I’m not doing much training right now. Ever since I shattered my collarbone last July, I’ve struggled to get back into training.
You know what I miss about training? Training by myself? Running up The Hill in Cliffside Park, thinking I hate the situation I'm in. Feeling so depressed and out of control, I can't imagine keeping moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other. Struggling for five minutes to get to the top of that damn hill. When I finally reached the top of the hill, those thoughts were much fainter, harder to focus on. The sidewalk ahead of me had captured my attention. The sidewalk and my body. The process of awakening to the running, to the effort, the burning of my lungs from starting too fast, from not warming up, from just walking out the door and heading up The Hill. After five or ten more minutes I start to feel relaxed. My heart rate has settled back down to where it should be for the effort I'm running at. My lungs aren't burning any more, my eyes are able to focus on the sidewalk and my mind is clear, empty. Well, not really empty. There are no thoughts of the problems, the hurt, the anger. There are no thoughts of the struggles. My mind isn't empty, not really. It's full of pace, effort, form, distance, time.
When I stepped out the door and turned up the hill, I had no idea where I was going to run - no idea of distance, direction or pace. I only knew I had to start up The Hill. For some reason, starting down the hill was never a choice. I always started up The Hill. I usually finished down The Hill. But, some times I looped around and finished running up the same damn hill.
Some where around 3 or 4 miles things changed again. I was running fast. My mind was sharp - focused and clear. I was thinking about the intersection a quarter of a mile ahead, checking out the traffic, the light, calculating the pace and effort needed to make it across before the light, and the traffic forced me to a stop. The only driving force was not to stop. Don't stop, no matter what. Speed was my currency, and at that point I held all the coins. I could accelerate and beat the light. I knew I could - there was no gamble involved. I was certain, it was a certainty. I had done it many times before. Or I could cruise and hold my pace and avoid having to stop for the now red light. I had complete and absolute control over my pace.
At around five miles I usually made the decision to turn around. Sometimes I went a bit further - 5.5 or 6 or 6.5 miles. But, most often it was the 5 mile mark that I used as my turn-around point. There was nothing there - just another semi-urban intersection on the major north-south route from Fort Lee to northern Bergen County and the affluent communities beyond. I can't even say why I started to turn-around there. It wasn't fatigue - the return trip was always faster than the out-bound trip.
And, I can't remember what would have motivated me to go that extra distance. I can't say it was a feeling of fitness. I never felt fit as I started those runs. I rarely felt fit as I finished them either. Flying down The Hill, running sub six's for the last mile or two, up on my toes, barely touching the ground, I had moved onto the road. The sidewalk no longer was big enough for me. I was moving too fast to deal with the narrowness and the cracks, tree roots and bumps.
I never thought of pushing myself during those runs. Remember, I could barely imagine getting up The Hill. The return trip was a blur. Well, the world around me was a blur. I may have raced the traffic lights on the way out. On the way back I hardly notice the traffic lights. I wasn't running recklessly, just with abandon. Heels kicking up to my butt, legs flying through the air, toes lightly kissing the ground and quickly back into that flying movement off the ground.
The first five or ten minutes, especially up The Hill, my breathing and heart were very obvious to me. I could feel the burning and hear the pounding. My vision was blurred and sounds were muffled. On the return, I could only hear and feel the wind. My breathing was silent. My heart felt as if it were hardly beating. My eyes were wide open and the sights of the world flying past me were clear and sharp. I could even smell the flowers and trees I was running past. Every sense was heightened. If I was numb and full of pain on the way out, I was fully alive and full of joy on the way back.
I can't recall why I stopped at my front door. The Hill continued for almost another mile down to the river. I was feeling so good moving so fast down the hill. What was it that made me stop? Looking back, I can't imagine why I would stop that feeling of joy and life. But, I did. Every single time. I'd stop, walk a block down and back up and then go inside. I'd open a beer, grab a bag of pretzels and sit down on my balcony. It faced east, so I could see the setting sun reflected off the NYC skyline. The air cooled quickly, the beer and the pretzels disappeared as quickly as the sun set. Then I'd go inside and the world would return, the feelings of joy would slowly slide down, along with the sweat rolling down my face and chest. Or were they tears? It's been 15 years, so I really can't say.
In May of that year I started this running routine. Out the door, turn right and head up The Hill. Some time that summer I realized I was running about 80 miles a week and those 10 mile runs up the hill were my salvation. They also were getting me in the best running shape of my life. I was approaching 50, but I was running like I was in my 30s. That summer and fall I ran a series of races - from 5 Km to 70 Km, including the Pioneer 100 Mile Trek where I finished third overall.
Those runs were among the most important I had ever run in my life. Both for the fitness they gave me - the endurance, strength and speed - but also for the mental strength they gave me. Not the mental strength you need at the end of a long hard race, but the mental strength you need at those times in life when things and people conspire against you, or at least that's the way it appears. Nothing seems to be going right. We all have times like that. Getting up in the morning is the hardest part of the day. The thought of facing all those problems made it seem like staying in bed was the better choice. But, once I got up and put on my running shorts and shoes things started to look less bleak. And by the five mile mark, things were looking positive and just fine.
15 years later I return to The Hill - not to run it, but to renew the lessons and strength they gave me. After running The Hill, nothing seems tough. Everything seems attainable.