Friday, July 18, 2014

How I Got Way Too High in Colorado

When I stepped out to run on Colorado 7, a long and lonely highway winding through the Rocky Mountains at an altitude of roughly 7,500 feet, I was confident. Gone was the low-altitude humidity that stifled my breath and slicked my skin with sweat at lower altitudes. Gone was the 90 degree heat that sapped my energy and slowed my pace.

Here, with Indian Paintbrushes gently swaying at my feet and green pines lining the highway, it was a cool 70 degrees. The air was crisp and clean. Sure, the road was a bit steeper than my routes in Illinois, but I could cope with that. And while I was aware of those things called “altitude sickness” and “oxygen deprivation,” neither ideas were really bothering me at that moment. I was brazenly confident, almost giddy, in expectation of having a great run.

Some of that giddy confidence, of course, was most likely the result of a lack of oxygen flow to my brain.

An oxygen-deprived world can be a magical, wonderful place.

As I found out at around the fifth step of my run that day, a drastic altitude change is something that really does affect exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, in a big way. While some might come to the realization using logic and prepare accordingly, I learned using a method some call “the hard way.”

Pictured: the hard way.

Running at high altitude limits your oxygen, which puts a lot of strain on your heart, lungs, and muscles. All three of which, as it turns out, were very important to my ability to run successfully that day. I’m not super aware of the science, so I’ll put it in more literal terms:

Running at high altitude LITERALLY makes you feel like you’re missing a lung. For those of you who are unfamiliar, I’ve made a handy chart:

So when I turned around to go home, barely a mile into my run, I adopted the form most runners are familiar with from when a run is going very, very badly. I shuffled forward, barely lifting my feet, at about the speed of an octogenarian heading to dinner in a nursing home when their least favorite meal is being served. My head was bowed and my shoulders were hunched in exhaustion, but I kept the last defiant stance of any runner who just won’t quit: my forearms remained bent at the elbows, despite the fact that I was moving between zero and one mile per hour.

Wild bears approached me, assumed I was playing dead, and politely retreated into the forest. Grass, long deprived of sunlight by my passing shadow, browned and died. My leg muscles atrophied and were revived with every step. And still I gasped for air, my heart thudding wildly in my chest.

Now I truly understand why the Olympic athletes train at higher altitudes. It is so much harder than running where there is oxygen aplenty. But running with low oxygen is like getting a sports car that usually takes premium gas to run on Mike’s Hard Lemonade. If you can modify the engine to get fuel from that, just imagine its performance when you give it the good stuff again.

I, however, am not an Olympic athlete. I was just on vacation in Colorado. So I did not run very frequently while I was there. If you ever want to run at high altitude and have not experienced it before, like me, do yourself a favor and SEVERELY limit your distance and pace. Any confidence you feel at the start is most likely the result of oxygen deprivation.

And remember: the least you can do, no matter how slowly you’re running, is keep those forearms up. Even if walkers are passing you while you do it, you’re still, somehow, more a runner than them. At least as far as I'm concerned.

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