Running at altitude

IMG_20141021_125524701_HDRI’ve been here in Colorado, a mile high, just shy of a dozen weeks. And I am still panting when I run.

Boulder sits at about 5,430 feet (1,655 m) according to Wikipedia (the City of Boulder maintains interactive maps that show my apartment to be at about 5,330 feet elevation — you know, topography varies). It’s high enough that you can feel the effects of the altitude: When I arrived, my friend Big D kept encouraging me to drink more water (and I still feel dry). I sometimes have had trouble breathing at night when sleeping. My chest feels tight (TMI: in part because it’s so dry here and my nose is running all the time, filling my lungs with mucus, but also) because the air is thinner here.

Last night at a barbecue, a friend told me it could take up to six months to completely adjust (!), and we aren’t even up in the real mountains!

When I go running, I tend to head east, on a gently dipping path that heads toward the plains that make up most of the eastern half of the state. Those plains slope away from the foothills to the west, and the rise of the Rocky Mountains. Far enough out, and you can look back to see the snow-peaked mountains higher up.

Some of the paths into the foothills head straight up, as you might recall from my last post. Matt recently came for a short visit and we climbed into the foothills, and up the steep side of Mt. Sanitas. Sanitas is the peak above the Goat Trail that had me so flummoxed a few weeks ago. I had my usual fear of heights and that slowed us down a bit: Matt let me lead the way up, and I found myself on all fours at different points, attempting to scale boulders that Matt blithely stepped over. On the other side of Sanitas, he was loping down the trail while I was slowly and cautiously navigating the too-tall steps of rock outcrops.

I’m fairly used to following Matt on a trail, watching his back get smaller as he forges ahead: he’s over 6 feet tall and I’m barely 5’4″. The difference in the lengths of our legs is enough to explain why he’s faster than me. It also helps that he isn’t afraid of climbing steep hills or jogging down slopes; he grew up in high mountains and learned to downhill ski probably when he was three years old. I first tried to downhill ski at the ripe old age of about 38. (And I have to learn again, as I still can’t quite do it!)

So imagine my delight when we went running together toward the end of his stay, and I could match his pace for a few kilometers. Matt’s been training quite a bit in Sweden, mostly to run a half-marathon, and he usually runs a kilometer about two minutes faster than I can. But on this trip, as we were trotting along my usual gently downward-sloping path to the east, I could hear him breathing a little heavily — and I could keep up with him (caveat: at least for a few kilometers)!

I chalk it up to the altitude, and the fact that Matt had yet to adjust. After all, at that point, he’d been here for about three days, after living at sea level for about four years.

Even so, I enjoyed that slight advantage of my relative acclimation to higher altitude.

But I’m still breathing hard when I run.

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