Hills. My corner of northeastern Pennsylvania rolls with them. They amble past chipping barns adorned with colorful hex signs, up country roads that wind like dangerous spiral staircases, down to rocky creek beds peppered with hungry blue herons and fishermen sipping cans of cheap beer. I didn’t really like this place until I embraced its hills.
I grew up in pancake-flat Ohio, and though my cross-country coach made sure I got acquainted with all the hills worth getting to know in the area, we had to seek them out to run them. Here, you have to seek out where to hide from them. Just when I think my course has flattened, that familiar burn in my quads will alert me that another incline is approaching. When I moved here last summer I found relief down on a smooth canal towpath, but these days I discover it at the gravelly tops of climbs.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of runner I am. Some join running groups for the community of the sport, others thrive by racing one 5K after the next, and then there are loners like me who do it to uncover the calmest, emptiest spaces of their minds. It’s quiet there, the soundtrack only breath, the thoughts just wisps that return fully formed later when my running shoes come off. And the best way to reach this place is by muscling uphill.
There’s this moment, when I’m running an unfamiliar route and I have no clue how much longer I’ll be climbing upward. My legs are like blue screaming fire that I want to put out, and I know I can, just by stopping. But for whatever reason I don’t. I may inch and shuffle, but I power my way up that evil monster of a hill because I know that what’s at the top is worth it.