Amy Donaldson: It's never too late to get back in the race
Watching Steven Hill run through the cold, wet night into the bustling exchange of the Tennessee Ragnar Relay was one of those moments when all of the noise seems to fade far away as your entire soul struggles to appreciate something beautiful.
Sure, to some people it was just another old guy running.
But Steve Hill is no ordinary old guy and his journey to that chute in Tennessee wasn't always pretty.
Six months ago, he told me he didn't know if he could run at all — let alone participate in one of the relay races he helped start.
"I really felt like I went downhill," said the 61-year-old attorney who dreamed of starting a long-distance relay race in Utah long before he, his son and his son's best friend ever did it. "I wanted to get myself in shape."
Most of Hill's life, however, he'd relied on running to keep himself fit. The Farmington attorney gave up the sport he loved nearly a decade ago when he broke the tibial plateau in his right knee. Time and inactivity took their toll, and one day he woke up an out-of-shape old man.
In June, he stood in the VIP suite at the Wasatch Back Ragnar Relay watching runners finish a race that he had never run. It was a race he dreamed about for years before his son, Dan Hill, and Dan's best friend, Tanner Bell, helped him make it a reality. The three men founded the relay series in 2004 with that very first Wasatch Back Race. Steve left the business more than a year ago, but standing at the finish in June stirred a desire in him that he hadn't had for many years.
"I was wanting to be part of it as a runner again," he said. "Part of it was wanting to beat back the clock."
He talked to Dan and Tanner about a 90-day fitness program they'd completed and wondered if it would work for him. But it wasn't just the aches and pains he felt when he tried to run that convinced him his best days were behind him.
"I had multiple doctors tell me not to run anymore," said he said with a slight smile.
But his desire to run was stronger than the pain most days. He participated in the program (despite the embarrassing before photos) which included strength training, nutrition and, of course, running. It was more of a use-it-or-lose-it attitude, and while Hill was afraid he'd lost it, he eventually realized that he — and all of those doctors — were wrong.
"It was kind of a revelation to me," he said. "People really do deteriorate because they let themselves. You can keep going hard a lot longer than most people think."
While Tennessee was his goal, he got an unexpected opportunity.
His wife, Tauni, asked him to run in Las Vegas with their team, "Run Like Hill," two weeks before Tennessee. He and his wife had run together in the race that inspired him to start the Wasatch Back — Hood to Coast. But that was when he was a talented runner and finish times were a lot more important to him than races.
He recalls one particular finish in Hood to Coast where his wife tried to hug him at the end, but he sprinted past her. He is not proud of that guy, but he understands him better now. He is no longer that fast, but he has also learned to appreciate the journey, as well as an awesome finish time.
"It was beautiful," he said of running in Las Vegas. "I had an experience I've never had. … I almost came to tears when I saw my wife. It's that feeling you have when you accomplish something that you really thought was not possible."
His experience in Las Vegas changed his mindset for Tennessee.
"Here I knew I could do it," he said.
When he started that night leg, his knee was really sore. In fact, someone asked him if he was the injured runner he'd heard about. Hill stood in the gate anyway, hoping he could get through the 3-mile route.
"I doubt I ran 100 yards before it was fine," he said.
I did not know all of this before I watched him sail into the exchange that night. But I knew he was moving too gracefully, too fast to be experiencing much pain.
He wasn't running, he was flying. His wings might have been battered and tired, but they were not used up, they were not broken. It was as if they'd been rejuvenated by the stories of other runners.
For the last seven years, he's listened with a grateful heart as runners shared their stories of how a Ragnar relay has transformed them.
Now he has his own story to share.
"It was a life-changing experience to be able to train for this and do it," he said. "It's changed my view of what's physically possible, and what I'm able to do in the later years of my life."
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