Thursday, April 25, 2013

Running Up That Road, Running Up That Hill

I have been running for about eleven years now, (and boy are my legs tired—ba-dum-bum.)  In that time I have found running to be a great metaphor for many things.  It gives me a way to wrap my head around the difficulties of marriage and parenting, the process of developing a good habit, and the work and commitment required to tackle any large undertaking.  I often find that my running life gives me a way to make sense of my non-running life.

Lately I have found that sometimes the opposite can be true, too.  Sometimes my non-running life can give me a unique way to think about my running.  This has happened twice in the past few months here in the hills around Ithaca.  

When life gives you lemons you are supposed to make lemonade (and maybe add a bit of ice and gin).  When life gives you hills, as it does so abundantly here in the Finger Lakes, you just need to build them right into your runs on purpose.  Make them useful.  So that is what I have been doing with a particular beast-of-a-hill called Besemer Hill Road.

After living and running in New Haven, CT for nine years, (elevation 43 feet above sea level), Besemer Hill looks like a mountain.  If I get to the end of the driveway and turn left, then climbing Besemer will not be a part of my run.  If instead I turn right, I know that 1.7 miles down the road comes The Hill.  It is a decision I make in the driveway, without the terrible image of the Hill before me.  Once I turn right, it is already a done deal.  All told, the Hill is 1.5 miles long and gains more than 500 feet of altitude.  The worst section gains more than 300 feet in a half-mile.  It is a killer.

To get myself up and over Besemer without stopping to walk I sometimes have to play tricks on myself.  (Being human, this is very easy to do.)  And this is where I have noticed my non-running life coming in useful to my runs.  One trick I play is to remember a scene from Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novel Animal Dreams.  One of the characters in the book is a train engineer in the mountain West.  In one scene he describes the difficulties involved in getting a long train up and over a big hill.  Once the front of the train crests the hill and begins its descent, the train experiences gravity pulling it apart from the center.  Both the front cars and the rear cars are being pulled back down their respective sides of the hill and an unskilled engineer can lose the entire train if it uncouples.

To prevent this from happening, there are engines at the rear of the train to provide a push up the hill, but they must be in synch with the front engines providing pull so the cars in the middle are not accordioned.  It is a hard process to get right and requires much skill.  So when I am trudging up Besemer Hill I sometimes take part of my brain and send it on ahead up and over the top.  I imagine it coming down the other side of the hill and back toward the driveway.  And then I trick myself into believing that that part of me that has already made it to the top is providing some pull as my legs provide some push and, together, they get me over the top and back home.  And in that way Barbara Kingsolver gets me over Besemer Hill.

This past weekend I listened to a Radiolab episode called Emergence while driving back from New Haven.  There was a segment explaining how ants seek, find, and collect food to bring back to the nest.  It has to do with order emerging from chaos, and the way this happens in ants is through the pheromone trails each individual lays as it walks.  As individual ants search for and then find a food source, they are constantly secreting chemical trails.  At first these trails are random but over time, as more ants discover the food, the trails in the vicinity have more and more pheromone laid down on top and become stronger and easier to follow.  If five ants have walked the same trail, the scent is stronger than if just one or two have gone that way, making it more likely that successive ants will follow that particular path and in doing so, they will add their scent to the trail as well, making it even stronger.

I had this image in mind two days ago as I got to the end of the driveway and had to decide—left or right?  It was a very long and snowy winter here and I had not run up Besemer Hill since November.  In ant terms, there were no pheromone trails going off to the right and therefore nothing for me to follow that way.  But I knew that I wanted to start building the Hill back into some of my regular runs.  In the end, what helped me decide to go right was thinking about future-me getting to the end of the driveway and sniffing around for a direction.  I wanted today’s me to get there and be able to tell that the freshest, most recent trail goes to the right and that I should follow that runner who took that trail on Tuesday.  And when I again choose that trail today, I will be helping Saturday’s me make the same decision, but it will be less of a decision and more of a built-in instinct.  The trail will just get stronger and stronger and the decision will just get easier and easier.

Sometimes I love how simultaneously stupid and complex our minds can be.  It is like we are both: the dumb individual ants out in the world basing every move and action on blind instinct, and the larger colony benefiting from the results of all those unplanned, unexamined actions.  In the end, whatever gets me up and over Besemer Hill can only be good.


  1. I will surely be thinking of this post when I follow a whole bunch of ants in the Bear Mountain 50k next weekend. If nothing else, reflecting on your hill-climbing strategies will provide a welcome distraction. Good luck with Besemer; it sounds like a beast :)

  2. "Always turn left," that's my motto.
    Also, why do you so frequently mention the 'difficulties of marriage'?

    1. Because marriage is hard if you want to do it right. Also, it is on my mind a lot.

  3. I was just trying to use the web to find that passage from Barbara Kingsolver, about the train, and my search led me to your posting. I needed that passage for some work I'm doing this morning ... before I head out for a run, here in Tromsø. Your running thoughts are just about enough to get me through this cup of coffee, up out of my chair, and out onto my favorite hilly path here in the high north. Thanks!

  4. Thank you for your insight. I am a beginner training for my first triathlon and running is my weakest point. I very much dislike running and I just found out last weekend the running path is very hilly. I will try to think on these things as I practice! The more I run the easier it will get.