Tom takes a perilous climb up Tumamoc in order to get in better shape

It is, through happenstance and circumstance (a nice way of referring to at least two of the Seven Deadly Sins), that I have arrived at a point in my life where I am in the worst physical shape that I've ever been in. It's 100 percent my fault that I'm here, which means that I get to take 100 percent of the credit when I fix it.

I wanted to establish a baseline, both to determine just how crappy a shape I'm in and to give me something on which to build, perchance to show incremental progress and thereby stoke the inner competitive fires. I did some pushups and situps, then considered various cardio exercises. My son, Alexander, has always been both a nerd and a jock, a combination that kept him from being fully accepted by either group. Recently, he has convinced some of his Computer Science Nerd Herd buddies to climb Tumamoc Hill, just to the west of "A" Mountain.

Back when I was in college, I used to run to the top of "A" Mountain just for the exercise (but never for fun). I've run and completed two marathons in my life and I've pounded out a lot of miles for exercise over the decades, but it has always been a chore. I have never once experienced that mythical runner's high. At best, I've approached runner's mid-level.

One day, at the basketball gym, I mentioned to some of my friends that I was going to climb Tumamoc. Being friends of mine, they laughed in the side of my face, instead of full frontal. Two of my friends, Jon and Pat, want to get in shape for the upcoming basketball Summer Pro League, so they started climbing it on a regular basis.

Pat said, "The first time we went up there, we were keeping up a good pace and talking about basketball. All of a sudden, we hit one of those steep inclines and the talking just stopped. We didn't plan it, we didn't acknowledge it; we just both knew it was critical to conserve oxygen."

Sometimes Jon and Pat take along with them Marcus Campbell, who starred in basketball for Pima Community College a few years back. Including Marcus, that brings the total number of black guys that I know who hike to one.

Alexander said he'd accompany me on my first attempt at ascending the Hill. I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted. He says that he usually makes it to the top in 22 to 25 minutes, depending on how many members of the Nerd Herd he has along with him. (I visualize them tied together by their belt loops, like third-graders on a field trip to the museum.)

There's a big sign that says that people can't start climbing the Hill until 5:30 p.m. on weekdays because there are some research facilities up there affiliated with the University of Arizona. When Alexander and I got there, just before 5:30, the line of cars parked on the street behind St. Mary's Hospital stretched as far as the eye could see and there were already tons of people on the road leading to the top of Tumamoc. Apparently, the climbers listen to the UA about as well the UA listens to the people in the West University neighborhood.

I was stunned by the number of people on that hill. I figured there would be a few dozen or so, but there were hundreds and hundreds. It was one of those wonderful April days where a strong wind a few days earlier had dropped the temperatures to below-average levels. I took a drink of water out of the bottle that I had brought along and started out. (That drink turned out to be the high point of the excursion.)

Richard Pryor used to say that he'd be out jogging on the track, trying to get in a little exercise, but he'd keep getting passed by old white men who would say, "C'mon, buddy! Keep it up!"

I couldn't get that out of my head. It wasn't just old white men who passed me. Their women did, too, along with teenagers, small children, people pushing baby carriages, a guy on crutches, and Simon of Cyrene dragging a full-sized cross. It's really a quite-amazing Tucson cultural happening, played out on a daily basis.

I got incredibly winded pretty early on. Fortunately, there was a lot of vehicular traffic on the road that afternoon. Whenever a car came along, we'd have to pull over to the side and stop until it went by. I was so grateful.

After three-fourths of an eternity, we reached the research station. I looked at the crowded switchbacks above and it reminded me of that beautiful classic photo that so perfectly captures the human spirit, the one that shows the unbroken line of people climbing a snow-covered mountain in the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush of 1898. (A representation of it is on Alaska license plates; it's magnificent.)

What was not so magnificent was that Alexander explained that we were only about halfway up and it gets steeper from there. I said, "You're freakin' kidding me!"

And, yes, I used "freakin'." I was way too tired to use the real F-word.

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