Preview: Summer Altitude Challenge 2012
July 2, 2012 5 Comments
Over the last six months I’ve run several races, most of them fast, and all of them at or near sea level. As a resident of Chicago, I don’t have many options when it comes to running at altitude or even up hills. The entire city is as flat as flat gets, with only the tiniest slopes providing hill-like challenges. Honestly, I’m alright with that. I appreciate a nice flat, fast course. Every time I finish a race with a fast time, it boosts my confidence and gives me a reason to continue training at high exertion levels. Plus, it validates all of my training efforts in simple minutes and seconds.
Last year, I switched things up several times. I started by running my first international half marathon in San José, Costa Rica. It was near the end of their dry season, at 2 PM, and at around 3,800 feet. It was challenging, among my slowest half marathons, but I loved it. A month later, I ran a half in Fort Collins, Colorado, which topped out at almost 5,700 feet before descending to around 5,000. It was a lot cooler in the Rockies than Costa Rica, so my time was marginally faster. But the thin air and the hills got to me and by the second mile I was feeling gassed.
This year, I’m going to once again throw in some altitude races, but this time we’re reaching new heights. Because I don’t have the opportunity to run or even exist at these altitudes, each new race will be a challenge. Additionally, each race has a higher altitude profile than the one before it (the funny thing is, I didn’t plan all of these myself and they just happened to line up that way).
1.) Four Thousand Feet
The first race is the Media Maratón Correcaminos in San José, Costa Rica. Much earlier this year, my fiancée Stephanie and I decided to organize a trip with her parents to get to know my extended family and the country they call home. We picked the dates to make the most of the Fourth of July holiday. My racing compulsion kicked in eventually and I decided to check and see if there were any races there we could do, especially since Steve (my future father-in-law) was a big racer not too long ago and is looking to make a comeback. Lo and behold, one of the country’s biggest races was happening that Sunday, July 8. Once again, I did not pick the weekend because of the race; I promise you all it was the other way around. No one believes me, but well, there it is.
The race is a point-to-point that begins in Tres Ríos and finishes in La Sabana. This should be neat because there are very few true straight lines in San José (as any foreigner in the passenger seat will attest) so the course should prove very labyrinthine. Steve will be running the 10k and will therefore be receiving a running tour of the capital. It’s not much to look at until the end, but he said he’s doing it mostly for the shirt.
2.) Six Thousand Feet
Two weeks later on Saturday, July 21, I will be toeing the line at the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon. This race is yet another point to point that starts at 6,000 feet and in six miles descends to around 4,800, where it remains flat until the end. I will be looking to breathe in as much air as possible in the little time I will spend there before starting the race. It will also most likely be the first race that I run with a hydration backpack, the reason for which is to avoid dehydration.
But that much is obvious. Everyone wants to avoid dehydration, even those who aren’t runners. So why the extra precaution? Why not run every race with a Camelbak if that’s the concern? Well, there’s a bigger reason. A while ago, when I set off to run at least 13.1 miles in every state, I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to do it in 50 trips. I could offset some of the costs by doubling-up once I developed enough of an endurance base. I thought, maybe this year I’d be able to pull it off.
There’s a pretty useful, albeit slow-loading tool hosted by Running in the USA that shows back-to-back races within driving distance of each other. After scanning some dates, I first found the Idaho Falls Half Marathon and a few hours away by car, the Madison Montana Marathon in the Gravelly Mountains.
3.) Nine Thousand Feet
“Run Yourself Ragged” reads the top banner of this race’s website, followed by a proud “Highest Road Marathon in America!” The race organizer of the Madison Marathon claims to have extensively researched this and has yet to find a road race higher elsewhere. Many trail races breach 10,000 feet, but you’d be hard pressed to find a paved road race that high. But for some reason, I was overcome with a sense of adventure, and it consumed me enough to commit to both races. It’s only a little insane, name because I’ve never done any running higher than 6,000 feet. But I convinced myself that the Idaho Falls race will somehow prepare me to run this one, despite the fact that I’ll have put 13.1 miles on my legs leading up to it. I’ll just call it a warm-up run.
And that’s why I’m planning on running the Idaho race with a hydration pack.
The Montana race’s website, though, has a great way of getting you to forget the daunting altitude challenges. In its gallery, it has many pictures of the course, which are undeniably breathtaking. It’s very difficult to not get caught up in the majesty of Montana’s rugged mountain landscapes while flipping through each new shot. If ever I doubted my decision, a few minutes perusing through these pictures would instantly re-energize me. There’s a downside to this, in that there are definitely bears (BEARS!) in the area and they’ve been spotted more than once near the course.
But even after committing to both races, there were still moments of trepidation, where I would question whether I’d be able to finish Montana. In fact, as I write this, I still believe there’s a chance that I’d have to walk the course. What truly tipped the scales and made it happen was an unlikely email from a friend.
I first met Jay Zeschin in college when he pledged my fraternity. I quickly learned that he was no ordinary guy. Not only did his music tastes practically invent the word “esoteric,” but he turned out to be a wizard on skis . Several years and ski trips later, he became an ultrarunner by finishing the Sageburner 50k in 2011, and a mere two months later, the Leadville Silver Rush 50-Mile Run. When he told me he wanted to run the Leadville 100 Trail Run this summer, I told him he was certifiably insane. When he asked me to be part of his pace and gear crew, I signed up.
I guess that makes me crazy too.
4.) Nine Thousand (+) Feet
The Leadville Trail 100 is a beast of a race. Held every year in Leadville, Colorado, it’s considered one of the toughest foot races out there. As if running 100 miles nonstop weren’t enough of a challenge, the race’s lowest point is over 9,200 feet, with runners breaching 12,600 feet over Hope Pass twice. The idea that someone would have the stones to commit to something so far beyond the realm of sanity is truly mind-boggling. So when someone decides to do it and then asks you to be part of a privileged group of people, whose purpose is to keep them going, you throw everything down and give a resounding “Absolutely I will.”
And it’s not until after you’ve had your moment of pride that you realize, $#!& this is going to be tough.
I can only hope that my three races at progressively rising altitudes will help me out in pacing Mr. Zeschin through the ups and downs of Leadville. I’m sure he’s bringing with him more seasoned ultrarunners, so I might get lucky and receive a less grueling part of the course. I’m not banking on that, so I’ll definitely be doing lots of stair climbing and hill workouts in between now and then. With this race, my summer race series and altitude challenge ends, making way for the fall, where I hope to return to sea level and courses as flat as ironing boards.