I've grown up thinking of the sun as a giver of life. It gets me up out of bed, warms my bones. It's rays trickle through the trees playfully. By comparison the sun felt relentless from the moment I began the ascent from Kansas into Colorado on I-70. The ground was brown. The clouds evaporated. And I got closer to it. There was less atmosphere between me and it. Forget shade. The sparse trees have sparse leaves. Like they have to be careful not to expose too much.
Pikes Peak riveted my attention from the moment it came into view. I am accustomed to watching the daily changing moods of White Top in Virginia. Pikes Peak seems more stoic. It emanates abruptly. Snow still covers much of the top 2000 feet of the mountain. It reflects sunlight crisply in all directions. Where the snow stops and vegetation starts the mountain seems to be in shadow. This mountain will be my reliable gage for the next 32 days. I don't imagine, of course, that it cares. Therein lies its power. It is unaffected by my ambitions. It will not cheer me upward. Neither will it taunt me. It won't collect snow just to thwart me, nor extend itself upward out of my reach. When I am fit enough, I will run up it. When I run up it, I will be fit enough.
I am staying in Colorado Springs. There is an Olympic training center here. I won't be using those facilities. I have no special status. We all come here, though, because of the mountain. I've been here about 24 hours, and already I sense a kind of camaraderie. We come here to train. The work is harder at 6000 feet. The aerobic benefits for those who train at altitude are well documented.
My running improved significantly in the year after I first moved from Kentucky to Virginia. A lot changed in that move, but I chose 3 variables that most likely affected my running: First, I had accumulated more miles, and more ultras. Second, I had moved from 220' above sea level in Louisville to 2200' above sea level in Emory. Third, I drank more beer, and especially homebrew. Until I began to study the effects of altitude training I actually thought the beer consumption carried the most weight. Of course I avoided any scholarly review of the literature. I wanted an excuse, after all, to continue my empirical case study. In my defense, I really thought the mountains were too small in Virginia to cause any physiological adaptation.
I can see now that living at 2200' with occasional runs at 4000' adds a significant dimension to training. Part of the problem with running at altitude is that it is harder to run fast. Anything over about 6000' can be prohibitive of good quality speed work. I ran 90 minutes this morning, for example. The pace was easy, and there were only very short and mild climbs in the "Garden of the Giants" park where Nippert had taken me. I noticed that even these short climbs caused my legs to feel a little "thick" or "heavy." I know the sensation -- I remember it from track workouts when I was young. I don't get that feeling much anymore. Likewise for the associated feelings of being "out of breath," or "sucking wind." The sense I got was that I had to consciously take in more air. I wasn't demanding more oxygen than the air and my lungs could provide, I just had to breathe more than usual to get it! Our bodies get tuned up for the specific conditions in which we train -- and most of that tuning is completely subconscious.
So we've still got enough partial pressure of oxygen to get it done here, but it's harder. And the body has to adjust. Not just by accumulating more red blood cells, but by fine tuning the nervous system to respond to the increased demand of running faster, or climbing higher. And those changes, although subtle in the move from 220' to 2200', were likely significant for my improved running performances.
My two train wrecks at Western States ('05 and '07), especially when viewed in comparison to a very steady career of running over many years, calls out for explanation. The elevation at States, while not as severe as some of the mountain ultras, certainly has played a role in my troubles. The heat and the low humidity have also likely been factors. I'll save the story of those runs for the coming days. Now that I'm reasonably settled, the posts, like my runs, will come daily.
Out, for the day, from CO Springs.