Disrespecting Altitude

During my first altitude stint in January of this year, at La Loma Centro Deportivo, there were a myriad of factors that caused me to approach the trip with caution: long travel to get there; training in a foreign country; lack of confidence in my ability to communicate with the locals; and of course, it was my first time doing an altitude training camp, and I had no idea how I would respond. I doubled my iron intake for six weeks prior to the trip, contacted and picked the brains of as many altitude experts as I could, and finally relaxed about a week into the trip when I realized that I really wasn’t struggling at all.

Before my recent trip back to elevation, all I really thought about was how I didn’t find altitude that challenging last time, and I zipped up to Donner Summit in an hour and a half, ready to get after it.

Realizing that the preparation for this altitude stint was much more relaxed, my coach emphasized heavily that I had to “respect the altitude.” And in case his words weren’t enough, I met Jake Schmitt and Magdalena Lewy-Boulet for a run on my first morning up there and Magda used Drew’s exact line “you have to respect the altitude.”

But, alas, I like to learn things the hard way. And so I proceeded to run one of my highest mileage weeks ever in my first week at Tahoe/Donner and allowed myself to get far too wired into the data my Garmin was giving me. These things were both magnified by the fact that I chose to go up there and train alone. In retrospect I think I may have spent more time thinking about running than actually running.

I don’t want to make it sound like it was all bad. There were certainly some great moments, and overall it was a positive experience. The first ten days I spent at the Cal Lodge up on Donner Pass. The lodge is run by three brothers that have very relaxed attitudes towards life. There were hundreds of moments that made me laugh inwardly as I watched them go about their lives. One brother, Steve, would sporadically play a set of African drums he kept outside his room. He didn’t play with any discernible kind of rhythm (at least one that my untrained ear could detect), and he only ever played for a few minutes at a time. It almost seemed that something in life would frustrate him, he’d walk outside and spend a few minutes releasing the frustration on the drums, and once it was gone he would stop and carry on with life. Steve’s birthday week also corresponded with the time I spent up there, and I learned that every year he celebrates the entire week leading up to his birthday by building himself a sweat lodge. For seven days there was fire burning constantly outside the lodge, and Steve spent the afternoon heating up rocks and building a sweat lodge that he would sit in after dinner. His brother, Paul, offered to make me dinner every night, and must have made over a hundred cookies in the ten days I was there. He was full of stories, the sources of which came from a life that has involved breaking his neck twice (once when he took on a bet to ride a bull and the other when he was thrown from an angry mule in the Grand Canyon), 14 years in the army, 3 years living in Peru, and a lifetime of skiing around the world and the accidents that have come with that lifestyle.

Needless to say, I spent those first ten days at times baffled, but for the most part thoroughly entertained by the slice of life I had landed myself in.

The following week my parents and sister vacationed in a rented a house on Donner Lake, so I moved camp from Cal Lodge to be with them. That week included a lot of laughter, some competitive board gaming (the winning team each night got to sit on the lakeview side of the table at dinner the next night), and an awesome boat tour of Lake Tahoe.

Unfortunately, by the time they got there some cracks were starting to show from my first ten days. I was struggling to recover and carrying over a lot of fatigue from run to run. My original plan had been to go back up to Cal Lodge after my family left in order to complete a full three weeks of living high. I was torn between feeling like I really needed to recover and not wanting to “quit” when I had planned to be up there a few more days. Eventually I realized that I was clinging to the idea of staying up there because you’re not “supposed to” do an altitude stint for less than three weeks and going home a few days early felt like hitting 88 miles when you wanted to run a 90 mile week. I realized that all that really mattered was getting to a point where I felt refreshed before my next race.

When all was said and done, I came back home to Sacramento after only two and half weeks in Tahoe, but I am already feeling like I am back on my game. I’m glad I allowed myself to “quit” and return to sea level early. I’m looking forward to the week ahead, and most importantly to the opportunity to toe the line next weekend at the Falmouth Road Race against some great competition.


About kimconley

Professional runner and Cross Country and track coach at UC Davis.

Posted on August 7, 2011, in Blogs. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. nice! I’m glad you included the brothers, so funny.

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