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Originally published in Runner’s World Magazine June 2000

Buzzard Bait

I should have known from the name. All week long I kept hearing about running up Buzzard Bait Hill. The veterans talked about it in hushed tones. The first timers, like me, listened intently as they regaled us with stories of years past. As our day to take on the hill approached, the stories got more and more preposterous. After all, how hard could it be, I thought.

So, there I stood, at the base of Buzzard Bait Hill. Deep in the Smoky Mountains outside of Asheville, NC, climbing up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, this pockmarked gravel road seemed innocent enough. Looking around at the beautiful scenery there was no hint of what was to come.

I thought it strange that no one had ever mentioned the distance up Buzzard Bait. Even when we asked, no one would say. Their only comment was that once you started, you really had no choice but to continue to the top, and that we'd know for sure when we got there.

I thought I'd use some strategy. Not being the best hill runner in the bunch, I opted to use a combination of heart rate and a run/walk sequence. My thinking, and I use that word in it's broadest definition, was that if I could keep my heart rate in a reasonable zone, and take regular walking breaks, I'd more than make up the ground I was losing.

Confident in my strategy I set off. The first five minutes of running were OK, but I was happy to take my first walk break. The road had begun to wind around quite a bit, and I was loosing visual contact with the runners in front of me. Eager to catch up, I launched an all out effort as I began my second run. Everything else after that moment is blurred in my memory.

I know I didn't make it to the end of the 5-minute segment before my legs were begging me to stop. My heart rate was somewhere off the charts. I'm pretty sure I was screaming although I'm not sure where I would have found the breath. And, I seem to remember trying to adjust the interval timer on my watch.

But what to do? Press on. I could see blue sky ahead giving me hope that I had reached the summit. BUT NO. Again and again the road turned in and up. Again and again I pressed on in what had become study in how little difference there is between walking very slowly and running even slower.

Then I heard it. The Van. The staff van was creeping up behind me. If I didn't keep going I would get pulled into the van. Now I know I was screaming. NO WAY. I'm not gonna come this far, work this hard, feel this stupid and then get driven to top.

I must have looked pretty silly. I'm sure I was a flailing marionette, arms and legs disconnected from each other. Looking up, I saw my colleagues standing by a car. Surely this must be it. Surely this must be the end. I hauled myself up that final stretch Quazimoto style. I through my arms forward and dragged my legs behind. 37 minutes, 40 seconds.

When I finished, I looked for the revelation. What was the revelation I thought? What is it that I know now that I didn't know before this started? Not much is all I could think. I know that I'll never start running up a hill that I don't know when I don't know the distance, but that seems to beg the question. On the other hand, maybe that is the question.

Maybe I've allowed myself to get into that comfort zone with my running. I've got my favorite places to run and my favorite races. What made this a monumental effort was that I had no idea what to expect.

It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between being in a groove and being in a rut. At it's best, while running effortlessly along a familiar road with all the sights and sounds that make us feel good, it's hard to imagine why we should ever do anything different. But we should.

We should find that unknown. It doesn't have to exotic, as it turns out. Even a little two-mile hill like Buzzard Bait will work.

Waddle on, friends.

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