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Half Marathon At Altitude

You may not consider 7000 feet to be very high. In fact, I’m sure the Leadville 100 runners would scoff at 7000 feet as they look down their noses. When you run at 12,500 feet above sea level, you pretty much have to look down your nose to see someone at 7000 feet.

I, on the other hand, consider 7000 feet above sea level to be a recipe for oxygen deprivation and a chance to see William Shatner at the apogee of his Blue Origin flight.

I did not see William Shatner.

Most of my endurance training for the last – as long as I can remember – has been at sea level near the North Carolina coast or in North Texas or some other low lying areas including four recent days of running and swimming near the California coast. My lungs are well adapted to an abundance of oxygen.

About a week ago, I drove from near the California coast to New Mexico (~5600 feet) in a rented Jeep Wrangler. I asked for a compact car and they gave me the Wrangler, but that’s another story for another blog post. The day after arriving in New Mexico, Lori and I drove to Mancos, Colorado for the Mancos Cowboy Half Marathon and 5k. Lori ran the 5k. I ran the 13.1 miles.

Lori had a very successful 3.1 miles that ended in a sprint to the finish. The runner next to her didn’t have a chance. Her running is getting better all the time. I felt bad that she had to wait around so long for me to finally finish.

To be fair to myself, I did “run” the 13.1 miles, even though it wasn’t what what I would consider normal running. The race started out fairly usual. There were some flats and some hills, but somewhere around mile 4 the course veered off the road and onto a trail; if you can call it a trail. I’d call it a hilly pasture with a few vehicle ruts here and there separated by steep ravines and gullies. That section was “off the grid”, but it was marked by little red surveyor’s flags which were plainly visible to those who were not blurry eyed from lack of oxygen. I almost got off course, but thanks to a friendly shout from the guy in the blue shirt behind me, I made the turn and didn’t get lost.

An approximation of the Mancos Half Marathon route. The yellow shaded area is the trail section

Descending into the gullies and ravines was the best part. Reaching the crest of a ridge and letting gravity take over is a pure thrill. The knees may disagree, but the soft soil provided plenty of cushion for each footfall. It was more flying than running. Ascending the hills out of the ravines was the worst part.

Overcoming gravity was not my strength that day. This part was not really running either. I think any reasonable person would call it climbing. Yet, as hard as the climbs were, they were worth every painful step, because at the tops of the ridges the views of the Mancos valley were beautiful and a pleasure to see.

After running through a couple of flat pastures, we were off the “trail” and back to pounding the pavement of Montezuma County roads.

There were only 60+ runners in the half marathon, so that’s an average of one person every 1100± feet. Obviously, it doesn’t really work that way, but the only place I actually “ran” with others was in the first mile and in those hills and ravines. It got a bit lonely out there from mile 6 to the finish, which is a good thing for me. Only the handful of runners that passed me would have seen me suffering. I did try to smile and say encouraging things as they went by. Things like, “Good job! I hope you’re not in my age group.”

By about mile 8, the legs were feeling the effects of climbing up the hills three miles ago. That’s when the little voices began, “It’s ok if you walk. You’re not going to win this race anyway.” About a year ago, I learned some tricks to deal with those voices.

  1. Acknowledge them. Talk back to them as though you know something they don’t. Tell them that it’s only going to get easier from here on out.

  2. Bargain with them. Tell them you’ll slow down, but only after you speed up. I find that after I pick up the pace a little, the voices go away for quite a while.

  3. Remember why you’re doing this. There’s a reason, or several reasons, you put yourself through such torture and if those reasons are sincere, then the voices will quiet down.

  4. Focus Focus Focus. Focus on running form. As soon as you feel like you are bending at the waist or holding your shoulders tight or scuffing your feet, pull it back together. You can also focus on breathing or counting steps. My little voices hate that.

So that’s what I did. Even though my form and pace for the last three or four miles resembled a drunk Quasimodo, I kept running. Of course, I exaggerate, but that’s how I felt. Quasimodo probably would not have finished in two hours and 17 minutes or taken third place.

If you’ve read to this point, you are probably wondering why I’m telling you about my experience in this race. By the way, thank you for sticking with me.

I’m excited about this race because, despite poor preparation for running at altitude and in hills, it was a race was well executed. The variables I could not control did not concern me. The weather, the competition, the terrain, the size of the finisher medals were not important. The post race food didn’t even concern me.

Of concern were four items:

  1. Clothing. I chose to wear a shirt over a tri suit instead of running shorts. The temperature was 28F and the one piece suit is quite warm. There’s no gap between shirt and shorts. I may have looked silly running with a chamois in my hind quarter, but so what! The chamois and I finished in good time.

  2. Nutrition. A pack of Clif Bloks in the pocket cures most hunger pangs and muscle glycogen deficits. Of course, they do need to go from the pocket to the mouth before they can be effective. I also liked the nutrition at the aid stations so I got lucky.

  3. Form. Run form is important to me. Yes I want to look good to impress the woman who drove to the race with me, but I also want to run efficiently. Each time I felt like Quasimodo, I focused on run form and the world became a better place. It actually does make me feel better to run with good form.

  4. Pace. If you start out too fast, you’ll be walking my mile 10. If you start out too slow, you can always pick up the pace later on. My specific pace should have no meaning to you. It’s a very individual thing. Suffice it to say that I kept the pace under control in the first four miles. The legs felt great and wanted to go faster, but I’m quite sure that keeping the pace down in the beginning kept me from walking the last three, uphill, miles .

So there it is. A race report from 7000 feet. I had fun and I hope to do this race again next year.

Until next time…

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