Rocks, Roots, Elevation and Enlightenment…

It is 4:30am on a Thursday morning this past fall and I am about to step out the door into the black, damp abyss that I call my neighbourhood. It has been raining all night and I can see the once beautiful fall leaves now covering the ground before me. What am I doing leaving the house so early for? Well, that all started seven weeks ago when I met my friend Jason “The Ironman” to do a hill workout at 6am in the river valley. The workout consisted of a two kilometre warm up on flats, followed by three repetitions of a 600 metre hill, followed by a two kilometre cool down. The workout went well for many reasons and we had agreed to meet every Thursday thereafter, increasing the workout by one hill repetition per week, until our workout climbed to ten hill repetitions. The trick of course, is that with our other weekday morning commitments such as work and driving children to school, we still had to end at the same time each week to meet these commitments. So every week, we would meet ten minutes earlier to account for the additional hill repetition that added 1.2kms per week. By the time we got to our final week, we were scheduled to meet at 4:50am. Ugh… there is not coffee strong enough for this!

On the way to a lonely hill first thing in the morning….

I started doing hill reps when I was training for my first marathon. I still recall reading a learn to run book that had laid out a sixteen week program that would get me ready for race day! Every week for about eight weeks it scheduled me to do hill work. So I started going on my lunch hour and doing hill reps on either the Emily Murphy Hill or the Victoria Park hill, both near Downtown Edmonton. I have to admit I enjoyed the exercise and it was a great challenge. The one thing I never liked though was the amount of vehicle traffic that passed me and some days the number of runners and walkers that I had to zig zag around. Over time, road hill reps became trail hill reps. I just had to find that right hill. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to look too far from home. I had been running in and around a large off-leash park in our neighbourhood and there was a long gradual hill that I always had to come up to end my run. This would do. And if I came in the morning, no one else would be down here. No traffic – check. No pedestrians to swerve in and out of – check. Hill to myself – check.

The lonely hill…

So hill reps became part of my weekly workouts. I found it helped me get stronger for road running, trail running, day hiking and backpacking. There was no downside to the results that came from this arduous activity. The results were there, but let’s face it, hill reps are difficult, not only physically, but mentally. The act of charting a course up a trail full of roots and rocks, then getting water at the top before making your way back down is no easy feat. Especially when you keep repeating it. Up and down, up and down, up and down. You start to feel every curve, slope, pebble, divet, fallen branch… you name it, you feel it. And it doesn’t get easier every time. Your body starts to fatigue and your brain tells you that “it’s okay to stop after this rep.” Some days are better than others. Some days your stomach rebels on your fifth cycle and you need to make a break for the port-a-potty in the parking lot before making your way back to finish your workout. Is there anything harder than sitting down to relieve yourself, relaxing all of your muscles and than gearing up to make them all feel pain again when you step foot back on that hill? There are days in the summer when you are already overheating at 6:15am and there are days in the winter when you know you could have used an extra layer because it is minus 19 and you really don’t want to be out here doing this.

Cold winter hill days…

So if there is so much challenge, so much negative sometimes, relating to getting out for these workouts, then how do we make them more enjoyable? Find a friend. Find a friend that has no idea what they are getting themselves into. Find a friend that has a training goal in mind and make them understand how much hills will help them to meet that goal. My first hill rep buddy was a co-worker and good friend of mine named Doug. He was training for a half marathon and he was the one that would get out with me on the paved hills near our workplace. Then there were other running teammates that were part of relay teams I participated with. Hills test people in many ways and if you want to see what your teammates are made of, do hills with them and you will find out after the third or so hill. But my longest serving hill buddy is my friend Jason “The Ironman”, who (as his name identifies) is a three time Ironman finisher.

Eric and I with Jason “The Ironman” on a training run this past summer

I met Jason through some mutual friends years ago and shortly after we found out he was going to be Eric’s hockey coach in his first year of Novice hockey. As we got to know each other better, we started talking more about running and hey, maybe we should go for a run together sometime. I had heard some crazy stories of his including how he was nearing the end of his first half marathon when he fainted, waking up to medical attention – what was I getting myself into running with this guy?! We lived close to each other so one run became two, which became more and eventually we were meeting two to three times each week. He was doing marathon training and I was training for an ultramarathon. When we crawled out of our cold, snowy winter that year, I told him we should go down to the river valley in the mornings because it was beautiful down there in the spring. Now keep in mind, this wasn’t to do hills… it was just to transfer our 6-10km morning runs from pavement to dirt. The first thing I learned when trailing with Jason was that he falls a lot. Take him onto a dirt trail and he is sure to be the one that finds the root sticking up from the ground, or the rock that is in your path. Fallen branches? Yup, he will find those too. All kidding aside, this was a somewhat regular occurrence and made for some funny training mornings. We always talked on our runs, mainly because Jason is such a great storyteller. I remember telling him about incorporating hill training into my weekly runs and how much I felt it had helped when I had trained for longer distance events in the past. Then I pointed out the dirt trail on the hill that I have used in the past and the rest is history. So there you have it, we started in on hills and it was a slog at first. If you aren’t used to going up and down the same hill multiple times, it takes a toll on you physically and mentally. But Jason was game for it and by taking the same route up and down, he was also less likely to fall! Seriously though, he doesn’t fall on hill reps which is why we always stick to the same route…

Note the tripping hazards in the middle of the trail…

I’m not going to go into detail about every week of hill training, but you know what makes these mornings so great? It is the banter back and forth. It is the venting about the many challenges in life. It is the bragging about our kids. It is the talk about upcoming race goals. Upcoming vacation plans, frustrations coaching hockey and soccer and funny stories from the past are all scattered about on that hill. Every time I am on that hill, whether it be running with Eric, walking my dog, or doing those damn hill reps, I think of stories and experiences that have been shared there. Not only do those hills bring out the best in us physically by pushing us towards our limits, but they bring all of life into focus. Hill reps allow you to go through your emotions and leave the negative ones there, allowing you to move forward with your day in a more positive framework. Hill reps allow you to process challenges you may be facing and come away with a different or more focused outlook on things. Most importantly though, hill reps allow you to be yourself, overcome adversities and celebrate successes, all in the time it takes to complete them.

In a rare moment with Jason not on a hill!

Jason “The Ironman” has gone through training for marathons and ironman competitions with and without hill repetitions. He has stated that he feels stronger and better prepared when he puts in the hill work. I like to believe that his mind is also clearer and that he is more focused going into an event knowing he has pushing himself physically but also prepared himself mentally. I know I poke fun at him falling while out trailing, but seriously, I could not be more proud of this guy. Not only has he finished three ironmans and half ironmans, but he has finished more marathons than I can remember. He has faced his share of challenges and obstacles and keeps coming back stronger each and every year, more determined to improve on past performances. I am fortunate to know him and to be inspired by him on an ongoing basis. More recently, Eric has put in the work on the hill as well, and we’ve even added a second hill in the same area. Much like my time with Jason “The Ironman” on the hill, this gives me a chance to connect with my son. I think his current experience is more focused on the physical side of things, but over time he will likely embrace the same feelings that I have over my time on the hill. And to be honest, we don’t talk quite as much on the hill for one very important reason… I am almost always trailing my son because I just can’t quite keep up…

Eric tearing down a hill at Blackspur Ultra this past summer

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