Once a week I do hill running. This involves running up a hill, then going back down. Then up the hill and down. This week it was seven times. Next week it’s eight.
The fourth hill is harder than the seventh hill, which is weird. Physically it’s the same hill (Fort Hill) every time.
Mentally it is a completely different hill every time.
The first two trips up the hill — run to the top, shuffle down, tag the gate, run back to the top — are fine. It’s even exciting. I was reading Born to Run last week, and if those guys could go for 100 miles in the mountains in the desert then my little 10 kilometer run on an urban hill would be no problem. It wasn’t a problem. But.
On the third trip you’re not just carrying yourself, you’re starting to worry that you’re not yet halfway done. And just two weeks ago, you only did three repetitions on the hill instead of the planned six. And last week you took a snow day from running hills. The voice says: hey, there’s no shame in stopping, do you see anyone else on this hill? Just do four of eight next week, then five of eight, and eventually you’ll catch up.
On the fourth trip you’re carrying yourself, the previous three trips, and now the remaining three trips have jumped on your back. The remaining trips actually have weight. Each step is a reminder: this is only a volunteer gig. This is the easiest place to quit because your brain has registered the satisfaction of accomplishing four hills. On the way down you can just jump the gate and keep running until you get home and make some coffee and jump in the shower and damn it’s freezing out here let’s get off this hill, OK?
You can settle on the fourth hill. That’s what’s really hard — it’s so easy to settle.
And it’s not the thought that I can train and run roughshod over Cincinnati in May. It’s not that I have to do three more hills to please my boss or my girlfriend or my friends or anyone. It doesn’t matter.
At the bottom I tagged the gate and turned back because I want to stop settling.
The fifth trip up the hill was lighter than the fourth. The sixth trip was lighter than the fifth.
The seventh trip was the lightest of all — physically your legs should be spent, but since there is no more mental ballast to carry it’s a breeze. It’s not a war or a slog or a trudge. It’s just a hill. And you’re standing on it. And you can go home with some ammunition to fight the battle against settling for what is easy.
I wonder what it’s like to be remarkable at what you do. I wonder if the paragons of the world know that you’ll quit after the fourth hill — that fewer people will push past the fifth, sixth, and seventh hills every day. Maybe they’re not that much better. Maybe they just know that you’ll quit first, and all they have to do is keep going until you do.