"Life is not measured by the numbers of breaths that we take, but by the moments that take our breaths away"
So, as I gleefully told you all last week, I was heading to the Great Southwest, New Mexico to be precise, for a week of vacation. Now, this was NOT to be a running vacation. Goodness knows that 128 marathons and ultras have dragged my wife here, there and everywhere to watch me run (I can't understand why that's not exciting, but...). No, this was to be a touristy trip to a place we had never trekked to before. So, being tired of my rapidly declining running pace in the hot and humid Alabama summer, I was looking forward to cooler temperatures, and more importantly, a much lower humidity. Both of those did come to fruition, but there was another variable lurking in the shadows to sabatage my plans of returning to my younger running paces - altitude!
Now, let's back up a few years ago when I got a crazy hankerin' to run the Pikes Peak Marathon. Not only was this 13 miles up, 13 miles down, at an average 11% incline, but Pikes Peaked out at over 14,000 feet! Hey, "I'm in shape. I can handle this". So, I got myself into a very intensive hill program, week after week, running to the top of Shackleford Point in Oak Mountain. Only problem was that Shack topped out at 1035 feet! The oxygen at 1035 feet is pretty much the same thick consistency as sea level, and the O2 at 14K is about 40% less. You should have seen Mr. Alabama hugging a boulder at 11 miles, wondering "what is wrong with me" while I prayed my heart wasn't about to explode out of my chest. I made it those other 2 miles where all I wanted to do was put my hands on my knees and "catch my breath". The volunteers at the top rip a tag off your race number and literally spin you around and give you a push to start you back down the mountain. They know you want breathe again, but they also know that ain't gonna happen till you drop about 2000 feet.
So, flash forward to the present where I'm in Albuquerque, Sante Fe, and Taos with an average elevation of 7000 feet. After my first stellar run on the perfectly flat-as-a-pancake Bosque trail, I thought "Holy Crow. What was that all about?". I couldn't figure out why my run was so pitiful. I mean the temperature was only about 60 degrees, and the humidity was certainly lower than Sweet Home Alabama. So, I decided to Google a little bit on the effects of altitude on pace and I was pretty surprised at what I found.
Performance starts to be affected at about 1000 feet. Now, we're not talking just about racing, but on running performance regardless of pace. These days my race pace and my training pace are pretty interchangeable, and even I have to smile when I say "race pace". Anyway, at the 7000 feet I was running, my VO2 max will drop about 12%. This is a measurement of how much oxygen your lungs can actually drain out of those "Help, I'm dying here" gasps you make as you stare at your stupid chronograph, sure that it's broken. You can have lungs the size of a boxcar, but it's the amount of O2 your body can tap from that volume of air that counts. Now, one thing working in your favor is that your running economy actually improves about 6% because of the thinner air. But, even my New Jersey math works out to about a 6% loss in performance - in a 10K race that would normally take you 45 minutes, you might be looking at about a 47:30. A sea-level four hour marathon would take you about 4:10 with all the other variables being equal. I was really surprised that a relatively modest raise in elevation could affect performance that much. Another thing that can work in your favor is that you do acclimate rather quickly, but even that's pretty tricky. I remember when I was getting ready for PP, they suggested to either get out there a week early or come the day before (I guess to try to surprise your body). I must say that by the 3rd morning in New Mexico I felt a ton better, but that was probably due to the 60% humidity instead of the ridiculous 90% stuff. Then again,maybe it's the chili I've been eating - I'm not sure. Maybe I'll Google the effects of chili peppers on running performance - next RWA.
I don't mean for this to be any kind of dry physiology lecture, but it might give you another variable food for thought on whether to sign up for marathons in, say, Denver or Biloxi. If you sign up for Denver, fine. But, know what to expect before you stride across that start line. Every race can be a wonderful experience, but please learn the course and conditions first and then set realistic goals. Like I have always said to anyone complaining about a course to any Race Director, "C'mon, man. Did you do your homework?". Chances are they looked at the entry fee and that was it. OK, that'll be another RWA. See how easy it is to come up with with topics?
OK guys, it's time for me to pack up and get back home. Sure am looking forward to my long run on Sunday morning. Yeah, that should be a riot. Hopefully, I'll see you on the roads.
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