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

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Altitude training may not be worth it, and other scatterings and orts

It is practically a given that any American distance runner with so much as an outside shot at reaching the Olympics will relocate to high altitude at some point, or at least do training stints of several weeks at high altitude. (For purposes of this discussion, think 5,000' or higher.) This is in spite of the fact that there appears to be no evidence at all that taking a sea-level native and training him or her at altitude produces a more successful runner.

It is plain that people who are born in places like Boulder are suited for high-altitude running in a way that no migrants can replicate if they move here as adults and perhaps even if they arrive as teenagers. This is evident not so much in the surreal performances some of these natives can throw down here as it is in the unfortunate fact that they don't usually gain as much as the charts would predict (about 3.5 percent).

In general, the best runners in the U.S. don't live at high altitude. In fact, they live in Portland or the Boston area. An enclave of top-level Americans lives and trains in Colorado Springs, which is significantly higher than Boulder (about 7,000' vs. about 5,300'), but almost without exception, those runners are men born in East Africa and comparable altitude. Another batch belongs to the Northern Arizona Elite group in Flagstaff, Ariz., and while some of those runners have done solid things, it's difficult to tease out how they would be doing otherwise. Indeed, moving to altitude is so normative for pro runners that it's easy to assume that post-collegiate types who do so and improve wouldn't be making the same gains if training at sea level. But the achievements of runners like Galen Rupp, Matt Centrowitz, Molly Huddle, Evan Jager and a slew of other low-dwellers past and present are counterpoints to the whole idea. (Yes, I know the NOP has a hypoxic house and engages in other practices that either shatter or dance around ethical boundaries.)

So while a number of national-class runners do live and train at altitude, almost all of them were very good before they got there. Emma Coburn is an interesting case because she grew up Crested Butte (about 8,800'), so when she attended college at the University of Colorado, she was experiencing a consistently higher level of oxygen pressure than she ever had in her life.

Training and at altitude no doubt accomplishes one thing you might expect it to: It makes people better at racing at altitude. I should not have to explain why the utility of this specific gain is limited. Also, it is a mind-fuck coming here and running slower times day in and day out, even with the nominal promise of making up that 3.5 percent or so on race day somewhere else. I am not counting myself in this because, even though I sort of gave it a whirl last year and in 2017, I suck so miserably now that my times are too shitty to really bother converting. My best race up here was a 37:53 in Fort Collins on Labor Day last year, which translates to a 36:40 or so at sea level. It's really just as well it was not a 36:40 at sea level, because I might have, and probably should have, taken a sledgehammer to both kneecaps had I actually turned in a no-excuses time that slow. I know people who don't even train for running and who can barely move in a straight line who can manage garbage times like that. And as much as I like to insist that I have lived far longer than my personal expiration date already and would have been wise to drive an ice pick through the roof of my mouth some years ago, I am not old enough to say "Well, that's not so bad for my age." Masters running is just sad, sick grading on a curve and it would be a good idea to get rid of such categories altogether so that geezers would be discouraged from suiting up and willingly humiliating themselves time and again out there.

On a perhaps related note, I have now completed three straight months of daily running, and Rosie has been at my side for every single step. But I think I need to make a change. I'll be running twice a day on some days for purely medicinal reasons. Just as some pharmacological antidepressants are taken twice a day in modest doses rather than in one larger single dose to ensure a more even serum level, I probably ought to get out there twice a day so I can deal with the world with more equanimity. It's crazy -- if you had told in the fall of 2016 when I took my last sip of booze, that I would be in the station in life I have managed to achieve financially, health-wise and functionally, I would not have been exactly shocked, but I would have figured that I wouldn't detest people so much. Don't get me wrong, I haven't turned on any of my friends, but I'm discovering just how annoying it is to even be a part of this fucked-up and eminently disposable species.

As part of the writing workshop I'm taking, "Noir Fiction" (how I wound up in this when I had lots of choices is a story in itself), I basically have to come up with something a character would do if he had 24 hours to live and absolutely no ethical considerations hindering his efforts. As you might guess, the reason for this is that characters in successful dark novels do behave just this way for the most part. I think it would be therapeutic for me to turn those abysmal "Left Behind" novels by Tim LeHaye (now serving an infinite sentence in Hell) on their head, and instead of writing about how people with the temerity to not believe in a sky-fairy are tossed into lakes of fire, I will describe the deeds of a bitter ex-fundamentalist activist who flies drones equipped with massive amounts of C-4 into megachurches and other venues dense in the kind of morons who constitute sands in the gears of stable civilization. I think it would be cathartic to symbolically punish the kind of slow-witted douchebags who have brought us Donald Trump and given him their full-throated microcephalic support at every wobbly turn. Revenge porn. You might think this is an awful thing to even consider, but what's worse: Being the kind of cunt who actually tries to strip away real rights from real people based on the supposed whims of an imaginary celestial psychopath, or writing a fictional account of someone taking out 20,000 screaming Joel Osteen fans in a colossal, trumphant fireball? Again, this is the kind of shit right-wing Christians hunger for; they're always hollering about how people are going to take in in the ass in Hell for their refusal to toe the biblical line here on Earth -- even though they are collectively the most flagrant sinners of all. And although I will never be mistaken for a great writer, it doesn't take much to outpace the efforts of a fumbling numbnuts like Tim Lahaye, presently being sodomized by a jubilant band of queer fuckdemons in Hell's version of the Castro District.

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