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!
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.
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.