What a Morning

I forgot.

I had forgotten how much I love running hills. I mean – I love running hills. Steep, long, whatever. Give them to me. I love them.

We ran a couple today in Boot Camp and my body perked up and said, “Hey. We know what this is…”

In San Francisco I used to run hill intervals up in Potrero until I yakked in the jasmine bushes at the top of Rhode Island Street. That’s when I knew I was done – screw heart rate monitors. That hill had a grade that would make you weep just looking at it. I would start on 18th avenue and shoot up to 21st. By the top I was in full distress, literally gasping for air, muscles failing.

It’s a way to push yourself to that edge without too many implications if you have to accidentally teeter straight over it. On longer runs I’m always conservative. Bonking means being stranded somewhere and being stranded sucks. On hills you can always tip over and pass out on the sidewalk and someone will find you eventually. Probably.

The hill presents a real, certifiable, challenge that you can point at and name. No matter how slow you go up it (especially on Rhode Island Street in San Francisco) you are going to hurt. It’s a guarantee. Put me on a track and tell me to go fast and, well, besides being bored out of my freaking mind, I will be able to cheat. You have to really concentrate on making a quarter interval hurt – and that’s a good kind of conditioning too – but I prefer the outright, in-your-face, undeniable guarantee of pain. No cheating. The grade will keep you honest.

Storkson, my legendary cross-country coach, was a huge fan of hills. There were two in the neighborhood that he favored. Fairwood hill was a slow ascent, steady and straight as an arrow. This was what we ran for the first three hill workouts of the season. We went up it in packs of 3-4, grouped by speed. We were competitive and cut-throat and absolutely demolished each other. At the top, Stork would yell from the window of his old VW van, “I bet Kennedy (our rival school) is working harder!!!”

In 1999 we were undefeated in league going into the Kennedy meet. I finished third for our squad and 5th or 6th in the race. We cheered desperately waiting for the 5th runner to come across and when she did it was way too close to call. The Stork was scribbling furiously on his notepad trying to work out the scoring. We beat them by one point that day and it was the closest they ever came to us over the course of the next four years. It was also the closest meet that we ever raced.

The memory of this meet served to propel us up the Fairwood Hill week in and week out. He sat at a lamp post about 50 yards past what you believed to be the true crest of the hill and if you let up before you reached him you could be sure you were in for an earful.

After 6 or so reps he would send us off to do “Big Fairwood” which was a five mile course through a neighborhood surrounding a golf course.

Driving rain and blaring sun, we motored on, pushing the pace and each other.

After our fitness level improved our hill intervals moved to what we called “Gagnier Hill”. It was named after one of our runners and my best friend at the time. She lived just off the hill and came from a long line of super-lean and very fast women. She consistently kicked my ass and kept me honest. Ours was a great rivalry.

Her hill was longer than the Fairwood Hill and steeper. The only advantage was that it was curvy and lined with trees so on a hot day it offered sections of respite from the sun. It was at least a quarter mile long, probably a little longer, and it absolutely nailed you every time.

The beauty of running in a team is that when you’re little internal voice tells you that you’ve had enough suffering, there is someone right next to you telling you that, actually no, you have not. You quickly learn that the internal voice that begs you to stop is a liar – you can do another one, you can do it even faster, and you can even beat Sarah on occasion – so put your head down and run already.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how that stubbornness is a learned behavior. It is a muscle that has to be exercised over and over and over again. Whatever the trigger for it is, whatever makes you keep going when you think you can’t anymore, the more times you actually make it happen and push through it, the better at it you are going to get. Your mind starts to remember.

And, like a muscle, when you stop exercising this stubbornness, it diminishes.

I am not the runner I used to be. I could hardly handle myself in a pack of cross-country runners anymore. Stack me up against a pile of Storkson’s 90-second-quaters-with-70-seconds-rest and I will probably throw up on you and then fall over.

But this is not to say that I could never be there again.

Competitive 5k running is brutal. It is the most pain I have ever endured, hands down. I cannot tell you how many times during a race that I have wished myself dead.

When I got out of high school I was done with it. We had gone undefeated in league meets for four years running. We had spent workouts singing at the top of our lungs, hating each others guts, and then holding each other at the end of it all. My cross-country team was the tightest, most tenacious group of athletes that I have ever had the pleasure to be a part of but I was burnt out.

I determined to get back to a place where running was pleasure. I set out on a path of reclamation. And now, 11 years later, I feel pretty good about being in control of it. And I am starting to get a tingling sensation that is telling me it might be time to find out how hard I can go again.

Today on the hill in Boot Camp I got a whiff of that pain and it smelled good.

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