Saturday, May 23, 2009

Altitude and Western States

The participant’s guide published for The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is misleading, if not downright deceptive, with respect to problems caused by altitude.

The trail description on page 2 sounds appropriately ominous: “…the trail ascends from the valley floor (elevation 6,200 feet) to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4 miles… runners travel West, climbing another 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet…” OK. That sounds menacing.

Skip ahead in the guide to John Medinger’s article “Training for the Western States 100.” On page 27 there is a section on altitude problems and snow. It begins, “Even though the first 30 miles of Western States average about 7500 feet of elevation, few runners have significant problems with the altitude at Western States.” The paragraph ends, “For most participants, the worst thing that will happen is that the altitude will slow you down a little.”

I’m convinced otherwise. If you haven’t acclimatized, your initial climb to near 9,000 feet and the effort over first 30 miles will put you in a hole that will very likely cause a dramatic drop in performance in comparison with other, lower elevation, 100 mile races.

My assertion is self-serving, I suppose. I have started Western States twice, in 2005 and 2007. Both times I was reduced to a shadow of my former self. In both cases I felt defeated by the time I reached the Miller’s Defeat aid station at mile 34. I thought I had prepared. Something accounts for my poor performances, though. The central pretext of all of my writing so far has been that on race day there really shouldn’t be, and likely can’t be, work for “me” to do. Any failure is a failure of preparation. If what I say here is true, I don’t have to take the blame for my problems at WS in ’05 and ’07. The two necessary conditions hold: I wasn’t acclimatized, and couldn’t have reasonably been expected to know that acclimatization was necessary. The first condition is non-controversial. The second is substantiated, I’m claiming, because the materials published for Western States participants (which are thorough by any standard) say, implicitly, that acclimatization is likely not necessary.

Now I know. I won’t be able to whine about the altitude after this year’s race, don’t worry. It dawned on me slowly, as I reluctantly reflected on my past two runs at WS, as well as my other ultras. Although several variables are different for States, including altitude, humidity, temperature, prestige, and distance from home, only altitude can account for the disparity between my performances there as compared to elsewhere.

So I formed the hypothesis that lack of acclimatization to altitude caused the disparity. Now I’m doing the experiment. For new readers, I’m now in Colorado Springs, at 6400 feet. I’ll be running Western States in 5 weeks. The sample size (1) is small, and I won’t likely publish my results in a prominent journal. You are privy to my results, however, and they are already starting to come in.

Saturday, May 23, 2009, 5pm. Subject completely whooped.

Following an e-mail contact with former Montrail Teammate Paul DeWitt, I met up with Team CRUD for a jaunt partway up the side of Pike’s Peak this morning. I was assigned to run with Scott Jaime, who is training to run the Hardrock 100. Scott finished close behind me at both the Way too Cool 50K and the Miwok 100K earlier this year. In addition to being well-matched, Scott is also a very companionable running partner.

During my first 9 days in Colorado Springs I had run only as high as about 7500 feet elevation. Today we climbed to over 10,000 feet elevation. We started from Manitou Springs. The most substantial climb was along a water utility road. We started at a little over 7000 feet and climbed up to about 8500 feet. Although we walked all the steep pitches, this climb hurt. I gasped for breath. My heart pounded like an angry fist against the inside of my rib cage. I have climbed similar pitches, running all the way, at lower elevations. This was a far different experience. Scott was unfazed. He lives in Denver, and has come to Colorado Springs twice a week to train with Paul for some time now.

Side note: we were out for about 6 hours. The weather was cool and rainy. We topped out above Barr Camp on the Elk Park Trail, when we ran into prohibitive snow accumulation.

When I made it back to the house, and got a meal, I had to lay down for a spell. The run exhausted me. Similar runs, at lower elevation, would not have put the same burden on me. Of course I’m happy about it. It means I’ll have to respond – acclimatize – to the new demand. It also means that my plan to prepare for the elevation at WS is underway. Finally, it is the first empirical evidence that acclimatization is necessary for a strong performance at The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.


  1. "Any failure is a failure of preparation" I like it!

    "Unphased" I wouldn't go that far. I was sucking wind just as well. Although I do belive that being acclimated helps for faster recover.

    We are well matched so hopefully in the next 5 weeks we can sync our schedules to push each other a bit. I enjoyed running with you today. Man, a couple times coming back on Elk Park you put the pedal down effortlessly @ 10,000+ ft. Shows you got a good set of lungs!

    My email is Shoot me an email so I have your's and I'll pass on my schedule for the week.

    Thanks again!

  2. Eric..I enjoyed this post. Saw you at Cool with you and Skaden hanging near the Montrail Tent..I agree with the altitude training for WS..though it says it is not a serious issue for participants, I suggest that you can't gauge each individual. That is why my 2010 run at WS will follow a 4week move to Tahoe and train and work there. This I feel will aid me in feeling more comfortable during that first 30, couple that with some heat training and I hope just to finish with some time on the clock..Tony Lafferty