As much as I enjoy swimming, and it has been my main sporting activity for about three years now, it’s still missing one thing and it always will – and that’s hills.
Now I do respect the fact that swimming mixes up the aerobic and anaerobic challenges with admirable intensity. The variety of workouts in swimming truly boggles the mind and has done much to improve my improvisational math skills. And all the little gadgets and toys – the kickboards and fins, the paddles and pull buoys and "cordz" – they’re great. But I have yet to encounter a swim workout or gadget that equals the experience of running a hill.
The late running philosopher and essayist George Sheehan got positively weepy about hills. In fact, I once used an excerpt of his most famous hill essay for a yearbook quote. It went something like this: "But then comes the Hill and I know I am made for more…I am fighting God. Fighting the limitations He gave me. Fighting the pain. Fighting the unfairness. Fighting all the evil in me and the world. And I will not give in. I will conquer this hill and I will conquer it alone.”
I have yet to meet a swim workout that can make me that spiritually loopy. Arguably I just haven’t tried hard enough, but when you think about it, a hill is a monster made up of uncontrollable external forces that a pool is not and never will be. Open-water swimming probably comes closest to equaling the hill-running experience, but swallowing lake or ocean water doesn’t make me feel as if I’m conquering evil. It just makes me feel like I’m going to puke.
For me, the defining hill of my life came in college. A couple miles out from campus, we had a half-mile-long hill we would run to and then do repeats up. The hill had the kind of grade that would literally make car engines grind as they drove up it. About two-thirds of the way up, it flattened for a couple of yards which would always trick our idiot legs and lungs into thinking it was over, but then it rose again, unleashing a devastating wave of lactic acid into our muscles.
We called this hill “F Hill” (and the “F” lent itself to a variety of interpretations). One of our team’s alumni (who made the Olympics twice and for a while held the world record in the 1,500-meter run) once ran up F Hill in a minute and 58 seconds. But the flip side to this is that he was clinically insane. He went for 10-mile morning runs and, as we used to say, 10 miles is not a morning run -- it’s a cry for help.
But I learned a lot about myself during those runs up F Hill. Because the hill also flattened a bit near the top, we called it one of those “it ain’t over til it’s over” hills -- which meant you had to keep going a little further in order to truly finish it: That was a lesson in seeing any task through to the end.
We also learned about the value of small gestures: As individualistic (some would say anti-social) as runners can be, we did support each other on F Hill. But we had to do it without words because we didn’t have the oxygen to spare. A gentle pat on the back pushed more people to the top than anything our coach screamed at us did.
And the “mental lockdown” mode we went into on F Hill is a state of mind I have summoned many times in my non-athletic life, including but not limited to: while giving birth, working at the newspaper until dawn covering presidential elections, waiting out a two-hour traffic jam, and listening to a grade-school concert band obliterate the finale to Brahm’s Symphony No. 1.
Yes indeed, all I really need to know I learned on F Hill.