Thursday, July 11, 2013

Into Thin Air

OK, first let me apologize to John Krakauer for ripping off the title of his book.   While it may not be the most original title for a blog post, it does seem very appropriate.  With the 2013 Leadville Trail 100 Run just over a month away, the time has come for me to begin acclimatizing to the altitude I will experience on the course.  The race starts in Leadville, CO, which is the highest town in America at 10,200 feet above sea level.  It has two major climbs to 11,000 and 12,600 feet, which have to be crossed twice.  No small task for someone who lives at 300 feet above sea level.

Leadville Trail 100 Run Elevation Profile

I rented a hypoxic tent last year as part of my preparation for Leadville, and, even though I didn't finish, I'm convinced that without it I would not  have gotten as far as I did.  (You can read my race report from the 2012 Leadville Trail 100 here.)  That belief, along with a recommendation from my coach, led me to reach out to Matt at Hypoxico to arrange delivery of another tent.  It arrived this week, and I began the process of acclimatizing myself to 10,000+ feet above sea level.

Admittedly, this process seems a bit extreme to most people.  Whenever it comes up that I'm sleeping in a hypoxic tent, I get shocked looks, laughter, head shakes, and lots and lots of questions.  Those who are serious runners or endurance athletes seem to understand, while those who feel a brisk walk to the fridge is exercise view it with mockery and sometimes thinly veiled hostility.  I'm not too worried about what those folks think.  What I worry about is being as prepared as I can be for my second attempt at Leadville next month. 

Since I DNF'd at Leadville last year I have expended considerable effort to avoid that happening again.  I've hired a coach and started running with a GPS religiously.  I've experimented with nutrition and have developed (with my coach's help) a nutrition plan where I can consistently take in 300 calories and 20 oz of fluid every hour during long events.  I've run in freezing temperatures.  I've run on beautiful days.  I've run in the dark of night.  I've run during North Carolina summer heat and humidity.  I've run until I've puked and my toenails have fallen off.  Since September 1, 2012, I have run approximately 2,400 miles.  I've spent countless dollars on nutrition, shoes, and AAA batteries for headlamps.  I've spent hundreds of hours away from my family running.  On more than one occasion I've woken up at 2 a.m. so I can get in a 30 mile run and be home before 8 am to spend time with the kids.  So, to those who say that sleeping in an altitude tent for 5 weeks is extreme, I say, "Hell yeah it is.  Everything else about this quest has been so why should this be different?"  If I was going to run Badwater I would be training in a sauna, so why shouldn't I be training and preparing for the conditions I will experience on the course?

I have read several articles and blogs discussing the use of altitude tents and whether they are just a part of training and being thoroughly prepared for an event, or whether they fall into the same category as performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and are therefore cheating.  The more I read the more I realized that people seem to have very strong feelings about this issue.  I fall very squarely into the smart training school of thought.

Here's my thought process.  The idea of PEDs or blood doping involves putting a substance into your body that isn't supposed to be there.  In essence you are getting a benefit without the work.  Sure you still have to train, but PEDs allow you to train at a level that you could never accomplish naturally.  It is artificial.

Sleeping in a tent causes your body to adapt naturally, the way it would in nature if I lived at 10,000 feet. This is no different than running hills to cause your body to adapt to running hills, or running faster to get your body used to that.   I don't think anyone would say that I'm cheating if I go out and run 20 miles of hill repeats in the middle of the night.  They might say I'm nuts, but that's a discussion for a different post.

Would anyone say it was cheating if I quit my job, uprooted my family, and moved to Leadville so I could train live and train at altitude?  How about if my job and finances allowed me the flexibility to travel to Colorado a month in advance so that my body could adapt to the environment?  Of course not.  That would be stupid.  So what's the difference between sleeping in a tent and moving to Leadville?  Bottom line, it isn't feasible for me to live there.

To those who question why I would spend my hard-earned money to sleep in a hypoxic tent so I can be prepared for a race, my answer is very simple.  Why wouldn't I?


  1. You've done an amazing job over the past few years training. I know Leadville will be different this year and I look forward to seeing your race report! Happy Trails my friend!


  2. Awesome stuff. I'm hoping to do Leadville in 2014. I live in Raleigh currently, but might be moving out to Denver for work. All the suffering in the humidity here has gotta count for something! Best of luck!

  3. Words of wisdom, Ashby. Hope the tent works for you.

  4. I have a story very similar to yours. I was at Leadville last year and although I did make the Windfield cut-off by over 30 minutes, I couldn't make it to Twin Lakes in time. There were 4 of us who departed Winfield at around 5:30 and all of us missed a cut-off on the way back.

    I'm also going back this year and this year I also got an altitude tent. As you said, how is that different to spending a month training in Flagstaff or Leadville?

    Maybe I'll see you out there. Hope we both make it!

  5. I'm running Leadville this year & it was nice reading your race report from last year. Its nice that they cut 2.3 miles from last year's course. So that equals about 1.15 miles less heading into Winfield. I hope your rock it this year. I'm coming from the east coast too, but no altitude tent. Take Care, Chris.

    1. Good luck,Chris! Maybe we'll bump into each other. I hope you have an awesome race. Ash