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.
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“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.
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“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.
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“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.
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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.
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.”
South Africa’s Sport and Recreation Minister, Fikile Mbalula, said something so upsetting, the statement sparked a Twitter war, multiple news stories, and demands for an apology.
A journalist had asked Mbalula about the issue of racial equality on South Africa’s national teams, many of which are mostly white. His response, the Mail & Guardian reported, was this:
"You can't transform sports without targets," said Mbalula, who has battled with the issue of racial quotas for some time. But at the same time, South Africa wouldn't be like Kenya and send athletes to the Olympics to “drown in the pool."
For Kenyans and members of other African countries, the statement was political, another example of endemic South African arrogance toward the rest of the continent. For researchers around the world, the backlash showed just how taboo it’s become to generalize about athletic performance according to race. Perhaps that’s one reason why genetic testing is heralded as the future of sports science: it takes the touchy issue of race out of athletics.
Take the case of the head of a physiology department at a big research university who David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, interviewed. “He basically confessed to me that he was withholding data from publication because he found differences in his black and white subjects,” Epstein says. The study looked into exercisers’ response to a dietary supplement. The researcher told Epstein he was afraid that by saying there were biological differences between black and white subjects, he’d be implying there might be intellectual differences, an old, wrong, and highly inflammatory stereotype. “By falling prey to that notion, he might be perpetuating it,” Epstein notes. The result of this scientist’s fear: athletes are left without the knowledge of a potentially useful or harmful supplement.
But imagine if that researcher could specify the gene responsible for the response he found. Then he could say the gene causes a certain issue and, by the way, it happens to be more prevalent in white or black people. A perfectly PC result.
That’s what the researchers who discovered the ACTN3 or “sprint” gene were able to do. The ACTN3 gene has been shown to contribute to “the muscle’s ability to generate forceful, repetitive, muscle contractions,” as the University of Melbourne writes. In other words, writes Jon Entine, author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, it helps make fast-twitch muscles fast.
A study of 32 Olympic sprinters found that all of them had a functional variant of that gene. The study took the approach outlined above. That is, researchers identified a gene related to sports performance, then remarked on how frequently a deficiency of this gene occurs in certain populations, like Europeans (18 percent) and the African Bantu population (less than 1 percent).
“This raises the possibility that ACTN3 genotype confers differential fitness in humans, under certain environmental conditions,” the researchers wrote. A nice way of saying, essentially, that some black people may be more inherently gifted at sprinting than some white people.
Unfortunately, identifying specific genes, like ACTN3, and their purposes is tough to do. So at this point in time, relying on what little genetic knowledge we have to guide an athletic career can have disastrous consequences.
“There are some cases where a single gene causes a huge effect all by itself,” Epstein explains. The brain disorder Huntington’s Disease, for example, is caused by a single defective gene. “But in most cases, genes work in huge networks and each one only has a tiny effect.” Researchers don’t have a great idea of how that network works yet. So even if they find a gene related to athletic ability (and they have, in fact, already found at least 200) it’s still too soon to do much with it.
“To make a decision based on that gene would be like having a puzzle—you don’t even know how many pieces there are,” Epstein says, “and making a decision based on only one of them without any of the others. You might need that piece to finish the puzzle, but you have no idea what that puzzle looks like without all the other pieces.”
The ACTN3 study led people to conclude that it’s impossible to run super fast without a functional variant of that gene. That’s a dodgy deduction, and because now that it’s easy to drop $169 on an ACTN3 test, athletes who find they lack it may turn away from sports at which they could excel.
So while genetic testing has much promise—in both mitigating Mbalula-like controversy and maximizing an individual’s athletic talent—it still has a long way to go before it’s truly helpful. Right now it’s silly, Epstein says, to test for an athletic trait like sprinting ability indirectly through genetics “when you can test it directly with a stopwatch.”
Thanks for the emoji visual, @Erikamarquis143. Unfortunately, this tweet is just the latest edition of cycling hatred spewed through social media. Take Emma Way, for example. Last year, the 21-year-old pixie-faced blonde from the UK tweeted this gem:
Way had swiped a 29-year-old with her side mirror, “sending him off the bike and into the trees where he was banged up, but wasn't seriously injured,” Jalopnik reports. Way didn’t stop, and the cyclist only came forward to cops after Way’s tweet went viral. (He didn’t want his girlfriend to worry and start putting his bikes on eBay.) Way repented—after local police found her tweet and she was suspended from her job.
Then there’s Keith Maddox, the 48-year-old man from Alabama who released a series of videos in which he filmed himself endangering cyclists earlier this year. Local police found his posts, too, and charged him with a misdemeanor for reckless endangerment.
So what's with these people? Many experts have tried to pin down just what it is about the bicycle that ignites so much rage in drivers. What creates that us-versus-them mentality that some experts have likened to racial discrimination?
As Bath University’s traffic specialist Dr. Ian Walker wrote in The Psychologist, drivers overgeneralize cyclists’ “negative behavior and attributes—‘They all ride through red lights all the time.’” They never follow the rules! They’re always causing accidents! Those constant generalizations make it “hard to escape the conclusion that something of this sort is going on.”
But statistics tell another story. As The Guardian reports, according to “research published in February this year by Monash University, in accidents between cyclists and motorists, the motorist was found to be at fault 87 percent of the time.” And drivers run red lights, too. Frequently. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in 2012, “683 people were killed and an estimated 133,000 were injured in crashes that involved red-light running.” All of this hatred toward cyclists assumes drivers always follow the rules.
I have another theory I’d like to add to the mix. People like to categorize other people. It makes life easier. As About.com psychology writer, Kendra Cherry, explains,
In the social categorization process, we mentally categorize people into different groups based on common characteristics. Sometimes this process occurs consciously, but for the most part social categorizations happens automatically and unconsciously…Using social categorization allows you to make decisions and establish expectations of how people will behave in certain situations very quickly, which allows you to focus on other things.
People seem to have a tough time creating new categories for things that already exist. Like cyclists. In most states, lawmakers have decided to categorize them as vehicles. This makes drivers feel violated when they see a cyclist breach an auto law. But a bike isn’t a car. Cyclists are much more nimble and have greater sensory perception on the road. The damage they can do to other people, in almost all cases, is much less than any vehicle could.
If drivers and lawmakers were able to see cyclists as they truly are—an entirely separate category of transportation that’s neither car nor pedestrian—perhaps the hatred would subside. Creating bike lanes is a start, but there’s a long way to go before cyclists bust out of their current social category, created in a car-centric society, of a hate-worthy nuisance.