Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Putting clothespins on athletic genitals

First, quick hits from the recent freelance files: I recently talked to Shalane Flanagan for the second time in nine years, this time concerning strategies for getting past mental barriers in racing once you've blown up once or twice in high-pressure situations. Shalane is as immune to sub-par races as any elite runner on the scene today, but such was not always the case.

Shalane may be known as a world-class runner but she should really be lauded more for the thoughtfulness with which she gives interviews. In fact, this trait seems more characteristic of women elites than male elites -- not sure why, but I'm already off track in the first paragraph, so please visit Motiv Running and read the article. (I was going to borrow from Nicholas Kristof and just write "read!" but he gets flak for that.)

Also, this piece has nothing to do with running, but it's my first foray into local journalism and it concerns a topic that's important to me. (In case you're wondering, Boulder Weekly pays freelancers as well as most mid-sized daily newspapers do.) I wound up going down a lot of research rabbit-holes and changing my initial ideas somewhat by the time I was done with this 3,000-word opus, but it was well worth it.

Now then: Imagine a place that was considered a basketball talent-development mecca where everyone for some reason shot about 5 percentage points lower from the free-throw line, or a football "paradise" where the goalposts were 5 percent closer together, or a baseball proving ground where pitchers who normally threw 90 to 95 MPH could only reach 85 to 90. Or a tennis camp where one extra serve in 20 landed out of bounds, all else being equal. Or a "dream" par-72 golf course where scratch golfers all racked up about four more bogeys per round than elsewhere.

This is almost exactly what distance runners who move to high altitude willingly, even lovingly, embrace. The actual performance decline in a sustained distance event between sea level and Boulder is about 3.5 percent, but in a sport that revolves almost entirely around aiming to hit precise times over specific distances, the difference is inescapable and woven into every single workout, be it a recovery jog or reps on the track.

All of the "But this converts to 10 or 15 seconds a mile faster at sea level" palaver goes only so far as a psychological salve. Obviously, people move to altitude assuming that the in-the-moment losses translate to sea-level gains down the line. It would be great if this were assured, but I'm not convinced it works that way for most people (and I'm not using myself as an example -- I morphed into an ambitious fitness jogger a long time ago).

In my experience, people who move to places like Boulder, Colorado Springs, Mammoth Lakes or Albuquerque from sea level to train -- be it in stints or permanently -- do not, on average, ever completely adapt to their new surroundings in the way lifelong altitude residents do. I think it would be easy enough to assemble convincing evidence of this from just within my circle of friends and associates, but I prefer that people take my word for it because I'm too lazy do dig that deep without the promise of literal compensation.

One thing that does unquestionably result from living and running at altitude is suffering less in high-altitude races than people of comparable ability who come to high altitude to race, which no one with a brain in his head does unless given essentially unavoidable incentives such as running an NCAA or USATF championship race in Colorado or Utah. Whether this constitutes a benefit, however, is highly questionable. Someone who has been drinking a fifth of whiskey a day is likely to be able to function at work or behind the wheel of a car far better than someone of similar skills who gets seriously blotto for the first time in her life and attempts to operate efficiently as a surgeon or cab driver the next morning. The fact that it's possible to compensate to some extent in your vocational and recreational life for repeatedly bashing yourself in the face with a hammer is not a good reason to continue the self-abuse.

The best way to be a great altitude runner -- like Lize Brittin, who ran 35:04 for 10K on the roads of Denver in high school, or Natosha Rogers, who turned in a 33:44 at the notoriously slow Bolder Boulder on a warm morning this spring despite a track times before and since of just under 32:00 -- is to choose your parents very carefully so that you spend your whole childhood, if not your whole life, at least 5,000' above sea level, not just your twenties and thirties.

That stuff was supposed to be a sidebar at best. I'm in New England (northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire) for the next week and a half -- my first fall trip "home" after four straight years of spring expeditions for the Boston Marathon. I'm carrying out coaching, managing, and spectating duties, going to Hall of Fame inductions and college hockey games (well, one of each so far), and keeping up with my everyday work, the exact nature of which remains murky by design because I like to create false intrigue. (Tonight I have to watch The Mask for about the 14th time -- but the first in and create an outline of some of its specific plot devices as part of a group brainstorming session.) I don't want to give too much else away, either, but this summer I was asked to work with a 2:18 marathoner and Olympian from the westernmost nation in Africa, and this has expanded into something a little more involved than writing training plans and offering advice. This comes at an opportune time, because all times to be a part of something meaningful on behalf of someone as focused and classy as Ruben are opportune. I'll get more into this as the week progresses.

I haven't mentioned my own running yet because there are already hundreds of joggers clogging the Internet with trivialities and banalities, and I do not feel compelled to add to the chorus. I will say that running 6:00 pace at 140' about sea level is a lot more fun than doing the same a mile higher than  that (you can tell I paid attention in my physics and physiology classes), but I don't know if I would be able to run a sub-18:00 5K right now. I may test this at some point before heading back west,
but I'll probably fall  back on being happy that my knee seems to be cooperating after the five-week layoff I had ending in late August, at least at the level of easy 30- to 60-minute runs five or six days a week, and leave it right there.


  1. Nice article on Vivitrol. But to solve drugs we need to open our zoos after hours to drug dealers, liquor store owners, bartenders, etc, etc. We have some of the best zoos in the world.

  2. Cheetahs' for people who sell steroids. If an athlete dopes we go easy on em because most of these runners aren't too bright. They consist of some of the most boring people in the world. When we can predict how many miles they are going to run along with what races and throw it all on a platter by forecasting what bar they will attend and their preferred alcoholic beverage......well we feel sorry for these individuals so we shall go easy on them. We will sit them in a chair in a controlled room with no noise, pictures, windows,etc for 1 hour and lay a fat lazy house cat that purrs on them. We gotta go easy on them. I changed my ideals. Go easy on these Premaddonnas. Overnight instead of villain I have become National Hero!

  3. Ha ha ha ha ha HAPPY THANKSGIVING BECK!!!