Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lessons from Hills

I have spent the last couple of months meandering my way through Mile Markers: The 26.2 Most Important Reasons Why Women Run. The book is set up perfectly for picking it up and reading a chapter or two whenever I can squeeze them in. And since it's a Kindle Book, and I always have my Kindle with me, I can do that fairly often.

Today I read Chapter 18, Hills. I have been looking forward to this chapter and purposely put the book down yesterday when I knew this chapter was coming next. I wanted to read it with a fresh brain (or at least as fresh as I can have on Easter Sunday when I would be getting up before dawn to get a bike ride in before church). And you see, the reason I wanted to read it with a fresh mind is because hills are my nemesis. And living in Atlanta, Georgia, this poses a problem.

There are few areas that could be considered "flat" where I live. So there are natural hills rolling throughout any training plan that I take on. But there are hills, like in my neighborhood and the local park where I like run, and then there are HILLS, such as the affectionately nicknamed Cardiac Hill at the Peachtree Road Race. I have been intimidated by hills of all sizes since I first began running. I was looking forward to some advice from Kristin Armstrong on how to deal with those hills in my running program.

However, as she has done through the previous chapters in this book, Ms. Armstrong extends the concepts of battling hills from the running world into the realm of our everyday hills - challenges that we all face, be it a cancer diagnosis, a divorce, a job loss, or in my personal situation, an autism diagnosis and/or epilepsy diagnosis. I used the 'notes' feature on my Kindle to highlight this passage:

"The incline ahead is steep and unyielding. So how do we prepare? Running hills gives us some clues. First, we relax - which is hard to do but essential. We cannot make any assessments in a state of panic. Then we remind ourselves and each other that we have strength for climbing. Then we breathe; ideally, we breathe deeply. Then we begin." (p. 191)

I cannot begin to describe how much I was touched when reading this. You see, our family has been living through an immense amount of stress for the last year. I won't go into all of the details here, not only because it would take forever, but also because I don't care to relive each episode. Trust me when I say that it feels like our family has been facing one steep hill after another with very few level stretches to allow us to catch our breaths and regroup. We have been living in the 'state of panic' that Ms. Armstrong mentions, and that makes for some rough times. And I start to feel like giving in, and letting that hill beat me. I feel like I'm running this race all by myself.

A few sentences later, Ms. Armstrong continues:

"We lift our legs and pump our arms and go at our own pace. This is incredibly important. It's so easy to lose heart on a hill when we compare ourselves to those around us. We waste energy by taking our focus off the goal, which is of course going through the hill to the finish, not to it." (p. 191)

Imagine a little light bulb going off in my head. So much of the stress and discouragement during this "hilly" period for our family has been heightened by the feeling that we are not measuring up to others around us. I have fought hard not to do this in my running, I wonder why I would allow myself to do it in the other aspects of my life. Nobody else is running my race. They don't have to - they are running their own races, with their own hills to tackle. I need to run my race, and tackle the hills in my life the same way I tackle them on the trail: "low and slow". When I come to a challenging hill, I put my head down, keep my feet low to the ground to conserve energy, and slow down as much as I need to to manage the climb. If I can apply this technique to the other hills in my life, perhaps they won't seem so daunting.

The other light bulb was the last sentence, about getting through the hill to the finish - not just getting TO it. For me, this meant keeping the understanding in my heart that these hills are not the end point, but only a temporary challenge in the everyday course of life. She points out that the smaller hills are practice for the bigger ones, and the more you practice the fitter you become and the less you fear. This called to mind my Bible verse of the year:

"Dear brothers and sisters, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything." (James 1:2-4 NLT)

So the trouble (hills) is an opportunity for testing, for my endurance to grow (just like in running)? I need to embrace the hills? The parallels between my verse and the following quote from Mile Markers are beautifully clear:

"When we practice enough by running hills, we develop our own rhythms and strategies. The same with life's hills: The smaller ones make us fit for the biggies, and we can maintain our same rhythm. The more we practice, the fitter we become and the less we fear." (p. 192)

I have often said that running has changed me fundamentally. I realize that I am stronger physically than I ever believed I could be. I have made goals and reached them faster than I could have imagined. When I started out running, I wanted to run 3.1 miles without stopping. Then I wanted to run 13.1 miles. And now I have a triathlon and full marathon looming on my horizon. I am strong. Some days it's really easy and some days it's downright awful (like yesterday). So why is is that when it's a rough day out on the road I don't get despondent like I do when it's a rough day with the kids? When autism (or puberty) is the hill du jour and stands before me like a monster why do I want to give up so easily and feel that all is hopeless? Why is it so hard to take the lessons that I have learned from running and apply them to other areas of my life? Why can I remember that God has gotten me through some massive hills before but I fail to trust that He will get me through the next one as we push forward to the finish?

The answer is that there is no reason aside from my foolish pride and stubbornness. I seem to be able to tame those beasts out on the road (more or less). It's time to get a clue and apply those hard-earned, sweat-filled lessons to the other hills that I face!

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