Sunday, May 17, 2009

Calvin Hobbs

Calvin is contentedly munching the weeds just outside the fence I’m facing. He’s a dark chestnut colored 20-year-old thoroughbred. Nancy Hobbs let him out of the barn. A door slams from across the street, causing his head to jerk quickly upward. After a few moments of vigilance he lowers his head to eat again. I’m enjoying the perspective from the upper deck of Nancy’s house. She graciously rented a room to me for this month. The full weight of my body presses comfortably into my chair. I’ve had my run up the mountain, shower, and plenty of breakfast. I have the rest of the day to rest and reflect.

The incline club meets every Sunday morning. Nancy suggested that I join the group for today’s run. All fitness levels are represented, she said. Among the people who show up are the likes of Paul DeWitt, Anton Krupicka, and Matt Carpenter. Wow, those guys are all here? I liked the idea of getting together with other folks who are training. Although I train alone most of the time, running with people adds welcome variation to my routine. I’ve known Paul for some time now, but I’ve never met Tony or Matt, both of whom have well established reputations among ultra runners. I looked forward to the possibility that we would all show up this morning and pass the run chatting.

Nippert caught wind of the plan and vehemently vetoed it. “You don’t need to get into any pissing contests,” he spouted. “Those guys would just love to get you up at the top of the mountain.” I protested mildly, but eventually conceded. I’ll stay close to the barn, for now. I cannot deny my own nature. At least part of the impetus to train and race is to gain status. Our games are analogous to the battles for dominance common to all our animal brethren. We can give other reasons for running when asked, of course. We may even mean it when we say we love to feel the wind on our faces or the burn in our legs, or that we enjoy the companionship of others who have settled on the same pursuit. But can we really make the case that running ultras is reasonable? Joining a group of birdwatchers would make a lot more sense.

Some will say that they run to test their own limits. Fair enough, but of what use is that information? I never thought of myself as being competitive. I felt no animosity toward other runners. I didn’t focus my thoughts around beating people. I didn’t consciously think about my status as a runner. Before I ran, though, I played soccer. When I started high school I ran cross country. Track and soccer were both in the spring though, so I had to choose. Several of my friends were soccer players, and many of them were better players than me. There were no runners my age better than me. I chose to run track. We want to see how we stack up against other guys. We won’t necessarily quit those activities in which we aren’t the best, but we do want to see where we stand.

Calvin is always on the lookout for a challenge. His handlers must be mindful to keep him out of harm’s way. Even on the racetrack, his passions need tempering. He wants to either be out front or to know that he cannot be out front. For that information, he has to compete.

So for now, I run my workouts alone. This morning I started in Red Rock Canyon, one of the many beautiful open spaces at the base of Pikes Peak. I climbed for 65 minutes and 2000’, and then came back down. This is my fifth day at altitude. My body has certainly responded to the change. The conventional wisdom is that performance will deteriorate for the first five days at altitude as blood plasma volume drops. Acclimatization takes 4-6 weeks and includes several changes, one of which is a higher concentration of red blood cells. The change is demanded by the decreased partial pressure of oxygen at higher elevations.

Athletes who train at higher elevations may have an advantage over those who don’t, even when the race is at a lower elevation. I will explore the ethical implications of this disparity in future posts. The weeks I am spending at elevation, though, are to prepare me for the Western States 100. This is a race that climbs to 9000’ in the first 10 miles. I have tried to run it twice before, and in both cases have been reduced to a shadow of my former (low altitude?) self. So this is an experiment. I’ll keep you posted.

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