by Dante Zappala
Ridge Avenue is a monster. From the bus depot and Main Street to the three-point intersection at Hermit and Righter, it’s a solid half mile long. The elevation is 200 feet. That’s a 7.2 percent grade.
By foot or bike, it’s a bear to climb. But either of those means might be the fastest way to get up it. Traffic on it can be even worse.
My plan has been to get in four runs of at least 20 miles ahead of Boston. With the Valley an icebox, finding uninterrupted space to do this has been a chore.
I’ve been creative with my route planning to break the monotony of long runs on two fronts. I have been running point-to-point while luring other runners to join me for parts of the run. This takes a good deal of planning, preparation and good will to pull off.
For my most recent long run, I left work downtown a little early and headed up the Schuylkill Banks. I set up a meet with a running partner at the Art Museum.
She and I did a loop together. We ran at a decent clip, about 40 seconds slower than marathon pace. By the time we parted, I already had 11½ miles in and was feeling fantastic.
I headed back up MLK Drive, now hammering the miles at my target marathon pace. When I got to the Falls Bridge, I downed my last GU and let my mind focus ahead to getting up Ridge and making it home. My hope was to extend this effort all the way to the top of the hill for around seven miles of pace work. I was trying to simulate what I’ll face at Boston. The famed Heartbreak Hill comes in at mile 20. I was hitting Ridge somewhere in mile 18.
I absolutely smoked it up the hill. I was forced to change my stride and thus I was able to use some muscles that had been waiting on the bench. It was like calling in the lefty when your starter had given you a solid seven and a third.
But not far past the True Value, the wheels fell off. Or, better put, the stomach started to blow up. I was beset with cramps and bloating. While I had, for a brief moment, congratulated myself for taking care of all of the logistics to successfully run 21 miles point-to-point, I suddenly realized I had neglected to take care of one major detail: water. I had but a sip of it way back at Lloyd Hall.
Just a few miles from home, I knowingly ran past two places that stocked fifteen flavors of Gatorade. I had a few dollars on me but I couldn’t imagine putting anything in my body. I wanted to go home.
Tim Noakes is a famous author in running circles. He has a theory that says we all have a central governor in our heads. It will send signals to the body of severe distress to slow us down and shut us down long before we are in any actual danger. Many professional runners work to overcome the central governor to find the higher limits of their ability.
This is a theory. Generally speaking, it makes good sense to slow down when you’re getting crushed. In my case, as I crossed the Walnut Lane Bridge back to Mt. Airy, I felt I had no choice.
I rationalized it all. I practiced my marathon shuffle with the big arm swings. It would be over soon. About a half mile from home, I started to recover. By the time I got to my porch, my legs were dead but the rest of me felt ready. The governor had relaxed its grip as soon as it could see the finish line.
Our limits are constantly set and reset by many variables. Some of them we might be able to control, like irrational fear, while others are circumstantial and require new approaches.
I have a few friends going through some tough spots at the moment. Spring is the time of injury, it appears. Runners tend to get hurt at this time of year as they come out of hibernation. They do too much too soon after a winter lay off. It seems to coincide in love and life as well, as people become ambitious, shed layers and inevitably leave someone behind.
In both instances, we try to overcome the governor. Aren’t these simply false signals, after all? The mind is protecting us from destruction but we’re far from it. We convince ourselves we aren’t really in pain. We weren’t really in love. We suck it up.
But if we’re daring to go past the warning lights to discover the truth, we can’t just put on a fake smile and pretend. We have to embrace the hurt or we’ll cease in our ability to make something of it.
Had I been a little more deliberate in my planning, I would have found points to take in fluids. I also would have figured out beforehand that Ridge Avenue is twice as long and twice as steep as Heartbreak Hill.
I’m left with the memory of tackling Ridge deep in a run and finding a spark and a moment of confidence. Maybe if I just drink something, I’ll have a gear left for the last few miles.
I also discovered a dilemma that might take longer to solve. I need Heartbreak to be a harder hill to climb.