Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Altitude underdog

Mt. Whitney, Saturday

Hardrock is rapidly approaching, and the weeks of hiking, running, and going to altitude to improve my VO2 efficiency have slowly started to pay off. Without a doubt, it has been one of the toughest training blocks of my life. It reminds me of when I was in the military and competing for a billet to dive school in what is referred to as a “Dive Screener”. I did well on every test, except the final one of buddy breathing and sharking. The test required you to swim around sharing a snorkel with a buddy and endure “sharkings” where an instructor would drag you and your buddy to the bottom for 30 seconds, then allow you to return to the surface to clear the snorkel patiently. I made it through a few attacks before I started to get tired and believe that I couldn’t breathe. Once that happened, it was over, and I failed the next sharkings and didn’t make the cut. Though I was physically capable, I was mentally uncapable, and I learned how important it was to differentiate the two.

Discomfort without the emotional twist of fear is simple: you just deal with it and accept it as another pain in life. However discomfort with the misplaced fear of death is an unnecessary load. Like rocks in a pack, these superfluous fears rob you of true potential. I was a good swimmer and I did the PT and other underwater tests very well. I passed 2-3 sharkings, I proved I could do it; I just freaked out and screwed myself up on the last few.

My trip up Whitney on Saturday had a similar bout of unnecessary fear. Though I had tons of time to summit, I worried about thunderstorms in the afternoon (none were anywhere on the horizon). Though I knew I was a capable hiker and uphill runner, I worried I would burn out if I ran the lower parts too hard, and I went too slow. Though I knew my lungs were strong enough to maintain a good hiking pace to the summit, I paused often and frequently questioned whether I was prepared to go on when I started to breathe heavily. That night, I lay awake for several hours thinking about my horrendously slow splits, and just how bad Hardrock could turn out for me. The only thing that would let my mind rest was a resolution.

My resolution is that this isn’t a race I’m going to succeed in without conquering my fears. The struggle is not as simple as running for 30 hours and eating enough to keep my legs firing; the real struggle for me is mentally overcoming each pass and committing to myself and my race. I've expereinced headaches and dizziness above 12,000ft on training runs. Mile 64, features 14,048ft Handies Peak after traversing 6 peaks over 12,500ft.  Mile 86, 87, 95, are at 13,000ft. I have to pass through altitudes that I'd prefer not to go above 10 times, and after every single pass, descend and prepare to do it again with continued determination and resolution. There is no easy part.

Descending Old Army Pass, Sunday

Whether I finish near the top or in the middle of the pack is dependent on two distinct issues: one which I have control over, and the other that I don’t. I’ve had much better runs at altitude on my second days on trips up high. When I go to acclimate for two weeks before the race, I might be able to unlock some potential that’s been hampering me on days when I come from sea level to start a run up to 13/14,000 feet. That problem is simple, my body will do its best to adapt and I’ll find out on race day if it’s ready. If I have difficulty breathing, my race will go on, it’ll just be slower than I’d like.

The other half is dependent on my mental fortitude. I can acknowledge all the physiological disadvantages I will experience over other native high altitude runners, but I have to mentally commit to maintaing internal fortitude required to finish the race. Doubt in my ability to finish is a thief. Will this race put me in an enormous amount of pain? Likely. Will it stop me dead in my tracks several times? Probably. Can my mind survive? Yes, with determination, optimism, and passion for my goal.

Part of this internal fortitude is celebrating the suffering and seeing the beauty in it. Normally this is easier at other races where crowds line an aid station and cheer you on, celebrating your confidence and ability. When I was at Hardrock last year, there was a definite reverence in the crowd for what the runners were doing. No one oversimplifyied the climb ahead, they just gave firm encouragement to the runner with respect for the challenge. The runner must rely on his or herself to make the decision to climb up into thin air several times over. There is an easy avenue for fear to creep in as the race goes into the night. But, if the runner is focused, there is also an avenue for pride, for determination, for finding beauty in the struggle. Because every single pass, is another opportunity to define oneself as stronger and tougher than ever before, and to make a new statement as to what they stand for as a person.

88 miles, 28,000ft
Good week, a bit sore after training binge over Memorial Day

44 miles, 8,500ft
Lowest week, but did a 13,000ft. peak, and my first track workout in ages in a week with tons of travel, work, and a NB photoshoot

87 miles, 23,000ft
First time up to 14,000ft, long slow runs on weekend, acclimating and adapting to Mt. Whitney/Cottonwood lakes terrain. 

Cottonwood Lake 4 below Old Army Pass

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Remix of M83 - Reunion


El Jacob said...

Keep up the hard work Dom. I'll see you out there on the course!

(I'm sweeping, but will be out spectating before my sweeping duties)

Dominic Grossman said...

Cool! See you out there (hopefully not when you're sweeping ;)