Hills and valleys. Valleys and hills. Not an analogy or cliché about life, but rather a reference to running terrain. I grew up in hilly northeast Iowa, also known as God’s country. Yes parts of Iowa are flat, but not the part I was born and raised in. When I started running as a youngster, I headed down our long driveway, which was mostly flat, and then turned on to the gravel road. It didn’t matter which way I turned, there was a hill. We moved to a different farm when I was 15 and the same scenario played out. Any direction I went, sooner or later—usually sooner—I encountered hills.
I did spend some years in my earlier adult life in northwest Iowa and southeastern South Dakota. Hills were fewer and farther between in that area. To me, that also meant less scenic. It is the ups and downs of the countryside that bring such awe in the changing daylight and the changing seasons.
Our current home is in river country and also fairly hilly. Hills have never scared me as a runner. I see them as a challenge to overcome. I rarely walk up hills, unless I am in the later miles of a marathon and need to save what little energy I have remaining. Since my husband Darcy and I began running marathons in 2004, hills have taken on new meaning. They add to the pain and pleasure of covering such a distance. What goes up must come down. A runner appreciates a downhill after an uphill. Perspective changes as the pressure shifts from one part of our legs to another. Relief takes on new meaning. One step at a time has never been more true.
Luckily, our training adequately prepares us for a hilly marathon course because we are always running hills. A couple marathons stick out in particular for their vertical variability. I am thinking especially of a sizeable and discouraging hill around mile 22 in the Seattle Marathon. Poor timing, but we had been warned that hilly Seattle would be challenging. It was. Conversely, the downhill finish to the Mount Desert Island Marathon in Maine was a welcome sight in the midst of a very scenic, sometimes hilly route. Good timing.
In reality, ascents often look worse from a distance. Once the climb begins, they seem less daunting. It helps to be familiar with a hill. A runner knows what to expect and knows exactly when the climb is over. Here is a familiar hill, less than a mile from our house, that Darcy and I have run hundreds of times:
The picture doesn’t do it complete justice. It’s a long climb. I usually look right in front of me as I make my way up it. It is too deflating to look at the top of the hill until I get close enough to start feeling inflated with energy again.
Sorry, I just can’t resist drawing some analogies to life here. We all have familiar hills that need regular climbing—mine are about recovery and staying out of self-pity. About facing fears and a surgically-altered and aging body. About continuing to pursue dreams when at times they seem to only exist on the other side of a mountain. Sometimes familiar is comforting, even if it is tough.
I believe it is also fortunate that we can’t always see the path or the terrain too far ahead. If we knew just how our lives would play out, we wouldn’t live them the same way we do when we know there are no guarantees. Hills and valleys bring much gratitude and growth to this slow learner and late bloomer.