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Runner’s World

July 1978



The word itself is a series of peaks. The dot atop the “i” may well be an eagle majestically squatting atop a nest which sits atop a tall tree atop a tall hill. The “s” is certainly a series of switchbacks. It is a formidable word, hills, no matter how lilting and light it flows from the mouth.

Several weeks ago, the suggestion was made that we run some hills. “We’ll go up the ’twisters’ [switchbacks] on Moody Road and just keep going up to Skyline Boulevard.” Fine, I thought, Skyline Boulevard sounds like a quaint little street in a new housing development.

“How far is it to Skyline?” I asked naively, having lived in the area for nine months and never having been there. I’d once taken my Honda 50 part way up the ’twisters’ but it had stalled out after a few switchbacks so I’d never made it to the top; but the top was only a few twists away, I was sure, because the bumps on the earth were called hills, not mountains.

“Oh, it’s about nine miles to Skyline,” I was told. “But it’s a nice run.” The last was hastily added as the dark cloud moved across my expression.

“That means it’s nine miles back, right?”

“I thought you said you weren’t good at math,” he said.

I stifled the urge to get into my car and take a drive out there just to see what these nine miles were really like; I had a strange intuition that I’d be better off not knowing—one of those intuitions that it won’t hurt as much if you don’t know what’s going to happen when the doctor begins rummaging around in the bottom of his drawer of needles, as though looking for something he hasn’t had a need for since veterinary school.

I had grown up in a little town in Pennsylvania that is surrounded by what we liked to call mountains. Great bumps on the chest of the earth that rose hundreds and hundreds of feet, maybe even a thousand feet or more, and that made a kid-sized human being awe-struck. Other than the sky, they were the biggest damned things we ever saw as kids.

My brother and I looked forward to the day we would be old enough to leave our backyard and descend the valley behind out house that led to the mountain’s base so we could climb it. As though part of a preordained ritual, the first time we tried we didn’t make it to the top. We were probably quite close, but out little minds told us we had many miles to climb until we topped the mountain. We sat on a rock, ate the waxpaper-wrapped sandwiches we’d brought along in our back pockets and that had the consistency of flypaper, and commented on how different the town looked from up here. It was picture postcard perfect. We could even pick out the back of our house on South Street; our mother was in the yard hanging up clothes to dry. We foolishly waved.

We became habitual mountain runners after that. When we were bored or when we were troubled, we’d run the mountain. Things were simpler on the mountain. We were no longer in awe of it; it was like a big, simple-minded friend. We ran up its sides like monkeys. We eventually began running down the other side, too, jumping from rock to rock recklessly. There is something magic about mountains.

Years later, running cross-country in college, hills and mountains again became friends. We trained on the hills above the campus, which gave us a great view of the Susquehanna River Valley. The hills also confounded out enemies. We had a hill at the end of our cross-country course that was more than a quarter-mile long and that seemed nearly vertical. We never told the visiting team about the hill at the end because they never arrived in time on a Saturday morning to get a tour of the course, and also because they never asked. We could always pick up a few spots on the other team as they rounded the corner and faced The Hill. They sort of staggered momentarily in their tracks, gasped, took a deep breath, shook their heads and began plodding up the hill. That pause was all we needed to skunk them on a few points.

The Appalachian Mountains, however, are very old mountains. They are old and bent and used up. Time and rain has worn off their sharp edges and their heights.

Compared to the Rockies, they are rather meager mountains. They have their own majesty as the wise and old do, but they are humbled in comparison with the Rockies. Perhaps that is why westerners call everything under 6000 feet “hills.” They disdainfully call “foothills” the bumps on the earth that would have humbled our childhood mountain.

I should have learned the semantics of the local tribes before Saturday.

We started out at a gentle trot up old, familiar Moody Road. There is a very gradual incline on Moody Road that is difficult to notice. Approaching the “twisters” it becomes recognizable for what it is: A doormat to the foothills.

We struggled up the “twisters” and the going was not overpowering; it merely required a slightly lower gear, some heavy breathing, and a penchant for boredom. It will soon end and we’ll be able to stride out along the ridge, I told myself. I had run the Boston Marathon five days before and I knew that I hadn’t fully recovered to the point where I’d be able to blitz an extended hill.

We plateaued, dexterously avoiding speeding sports cars and pickup trucks on the narrow road. The terrain became rolling and I felt better. Within a half-mile, though, we were again ascending. I began falling back, occasionally walking a few yards to catch my breath, telling myself that it wasn’t the altitude. I periodically caught up and just as soon would fall behind again. “We’re near the top,” I was told.

The switchbacks were becoming so acute that they should have issued us ladders to get up them. High school kids in hopped-up Chevelles were parked at various overlooks drinking beer and listening to the radio and grooving on the view. Occasionally a bicyclist would come zooming down the hill at about 2000 miles an hour, a madman’s grin on his face.

Unable to see the view as we passed overlooks because of the black spots in front of my eyes, I muttered: “Do their brakes ever give out?”

“Sure,” I was told. The image of a bicyclist losing his brakes and going off one of the overlooks and being shot into orbit filled my mind.

At the spot where I was assured the top of the hills was, several cars were parked on a large overlook. I walked a few steps, turned for a view of the lower portion of the San Francisco Bay, San Jose, Palo Alto, just miles and miles of spectacular scenery, and then continued on, sure that we were at the top.

We began encountering more and more short, abrupt hills that kept lifting us higher and higher. I began worrying about nosebleed. Tourists we passed smiled at us as though we were part of the scenery, like bears panting for food.

The others were long since out of sight. I contemplated throwing myself in front of the next van that came careening around a curve. And then, suddenly, rounding a curve, there was an open space on the side of the road and several cars were parked there administering to overheated engines and there was a sign on the asphalt: STOP AHEAD. “Okay,” I mumbled to myself, “I will.”

We had hoped that by the time we reached Skyline, which turned out to be a two-lane blacktop highway down which motorcycles, vans, campers, and bicycles raced at incredible speeds, our wives would have arrived with liquids for our parched and blackened tongues; they were supposed to leave 45 minutes after we did.

Hoping to catch them on the return trip, we began retracing out steps. “This is more like it,” I said as we descended the first gradual hill, letting my tired legs have their way.

Within two miles our wives arrived, we took on a supply of replacement fluids, and continued on, as they went to the stop sign to check the mileage. “It was only eight miles, not nine,” they called to us as they drove past us on the descent.

Again, I fell behind, not really caring, hoping some gypsies would come out of the underbrush and kidnap me. My legs felt as though they were on the verge of cramping as they tried to absorb one jolt after another. I need new shock absorbers, I told myself, trying to get the nightmare of shin bones coming apart under this abuse out of my mind.

By judiciously mixing walking down the steepest portions of the road with sluggish running, I arrived semi-safely back at the starting point.

“That was quite a workout,” someone said.

“That’s the longest run I’ve had in three years,” someone else said.

“I don’t want to hear the word hill until 1982,” I said, thinking of very obscene ways of removing the word permanently from the dictionary.

Yesterday I did a workout on Moody Road. I went as far as the “twisters.” If I’d have let myself go, I think I’d have started up the damned hills again.