Conquering the Fear of Hills

Guest Blogger Courtney Alev

One of the concerns and anxieties I often see flooding the SFM Facebook page, this blog, and twitter is the geographical feature that defines both the city of San Francisco and this race: the hills. Hundreds of runners who have the misfortune of living in one of the many swaths of America that are pancake-flat are forced to get a little creative when it comes to that aspect of SFM training. We all do what we have to do, but driving hours to a hilly trail or spending mile after mile on the dreadmill at 5% incline just aren’t that fun. Some will constantly search out hills on which to test their legs for this particular 26.2 mile battle; others will just show up and see how it goes.

As an SF local who happens to live near the top of a substantial hill, the forced hill training I experience daily is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that hiking up a 10% grade rarely winds me anymore, and a curse in that my new hobby of bike commuting ends with jelly legs and sweat dripping down my face no matter what good of shape I allegedly am in. Hills are humbling, and for that reason (and my selfish pride), I go out of my way to avoid them. And in a city like SF, that’s pretty much impossible. Though the mere thought of seeing 13:49 min/miles on my Garmin has been enough to foolishly keep me away from some of San Francisco’s greatest views and workouts.

My house is less than one and a half miles from the top of Twin Peaks, yet I never venture up there. The winds and occasionally speeding cars and blind curves give me a (really not that valid) excuse. But I also happen to live basically across the street from one of San Francisco’s often overlooked gems, the Buena Vista Park/urban forest. BVP is basically a chunk of huge trees smack dab in the middle of the city, with one kicker – the park literally rises hundreds of feet in like 0.35 of a mile. Meaning, it’s a kickass hill workout right outside my front door. And also meaning that I avoid that damn park like the plague.

I’ve made it a long time without acknowledging the mental power that Buena Vista has over me. That I ignore its existence simply because it makes me feel bad about myself, slow, out of shape, that I get winded just walking to the top of it. And then like a lightbulb going off (or perhaps a slap in the face), I realized just what I was missing out on. I can get an amazing cardio and strength workout, accompanied by crazy views of the city, about a tenth of a mile from my front door? What was I thinking?

This week, I finally trudged out for some laps. A 1.06 mile outside loop of the park is currently taking me about 11 minutes – and that’s going the “easy” direction. My joints ache on the steep downhill curves. My heart feels like it is going to explode out of my chest on the uphills. When I’m running out there, I want to dramatically fling myself from the top of one of the redwoods rather than head up that hill at 12 minute pace one more time.

And then I realize: what a gift!

The hills are tough, but this urban oasis offers me a place to clear my head, a physical challenge that I can tell in that moment is improving my strength and endurance, a mental challenge that deepens my resolve to get stronger, get faster, stop at nothing. And a metaphor for my life in that just when I think I’ve given all I can and just can’t keep going, I turn a corner and a gorgeous view opens up, the downhill comes easy, and I speed towards the next thing, relishing the change.

I’m committed to running in this park three days a week from now until SFM – and hopefully longer. May my quads be supersized and may my fear of hills replaced with an appetite for conquering them, and may I never overlook the great challenges that are right outside my door.

Who wants to join me?

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