HillsExcerpted from To Be A Runner, by Martin Dugard
I know that feeling — that late-in-the-race, my-legs-are-dead, how-in-the-world-can-I-make-it-without-walking terror. And I've certainly decorated my shares of courses with spontaneous outbursts of the world's most versatile word. But I also believe that hills get a bad rap. A guy like me, who needs a serious gut check once in a while to make sense of the world, needs hills the way I need the love of a strong woman. They kick my ass, keep me honest, and make me a better man.
They complete me.
Hills are like that. And the best part is: Everyone bleeds.
That's why I love them. No matter if I am fit, fat, tired, exhausted, fresh, or thinking thoughts that take me a thousand miles away, the hill will have its way with me. I must confront the hill, and in doing so, challenge myself not to walk, or turn around and head back down, and maybe even to sprint a little, if only to see if I am able.
The school where I coach rests in a mile-wide valley. Standing at the start/finish line on the track oval, I can look to my left and see a steep switchback trail up to a ridgeline that zigs and zags down to the ocean. Looking to my right, a series of low hills rise and plunge in deceptively steep fashion.
Some of those hills are long, some are short, and the one we call Crazy Horse climbs for a solid half-mile before kicking hard left up a series of dizzying switchbacks that have made one runner cry, and more than a few hurl their lunch. But hills are a fact of life. Rarely a day goes by when we don't climb. And each time we do, those hills make us stronger.
As a coach, I can actually see the mental transformation that occurs when a runner overcomes a physical obstacle like a mountain. The world seems more manageable. The athlete begins to believe he can meet that next challenge. Those legs, which felt so tired and weak at the bottom, unsure if they were up to the task, are now throbbing pistons. The lungs begging for an extra scrap of oxygen just moments earlier now bang like the stoker on a steam locomotive, throwing coal into the furnace so that big engine — the heart — can provide maximum power.
There's a big reason the Kenyans consider hill running one of their primary forms of training. They talk about the explosive power and muscle tone they develop in their glutes, hip flexors, calves and hamstrings. They talk about how their form becomes more precise, because the body needs to flow in an optimal fashion charging uphill — and when it's not, it's obvious. If I could pick just one workout to build great runners, I would direct them to the nearest dirt hill.
Hills galvanize my soul. But many are the days I don't want to accompany my team. What I'm afraid of is never the distance, or even the speed. If I am honest with myself, I know that the days I want to hang back are the days when I've prescribed a serious dose of hills. Yet once we've gotten bloody, and the trail has pitched up, forcing me to lean into it, keeping my arms low to stay relaxed and my chin tilted up to increase oxygen flow, the outside world, with all its frantic busy-ness, is replaced by the here and now. What matters is the simple pursuit of being your best — not walking, not letting the place slack, and maybe just chugging slowly up the hill, one cruel step at a time, until it is done.
I give my runners lessons in hill running all the time. On downhills, I tell them to lean into the slope and get up on the balls of their feet. Running heel-toe acts like a brake, and hastens muscle fatigue (laboratory scientists often induce fatigue by having subjects perform downhill running).
For uphills, I talk about the arms staying low and relaxed, never coming across the body or riding high like a sprinter's. The important thing is to quiet the upper body so that every bit of big engine horsepower pours into the legs. At the bottom of every hill, on any course, my runners will hear me yelling "ten quick steps." And then I watch as their cadence powers up to light speed for those powerful ten. It makes a marvelous difference, no matter the length of the hill. "Ten quick steps" is a nice way of saying "change your outlook" or "calm your fears." You take the fight to the hill at a time when the natural tendency is to slow down and hold a little something in reserve. "Ten quick steps" is the antidote for "this is about to get bloody."
I search for hills to run, no matter where I'm traveling. Maybe it's just the way I'm wired: I like confrontation, and hills are nothing, if not confrontation.
Just the hill and me. Just the challenge and me. Just my fears and me.
Bring it on.
New York Times bestselling author Martin Dugard has been a distance runner for four decades. For the past six years he has been head cross-country and track coach at JSerra High School in San Juan Capistrano, California. To Be A Runner is his latest book.