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Fact-Checking Outside’s Altitude Training Tips

No matter what I read about tackling a high-altitude race, I wasn’t convinced that minor training tweaks could actually affect my result. And as a fact checker for Outside magazine, I couldn’t resist the chance to test our online team’s fitness advice when I ran a 26.2-mile race in Leadville, Colorado, last month.

Maybe it was an altruistic pursuit, but it’s more likely that I needed an outlet for my growing nerves. Because Leadville is high (in at least one way I could confirm). The town is wedged between Rocky Mountain 14ers at 10,152 feet, and the course starts climbing right away.

Us mere mortals were resigned to hiking the inclines as the trail weaved toward the halfway point at Mosquito Pass (13,185 feet) where wind speeds hovered around 30 mph. To put it in perspective, climbers launch most Mount Rainier (14,409 feet) summit bids from Camp Muir, which sits at 10,080 feet. You know, the same height at which pilots used to tell you it was okay to turn on approved electronic devices. High.

So how does Outside recommend tackling the highest marathon in the United States? And more importantly, does our advice work?

“Avoid racing between 24 to 72 hours at altitude and instead head up the night or morning before.”

To avoid the ill effects of altitude on race day, we recommend heading up one to three weeks ahead of time to get acclimated. If that’s not doable, then avoid the window where symptoms typically set in: between 24-72 hours of exposure.

Since hanging out in Colorado for a week wasn’t something I could pull off, I got to Leadville 12 hours before the gun. Surprisingly, I felt no effects of the altitude (trust me, I was looking for it), but it definitely took a mental toll because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Aim to spend four or more hours at 5,000-plus feet a few times in the month leading up to the race.”

Having experience training at altitude helps. When I moved to Santa Fe (7,000 feet), I was aware of the thin air the second I got out of the car. But three months of training here gave me a huge advantage over my fellow Midwestern competitors. On the course I met a guy from Oklahoma (as we were walking one of the ascents), and he mentioned that the tallest “mountain” he could find topped out at 1,400 feet. He’d never breathed air so thin, much less tried to run in it.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Be sure to prepare mentally, as your race pace will be slower and dehydration sets in quicker.”

I’m pretty good at drinking water. I even nixed my usual night-before beer because Outside (for once) doesn’t recommend drinking booze. Starting the race hydrated is easy enough, but staying that way is a bit tougher. I took a few sips of water every 10 minutes or so, but it wasn’t sufficient to keep headaches at bay. As pressure built at the nape of my neck and temples, however, a quick chug of water reversed the advancing pain and allowed me to keep trudging on.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Rather than trying to maintain your typical pace, consciously slow yourself down to avoid blowing up.” 

Unlike a sea-level marathon where a wall is expected late in the race (if ever), at altitude you might not know you’re bonking until you’re delirious and puking in the trees. For many, myself included, a finish at high altitude is as good as a win. I overheard the following advice on the course:

1. Don't do anything stupid. 
2. Just finish. 

One guy said this to another shortly after we passed a runner dry heaving around the two-mile mark. The altitude combined with the gnarly terrain (think snow, loose rock, mud) was responsible for a few bloody knees and faces as runners navigated the steep slopes. No need to do anything crazy, just keep it moving. 

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

And if all else fails?

“If you still end up feeling like crap the whole race, don’t sweat it. It’s not you—it’s genetics.”

I managed to finish on two feet, arms sticky with electrolyte water and a new tan line resembling a capped-sleeved wrestler's singlet. But I finished. I was waiting for symptoms of altitude to hit, but they never did.

The Bottom Line:

So after completing this 6.5-hour investigation, my fact check found that we’ve offered sage advice on executing a high-altitude jaunt, sans hypoxia and with enough stamina left to Instagram post-race. No noses growing here: it turns out (surprise!) that Outside's experts know their stuff.

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The Rise of Run Commuters

Pam Walker doesn’t take the easy way to work.

Two days a week, the 46-year-old clinical emergency medicine pharmacist runs 15.6 miles over hilly dirt roads to her job at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After work, she laces up her shoes again and spends another 2.5 hours running home to suburban South Lyon.

Walker recognizes that most commuters consider her distance runs to and from work a little insane, but she insists that the sunrise runs past farms and horses mentally prepare her for the long workday ahead.

“Those running endorphins help with my creativity for projects,” Walker says.

Walker is one of a growing number of people who are maximizing their exercise time by running to work. The Run Commuter (TRC), which launched in April 2011, is a website devoted to tips and stories about run commuting, including backpack reviews, advice on how to get started, and regular blog posts from site users.

It all suggests that run commuting is becoming increasingly popular, says Kyle Torok, one of TRC’s founders. In the past year, TRC has seen its number of users—60 percent of whom are American—increase 191 percent.

“We hear from people all over the world who have started run commuting in recent years,” Torok says.

The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t break out statistics on people running to work but tracks that about 3 percent walk, which could include runners. In major cities, that number is typically much higher. In Boston, for instance, 15 percent walk to work.

Most of the runners sharing stories on the site cover three to seven miles each way during their commutes, Torok says. The site plans to send out a survey in late summer to collect more information on run commuters' demographics and motivations. Torok says more women than men share stories on the site, but that might just be indicative of a woman’s inclination to engage in social online activity.

Most run commuters take it up to avoid traffic and transportation costs and to put themselves in a better mood for the workday. Running to work isn’t as fast or efficient as bicycle commuting, but it allows for a harder workout.

For commuters with nonstop work and family lives, run commuting is often the only chance they have to exercise. TRC’s other founder, Josh Woiderski, has two young children and a third on the way and finds his commute time the best way to log his miles.

There is one considerable hurdle—every run commuter has to figure out how to clean up when they reach the office. “We hear from a lot of women that they have to be more presentable at the office,” Torok says. “Men typically feel they can be more scruffy.”

Torok, who works for the government and has no office shower, goes into a locking bathroom and uses wipes to mop up the sweat. He keeps a large pack of Huggies baby wipes in his desk drawer, along with deodorant, soap, comb, and towel. Other showerless run commuters get even more creative. If they belong to a nearby gym, they use the locker rooms there. A German wrote to TRC about his practice of keeping a small washtub at his desk. He fills it with water in a private restroom, stands in it, does a sort of sponge bath to rinse himself off, and then empties the tub in the sink.

Then there are the logistics of transporting clothing and gear to and from the office. This often involves more planning than bike commuting, as runners don’t have the luxury of strapping panniers on a bike and filling them with daily supplies.

Torok uses the days he bike commutes to carry heavier loads and haul extra work clothes to the office, where he keeps a supply of five pairs of pants, six shirts, and two pairs of dress shoes. Even if run commuters don’t want to leave a full wardrobe at the office, Torok recommends they always keep the most critical clothing items in their desk drawers. “The most important thing is an emergency pair of underwear and socks at your desk, because they are so easy to forget,” Torok says.

Investing in the right running backpack is also key to a comfortable and successful run commute. The search term “running backpack” brings the most people to TRC, suggesting it’s a priority for those considering running to work. TRC’s running backpack roundup includes price and size details for 24 different packs, from brands like UltrAspire, CamelBak, and Black Diamond. Some of the packs also link to lengthier blog reviews on the site.

Torok relies on a snug hip belt and chest strap to keep his pack from swaying as he runs; side compression straps distribute the weight. The wide availability of both gender-neutral and women-specific running packs makes it easier for commuters to find a backpack that fits.

Many run commuters prioritize gear that can withstand a variety of weather. Blog posts on TRC tackle running through subzero temperatures in Ottawa winters, waterproofing packs with plastic grocery bags for rainy runs, and enduring the heat and humidity of sweaty East Coast summers.

Though the stories on TRC vary from Walker’s monster rural commute to quick city jaunts, Torok believes all run commutes are inherently interesting.

“You smell the honeysuckle, the lemon pie factory, or the smoky barbecue,” Torok says of his run commute through Atlanta. “You sometimes get that on a bike, but you never get that in a car.”

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How to Run in a Foreign Land

Running in another country is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. Set off from your hotel, hostel, or Airbnb without a clue where you’re going and you can just as easily find yourself in an idyllic Vietnamese village waving to villagers as an unhospitable neighborhood populated by pit bulls and potholes.

When you’re home, running takes on a meditative quality: Your legs take care of the route while your mind can stew on more pressing matters. When traveling, every turn, fork, and intersection becomes a conscious choice, which can make some people decide to skip their workout altogether.

But adventure is part of the fun of travel, even if it’s just a 45-minute jaunt. Figuring out how to run safely and successfully in unfamiliar terrain is an art form cultivated with practice and a generous dose of street smarts. You can do better than traveling to another country to run in the hotel gym. Here’s how:

Don’t be flashy.

Avoid collegiate or logo-heavy clothes (nothing screams “I’m American” like a college T-shirt). If you’re running in a developing country, don’t wear hi-res vests or heavily technical gear (you’ll just look rich, and also like a kook). If you’re a woman, be modest. Plain black running tights or long shorts and a loose-fitting, logo-free T-shirt do the trick for either gender. Notice if you’re in an area where running is just not done (somewhere like the Medina of Marrakech) and consider getting up early so you’re not dodging donkey carts and getting stared down.

Ask around.

If you’re staying with someone, start there. Taxi drivers are also a helpful resource; ask them if there are any parks or footpaths nearby. Finding out where people play soccer—the world’s most unifying activity—always helps, especially if you’re looking for a place to run laps or intervals. Bodies of water almost always attract runners, so if you can find a nearby canal, lake, river, or ocean on a map, that’s usually a safe bet. It’s always a good idea to ask the hotel concierge or your host if the city has any “no-go” zones” and adjust your route accordingly. Running along highways and freeways is generally not a comfortable experience no matter where you are, so try to avoid those, too.

If you’re in a city or a place where running seems to be popular, check apps such as Strava or MapMyRun to see where other locals are running. You can also search for any nearby race routes that you can follow. Better yet, participate in a race; you’ll get the flavor of a new place and perhaps meet some local friends.

Run prepared.

The perennial runner’s safety question is, “Should I bring a phone?” If it’s a traveler’s pay-as-you-go phone, why not? But your new iPhone 5 should probably stay at home—it just makes you a target. Ditto to iPods when running in a new place for the first time; it’s best to have all your wits about you (or at least wait until you get to the park to put your earbuds in).

To avoid calamities, bring your hotel’s business card or jot down your accommodation’s address and put it in your pocket. When asking for directions, it’s easier to ask someone the direction to a well-known establishment rather than the tiny side street of your rented flat; mentally record a few landmarks or street names before you head out (a metro station name, major thoroughfare, or street market are good ideas). Bringing a small amount of cash never hurts and can be used for bus fare, a partial taxi ride, or, if all goes according to plan, a coffee when you’ve finished your run.

Be sensible.

Sometimes a well-meaning host will insist the route she or he is describing is of the “can’t go wrong, really, you can’t miss it” variety. Next thing you know, you’re running on a single-lane road in the English countryside with horse trailers careening around blind corners. Realize that what’s foolproof to others may look different to your eyes. Out and backs are a safer bet than loops since you always have the option to retrace your steps. While you’re on the “out,” continually clock landmarks or indicators, like a street name, a weird rock, a yellow fence, or something you can recognize when you turn back on the same route. Your watch also helps you note how long you ran along a given path before a turn.

Don’t forget to tell someone you’ve headed out and how long you might be gone. If you’re traveling solo, a quick nod to the concierge as you head out or a note in your room is better than nothing.

The good news: The simplicity of running means it’s a universally translatable activity. Depending on where you are, people may look at you like you’re a bit mad, but that’s half the fun. And nothing is better than getting that almost imperceptible but always appreciated “runner’s nod” from a local in a foreign land. You’ll be glad you headed out.

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The Secret to Exploring Zion Like a Local

Zion is one of the country's most beautiful national parks. It's also one of the most crowded.

More than two million visitors flock to this part of Utah per year, placing Zion among the top 10 most-visited parks in the nation. Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to escape the tourists within this 229-square-mile preserve. Here are a few of our favorite routes to get you off the beaten path: 

Climb Kolob Canyon

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If climbing above the spot where Paul Newman and Robert Redford got into a knife fight sounds like a good time, hit the road for Lambs Knoll in Kolob Canyon. To reach the crag, drive through the town of Virgin and then 10 miles north on Kolob Terrace Road. After crossing a cattle guard and exiting the park, turn left and leave your vehicle at the roundabout. A sandy trail will take you toward Lambs Knoll, where shady sport routes dot the sandstone walls.

Even better for climbing in summer months is the South Fork in Kolob Canyon, where more than 30 sport and trad routes, such as the four-star Huecos Rancheros (5.12c), offer options for climbers of all levels.

After sending your project, continue up the paved road from Lambs Knoll to find Lava Point—Zion’s only free, maintained camping area. With just six sites, you'll be lucky to nab a spot, but if you do, you won't have to worry about crowds. Take a post-climb dip in 250-acre Kolob Reservoir, and if camping doesn’t vibe with your group’s style, return to Springdale for an evening of well-deserved enchiladas at the locals’ favorite saloon, the Bit & Spur

Run the Trans-Zion Trek

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If you really want to earn your post-adventure fish tacos, the Trans-Zion Trek is the trail for you. Sometimes called the Zion National Park Traverse, this 47.3-mile path cuts through sandstone and juniper, with nearly 6,000 feet in elevation change along the way. Known as one of the most scenic long runs in the country, the Trans-Zion takes anywhere from an eight-hour ultramarathon sprint to five days to accomplish, and like the nearby canyoneering routes, requires a backcountry permit from Zion National Park.

Take a shuttle from Zion Adventure Company to Lee Pass, located at the less popular northwestern corner of the park. Here you’ll begin the gradual descent toward Kolob Arch and Lava Point before reentering the more populated scenic-drive section of the park, where you’ll find views of the famous Angels Landing from a whole new angle. Come prepared with a topographic map and data book including information on mileage, water source recommendations, and campsites from ultrarunner Andrew Skurka. Post-ultra, refuel with a WhoopAss burger at Oscar’s Cafe in Springdale and probably a beer or five. Spend the night recuperating at the Cable Mountain Lodge, a stone’s throw from the Virgin River, where you can cool your aching toes.

Canyoneer Orderville Gulch

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Zion Adventure Company guide B.J. Cassell describes Orderville Canyon (aka Gulch)—the expert’s preferred way to get to the famous Narrows—as “one of the most underrated canyons in Zion.” Both wet and wild, the descent through Orderville features two large obstacles that require technical skills and equipment. Rated 3B III on the canyoneering scale, Orderville requires rappelling gear, a wet or drysuit depending on when you visit, and proficient canyoneering skills. Pick up a permit, required for all technical canyoneering excursions, at the Zion National Park backcountry desk or book online in advance.

Before hitting the road, fuel up with whiskey-infused coffee at Deep Creek Coffee in Springdale. You’ll need to either shuttle a car or tag along with Zion Adventure Company to the trailhead at Orderville Corral, off North Fork Road on the northern entrance to the park. If you bring your own vehicle, make sure it’s high clearance and 4WD. From here, you’ll begin the six-plus-hour, 12.3-mile journey that will take you through the gulch and back to the top of Zion’s scenic drive. Orderville spits you out at the Temple of Sinawava, which is the start of the well-known Narrows. There, you’ll rejoin the less-sandy tourists on a free shuttle back to the park entrance.

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