Mind games allow runners to level hills

Mercury News

The Los Gatos High girls glanced at the cross-country course they would run for the first time and were disappointed. It seemed too flat.

But that was before Coach Monica Townsend saw the massive hill at the other end. She couldn't hide her enthusiasm.

``All right,'' she told her girls. ``Here we go.''

Some hate them, some love them, but in cross-country, you definitely can't avoid them. As Los Gatos seemed to prove in winning the De La Salle/Carondelet Invitational on Saturday at Concord's Newhall Park: It's all in the attitude.

For many runners, hills are things to fear. They are intimidating barriers that loom over race courses throughout the Central Coast Section, at places like Montgomery Hill in East San Jose, Cardiac Hill at Belmont's Crystal Springs, Cougar Hill at Half Moon Bay and the steep face simply known as ``The Hill'' at Soquel.

Runners can prepare physically for searing quadriceps, burning lungs and a rapid heartbeat, but mental preparation is totally different.

``It's in your head whether you can do it,'' Oak Grove Coach Clint Pappadakis said. ``Your brain will say, `I don't want to do this.' You have to tell your brain to shut up.''

For many runners, Pappadakis said, the ability to conquer a hill carries over into other parts of their lives. He has seen kids with low self-esteem develop confidence by persevering to overcome an obstacle.

During eight seasons at Milpitas, Coach Matt Newbrough put runners to a test. If they could complete a three-mile run from campus -- up Old Calaveras Road, onto a horse trail and up a steep 300-yard climb -- within a certain time, they would make the team.

``The time wasn't as important as the mental acceptance that, `No matter what, I'm going to do this,' '' Newbrough said. ``There are points where the dirt is eight inches from your face. The point is, you're never really as tired as you think you are.''

As runners accept the painful essence of cross-country running, they learn to use hills to help them.

Hills were Amanda Boyd's biggest weakness.

``Now they're my strength,'' the San Benito standout said. ``I don't know of anybody who likes hills, but that's where I can lose girls. I like hills, but I don't like them.''

St. Francis Coach Brian Curley teaches new runners by keeping them on flat pavement at first, then moving them to trails and moderate hills. He gradually increases the demands to the point where his top runners -- such as defending CCS Division II champion Ben Sitler -- are hardly bothered anymore.

``You need them to take for granted that hills will be part of the training,'' he said.

They begin to take on longer distances with sustained inclines, before switching to long-hill repeats and eventually to shorter, steeper hills at a quicker pace.

There is a right way to run hills and a wrong way, coaches say. Small, quick strides work better than long ones. Don't lean forward, stay upright and use your arms. Above all, relax and ``don't panic,'' Curley said.

Sitler doesn't. He developed confidence while completing training runs such as a 16-mile trek -- including a five-mile ascent -- to the top of 2,800-foot Black Mountain, the highest peak surrounding the western edge of the Santa Clara Valley.

Now, hills play into his strategy. He stays patient on climbs before cresting with a surge and pushing a quick downhill pace that can suck the will out of his rivals.

``If you can run hills strongly,'' Sitler said, ``you can run anything strongly.''