May 2018

Running Hills: Why We Should Do Things the Hard Way

Hill Training

Sometimes doing things the hard way is good. Any runner will tell you this. In junior high and high school, I ran on a city track club called the Edmonton Huskies–if you’re from Alberta, there is no connection to the football team, if you’re wondering. Hill training was a big part of our program. As I recall, we usually ran hills on Wednesdays or Fridays during outdoor season. Sometimes we did “30 X a hill” on a long, moderately steep grade. Other times we did “6 X a hill” on a very steep grade, usually made of grass or dirt. Stairs counted as hill training too. Edmonton runners know, and many love, the long flight of stairs from the river valley to the downtown area. I bet someone can tell me the exact number of stairs on that flight. That workout was one of my favorites, especially in the fall when the trees in the river valley showed out. Running hills was an important part of developing both strength and endurance. Thanks to Michael Cameron for sharing this picture of his running group on the stairs!

river valley stairs in Edmonton

 

Years later, I was living in Thornhill, Ontario–part of Toronto–while attending York University. The area where I lived was very hilly. My running routes ranged from 5k to 8 miles and each one of them included terrain full of rolling hills. Hills ceased to phase me after a certain point. They were just part of running.

Take Ten

One year, as part of my preparation for a fall half-marathon (my first), I signed up for a ten-miler. I chose one called “The Run Through Hell” at Hell Creek Ranch in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Who wouldn’t want to run a race with all of those names attached to it? It seemed like a good choice.

On race day, I showed up feeling nervous. It was my first crack at a ten miler and I’d not run further than nine miles in practice. As luck would have it, it was POURING rain. Registration was in a little barn and runners had to wade through mud to get inside. After collecting my number and a super cool t-shirt that said “I Ran Through Hell,” I returned to my vehicle to change my soaked socks. Trying to warm up in the elements seemed futile. All I could think was, “this isn’t going to be good.” I briefly considered backing out.

Thankfully, the rain stopped just before the scheduled start time. As we mingled around the starting line, I overheard people who’d run the race before talking about how hilly the course was. I was already nervous about the distance. The hill talk wasn’t helping.

The Run Through Hell

When the gun went off, I headed off with the pack. The race was on gravel roads and the course was quite pretty. Despite the lack of a warmup, I felt good. It was warm, but not too warm, and my legs felt ready to do what I needed them to do. My plan was to finish in 1:30 and it seemed that the stars were lining up in my favor. In the back of my mind, though, was the thought of the hills that everyone had buzzed about. I knew it was wise to play it a little safe until I saw what there was to see.

I don’t remember how far into the course we were when the hills met us on the road. Runners around me started to struggle on the inclines and I expected to struggle along with them. I took each hill, one at a time, with the words of Edmonton Huskies’ coach, Gerard Lemieux, in my head: “increase the effort up the hills; keep up the pace.” When there was a downslope, I let the hill do the work. (In a ten miler, that works; in a marathon, the downhills can hurt as much as the uphills, especially in the last miles, but I was not to learn that for a few years.)

I finished the Run Through Hell in 1:29:29. It was tough, to be sure. But here’s the thing. I’d done my homework. I’d put in the miles in the months leading up to the race. I followed the program Lou Hetke, a former Huskies’ teammate cum personal trainer, had made me. And I was lucky to live in a hilly area of the city so my body was not thrown by the hilly course because I ran on hills every day. Hills were my friend. They challenged me, but I’d prepared to meet the challenges they posed because of where I ran regularly.

Life’s Hills: Do things the hard way!

I can’t tell you how often I hear students complain about their university courses being hard. Some make a point of avoiding professors whose courses are known to be rigorous. I’m sure you also know people who seek the easy route no matter what. I’ve never understood this. What’s the point of taking the easy road as a matter of course? Where is the satisfaction in that? What parts of life’s journey does taking the easy road prepare us for?

I learned a lot of things from my years as a runner. Among the most important is that when we train on hills regularly in practice, we’re ready to tackle them when we find ourselves on a hilly race course. The work we put in ahead of time is what allows us to pass those who opted out of the hill workouts when they had a choice. The same is true in just about every other aspect of life, don’t you think?

When we push ourselves in any realm, we learn how to perform when we find ourselves facing a challenge of one type or another. Pushing ourselves regularly doesn’t guarantee that we won’t meet a challenge that kicks our butt. Hill training doesn’t guarantee we won’t see God at the end of a hard, hilly race. Pushing ourselves regularly does guarantee that when we face challenges we’re ready to rise to them.

Life is full of hills. At the end of the day, though, our lives will be fuller if we spend them climbing every hill we can find and not avoiding them in favor of an easy route. If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that when my race is over I want to have left it all on the course. Don’t you?

As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

 

Why We Should Talk to Strangers

As children, most of us were cautioned against talking to strangers. As adults, we need to unlearn that lesson. There is a lot to be gained from talking to people we don’t know. A few years ago, I had a life altering, 2.5 hour conversation with a stranger.  I’ve written about it elsewhere, but I want to share it here as well. 

A walk in a park

I was on a research trip and had stopped in Birmingham, Alabama to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights InstituteAcross the street from the Institute is Kelly Ingram Park. The park was once the site of some of the worst acts of civil rights violence and is now a site of memory. Its history is retold through sculptures and other art installations throughout.

It was July and so I decided to stroll through the park first thing in the morning before it got too hot. I was studying a sculpture depicting vicious, snarling dogs when I heard a voice behind me say, “nothing has changed you know.” I turned around to see who’d spoken and there was Willy.

A talk with a stranger

Willy was an African American man, probably in his sixties. We introduced ourselves and I learned that he had grown up in the area and was homeless. I asked him to elaborate on what he’d said about nothing having changed and he was happy to do so. We sat down on a bench and Willy told me stories about living in the segregated South and in the South as it is today. His stories revealed a life of pain and possibility, of humiliation and happy times, of terror and tenacity. Before I knew it, 2.5 hours had passed.

When Willy finished speaking, we sat silently for a time. Finally,  I asked Willy, “if you could have it any way you wanted, what would your life be like? What kind of life do you dream about?” His response was so quick and vehement that it scared me at first. He jumped to his feet and shook his fist in the air while shouting, “I would dominate. I would control everything. Men, women, children! I would be the one telling people what to do and when to do it and I would make them obey me! I would own everything and I would control all the money! I would be in control!”

When he finished, Willy glanced nervously in my direction. He returned to the bench and sat down. Shaking his head he said, “I’m sorry. I just said all of that because of everything I’ve been through.” He lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and exhaled slowly. “But that’s how I feel, you know?”

Willy stared off into space for a few minutes before speaking again. This time, his voice was soft.  “You know all that stuff I said? That’s not really what I want.” He glanced sideways at me. “Do you want to know what I really want?” he asked. I nodded and he continued. “What I really want is to have people to love and to have people who love me.” Then, Willy turned his whole body so he was facing me. He looked straight into my eyes, and asked, “but isn’t that what we all want?”

Isn’t that what we all want?

In Willy’s rhetorical question was a powerful assertion of sameness about people–all people. He knew that love is buried among the differences that so many use as licenses to hate and exclude. He also knew that everyone, no matter how  much or how little he or she has, can both give and receive love. It costs nothing to do either. We are all equally rich in this regard. Why, then, is it so easy to be stingy with our love? What’s the payoff? I don’t know.

What I learned from Willy

Here’s the thing. What Willy knew and believed with all his heart, despite all he’d been through, was that everyone wants to have someone to love and to have someone who loves them back. We stand in the way of that happening in so many ways. For example, many of us are quick to judge ourselves on the basis of our intentions and others on the basis of their actions–I am SO guilty of this. And have you noticed how often conditions are attached to others’ “lovability” and  “value” in homes, in communities, and in society more broadly? How much of the crap that we create and navigate in our day-to-day lives would just fall away if we kept Willy’s very simple observation in mind? I wonder.

There’s merit in talking to strangers

I did not enter that park expecting to have a conversation with a stranger, let alone a life-altering one. But maybe I should have entered that park looking for an opportunity to have one. If Willy hadn’t spoken to me, a stranger, that day, I’d have missed out on an amazing encounter. I probably would have just walked by him with little more than a nod and a “good morning.”

It’s easy to walk by people like Willy. He didn’t look the way we generally expect wise people to look. Most of the time, therefore, he’s invisible. That’s tragic. There’s no telling what we miss out on when we don’t “see” and talk to people like Willy–strangers. Imagine what we might learn about ourselves and others simply by looking for opportunities to talk to people we don’t know. 

What do you think? Have you had encounters with strangers that have been meaningful in some way? How did they happen? Why were they valuable? And do you agree that there is merit in going out of our way to make them happen again? Share your thoughts below and please subscribe or follow my  blog.

As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.