While this article may not relate to those who live in the mountains, for those that live in the flat lands and have ever thought about just randomly signing up and heading out to a mountain race, here is my experience from a first timer. First off I should note that I’m from Ontario, and this is where I started running in the trails about two years ago. Ontario is roughly 246ft – 686ft above sea level. Like many runners, it didn’t take long for my curiosity about mountain running to develop. With so much mountain exposure in the media, one can only read enough intriguing stories before the desire to explore the mountain mystery takes over.
This past summer I decided I was going to find out. Not being sure if I was ready and what to expect, I signed up for the Transrockies 6 Day Run in Colorado. I chose this race because I wanted time in the mountains. More than just one day, and more than just one mountain, to give myself a chance to be absorbed in the experience fully with nothing but running, eating and sleeping on the agenda.
After I signed up I began some research. Maybe I should have done this the other way around, but this is me. When researching the effects of altitude, I quickly discovered it’s one of those situations that you can’t know how it impacts you until you’re up there on the mountain. I then mentally prepared myself to expect that I would experience some altitude sickness in some form, maybe a headache or nausea. So what could I do to help avoid this while down here close to sea level? First option I looked into was an oxygen tent, to buy one, $3000 – $5000 and up, to rent one, a couple hundred dollars for a couple weeks. These were some estimates I found. When asking around, the feedback was 50/50, some said it was the best thing they invested in, while others said it made minimal difference. The next option I stumbled upon was arriving early to let your body acclimatize. The concept of being in an elevated environment where the exposure was consistent to the body made more logical sense to me, plus it meant a couple more days in the mountains just hanging out.
From what I remember the race starts around 9000ft the first day, and then the remaining days are around 10,000ft and up to 12,500ft above sea level. I arrived 3 days before the race and camped at an elevation of about 8000ft in Buena Vista. I don’t remember feeling anything abnormal while camping. But I have to believe that in the days leading up to the race, camping at elevation did the trick. I survived running and camping at elevation for the 6 days with no altitude sickness. With that being said, it doesn’t mean running felt the same as it did back home. My pace was slower and my breathing heavier. I needed to hydrate more and consumed more sugar to sustain what I felt was a “good” energy level. As the week went on I found my body adjusted and all this became better. While not everyone’s cup of tea, I bought a pair of Black Diamond Ultra Mountain Running Poles I picked up last minute at MEC for about $150.00. Super light and easy to expand and fold up, I was happy to have these for the big climbs. To my surprise it turned out there was a good amount of people there that were using poles as well. I really thought I was most likely going to be the odd one out. And it made me feel even better as I learned that I was not the only one to “start learning how to” use poles for the first time at the race. The running pack I used for this race was different than the packs I use back home. They require you to carry a rain jacket, gloves, hat and emergency blanket to be on the mountain. I needed a pack with room to carry these items, plus my poles, water and of course my sugar and salt. I used the Omega pack by UltrAspire.
What I thought to expect and how it turned out was quite different. The thought of heading out to the mountains was intriguing and intimating, hence why I wanted to go so badly. But once out there I found it calm and welcoming. In saying this I should also note that the weather was perfect and the mountains calm and behaved from what I was told for the entire time I was there. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had and I’m glad I took the plunge. The views from the mountains were well worth every climb. In terms of the quality of the race itself, I couldn’t have asked for better. The course and aid stations were well marked and stocked. Tent City was home sweet home all ready by the time I rolled in and the food and was excellent. Not to mention all the great people I met while there.
On a last note, I found that my body handled running up and down a mountain at elevation better than flat over all at sea level. I had some concern over whether my legs would like going uphill for a long time and then pounding downhill for a long time. It seems like a perfect balance as opposed to running flat for extended distances. At the time of the race I didn’t put much thought into it. But when I returned home and was unpacking, I came across a bag of coffee that had been given to me at the race and travelled with me home. The bag was so compressed that it was as solid as a brick. Is this what is happening to our bodies at sea level too? Just a thought…
~Kelly Wald is 2013 The North Face Trail Ambassador for Ontario