Hill ahead? Think opportunity
By Marlene Farrell
I grew up not quite a flatlander, but almost. The closest mountains, the hunched and ancient Appalachians, were more than an hour’s drive west from my home in the suburbs of D.C. The most prominent hill in town, a half-mile from my house, was only notable for the bulbous mint-green water tower that sat atop, above the trees and houses.
When, at age 12, I saw my first real mountains, the California Sierras, I was in for a shock. It stunned me that the mountains demanded my attention ALL the time. I couldn’t get away from them. Even at night I knew they were there, the true black, inking out the stars.
I didn’t grow up in a place defined by the mountains that cradle it. Leavenworth is such a place. Living and raising children here is, in part, about the mountains. The mountains reassure me of my place. I view them daily, and note their changes, like today’s snowy blanket on the high peaks up the Icicle. And I feel their permanence, overseeing our scurrying human activity, forever implacable, seemingly untouchable, despite jaunts that lead to moments on a summit.
Given my late introduction to mountains (and I didn’t move to the mountainous West until I was 25), perhaps my initial dread of hill running is understandable. With so few hills and so many roads, I chose paths that went around instead of up and over. I remember when I started running high school cross country I was unable to run all the way up Water Tower hill. I felt humbled by my walking and gasping and was grateful to Jeanne, who waited at the top for me. My strength and endurance improved so I could run up that hill, but in my heart was dislike and sometimes fear.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was philosophically opposed to hills. I wanted to work to improve at my running, but only on my terms, limiting the hard effort and pain.
I feel so differently today, but I remember where I came from. Now I seek hills. I relish them. It helps to live in Leavenworth, where the possibilities for exploration are limitless if one is willing to go uphill. I don’t think what has changed is my pain tolerance. Rather it’s my attitude. Hills are an opportunity. Different muscles are utilized for uphill running than are used on the flats or downhills. That variety engages me and keeps my legs healthy. Hills offer discovery, too, because the views change, the trail narrows, the crowds vanish.
I read some online hill running tips recently (www.tips4running.com). They seem pertinent to the Cascade High School cross country team I occasionally coach, to my own participation in masters’ cross country races and maybe beyond, in a metaphorical sense. The coach begins by saying “Hills are obstacles for other runners, not you.” I think I made that mental shift a while ago. I know what my body is capable of, so at the bottom of a hill my mind calibrates the perfect gear for steady climbing. I aim to be consistent with the cadence and effort I use on the flats, while slightly decreasing my stride length.
The coach promotes surging at the top of the hill, also called cresting the hill. What a brilliant idea! Sometimes it’s painful and exhausting running up a hill. The last few steps are the worst, when it seems impossible to continue. To convince myself that I need to give more of myself right then, to fight against the pain, is to ride the cresting wave that is me, instead of getting pushed under by it and sluggishly recovering. In the microcosm of racing, that is the Hero Move.
There are also effective downhill strategies. The coach mentions shortened strides and running on the balls of your feet, not your heels. And toward the bottom of the hill a runner should let go, and give in to the momentum that is propelling him. It’s OK to be out of control, to trust the forces that are hurtling us in the right direction at a faster pace than we can do alone.
The feeling of impulsive speed or, in other realms, accomplishment, pushes us further, and re-energizes us so we are ready for the next hill. Will it be an obstacle or an opportunity? This is worth pondering the next time we find ourselves staring up a long hill, in a race, at the end of a long run, or in the figurative sense.
Marlene Farrell is a Leavenworth writer and long-distance runner who has qualified twice for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She also helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club.