This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here. The group I run with is called Tribe Fitness and they are absolutely incredible. Check out their Facebook page.
Getting up hills is the necessary evil of long-distance running. Inclines provide a form of resistance training that strengthens one’s calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, all of which when stronger produce greater speed and endurance on flat terrain.
Especially for the novice runner, hills are an exercise in extreme cruelty. Your strides shorten, requiring your body to expend more energy. You fight to hold your body upright against its urge to fall forward, leaving you hobbling in a stupor of physical pain. Your breath becomes short.
The pain persists even after you’ve reached the summit. Your muscles want no more and as your feet hit the ground after an uphill climb, you feel that you are pounding the pavement with ten times your actual weight.
Hills slow you down. No runner enjoys this. Hills rob you of the joy of flying downhill or speeding across flats with no resistance, times when you fantasize that you are about to speed past the finish line at Boston. This is when you are invincible and possibilities are infinite.
Going uphill, your mind doesn’t have the luxury of wandering. It is too busy pouring every last iota of its capacity into getting to the end of the ascent. It is locked into a vicious confrontation with your body, which does not understand why you are inflicting this ordeal upon yourself.
The body, conditioned as it is to the sedentary nature of modern life, does not understand your demand that it traverse hills and continue moving for upwards of three hours. All it can do is react to external conditions and realities.
So cliché is it to say that long-distance running is as much mental as it is physical. Anyone who has ever hit a significant incline, especially one more than halfway into a long run, would probably also say that it’s false – it’s more mental than physical. There comes a point where your mind begins to agree with your pain-ridden body. While it began with the notion that your body will thank it later, your body begins to win the argument.
Six of us gathered at Canoe Landing Park on a Saturday morning. Strange, considering that the previous Saturday, when winds reached a peak of 80 km/h and snowfall was heavy and wet, we had nine runners. This Saturday was to be its own unique Grand Guignol.
Our intention was to go east along Front Street, cutting a left on Jarvis and going north to the point where Jarvis ends and becomes Mount Pleasant Road. We would follow Mount Pleasant north to St. Clair Avenue. From there it was west to where St. Clair meets Yonge and down Yonge Street to Richmond.
From the bottom of Mount Pleasant at Jarvis to the top at St. Clair is a constant climb over a distance that runs a little under 2.5 kilometres. Covering that distance on foot, no reprieve is offered until you hit St. Clair. This was the primary reason for running this route. The hill at Mount Pleasant is a close replica of the Valley Inn Hill at the Around the Bay 30 K Road Race in Hamilton, a race which most of us were planning to run. Rather cruelly, this hill is placed right at the end of Around the Bay.
I fell into a group of three and we chatted casually as we ran across Front and up Jarvis, dodging dog walkers and strollers on what are typically busy Downtown streets. This section felt rather casual and moderately paced as we hit regular streetlights. We stopped, had a quick drink of water, chatted, and continued running as the walk sign flashed. None of us were running at our maximum speed or capability.
We hit the bottom of the hill around thirty minutes into the run. The incline is felt almost immediately. It’s not just that the ascent begins and your body immediately feels itself slowing down and pushing harder than it was previously, but the mere sight of the hill is enough to diminish your capacity. It doesn’t look manageable. It looks like the reason cars were invented.
I gulped down an energy gel and a sip of water. We began our climb.
We passed other runners along the way, but they were all going in the other direction. In those moments, there is nothing that you can really tell yourself to make it easier. The climb is hard and no distraction can make the pain any less resonant. Every reassurance that you are almost there, every attempt that you make to hum the theme song from Rocky while throwing jabs and hooks as you run is just a waste of energy that again fails to dull the pain.
The only thing to do is to keep going. Just do the things that running requires. Keep your form correct and don’t slouch forward. Hydrate appropriately. Breathe in and out. Maintain a forefoot strike. Running offers that kind of simplicity. If your focus is on doing these things, that’s all there really is to it.
Your mind is not open to gimmicks. It’s in survival mode and the only thing it sees is the need to end this brutality one way or the other, either by just stopping or finishing the task at hand. It’s a strange sensation. All you can do is commit yourself to the task and keep moving. Commit yourself to running with the perfect form and breathing. Acknowledge that you are running and keep running. Don’t attempt to fool yourself into thinking that what you are doing isn’t difficult or possibly insane.
There is a brief flat stretch, not particularly long, before another climb begins along Mount Pleasant up to St. Clair. I didn’t stop, knowing that I would kill all momentum and forget that I was supposed to be running. I continued. We hit a stoplight and I asked another runner, “How much more of the hill?”
“That’s it!” she answered. We cut across St. Clair and down Yonge to the end of our planned route.
Getting up that hill was not only a struggle in the ascent, but afterward as well. I still felt shooting pains in my leg muscles as we slowed down occasionally on our way down Yonge Street due to stoplights and human traffic.
Reflecting on the run afterward, I was reminded of what I had already known. I did not want to be that guy, the one who quit. If my body gave out and I failed, that would be fine. I’ve had many moments throughout my life when others would have been justified in calling me a failure. I never want to justify being called a quitter.
It’s perhaps the result of some bizarre combination of reading too much Thucydides and watching too much boxing, all of which instilled in me the notion that it is a point of moral pride to not retreat. The only acceptable way to remove yourself from a challenge was to “go out on your shield.” A Spartan male was not worthy of a proper burial if he did not die in battle. Arturo Gatti winced in pain, seemingly on the verge of tears when a left hook from Micky Ward left him on the canvas in their first encounter, before getting up and continuing to fight.
Someone who has led a relatively comfortable life and who has never known true hardship cannot really experience such extreme trials of the soul as those who are in a literal life and death situation, whether it be war or standing trial for your life. Nonetheless, my obsession with honour and steadfastness has trickled into my relationship with running, however laughable it may be to channel these ideas in my life devoid of real struggle. No matter that I am so far removed from that history, I fear the shame of retreat all the same.
This is a familiar battle for the amateur runner. The elite athlete has a certain comfort of knowing that within three hours, they will cross the finish line at any major marathon. The amateur is looking at a potential four or five hours spent on their feet running. Time becomes sadistic and takes its toll and you become more conscious of pain and the fact that a significant distance is still to be covered. No terrain is easy at this point.
Against this torture, it becomes solely about proving yourself over and above your own expectations. Long distances demand so much when your body and mind have already given everything. Fatigue and exertion are things we convince ourselves to avoid at all costs, even in the smallest doses. In the usual goings-on of our daily lives, fatigue is usually the first sign that we should quit or slow down. The runner is trying to carry on as these feelings accrue. Absurd as some may deem it, it’s truly impressive.
I have always admired amateur runners the most, the ones who may not cross the finish line until well after the four hour mark of a marathon, the ones who barely make it, for their astonishing grit. These are the runners who went all the way to the brink of their physical and mental prowess and then went a little bit further. They carried themselves against all hope.
Running is a very honest pursuit when you’re an amateur. You just have to convince yourself to run for its own sake and for your own quiet little triumph, for proof that you’re not that guy, the one who quits. You just have to keep going.