I, Sisyphus

Man running uphill

I was invited to run with some friends at lunch. I accepted only to learn, in hindsight, that I had made a mistake. It was the same group of runners who I recently blogged about – and when I say “blogged,” I mean “teased” – regarding their participation in a running workshop and their pursuit of the “ideal cadence.” I suggested they were over-thinking their running. While they assured me they were not offended by my post, I should have known these seemingly sweet, kind people would be looking for revenge.

Sally said they were going to do hill work, as they had been instructed in their running workshop. They are first time marathoners, so I figured I was in no danger. What could go wrong? I’ve done lots of hill work in my day. Of course, I’ve also been arrogant a time or two in my day, and it never ended well.

My overconfidence stemmed in part from the relative flatness of the area where we would be running. The closest thing to a hill within a mile of our office was a freeway overpass with a very gradual ascent. As Sally and I jogged towards it, ahead of the other two “workshoppers,” she told me about the specifics of the workout, but I wasn’t paying much attention. She said something about “sprints” and “repeats.” Whatever. I was focused on the idea that the overpass wasn’t going to be much of a challenge and that they, perhaps, shouldn’t claim credit for doing hill work on what might more correctly be called a hillock, knoll, or mound. Whatever the specifics of the workout were, I didn’t think I would be very taxed by it. Oh, Conceit, you are my undoing.

As we approached the base of the gentle rise, Sally said we would start from the upcoming crosswalk, and she asked me to set the timer on my watch for 20 seconds, which I did. I was beginning to wonder just what we were about to do when she yelled, “Go!” I started the timer, watched Sally fly up the hill, and kicked into a higher gear to give chase. A few seconds into our sprint, she shouted back at me to let her know when time was up. Upon reflection, I realize this was an insult along the lines of, “Hey, tortoise, since I will be so far ahead of you and out of hearing range when the timer chimes, please yell to me.” It was an agonizing 20 seconds, and I was happy to call out, “Stop!” so we could both pull up and walk. Well, she walked. I bent at the waist and tried to catch my breath. When she got back to the spot I was standing, and we began walking together back down what seemed to be a remarkably steep gradient, I asked for clarification on the specific terms and conditions of the aforementioned hill work. She now had my undivided attention and explained that the drill was to run up the hill for 20 seconds, walk or jog back down to the starting point, and repeat eight times. One down. Seven to go.

The rest of the workshop runners met up with us as we made our way back to the crosswalk, and they began their repeats. While I am not particularly competitive, I was annoyed to be beaten by inattentive smugness and pledged to myself to do better on the subsequent sprints. This was another mistake born of pride. While I did manage to beat Sally on the third through eighth sprint, I was sore for next three days. My quads burned as though I had never used them before. The pain kept my arrogance in check, and allowed me the opportunity to reflect. I’ve been running for more than twenty years, but I don’t know it all. That simple hill workout taught me at least four things:

  1. Pay attention to details you are offered. There are enough unpleasant surprises in life; avoid the ones that come from inattention.
  2. Don’t succumb to petty competitiveness, unless you enjoy suffering.
  3. Don’t think you know it all; you don’t.
  4. Don’t think you’re in perfect shape; you’re not.

While it’s humbling – and embarrassing – to be reminded of how much you have yet to learn, don’t miss the lesson while you nurse your wounds. And always thank your teachers. Thanks, Sally, for the hill work, and the humility.

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