Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sporty Sunday: Unafraid of Pikes Peak

When I share my next fitness goal (the Pikes Peak Ascent), with friends and acquaintances, the first objection I hear is “the altitude!” The Pikes Peak summit is at 14,115 feet. (And the race starts at 6,300 feet.) However, I’m no stranger to physical exertion at high altitudes. I know how my body reacts.

In 1995, during my sophomore year of college, I took a trip to Ecuador. Upon arriving in Quito (at 9,200 feet), even we fit college students noticed ourselves gasping for breath as we climbed the hotel stairs. After a week at 9,000 – 10,000 feet, we traveled to Mojanda Lakes at camped at around 12,500 feet. As a lark, half of the group climbed nearby Fuya Fuya Mountain tospend the night. Loaded with water, food, my extra clothing and a sleeping bag, I enthusiastically joined the others. It turned out to be the mostly grueling climb of my life. We followed a thin dirt track that wound upward at a steady rate. I soon tired and fell to the back of the group. As we approached the summit, the trail disappeared and we half stepped, half climbed a steep, grassy incline towards the top. Each step forward required lifting my knee to 90 degrees and forcing my body up and over the leg. My lungs and quads burned. I finally collapsed, sobbing. Someone took my pack from me. A friend coached me the last hundred feet, to the almost 14,000 foot summit. It was humiliating and miserable.

A few years later, I volunteered for the National Biological Service in Yosemite National Park. I was housed at Bug Camp (at approximately 8,600 feet) and worked at sites between 10,000 and 12,000 feet in elevation. Nothing that summer was as awful as the Andean climb. For the first few weeks, I struggled to keep up with the group as we hiked to our work sites, but quickly adapted. On my weekends off, I’d pick a peak, hike cross-country, and climb it. The highest peak I climbed was Mt Ritter, at a little over 13,000 feet. As long as I had no more weight than a daypack, I easily coped with the altitude. Other than the initial shortness of breath, the only lasting effect the altitude had on me was occasional sleep apnea.

After a second summer in the Yosemite area (in 1998), I’ve since stuck mostly to the lowland. However, during my training for a 2010 half-marathon, I visited Denver, staying in Parker, CO at about 6,000 feet above sea level. I was worried about continuing my training runs (5 – 8 miles) at a suddenly higher altitude, but I didn’t miss a beat. I credit my swimming regimen (including hypoxic sets) with improving my lung capacity and efficiency so that I didn’t miss a beat (or step) in my training schedule.

I’m not afraid of Pike’s Peak because:
I’ve been beaten down by altitude and a steep climb before
I only experience shortness of breath and a little dizziness at altitude. No nausea, headaches, or worse. (I don’t plan to sleep during the ascent.)
Swimming seems to ease the transition
As one of my Sergeant Instructors said, “It ain’t nothin’ but a thing.”

The Pike’s Peak Ascent will be my most rapid altitude gain (both in terms of the event itself and the transition from sea level two days before). I won’t be acclimatized as I was when I climbed the peaks in Yosemite. I’ll be a 200 feet higher than I’ve ever climbed before. But I know what I’m up against and how it will likely make me feel. And I’m not afraid.

Sporty Sunday is a recurring feature in which I share my fitness routine and offer and solicit advice. While this content might seem a little out of place in an outfit diary, a healthy, strong body is the foundation of my wardrobe. I hope to inspire my readers to be fit as well as stylish!


Allison said...

I'm impressed. I went to Aspen about a year ago and had altitude sickness so bad I ended up in the hospital. I wish I could handle it like you do!

Good luck with Pike's Peak!

Keilexandra said...

Everyone has such a different reaction (physical and psychological) to high altitudes. I went from living near the coast my entire life to a two week vacation in Tibet--as high as Namtso Lake, which sits at 4700m or 15,400 feet. I climbed a small cliff while I was up that high and was more easily out of breath but didn't experience any significant ill effects. I am nowhere near fit enough to do a day-long climb at high altitude, though! For me, I found it very helpful to remember to *constantly* breathe, because normally I pause for a few seconds between each exhale and inhale. I was consciously always breathing in Tibet and I think it helped.