Monday, April 21, 2014

Running uphill

Even if you’re not a runner and have no interest in ever being one, I hope you will read on today, because today in my writing about running, I suspect that I am writing about more than running: about practice and discipline and being weak and being strong.

I started running in college for exercise and continued because I enjoyed it, because it was a way to process thoughts, to calm myself when stressed, to feel the breeze blowing and muscles working and sweat dripping. I love being alone with my thoughts and sometimes a deer or a bird. I love the way the synergy of all my bodily muscles seems to loosen and work out the tangled knots in my mind. (And I love a big spaghetti dinner.)

A couple years ago, I started signing up for occasional races, because it motivated me to run regularly. I raced for the sake of the training. Before my first half marathon, I’d never run more than five or six miles, but as I trained, I found that I enjoyed the long runs of eight or ten miles; I enjoyed the sweat and the sore muscles and the pounding and the time to think.

Even as I came to love long runs and harder challenges, I never liked hills. When I moved to the mountains, I found ways to avoid them. I always ran paths along residential roads and rivers, flat and meditative, where my lungs and legs and arms and legs could reach a perfect rhythm. If I had something interesting enough or confusing enough on my mind, I could lose myself for a while and forget that I was running at all. I liked this state of semi-consciousness.

I disliked hills. When you are running uphill, there is no way you can forget that you are running.

My philosophy was that hills should be about 100 or 200 yards maximum; that hills are something to get up and over as quickly as possible so you can move on with the rhythm of the run.

Then I ran a crazy 200-mile relay race across the Smokies. In my last 6-mile leg of the relay, I had to run uphill for the first three miles. I was exhausted and weak and cranky and I honestly walked up most of the hill, which did not meet my 200-yard maximum, which could not simply be gotten over. And then after climbing endlessly, I suddenly turned a corner and there ahead of me was the crest of the hill, the Appalachian trail crossing, and the panorama view of the mountains in all its clear-skies spring glory. The next three miles were downhill.

After that, my hill-running philosophy changed slightly. I figured hills were something to be got over, but they could be rewarding. I figured I should start doing some hill runs once in a while, up the Blue Ridge parkway near my house, where I could reach an overlook and exult in the view paid for by my hard work.

As I began to run up the parkway, the end goal kept me going. I knew I could stop when I reached the first overlook (or eventually the second, or the third). I knew I could see mountains, and then I could turn around and coast back downhill.

Slowly, though, something changed. Running uphill never became as meditative and rhythmic as my trail runs, but it stopped being entirely about the destination. I learned to look down at where I was, rather than up at the insurmountable hill. I learned to enjoy the feel of my body pushing hard against gravity.

Depending on the grade of the incline, I’ve gotten now to where I run upwards for one or two or maybe even three miles without stopping, even if there’s no great view as a payoff. I’ve gotten to where I can be on the hill, body pushing, mind spinning, and find a new kind of rhythm—not the rhythm of losing myself in my mind and floating off into meditation and forgetting about the run; but the rhythm of feeling it all in my body, feeling the struggle, the reach, the exertion of every muscle; feeling that I am strong, I can do this, I can keep going.

There are some days when I am too tired, and I stop early and walk to catch my breath, and collapse on the floor when I get home again.

But with each new day I pray that it is true: that I am strong, I can do this, I can keep going.

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