Caress the hill, love it, and maybe it will love you
That was a common saying amongst many of my old running teammates. It started after a particularly challenging race at the end of October during my first cross country season. It was the final meet on our home course for the season and the last race ever on that course for the seniors. We had won three and lost three meets so far that season, so this one was set to be the deal breaker.
A high school cross country race is somewhere between 2.9 and 3.1 miles long. Sometimes it’s on trails, sometimes roads, sometimes loops around lakes. Our home course was a 2.9 mile road race with an infamous quarter mile hill just after the first mile mark.
It was a 2.9 mile race, but more often than not it came down to that quarter mile.
By the half mile mark where a slight incline gave the first hint at what was to come, it was clear that whoever could scale the coming monstrosity would be the one to win, and there were several strategies out there.
The girls up front, those wrestling for first and second, employed sheer speed. They were going to try and fly up the hill, to run so fast that they wouldn’t even realize the extra strain the increase in elevation would require. That method would never work for a team victory (and certainly not for me).
The girls battling for third and fourth took a different approach. They didn’t quite have the speed to fly, but they had more determination than most. Third was key, and for my teammate and her very lanky opponent it appeared whoever could bounce faster and farther (literally each step seemed to take them up several inches off the ground) would be the first to the peak.
For those of us who couldn’t quite hit a six minute split (yours truly) we weren’t quite sure of our strategy. We definitely didn’t have the speed and, at least for me, bouncing was never a good option (shin splints were too real). The fifth place on each team was always a tossup. First, second, third and even fourth were pretty easy to spot. The classic runner look was hard to miss amongst the many who somehow found themselves on the cross country team.
But fifth place was another story. And how that story would get up the swiftly approaching hill was a mystery.
That day as I passed the mile mark just over 6:30 I honestly didn’t know how I was going to beat the much-more-like-a-third-place-runner speeding along beside me. I had barely been able to keep up with her thus far, she was sure to employ the tactics of a winner.
“You got this Reading! Come on girls!” the cries from our red and black wearing fan base reached my ears as I approached the base of the hill. Through all the shouts and cheers for my teammates one voice cut through my racing-fog.
“Go Jules! You’re a winner,” my mom screamed in her scratchy, over-excited voice.
A winner. The word I had literally just assigned to my opponent. What if I could be the winner? If not of the race (which would never be possible) of this two person battle for king of the hill.
As we both started the assent, our feet perfectly in step, I realized that I had something (maybe multiple things) that this girl didn’t. While she was probably faster and most likely had better endurance and would undoubtedly beat me in any track meet, this was not a track meet. This was cross country. This was a hill. And a hill gave me with my long lengths and strong quads a distinct advantage.
The words of my coach came to me as I was almost halfway up the hill – caress the hill, love it and maybe it will love you.
I stretched a little further and sank a little deeper, feeling as though I was massaging the road with each step. My strides began to pull away and I soon lost sight of my opponent. I did my best interpretation of caressing a multi-story mountain of asphalt and in return it gave me a little love. Maybe I didn’t win the race but I sure did win that hill.