Posted by: Joe English | May 16, 2010

Racing — What does flat and fast really mean?

running-advice-bugRace organizers love to use the terms “flat and fast” to describe race courses. Those terms are designed to bring in runners looking for good conditions to run a fast time or perhaps are personal best. But does flat on a elevation chart really mean flat? And is flat always fast? That’s my topic today and the answer is “no”.

This weekend I picked out a race to run the way I often do at this time of year, by looking through the race listings and trying to pick one that’s close to home. I was just looking for a workout and wanted some competition to spur me on through a quality run. There were two races close to my house, so I had to get down to the finer details in choosing. I ended up picking the one with those magic words: “flat and fast”. This event race course even suggested that it might be a “good course to set PR”. The later language is always something that makes me very skeptical, because honestly the place for a PR is on a track, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Indeed, looking at the course map and elevation chart, it did look flat and it had another aspect that can lead itself to be fast — few turns. But when I arrived at the site and began to run my warm-up, I quickly figured out that this course wouldn’t be either flat or fast.

Bumpy vs. Hilly
We all know what it means for something to be hilly: those long inclines or declines climbing over something. Think Boston Marathon or Nike Women’s Marathon. You look at those courses on a map and you see actual topographical features that are being traversed. Everyone would agree that those suckers are hilly. But a piece of flat ground on an elevation map can take on another aspect, that which we might call “bumpy”. If you’ve ever played golf (or run a cross-country race on a golf course) on a flat piece of ground, but found your quads burning walking up and over short rolling bumps, you’ll know what I’m talking about here.

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