SANTA CLARA — What got me were the tennis balls.
I wasn’t surprised that The Hill wore me down, elevated my heart rate and tightened my cute little quad muscles like cement. But the climbing was over now. All that remained was a little game of pitch and catch. Ray Wright, the 49ers’ head strength and conditioning coach, stood at the top of the The Hill with a bucket of tennis balls. I waited at the bottom, where the earth was nice and flat. “Just catch each ball and drop it on the ground,” he said. “You ready?”
I was ready.
Oops, not ready. Wright didn’t roll ground balls. He fired one-hoppers in rapid succession, dragging me left and right. And I was so tired from the workout he had just put me through, my legs so resembling canned cranberry sauce, that even basic hand-eye coordination deserted me. I think I caught three of 20 balls.
It was humbling, but you have to understand what I was up against. The Hill, despite Wright’s apparent affability, is a training device befitting a religious inquisition. The hypotenuse of this hate triangle stretches 20 yards and reaches a height of a little over 30 feet. It is pitched at a 30 percent grade. For local reference, the west side of the Trinity Grade, known as Sonoma County’s most diabolical cycling climb, averages about 8.8 percent.
The 49ers players have been attacking this ramp since training camp opened, and will continue to do so through the regular season, which begins Sunday with a home game against the Panthers. On Tuesday, Wright invited me for an abridged workout.
It just wasn’t as abridged as I had imagined.
I figured he’d let me run to the top of The Hill a few times, and maybe give me an idea of a couple of the other drills he has devised. And to be clear, my workout fell far short of what the players endure. I was probably up there no more than 20 minutes. But I’m not gonna lie. The Hill is a bastard.
I donned my specialized, extra-grip running shoes — they’re arranged in cubbies beneath The Hill like shoes in a bowling alley —and we started with some simple calf warmups. My first assignment was to backpedal up the slope. Wright advised me to dig in with my heels, but I found this difficult; I moved in slow motion. Next, I clasped my hands behind my back and high-stepped up The Hill.
Then Wright got creative. He has spray painted circles on The Hill, and I zig-zagged up, planting my feet on various dots. Also spray-painted: a hopscotch-style “ladder” for footwork drills. Like I know how to do a stupid ladder drill.
Then came a lateral shuffle to the top, facing to one side; a forward crawl on hands and feet, as fast as I could; a “gorilla crawl” that involved pushing off with two hands and bounding with both legs; an absolutely unforgivable backward crawl — four yards up, controlled descent, four yards up, controlled descent — that broke me; and a series of two-footed broad jumps. Broad jumps up a 30 percent grade. It took me 17 jumps to reach the top, every leap a little shorter than the last. Wright said most of his players get there in 10 or 11.