The triathlon was in New York City's Central Park. The swim took place in the Lasker Pool with a wave start, swimming laps. The bike leg started up The Hill - two loops of the park. The run also started up The Hill just a single loop of the park. In the 1970's The Hill was named "Heartbreak Hill" during the first running of the New York City Marathon.
Most of the New York Road Runner Club races are in Central Park and therefore traverse The Hill. I've run The Hill during many of those races, distances from 5 Km to 50 miles. Central Park is also my training ground. So, I've run The Hill thousands of times.
When I started training for my first Triathlon, I biked in Central Park. Again, I rode The Hill. Fortunately, swimming didn't take me to The Hill.
I love The Hill. And, it's not a Love-Hate relationship. It's true love.
Let me describe The Hill to you. When you approach The Hill from the east side of the park, you head down a long curving hill that curves around the Lasker Pool. As the road turns north again there's an ever so slight rise. Unless you travel that road frequently, you'll never realize there's a rise. The road then turns west and The Hill comes into view. The Hill is actually on the left side of the road as you pass the Lasker Pool. But, it's easy to think the road will curve around the hill and remain level.
When you look up you realize you are heading up The Hill, not around it. The rock wall over hangs the road near the top. You dig in and power up The Hill. As you reach the top, a feeling of success wells up from tired legs.
Then, the road turns south and around the rock overhang. In front of you is more of The Hill. You push on, finding strength you didn't realize you had. Depending on the time of day, the sun will light your way. As you head into another left turn the trees become denser and The Hill continues upward.
Finally, the road turns back south, the trees allow more sun through and you see the end of the hill. But wait! Just as you breath that sigh of relief you are staring down at the back side of The Hill. A shorter and straighter version, taking you back down from where you came! Your speed increases and if you're not careful, the sweat dripping into your eyes, the tiredness that has taken the control out of your legs and arms add to the danger.
At the start of races there are always murmurs and questions. "Are we doing The Hill?" An ominous tone in the response can make or break your race plans. There are two routes that cover five miles in the park. One is the south loop, the other is the north loop. Although there are a series of four hills on the west side and Cat Hill on the east side, it is the north end of the park that people are asking about. The north end and The Hill.
One summer evening I was riding in the park. The sky was bright blue - California Blue. The western sky was starting to glow orange and red as the sun got ready to slip behind the high rise buildings. It would soon turn purple and the buildings on the east side of the park would glow as if on fire.
My speed increased as I headed north along the east side. I fell into line with a small group of riders. We cut the tangents and picked up speed. The big left turn and the sharp downhill as we approach the north end of the park increased our speed even more. Braking for a person darting across the road is not a possibility at this point. The sharpness of the turn and our speed makes even the thought of braking scary. The sweeping right turn around the Lasker Pool and we really put the hammer down.
When I'm running in the park the sound of cyclists speeding past in a tight pack resembles the sound of a swarm of killer bees. Some runners are frightened or angry over the cyclists. But, I've always welcomed that sound. Riding in this pack all I hear is the wind. The roar is so loud and my concentration so narrow everything else is a blur.
Then that left turn comes and we start up The Hill. I quickly shift to keep my cadence high. And shift again, and yet again. My breath comes in gasps, my vision becomes blurred. But, I can make out the image of the group I was riding with pulling away from me. Slowly at first, then faster they fade up The Hill. I spin as fast and as hard as I can. Still they continue to pull away. Around the next turn they disappear. I'm barely halfway up The Hill and they have already dropped me. My breathing is almost a gasp now, my quads are screaming with lactic acid. I push on, one more turn, another section of The Hill and finally I'm at the top. I begin to shift into bigger and bigger gears as I descend the back of The Hill. My speed quickly increases, but the pack is gone.
Pride takes over. I push myself with every ounce of will power.
The park loop is six miles. Each side of the park is just under three miles long. For three miles I hammer alone. Head down, legs spinning until I catch back up to the pack. No words are exchanged. I couldn't speak if my life depended on it!
We round the bottom of the park, weaving around horse drawn carriages, strollers and skaters (the runners stay in the inside lane, cyclist get to use the other two lanes). I know we are approaching Cat Hill and I risk getting dropped again. The thought of chasing this group up the east side and catching them just before The Hill is frightening. I fall in line and try to recover.
Past the Boat House and we're at the foot of Cat Hill. I get on the wheel in front of me and hang there. Up Cat Hill we go. I'm able to stay with them up Cat Hill. We pass the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the sun begins to slip behind the apartment buildings. The glow of the sun off the museum is beautiful. I gain some strength. And our pace increases as we begin to approach the north end and The Hill.
I get dropped again, catch up and repeat the game two more times. As I leave the park the sun has set, the air begins to get cool and a smile grows on my face.
About five years ago, Bill and I were running a workout with our team on a Thursday night. It was a cool summer evening. We started with an easy jog to the north end of the park. The plan was to run the north loop three or four times. The loop is about 1.5 miles and includes two big hills - The Hill and a second hill immediately after. It's a tough workout and our teammates are joking around. Nervous chatter and jokes to postpone the start of the workout.
Dave yells "GO" and we're off. Everyone knows how tough The Hill is, so the pace is gentle. It'll be a long evening and no one wants to make it tougher than it need be. I'm feeling strong and light. Running easily I find myself leading the group. Bill is running right on my left shoulder.
Bill and I have been training with our teammates for years every Thursday night. We'd finish our workout and head over to a restaurant for some pizza and beer. There's always lots of chatter - talk of workouts, weekly mileage, races and injuries.
I start to pull away from the group. Bill is still on my shoulder. I can hear him breathing and I know he's as relaxed and comfortable as I am. We continue to distance ourselves from the rest of the group. As we reach the top of The Hill we relax a bit and start down. Our pace doesn't slow, our stride just lengthens and our arms relax. I notice that we're running stride for stride. The rest of the group is far behind us. We round the corner and continue down. One more turn and we're at the bottom of The Hill and heading past the pool.
We usually stop and wait for the group to catch up before we start up the next hill. Bill and I sort of stutter step and pick up the pace as we begin up the second hill. We accelerate ever so slightly, arms pumping, knees lifting and our shoulders lean forward into The Hill.
Still running stride for stride we reach the top of the second hill. Not a word has been spoken. We turn the corner and take the traverse back to the starting point. Our pace hasn't eased up either. Mind you, we're not racing. There's no surge, re-surge. There's no pushing each other. We just seem to be moving to the same stimulus.
Past the starting point, we don't even hesitate this time. We head up The Hill for the second time. And our pace has increased, but we're still stride for stride. Side by side we run up The Hill, down the other side and up the second hill. We're really flying at this point.
Across the traverse and we repeat the process - continuing to accelerate and run side by side and stride for stride. We circle the north end of the park a total of four times. As we reach the top of the last hill, we look at each other, smile and nod. At that very moment I can feel sweat run into my eyes. We jog back down the east side.
I ask Bill if he felt it. "Yes" he says. We smile again. We have pizza and a couple of extra beer that night. Weeks later we finally talk about that night. The feeling of running outside your body, the feeling of strength that doesn't end, and mostly the feeling of being in total sync with another athlete.
I've been there thousands of times. I've run and cycled The Hill thousands of times. I love The Hill, for the honesty it brings out in me, for the effort it demands of me, for the pleasure it gives me.
You can use The Hill to bury an opponent - throwing in a surge as they are tiring. If you know The Hill, you know that you can hold on until the long downhill and pull away.
Or you can be dropped. And when you're dropped on The Hill, it's a long road back.