to 9%. As if the changing incline wasn’t enough, I did each interval at the same pace (approximately tempo effort) – without any recovery interval throughout the duration of the workout, which was typically 45 minutes.

Despite the lack of a recovery interval, it’s amazing how a 3% incline at tempo effort can feel like a recovery after a 9% interval.

The first time I did this workout, the 9% interval crushed me. And, when I say crushed, I mean smoke blowing out of my ears, eyeballs popping out of their sockets, tongue hanging at my knees, and slobber and sweat flying on innocent bystanders–or would that be by-treadmillers?

Given that cardiac arrest seemed imminent, I backed off the target pace. Yet, even as I slowed, I felt certain that 9% incline would fling me off the treadmill, and someone would happen to catch a video of it, and that would be my YouTube claim to fame.

I barely held on, not sure what I feared more: the viral YouTube fling video, or the sting of being defeated by a machine.

Even though I continued to run, I felt defeated because I couldn’t hold the pace–or was it that I thought I couldn’t?

That 9% incline became my nemesis last year as it showed up several times in the rotation.

While I definitely got better, I never quite felt that I truly defeated that 9% “hill”. Each time, I had to slow down the treadmill at some point during that interval, lest my lungs come busting out of my mouth and my eyeballs spring into the air–and, yes, lest I wind up in a huddled heap, having been heaved from the belt.

Fast forward to this year, for the past few weeks, I’ve had a base hill repeat workout, that included a “short but steep hill.” The workout didn’t define “steep,” but I immediately knew what number I would select on the treadmill. (For workouts such as this one, I always have to use the treadmill because South Jersey has nothing in the neighborhood of a steep hill, just a bridge with a 4-5% grade that’s about 30 minutes away.)

treadmill video falling

9%. It’s time for a rematch, baby.

I was determined to hold on to the pace. I was determined to find what I had to handle the pain. I was determined to make that imaginary hill my you-know-what.

Just as before, my heart rate soared into regions I generally dislike visiting, and my legs threw their punches to keep up with the effort demanded by the incline.

Just as before, the sweat and slobber flung about on to unsuspecting by-treadmillers.

But, unlike before, I wasn’t concerned I was going to fling off the treadmill. I wasn’t worried about cardiac arrest. I was in control.

9% threw its punches; they stung. But, I began to imagine that I was throwing punches with my glutes and legs. My punches were harder, quicker, stronger. That poor treadmill didn’t stand a chance.

That workout has showed up in the rotation a few times since. And, while I could pick any incline, from 6% up, I’ve chosen anywhere from 9-10% each time.

A week ago, I was reading an article titled, “Preparation to Finish Your First 100-miler” in Ultrarunning Magazine. I happened upon this gem of a piece of advice:

“An iron will is needed to push through and keep moving forward. A good way to train is always to pick the more difficult option in training when faced with similar alternatives – for example, instead of cutting a corner on a trail, pick the longer route. The more you do this, the more the tough option becomes your default and your resolve improves.” ~Ian Sharman.

While this advice was meant for those who will be running their first 100 miler, I think it applies to any endurance athlete who wants to overcome the seemingly impossible challenge.

We make these types of choices all of the time. Sometimes it’s about avoiding or powering through a steep hill, other times it’s about getting out of bed at 4:30 a.m. or rolling over and letting the opportunity pass.

The last few weeks have been rough for our household. We have a dying dog :(, and there have been a series of other unfortunate events, not to mention snow and ice, that have added up to one heck of a PITA February so far.

Last weekend, I planned to get up early so I could fit in a swim before my long run. We had had a long night cleaning up after Bella, who had been sick all night long. (Nothing like puke at 2 a.m., and 3 a.m., and then again at 4 a.m.)

My alarm went off, and I rolled over. I dozed off for a bit, then came back to and thought, “Life is a series of choices. Make the right one.”

I was out of bed and going for the coffee.

The more I make this type of choice, the more ingrained it becomes that the tough option is the default. When the tough option becomes the default, then my resolve thickens. When my resolve thickens, then there is precious little that can stand between me and my goals. I’ve got unfinished business from 2013, and this is the year.

There is no easy route to achieve these goals. It’s uphill both ways. 9% uphill to be precise.


What are the tough choices you face in training? What do you do to thicken your resolve? 


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  5. I love the advice – always pick the more difficult option – and how the difficult things eventually cease seeming so hard.

    Now, speaking of hard… I can only imagine how hard the truly hard reality has been with regard to losing Bella. My heart goes out to you and John. Big giant hugs.

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