When Wouna and I started running, we stayed in a hilly neighbourhood. No matter which direction you ran, you’d hit a hill within about a kilometer. Even our little 4km daily loop automatically doubled as a hill-session. One hill on our daily run was particularly challenging. When we first started running it felt totally insurmountable, and we were in awe of any runner we saw who actually ran over the hill. It ended up taking us a couple of months of running before the big day came where we were finally able to run all the way over it. We felt like we had finally joined some elite club of super-runners!
Even after this realisation that it was actually possible to top the hill without walking, it remained an important indicator of ability – each time we had a bit of a lapse in our running, or a layoff due to injury, the distance we could run up that hill before slowing to a walk, became a measure of our progress.
In addition to living in a hilly neighbourhood, we were also members of a running club whose weekly time trial route was famously, perhaps notoriously, hilly. Anyone who ever ran the CSIR race had a healthy respect for those hills.
As a result of this excessive hill-exposure, we became quite adept at hill running. We may not have been the fastest, but we were able to keep running up hills after many runners around us already had to gear back to walking pace.
And then we moved…
Our new hometown still had its hills, but the layout of the town allowed us a lot more freedom in selecting running routes, so it became possible to cover our daily running distance over much less hilly terrain. We still did some hilly runs now and then, but why torture yourself with hills every day if you don’t have to, right? And so, slowly but surely, our hill-running ‘super-powers’ diminished.
And then we moved again…
This time we moved to a new country, New Zealand, renowned for being anything but flat. However, as fate would have it, the town we moved to proved to be one of the flatter areas around. Its not that we have no hills, on the contrary, but essentially our new hometown offers two types of running – flat as a pancake, or hilly as hell. And with our hill-powers already in a serious decline, its no surprise that we very much favour the flatlands. Our favourite of all these flat courses is a lovely 8km walkway next to the river – quiet, scenic, and 100% FLAT.
So you can imagine how much hill running we get up to these days!
As a result, even moderate hills have become challenging. Even tiny hills have us slowing down to almost walking pace, flailing our arms and panting dangerously. We feel every hill – this past weekend we participated in an event that criss-crossed a fairly hilly area near town, and I’m embarrassed to admit we walked all the hills, just like all the other mere mortals around us.
The moral of the story? You can’t run hills if you don’t run hills…
So we’ve decided to start putting new effort into our hill-running. We’re going to start actively looking for more hilly roads again, and we will run according to two pieces of wisdom we learned from fellow runners.
Words of wisdom 1: You never walk over the crest of a hill. Our buddy Ken H taught us this one. No matter how tough a hill is, and even if you walk 90% of the hill, once you get near the top you HAVE to start running. You gotta show that hill that it’s not getting the better of you… you have to cross it as a RUNNER. Amazingly, it works, even if its just mental. (Or perhaps we are just mental!)
Words of wisdom 2: Heads down, swing your arms, and ‘BYT VAS’. This comes courtesy of South African ultra-distance legend Bruce Fordyce, whom we had the honour of running with during our very first marathon. (That sounds impressive – we ran with Bruce, the King of the Comrades – we must’ve been flying! But sadly no, we weren’t running up front with the elites, Bruce was having a social run with some buddies at the back of the pack…) Anyway, we were all struggling up a nasty hill, when he shared these words of wisdom. And it really is as simple as that – three little actions. First, heads down – don’t look at how long the hill goes on, just do your best where you are, and before you know it, the hill is behind you. Second, swing your arms – half the battle is won if you allow the rest of your body to help your poor legs in their time of need. Strong upper body strength is one of the big factors differentiating good athletes from the average Joes. And third, ‘byt vas’ – an Afrikaans phrase that basically means to ‘be stoic; bite down and hold on’. In essence, it refers to perseverance, endurance, determination and persistence. And if you intend showing that hill who’s boss, ‘vasbyt’ is the only way. The difference between the good runner and the great runner often has more to do with grit and perseverance than with raw talent.
So we will go forth – we will look for hills, and we will tackle them with heads down and arms swinging wildly, we will ‘byt vas’, and we will crest them at running pace.