Gold in Them Thar Hills
by Laurel Park, Nov. 2, 2001
Gold in Them Thar Hills
Having grown up in the flatlands of southeastern Michigan, I’ve long had an adversarial relationship with hills. Hills were those evil things set out to destroy my chances at victories, PRs, or simply feeling good during a race. Few words could strike terror into my heart as quickly as "we’re doing a hill workout today." Those workouts became a grudge match between myself and the hill; me struggling to coax every last ounce of strength from my screaming quads while the hill watched in quiet satisfaction, a slight smile gracing its green slope. No matter how I tried, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how many leg curls I did, hill running never seemed to get any easier. Hills were guaranteed to turn even an easy run into a battle of attrition.
My husband, on the other hand, grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, where you either adapt to hills real quick or banish the idea of outdoor exercise forever. He was raised in the country, in a house situated on the side of a hill. Walking out the front door presented two immediate options: up or down. Rather than battle the hills, my husband befriended them. He ran their graceful slopes every day, gaining strength in the process. As he progressed to high school and college running, he sought longer and steeper hills, augmenting his strength and speed and enjoying some beautiful panoramic views in the process.
The first time Rich and I did a run together at his home in Tunkhannock it was nearly a disaster. "Around the block" — pretty much the only route possible given the rural location — is a six mile loop on the roads surrounding the hill where his parents live. The middle two miles, which wind along the base of the hill, are actually flat, but the other four are either up or down at a fairly serious angle. We chose to start downhill, and I made it through the first four miles just fine, but the final two are a nearly continuous uphill, with a few brief "pauses" where the angle of the slope relaxes from 5% to a much more humane 3%. Within half a mile I was reduced to a frustrated walk.
"You’re doing it all wrong!" my husband said. "How were you taught to run hills?"
"Attack at the bottom, power through the incline and crest the summit," I gasped.
A gentle smile crossed his face. "At Bucknell we used to love to race against teams that were coached like you," he said softly.
We finished the run — me gasping and spitting like a wet hen — and thus began the seven year Battle of the Pennsylvania Hills which was waged every time we entered the Keystone State. At one point I insisted that we find a flat course, to which Rich responded "and that would be where?", a question not without some merit. I ran the hills because frankly, I had no choice, but nothing could make me like it.
Fast forward to May, 2001. Another trip to Pennsylvania, as Rich was invited to participate in an engineering conference at Bucknell. After settling into our hotel, we headed out for our traditional run, usually covering one of Rich’s favorite courses from his college years. It was an unseasonably warm day, with temperatures in the low 80’s, and the sun was shining brightly. This, I thought, will be akin to Bataan. Well, let’s get it over with.
We started from the Bucknell fieldhouse, through the Route 15 tunnel, and along the upperclass residences ("The Mods") to the unnamed road which parallels the Bucknell golf course and heads uphill (of course) to the country roads south of campus. The customary start to every Bucknell run. I also received the customary reminder from Rich: "relax, take it easy, maintain your pace and don’t fight the uphills." It hadn’t worked in seven years but hope springs eternal.
As we turned to continue uphill (of course) on Hardscrabble Road, I noticed an amazing thing: I felt pretty good. In fact, my legs felt amazingly strong, and running up the hill didn’t seem to be taking much out of me at all. Wow, this is strange, I thought, I wonder when reality will set it. As it turned out, reality didn’t set in for another two miles, when we hit a particularly long, steep and nasty incline which had the added attraction of being littered with several "ripened" roadkills. I made it about two-thirds of the way up before I had to stop and take a deep breath. "This is one of my favorite hills. Wicked, isn’t it?" Rich said. I could only nod and pant. "I used to run mile repeats on this at 5:00 pace," he added matter-of-factly, looking around.
Aside from that slight respite, I made it through the rest of the run just fine and was amazed at how good my legs felt afterwards. Then it dawned on me: ten months of weekly physical therapy on my hip, and the concurrent stretching and strengthening exercises I’d been doing, had left me stronger and more flexible than I’d been in years. Not only were all of my hip muscles working correctly, they were finally approaching full strength. What had I been missing all this time?
Ever since that day, hills have been my friends. With track workouts banned from my life for the foreseeable future, hills have taken over the job of restoring my quickness, turnover and anaerobic conditioning. I search them out and challenge them. Sometimes they still win, but I’m taking home my share of victories as well. And last weekend, I got to enjoy a sweet moment of triumph. Rich and I were out for an easy run near a country inn just outside of Binghamton, New York. It was a beautiful crisp fall morning. Rich, tired and stiff from driving, was running slowly, his back and hips fighting every step. Rounding a corner, we noticed a dirt road ahead, with a most inviting long , steep incline. "Oh, c’mon, " I said excitedly, picking up the pace. "We’ve just got to run that hill!"