Four Hills, Three Shirts

Hospital Hill 2008. I'd made it through the Couch to 5K program, struggled through a respiratory illness. The 5K distance was the farthest I'd run. Could I make it up that first big hill? No. Halfway up and I walked. Clock time, 42:46. Pace, 13:46. I got the shirt that said, "I conquered the hill!" I didn't wear it.

Hospital Hill 2009. I'd been running a few times a week, never farther than 5K. I'd been running on hills, but as the spring grew hot and muggy, needed to walk more frequently. I had no idea how to feed myself to fuel a run. Would I make it up that hill? (I even ran the hill the weekend before to show myself I could.) Race day: Yes. But in the heat I almost blacked out at the top and walked the next 200 yards hallucinatory. Chip time, 39:05, pace 12:35. I got another shirt that said, "I conquered the hill!"

As by this time I was starting to work toward my first triathlon and needed all the tech shirts I could get, I wore both of them fraudulently.

"The hill's beaten me twice," I told Troy. "My only goal this year is not to walk, and then I won't have to do this damn race again."

But in the start area I was hopping up and down like a kid on a pogo stick, laughing at myself for burning that much energy, and knowing I'd do this race again. It's just too much fun.

With 4,500 runners unleashed from the starting gate through the streets of downtown Kansas City, we looked like a colorful swarm of bees, or maybe a stampeding rainbow herd of extremely skinny wildebeest.

It's the only run I've done where the sound of footsteps is like a rainstorm, for the entire distance.

Pre-race. Groovy running in a skirt

And the hills! Doesn't matter if they've beaten me. Doesn't matter if they hurt. I love hills. Something to warrant recovery from. I love how much I can feel my whole body generating power. I love hills in races; love passing people, love having just a little more grit than the next runner; love running with people who eat hills whole, storming by me when I'm giving all I have, be next to that strength for a few seconds and see what's possible.

The elevation profile shows only the one big, first hill and a second gentle-looking roller. But there were four distinct and gorgeous hill events on this course in addition to a couple of more minor steady grades.

The first is the hill that Hospital Hill is named for, a half-mile climb with a steep grade. The hill that had beaten me. Not this year. I held back on the first mile and was ready for a steady six-minute climb. Danced up, plenty of breath, didn't black out. Two thumbs up. If I were doing the 5K, I thought, I would PR. Wow. But I am not, and it is very humid out here. We shall see.

I kept pace with a couple of marks, two friends in headphones who were chatting about boyfriends, hysterectomies, and cocktail recipes.

Because I believed the elevation profile, I thought once I was past this hill the run would be routine — or as routine as a run in 80% humidity can be. We hit a long grade then and runners started complaining about the hills, wondering aloud to each other when they were going to end. Inside my head, I grinned.

A woman's D-chip flew off onto the course. I stopped and went back for it and tried to catch her. "Hey! Your chip!" Then looked down and saw I was holding the throwaway instruction piece of the laminated chip, which had probably been stuck to her bib. Crap. I lost my marks. And I really wanted to hear about the hysterectomy, too. Oh well, good citizen points.

At the bottom of the grade, two happy surprises. First: Kelly Grace and our pal Sarah course marshalling. They yelled their fool heads off for me, cracked me up. Whenever that happens on a course all the other runners look at you to see if they should know who you are. Kelly and Sarah, thank you for yelling my full name ("Ann Pai! Ann Pai!") so it would be more Google-able.

Second surprise: We runners would make two sharp rights, and could see the steep, demoralizing hill that was waiting for us on the other side of the horseshoe. I wanted to laugh. Steak with a fried egg on top and coconut cream pie, that is what that hill is. By the time I got to the top of it I had no doubt that I was working at capacity. My legs didn't want to run. The W word popped into my head. I was drenched in sweat that wouldn't evaporate.

"If you tell your legs they have to keep moving, they'll keep moving," I said. And the hill was behind me.

Between hill 2 and hill 3, my toes and fingers started to tingle and go a little numb. This really isn't supposed to happen. But given my history of heat exhaustion and how little problem I was having in the heat and humidity that day — no heat-related nausea, no dizziness — I wondered if for once my blood was working to cool my internal organs rather than my skin; if my circulation weren't being for once appropriately diverted. I wondered how different this would be if the sky weren't overcast. I wondered if the numb sensation would go away. It did. (Before you all start yelling at me, yes, I'll mention it to my doctor.)

Hill 3 was tougher than all the others. I was pushing myself. My obliques and lower abs started to squeeze. My legs felt strafed. "Ahhhh," I breathed out hard. Then: "Aaaagh," I said out loud. "Ooaaah." I sounded, felt, and am pretty sure I looked, like I was trying to birth something.

"You can do it, almost to the top," said a man I was passing. It sounded more like he was reassuring himself that this beet-faced woman would not really explode and roll in little beet-colored fragments backward down the hill. I thought I might throw up. I thought how comical that would have been if it happened right after the man had warded off my noises with his encouraging voodoo.

After hill 3, hill 4 was a relief. Plain Jane hill and almost at the end of the run! I can even skip the water station now, so close! I didn't even realize how close — could have started my finishing sprint further out! Oops! Guess I'll just have to run this bit extra-hard! Look, I can pass a couple of people now!

The fast half-marathon runners were steaming past us. I crossed the finish in typical near-puke state and stood with my hands on my knees for a couple of minutes before scooting through the chute to get my medal and a banana and head over for a beer.

That's right, beer. At 8:30 in the morning. 32 ounces of free Boulevard stout and pale ale, plus a barbecue sandwich, with a great live band in the background and a free massage waiting as well. What could be better?

With Kelly Grace and second beer

Clock time, 1:05:13, pace 10:30. Middle of the pack. I'm already curious to see what happens next year when I try to run a fast 10K on these hills. One of these days I really will throw up or birth something. Good chance it'll be this race.


Troy said...

So, are you saying that in 2009 you didn't conquer the hill? It seems to me you did. You may not have been in good shape afterwards, but you ran the whole thing right? Isn't that your definition of "conquering the hill"?

As a comparison, in the Rocky movies, Rocky wins his fights. He looks horrible afterwards, but he wins and a win is a win. The shirt doesn't say "I conquered the hill and looked wonderful doing it."

It seems to me that you can at least where the 2009 shirt with your head held high.