Monday, May 4, 2009

Hills Are For Climbing

The road that leads from the flag pole at Sunken Meadow State Park to the toll plaza is a hill about a mile long and a climb of nearly 200 vertical feet. Unlike the park's infamous Cardiac Hill, this hill doesn’t have a name; I just call it “the Hill”. The Hill will never be confused with Everest, but it’s no skip in the prairie either.

The Hill is an old friend. It’s been part of my running routine, off and on, for over 19 years. At first, I couldn’t make it to the top without stopping — both my lungs and legs burned and I staggered to a slow walk just to make it home. I hated the Hill back then and I would find any possible excuse not to run it.

Eventually, I missed running in the park — the lighted skyline of Connecticut on the horizon before dawn, the geese watching me as I passed – honking loudly if I stumbled too near, and the soft spongy grass, the dirt, the sand and the wood chips beneath my feet as I galloped down the roadway half way to the beach and then through the trails before turning back toward home.

Sometimes, I would drive to the park, avoiding the Hill altogether. But when I did, I felt cowardly, like I slipped onto the bus at the end of the school day and dodged the bully who was waiting to fight me. So, I started to force myself to run the Hill regularly.

For a while, I cursed and battled my way up, gasping and sputtering, and congratulating myself if I made it to the maintenance area or the turn off to the BOCES area without stopping. But these victories felt hollow, especially since I would still be gasping and wobbly legged when I reached the top. I wanted to run the Hill without stopping.

So I changed my approach. I stopped battling and I eliminated my anger. As I ran, I set my mind on working with the Hill, flowing up the incline rather than trying to beat it into submission. I began to appreciate the Hill’s nuances, the places where it was steeper and the places where it nearly leveled off. I’d feel the wind on my face and notice the beauty of my surroundings: the moon in the morning sky, the leaves turning colors, and the ground changing from solid frost to slushy marsh to arid plain as the seasons turned. I was patient, slowing down if I felt overly strained, speeding up when I felt strong. Soon, I regularly ran from the bottom to the top without stopping. Now I actually look forward to the challenge and the ridiculously hilly Annual Kings Park 15K has become my favorite race.

Eventually, I progressed from running a hill to climbing a mountain. In 2008, I hiked to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. There I learned the Swahili word poli, which means “slow” but really seems to encompass much more. Deliberate, patient and conscious might be better translations. The mountain guides repeated this word like a mantra during the eight days my group spent climbing the 19,230 feet to the summit. Poli helped us reach the top without suffering altitude sickness or life threatening pulmonary edema, which affects many who attempt to climb Kili. My reward was not only an unmatched view from the highest point on the African continent and the rapidly disappearing glacier at the top, but also a feeling of accomplishment and self confidence from enduring eight days traversing terrain varying from tropical rain forest to cold alpine desert.

Since then, I have come to see life as a series of hills, including job challenges, money issues, relationship struggles and many others. These challenges appear in our lives to help us grow. How we react to these challenges will determine not only whether we will make it to the top, but also whether we will live a full and vital existence or will instead be mired in a swamp of fear, anger and despair.

If you can’t identify any hills in your life, then you need to go out and find some. Dare to dream beyond what is routine and find something that intrigues or even scares you. Sometimes you won’t reach the top. Sometimes you will fail. But if you use your failure to learn and turn your fear into passion, you’ll soon see the path and succeed more often than not.

Don’t view the top of any hill as a destination, but just another step in a never-ending trail. Achieving goals breeds confidence. Continue to seek out larger goals and bigger dreams. By staying patient, conscious and deliberate—ignoring your ego and respecting the challenges you face—you will thrive and lead a life worth living.

Please comment and tell me about your hills!

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