The recent Philadelphia University graduates, all cross-country runners at the school, were trying to figure out what they were doing back here on a Sunday morning at Belmont Plateau.
Stockholm syndrome, they finally came up with, realizing what they were about to put their bodies through.
"Here we're paying to run," said 2015 Philly U. grad Eric Lacy of being back at the place where he had run so many college races.
They were laughing, of course. The course itself is a Philadelphia icon, for generations a communal gathering spot for athletes of all speeds and sizes and ages. This occasion was a 5,000-meter race, around the plateau with its spectacular Center City vista, into the woods, up infamous Parachute Hill, back around to the top of the plateau again before racing to the finish.
This was the Belmont Plateau Hall of Fame Classic, honoring several past local distance-running greats before the race itself, which was preceded by a one-mile run using a course familiar to any young CYO runner.
The event was a celebration of a fund-raising initiative that spruced up the course and added impressive multicolor signage all over the place, telling runners what direction to turn and how far they had run depending on the distance they were going.
Before the race, Colleen Padilla pointed up the hill, explaining the course to her daughter Kenzie, 9, and her son Kyle, 7. She didn't need any signs.
"You get to the top of the hill and run across the plateau - there's the plateau," Padilla told them as her husband, Mike, got his bib number, preparing to run. Her father used to run here for Cardinal Dougherty High and La Salle College, she said, and later coached the sport. She also coached at Villa Maria Academy.
"We met running at college," she said of her husband, a fellow Cornell graduate.
A few feet away stood Tom O'Hora, who had coached Cabrini for 31 years and ran the course back in the days when the toughest stretch, he said, wasn't Parachute Hill but another hill with a name that says it all: Sure Kill Hill, over by the Schuylkill Expressway.
"All uphill and all sand," O'Hora said of Sure Kill. "There was nothing you could do to prepare for it. When you got to the top, your legs were Jell-O."
Warning to runners: Sure Kill could be coming back. That's the hope of Philly U. coach Dave Thomas, who got the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation involved in this spruce-up project and honchoed the whole thing. About $150,000 was raised over the last three years.
Older-timers remember when Parachute Hill was sided by a meadow, not the trail up through a forest as it is now. Regardless, the incline is all too familiar.
"It would make a good downhill," said Chuck Shields of Abington, who first ran the course as a McDevitt High student in 1974.
The hill has a psychological torture built in. Its initial incline rivals the famed Manayunk Wall - "then you think you're done, and it goes up again," said O'Hora.
During a recent 5k, competitors approached Parachute Hill, just over a mile into the course, aware of it even before they could see it, before they took a sharp left turn onto the hill.
"It's all over now," a mid-pack runner without a shirt said as he approached the turn.
"There it is," said the runner just behind.
The pain is supposed to be part of the sport, O'Hora said. "They're turning cross-country into track," he said. "Looking for golf courses to run on."
Thomas is hoping the spruce-up will attract more big-time events in addition to the many local races in the fall. Four of the Philly U. grads, looking to have a little fun, had worn NBA jerseys. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller. Provided by Tim Malloy, a '15 grad. They knew it made them stand out and figured they'd better back it up.
In fact, the Reggie Miller jersey took fourth and Michael Jordan's was seventh. All were in the top quarter of the field, although LeBron James did admit to some chafing from the shirt and also was overheard saying, "I can't feel my legs."
Call it a welcome home from Parachute Hill, which given the chance will kidnap both your heart and your legs.