Thursday, May 30, 2013

In Defense of the Altitude Tent



Glenn Pass, 11,798 feet

There's been a bit of a debate about whether using an altitude tent is fair in the sport. During my preparation for Hardrock last year, I chose to forgo one in hopes of acclimating via weekend trips to 5-10,000 feet and a two week period in Silverton. This blog's history contains records of said training involving very steep terrain, weeks of 30,000+ feet of climbing, goat trails, fire breaks, Baldy trips, and Sierra trips. When I went to Silverton, I felt muscularly comfortable on the terrain that I had simulated back home in Southern California (that is, nothing felt too steep). However, cardiovascular-ly, I was suffocating at 11,500 feet and above. There are many miles at Hardrock that are over 11,500 feet, and I crawled through those adding a lot of time and frustration.

I thought about how much I was changed by the race as well as Hal's amazing performance with the help of an altitude tent. The terrain and scenery had spoken to me and I felt an unavoidable attraction to the high peaks from then on. I spent the fall exploring the peaks and passes of the Eastern Sierra with Katie. No matter how quickly we rushed back from LA each week, we suffered from hypoxia almost every single weekend. The hard work we did acclimating over the weekend was lost after a few days at sea level. To best describe it, I felt like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill only to slip and have the boulder roll to the bottom again for another struggle to push it to the top. We were essentially bound to spend the majority of our miles suffocating.

W-O-W in Paradise Valley

In life, we don't really get to choose what we love. Everything has pros and cons and at the end of the day we have no choice but to follow our heart to truly be happy. Without a doubt, my heart is in the mountains: the long ascents, the technical terrain, the screaming downhills, the rugged beauty, the rewarding vistas, and the intimate connection with every rock, stream, tree, snow field, lake, animal, and companion. This is where I truly live.

Katie and I considered moving to Colorado, but our jobs dictated otherwise. I looked for some signs of hope that I could live in Los Angeles and develop some mountain running lungs through sheer persistence, but all scholarly articles pointed to the simple fact that the body would stubbornly not acclimate without spending more than a couple days a week at altitude.

Rae Lake and 12,126 ft Mt. Painted Lady

Now some people might simply concede the high country to the locals that live there, assuming it's a world a sea level mortal can never be apart of, but I'm not one of those people. I'm the little Mermaid, and damn't I'm in love with the mountains. I'm also the type of runner that takes on challenging races, and searches for ways to run them as best as I can. When I suffered at Hardrock, I didn't just mope and complain about the mountains being "too high", I thought about how Joe, Dakota, and Hal had understood the challenges and concisely prepared for the rigors of the course. They took the altitude and terrain seriously, and they searched for ways to make it their advantage rather than an excuse for not running well. Accordingly, they all ran amazing races.

To me, an altitude tent is the next best thing to living at altitude. Though the three grand price tag is a bit alarming to some, one could also spend the same amount of money on Hokas, Vitargo, supplements, chiropractors, treadmills, saunas, or just taking time off work to travel to races early to acclimate. The truth is that we already spend a lot of money, time and effort on these things because it's what we undeniably love to do. I live frugally in other parts of my life because a lot of other "normal" ways to spend money are worthless to me compared to my alpine aspirations.

To call an altitude tent unfair is the same thing as accusing a high altitude runner of poaching sea level races. The majority of people in our sport would never say it was unfair when Dylan crushed Leona Divide or Tony flew through the Marin Headlands at Miwok. Everyone knows they had extra red blood cells floating around on race day from living at altitude, but their high performance was mostly due to training extremely hard. In that sense, why should we discourage anyone who lives in Florida or Texas from using an altitude tent and putting in the same hard work to perform at an elite level at any race. If we level the playing altitude, we truly have a globally competitive sport and not just a niche sport dominated by the high-landers.

I stand by my decision and hope that this blog's entries also help show that my performances are still largely training based. In school, I had tests in classes where I knew a majority of the concepts very well, but one flawed misunderstanding of a single concept took my grade from an "A" to a "B". I feel that way about my mountain running as well; I spend a lot of time in the mountains, I push myself, I study all parts of my game, I dedicate my life to lofty goals, and I always do my best. My lungs just don't understand "the concept of altitude". So I feel like the bad luck of being born and raised at sea level limit my performances to "B"s and "B+"s. Furthermore, my enjoyment of running more miles and hiking less is prematurely cut short.



I hope this helps to clarify that an altitude tent in itself is not a jet pack, an oxygen bottle, EPO, or a shortcut. It's grip on your shoes, calories in your stomach, body glide between your legs; if you use these things well, you will unlock your true potential.

Weekly recap May 20-26: 127mi, 26:30, 26,600ft

 

Alt-J:

5 comments:

Bourbonfeet said...

Dude! Keep on Keep on! I'm a fan.

Billy said...

Sleepover at Dom + Katie's!!

Helluva week btw.

Rainshadow Running said...

i agree 100%. no one complains of unfairness when those with the flexibility in their lives move to high altitude towns to improve their running. those of us who can't move to high altitude should be allowed to bring the high altitude to our homes at sea level if we wish.

and you still have to put in the hardwork and miles-- just sleeping at altitude isn't enough to do well at races like hardrock.

candice and i have a tent, we got it back in late february. i'm not sure it's made a huge difference in my running around here at lower elevations but i haven't really be able to truly measure it's effects either. so i don't know. but i'm guessing once we get to the rockies in a few weeks it'll be clear whether or not it has helped.

well written post dominic and keep up the great running!

Dylan Bowman said...

James,

You'll definitely feel the advantages. I guarantee it :). See you in Silverton.

Dylan

Unknown said...

Was this Rae Lakes loop done recently? Early June - not too much snow? - Gus