Yesterday I ate hills for lunch.
I love hills. Forget track and long running – throw me some hills. I think each of us as runners knows what works for us and what really destroys us in a meaningful way. For me – it is hills. 400s around the track. Bleh. Forget it. Long run – I’m bored after 10 miles. Yet give me a good set of hill repeats and I’m ready to go.
It has to be the right hill. Living in the land of the flats, we don’t have too many hills around here. But when I have hill repeats, I go to the hill at Blackwell Forest Preserve. I’ve heard it called a lot of things; Mount Trashmore, Mount Hoy, Bitch but to me it is just big hill. It stands at 836 feet above sea level which around here…is a mountain.
From bottom to top you cover 150 feet at a 15 – 20% grade in roughly 90 seconds. On mountain bike, it requires the granny gear. On legs, it requires the zone 5c gear. Making it more challenging is climbing on uneven packed dirt and grassy terrain. And when you get about 45 seconds from the top of it, the grade gets higher and the hurt multiplies. This point is signaled by a single brick set into the ground. I’m not sure why it’s there but to me that brick is the cue to pick it up and charge.
At the top of the hill, a spectacular view of DuPage County unfolds before you. In the fall it explodes in color that makes the climb worthwhile. Right now it is a warm blanket of green set underneath the blue sky. After the last hill repeat I always take a moment to stop, possibly barf and look around. No matter the season, it is always beautiful.
Today I set out to do 8 hill repeats. I parked at Herrick Lake which is about a 20 minute run to the hill. I arrive at Blackwell feeling warmed up and ready to go. Surprisingly, today I am not the only one at the hill. In winter it is used as a sled hill, yet right now it is a walk up it with your dog, run around with your Cub Scots, go birding at the top, run up it hill. A multi-purpose hill.
The first 4 climbs are under control and mostly for strength. They hurt but they do not burn. I take short steps and pump my arms. The top half pushes me to the edge but not over it. The last 4 hill repeats are made to be hard. I plan to attack the last half of the hill, pushing over the edge and letting my legs drown in the burn until I’m half way done. This is the good stuff. This is the work. I love it here. Make it hurt. Make it hard. Let’s eat some big hills.
Coming down the 5th hill repeat I notice a fine looking older gentleman to my left. I realize it is Ironman legend and local phenom, Bob Scott. Bob is nearing 80 years old. He is the current Ironman World Champion for his age group, M75 – 79. In 2005, he set the world record in that age group finishing Kona in 13:27. A few years earlier, at the young age of 71, he completed Kona in 12:59.
Another world record.
Bob is Ironman. He’s been to Kona likely 8 times and each year takes qualification at Eagleman as seriously as any competitor half his age. Doesn’t matter if one person shows up in his M75 – 79 age group or ten. He knows them, knows their strength and is ready to give them the race of his life.
Today Bob is walking up the hill with a friend. He says hello to me. Every time I see him I smile. He is incredibly fit and reminds me that life is not about lasting it’s about living. Any time someone gives me an excuse for why they aren’t fit, I think about Bob and think there really is no excuse.
I climb up the hill for number 6 and Bob is at the top cheering for me. He claps, shouts me name and says ALL RIGHT as I come around the fence. I tell him this is so hard and his answer?
OF COURSE IT’S HARD! But it makes you strong, Elizabeth.
The way he says it is both reprimanding but reassuring. Direct but understanding. He's been there. He has tasted this hill. He knows at the top you are thinking how can I possibly do this again but then you find the strength to do it a few more times. I run down and get ready to run back up again. The last 2 repeats. For sure these will be so hard I will think I cannot do it again, I will pee myself, pull something or explode. I am glad someone who knows me is here to witness it. At least they will know which way to point me in the direction of home. In case I forget.
Number 7 hurts like a bitch. Now I see why they call the hill Bitch. It is. At the brick in the ground I make a serious effort to pick it up and run on top of the pain. That is how it felt. Bob is cheering for me and telling me my heart rate is going higher and higher and that means I’m getting stronger. I reach the top and he tells me I look great, strong, I’m an animal.
With a cheering section like that, I’m thinking I want to bring Bob to my next race.
On to the last hill repeat. Bob is off to the left of me now near the top of the hill. I am pushing the last half and the whole way he is shouting “You are 99% done, you have less than 1% left!” I put my head down and don’t look ahead. Focus on the steps in front of me. I reach the top before I know it and walk around the fence.
Sigh. Exhale. Wheeze. Moan. Announce that I think I need to throw up. Two birders are looking at me like there are much easier ways to get up this hill.
Bob is right there and begins walking down the hill with me. I tell him there is nothing harder than hill repeats and he agrees. He asks if I am still competing as a pro and I tell him yes – and that it is also very hard. His reply?
OF COURSE IT’S HARD! It’s always been hard, Elizabeth. Even before you were pro it was always hard.
Bob is right. His wisdom goes with his age, or simply from years as a competitive runner and finally a competitive Ironman. Competition is hard. Thinking it will ever get any easier is wishful at best. It will not get easier. Instead, you will get better at overcoming the hard. Hill repeats help you prepare for that. As do time trial intervals, all out 25s and open water swims. You work to become better than the rest.
As we walk, Bob says he is preparing for Eagleman in a few weeks and somehow I know he will turn out a time faster than most people half his age. He’s just that kind of athlete – tough to the core, true and hard working. Last year at the age of 77 he won his age group at Kona in 14:49. He doesn't need to qualify for Kona at Eagleman, yet still he'll still show up ready to bring it, to race, to compete as if he needed to. Bob is an athlete.
If I am lucky, I will make it to age 78 with all of my original body parts and a fiery passion for sport. At that point I might be over the hill but I will walk, run, skip my way up the hill at that age just because I can. Because I know that every day is an opportunity to do what I can. And if I’m lucky, I’ll see a thirty-something version of myself running up the hill. I’ll tell her what it takes to get to the top of the hill. And when she tells me it’s hard I’ll tell her of course it’s hard. Most things in life are. The older you get, the more you accept that. The more you go seeking for it to know that the work you are doing is the work that counts. The hard work. It doesn’t get any easier – whether you’re trying to get to Kona at 78 or just trying to set a new personal best at age 33 - don’t think there is any where there other there than to climb at a steep grade.