What was I expecting to set such a high goal for this 1-mile race at approx 8000ft? I totally ignored the physiological effects of running at high altitude and based my goal off of the fastest mile split I ran the previous week. I was in for a rude awakening! But before I further discuss my experience, I’d like to talk about the race itself and the wonderful community of Mammoth Lakes.
Mammoth started out as a winter destination for us as amateur snowboarders and childless parents. For the past few years, we’ve visited in the summer to camp/hike/fish as these are more family-friendly type activities than having to take turns watching the kids while the other spends the day on the mountain snowboarding.
2 years ago, I found out about a mile race, The Footloose Freedom Mile hosted by the Mammoth Track Club. This is the club who has trained elite athletes such as Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, and Deena Kastor to name a few. Now Deena Kastor is the President of the Mammoth Track Club with her husband Andrew as the Vice President and Head Coach.
The race precedes the 4th of July parade so it starts late in the day at 1030. The course is on the same street as the parade so the crowd support was awesome. Bib pick-up was on race day and I was there early at 8am when it opened. First person I saw and recognized was Deena with her daughter and I briefly said hello. Last year I interrupted her to take a selfie but she seemed too busy that morning so I didn’t bother. She also didn’t participate in the race as she did last year with her daughter. Instead she rang a bell to start off the race. What’s most impressive was she made homemade pies to award the overall male/female winners.
We arrived 30min beforehand so I had plenty of time to warm-up. The race start line is near the Mammoth Creek park playground where the girls played and waited for me to run by. No matter how many times we’ve been in Mammoth, I’m always in awe of the incredible views of the mountains. As I warmed up with an easy run and a few mobility stretches, I intently took in the views and expressed gratitude for this outdoor beauty.
I lined up near the front behind the fast runners to get the most accurate time. The race is a family-affair so many kids/parents participated and I wanted to make sure I didn’t have to swerve around them. My goal was a sub-7. The week prior I clocked in a 7min pace during a 3x1mile repeat workout. I figured I should be able to run a sub-7 since I did it the previous week. However I didn’t account for the altitude effects.
Deena rang the bell and off we went! First 1/4mi, I felt great, was on pace and got to see my family waving at me yelling “Go Mama!”. Note: If you watch the video, I am waving, with a blue top and a red hat on.
Plenty of cheering spectators were lined up on the street. I was bursting with energy. But as the second 1/4mi approached, so did a slight incline and the inevitable effects of altitude. Heavy breathing. Heart pounding. Why does it feel like I’m running mile 20 in a marathon when I’ve merely ran a half mile?
Fact: At altitude, less oxygen molecules per given amount of air are present, (due to the reduced partial pressure of oxygen) therefore breathing rate increases to breathe in the same amount of oxygen at sea level.
Fact: Max heart rate decreases with an increase in altitude.
I looked at my watch and noticed my pace significantly slowed down. My legs are burning, I couldn’t pick up the pace even if I wanted to. Told myself to focus on getting to the top of the small hill then I will have a view of the finish line and a downhill course to the end.
Fact: At 8000ft, the saturation of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of blood is reduced to 90-92% compared to 98% at sea level. Essentially, less oxygen passes from lungs to the blood due to a pressure gradient. And less oxygen also passes from the blood to the active tissues.
Fact: Less oxygen increases the rate of muscle fatigue due to the build-up of lactic acid from a greater demand placed on anaerobic metabolism to produce energy.
Final 200m, a young boy passed me who then sprinted to the finish line, I mean a really fast sprint! This vision flicked a switch in my brain that gave me a sliver of strength to force a slightly quicker cadence to finish the race. Hyperventilating, I glanced at my watch to see a finish time of 7:32/mi, nowhere near my goal of sub-7, but hey, I beat last year’s time by 1 sec!! Lesson learned: Run by effort, not by pace.
Fact: Researchers observed subjects lost a VO2 max of 12.8% and time to exhaustion of 25.8% on day one at 7500ft altitude compared to sea level. It would take 7-14 days at altitude for VO2max and time to exhaustion to improve at a rate of 3-6%.
Resource: Ultrarunning Magazine Jul2016 Issue
It was a challenging race and my body was not conditioned enough to run fast at high altitude. Heck, I’m not even sure if I’m conditioned enough to race a mile! I do plan to run another mile race, the 1600m event at the San Diego Track Club Summer Night Series next week so I will find out then. In the meantime, I reveled at my 1-sec mile PR and enjoyed the rest of the day with my family watching the 4th of July parade.
Ever run at high altitude – what was your experience? Any additional advice or factoids about running at high altitude?