Into Thin Air?

Yes, I did just steal that from Jon Krakauer (one of my favorite writers and favorite all-time books, btw). I want nothing to do with Everest, other than maybe looking at it from base camp, but I am considering running a marathon next fall that involves some altitude. And as a sea level gal, I’m wondering if that’s just dumb.

Should a flat lander run a marathon at altitude?

The marathon in question is Top of Utah. Erin got my wheels turning on this one. It sounds spectacular–only about 3,000 people, a net elevation loss, and the course winds through scenic canyons. I was all set to sign on the dotted line, and mentioned it to my running crew the other day when one of my wise friends questioned whether or not it was at altitude.

Now why didn’t I think of that? The name “Top of Utah,” might have been an obvious clue. But I digress. Turns out it does start at about 5,000 ft. Hmm–I’d say that’s altitude for someone like me.

As an aging runner, I don’t have much time left to PR–a few years at best, I’d guess. So this fall’s marathon choice is kind of important to me. Which brings in the question of how a marathon at altitude fits, or doesn’t fit, into the picture.

I learned in my RRCA certification course that when racing at altitude, it’s best to pretty much get off the plane and go, or spend around three weeks adjusting to the thin air. I’m fine with arriving the night before and racing the next morning. I just don’t know that even that would be enough.

I did a little digging on the topic and learned that an unacclimated runner can expect to lose around two minutes over a 10k course when racing at altitude. I also read that runner who is not acclimated will lose 10 to 12% in VO2max at an altitude of about 6,500 feet and 12 to 15% at 7,500 feet. The article also noted this doesn’t take into account the possibility of altitude sickness, which is just as likely to affect a well-conditioned athlete as anyone else.

So? I think if I really want a marathon PR this fall, that sadly, Top of Utah may not be the course for me. I haven’t written it off, but I’m definitely doing some looking around for other potential courses.

Have any of you fellow sea-level folks ever raced at altitude? How was it?

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  1. says

    Is 7,500ft max altitude you are going to be at? For me two days at altitude is minimum to adjust but everyone is different and what is worse, there are no guarantees.
    That race sounds exciting. You can start another category or PR’s depending on altitude. ‘

    I love Jon Krakauer’s books!
    Ewa recently posted..JoyMy Profile

  2. says

    The highest I’ve ever gotten in a race is about 5,000 feet (would have gotten higher last summer in Costa Rica if we’d finished the race), but I’ve done a fair bit of 10,000+ hiking and some running, and I have to say, 5,000-ish doesn’t bother me so much (and I live a whopping 324 feet above sea level). I imagine you’d feel it over the course of the marathon, but assuming you don’t have strong reactions to altitude, if you took it relatively easy and were able to get there a couple days early, you’d probably be okay. Try to get your hands on some coca leaves!
    Abby @ Have Dental Floss, WIll Travel recently posted..Joyeux Noël, Eh?My Profile

  3. says

    Most NFL teams fly into Denver on Saturday evenings for the Sunday game for this very reason. Ryan Clark (Safety for Pittsburgh) lost a kidney and almost died a few years ago because he had an un-diagnosised blood disorder that came on from the altitude!
    Jeff recently posted..Week in Review – All PicturesMy Profile

  4. says

    Similarly, I was looking at a PR marathon in Utah for the spring, and coach I decided against it for the very same reason. Wasn’t worth the potential “wouldve/shouldve/couldve” if I didn’t come out with a PR. And that altitude I know for sure plays in when I’m skiing, so I can imagine it would have an effect running.

    I vote to save this one for a “fun” marathon instead!
    Meaghan recently posted..The Day The Wind Ate My Track Workout..My Profile

  5. says

    I set my 10k PR (2 min improvement) 2 weeks after I moved from Ohio to Denver. For the past two years I’ve had flat lander friends come and run the Pikes Peak Marathon with me (starts at 7k, goes up to 14k and back down.). They’ve both survived :-)

    I think the net downhill is the biggest factor. I actually love the second half of the PPM as you get more oxygen and have gravity on your side. But can you stand the pounding? Are you an aggressive downhill runner? I’d be more concerned with that.

    I’ve also heard that the more fit you are, the less altitude will effect you, and I think I’ve seen that to be the case with friends. I will caution that some flat landers who rab a Colorado Sorings marathon with me (8k) found they simply didn’t have the same “zip” in their legs: turnover wasn’t as fast. But your net downhill course could help.

    But, after all that it does seem a bit risky if your primary goal is a PR. There are a few variables to consider beyond your own fitness. I just don’t think you should completely dismiss a beautiful run just so you can pound on a “flat and fast” soulless course
    Andrea Hill recently posted..A change of plans..My Profile

  6. says

    Last year I went to Nevada and Utah on vacation. I ran in a race in NV so I wasn’t at altitude then but the difference just in environment had a huge effect on me that I wasn’t expecting. I’m sure the marathon is gorgeous though since pretty much everything out there is!
    abbi recently posted..2011 Year End ReviewMy Profile

  7. says

    I’m new to distance running so I don’t know much about running a marathon specifically at altitude, but I went to Salt Lake City for a few days from low elevation recently – I felt great the first day, reasonably good the second day, and pretty awful on the third. Based on that, if I went back to run a marathon, I’d probably opt for flying in the night before. But hey, even on the last day when I was really starting to feel the elevation, Utah was still pretty! :)

  8. says

    I have nothing helpful to add since I’m a midwest girl and haven’t done any running at altitude. Just wanted to chime in and say that I LOVE that book. One of my all-time favorites and a convincing argument to never climb Everest. :) Even before people start dying it sounded beyond brutal.
    Kate recently posted..A CXMAS ("Cross-mas") storyMy Profile

  9. says

    I always race/train at altitude (5280 ft), so I don’t notice much. But, when I travel to sea level you’d think I’d be Ms. Speedy but I’m guess is that if you go to altitude from sea level your losses are greater than the gains you get from going to altitude to sea level,but that’s just my pesonal experience.
    Shut Up and Run recently posted..Sports Bras vs. SpeedosMy Profile

  10. says

    We travel up to northern AZ a lot over the summer from the dessert and I try to run or bike while I am there. I notice a difference in my performance. I grew up in elevation but I guess have lived in the desert to long. :-)
    Not sure that was super helpful.
    Missy recently posted..Snow DayMy Profile

  11. says

    I did the Georgetown to Idaho Springs half two summers ago. I spent a day or so in Denver 6,000 ft. Then we went up to Breckenridge 12,000 ft. I felt nothing in Denver at all, a tad tired and lightheaded in Breck. The course was downhill and the air felt ‘thin’ and i felt I was working harder than I should have been. Nothing horrible though, but it was ‘just a half’ and in no way was i racing. I think you’d be ok, but I wouldn’t count on a PR.
    Marcia recently posted..Injury’s Silver LiningMy Profile

  12. says

    I actually looked at that race as one I would like to do. I would love to travel out west and race but I think I’ll end up in Montana since that’s where my mom lives. Suppose I’ll just run it and see how the chips fall..but you’re right, if it’s a PR you’re looking for than the east coast might be the best! :)
    Coy recently posted..I’m running late….My Profile

  13. says

    It takes me a few days to adjust to altitude if I am fit – but that is for backcountry skiing/trekking, not so a marathon.

    I want to do that race too. Do it in 2013!!! Go for the PR this year, after the injury crap you have had to deal with, you deserve a year of PR’s!!!!
    Mandy recently posted..Wagging Wednesday – Icing InMy Profile

  14. says

    I am a sea-level girl, I’ve only run at altitude when I’m in Colorado during a snow ski trip. And I can’t imagine doing a marathon at altitude when I live at sea-level, so I don’t blame you for looking for a different race! Excited to see what you choose, good luck!

  15. says

    I have not, but a friend of mine has. She said she would never do it again. But everyone is different! When I was just running at 5,000 ft in big bear (4,500 maybe- can’t remember) it definitely felt challenging but do-able. I purposely didn’t wear a garmin because I didn’t want to see how slowly I was running. As long as you aren’t shooting for a PR, I say go for it!
    Kate @ Run with Kate recently posted..California RunningMy Profile

  16. says

    First of all, I think half the stuff the RRCA peeps told us was BS :). That said, I know when I do Pikes Peak, as I gain elevation I don’t “feel” bad, but I considerably slow down, and I know it’s because of the air. But that’s 14,000′, not 5000′. Adam – The Boring Runner – PR’d when he came and did the Denver RnR so there ya go.

    I’ve never done a marathon in Denver because I’m always so freaked that my time will be really slow (ha!) … but I always feel a little energy boost – for a few miles anyway – when I race at sea level.

    Maybe you could use TOU for a training run in prep for the bigger BQ race?

    Oh, and St. George was my first BQ, it is supposedly the fastest BQ marathon. LOVED that course and it’s a big bigger than TOU. It’s a lottery to get in b/c it’s so popular but of all my friends that have done it, none of them hasn’t BQ’d. :) Maybe try for the lottery for that one?
    Jill recently posted..The Best of the YearMy Profile

  17. says

    Holy crap! That’s high. I’m about as sea-level as they come in the Houston area, but altitude fascinates me. I think I need to get an “altitude PR” one of these days!

    Speaking of Houston, have you ever raced down here? VERY PR-worthy terrain;)

  18. says

    I ran a race in New Hampshire this year and I threw up a million times on course – it was a really weird kind of head-ringing, flighty nausea. It didn’t occur to me that it could be altitude until a friend mentioned it; it could be! The altitude was under 2000 ft but for someone below sea level I suppose it could get to me.
    gracie recently posted..How often do YOU race?My Profile

  19. says

    I’ve done plenty of hiking (and some running) at altitude despite the fact that I’ve lived at sea level all my life.

    My one bit of advice: if you’re going to do this race, get there 3 or 4 days early to get used to the thin air. Altitude really does make a difference, but you get used to it after a couple of days.
    Beth (i run like a girl) recently posted..Dear SantaMy Profile

  20. says

    I run at 8300 feet and find if I travel somewhere at sea level for a week or two then come back, I feel it the first run or two! I seem to be unfortunate with altitude sickness though.
    Anyway, I found a really cool calculator as I’m hoping for super powers when running my first marathon this year (at sea level) and wanted to know if I’d be much faster… this site lets you put in current pace and altitude, and race altitude for a time predictor, its pretty cool.

  21. says

    I live at the sea, and have popped over the Switzerland for a couple of mountain marathons, and yes it can hit you… But you are running downhill while I was running up. So if we have a look at this years race we got there a week before and spend the time sight seeing, in short the race didn’t go well… Now back in 2008 I popped over for the weekend (long story) to run a race and I felt great till 10km to go. So pop up the night before or yes get there 2-3 weeks before. If your training has gone well and you can run those down hill miles easily at the right pace (if you have to fight to keep the pace it will come bad to bite you) PR no problem…

    but it’s down hill in a mixed race, will it count?
    Coach Dion recently posted..GETTING LOSTMy Profile

  22. says

    I have never raced at altitude, and I live at about 2000 feet. However, I was going to do a race near San Francisco (Marin Co) and the elevation profile was daunting. Up and down, up and down. I decided against it…until I get a little faster and stronger!
    Kyria recently posted..Cookie MonstersMy Profile

  23. says

    It doesn’t get more sea level than Holland. We are even below sea level. Uh-huh. I do love the Swiss Alps and love love racing in the Swiss Alps – I love the altitude! I do find that I need a day or 2-3 to get used to it every time I go up there. I’m awfully slow, so not sure if it makes me faster. Then again…it’s so much fun, I don’t really care if it does. :)
    Christel recently posted..Three Things ThursdayMy Profile

  24. says

    In the past few years I’ve run lots of trails in the Swiss Alps above 5,000ft with no problems at all, also the Eiger Trail that rises to around 7,500ft above Kleine Scheidegg. I’ll admit I wasn’t racing, but I wasn’t hanging about either – and this was in my upper 70’s so I shouldn’t think a young whippersnapper like you will have any problems at all.
    Go and enjoy, it could be the run of a lifetime.
    Runningfox recently posted..More snowMy Profile

  25. says

    I grew up in Denver and now live new San Francisco. Denver’s right around 5000 feet so that’s actually pretty similiar to what you’re looking at. I can vouch for the fact that altitude makes a HUGE difference. When I moved to California I automatically lost 30 sec/mile off my training mile pace. And if I go back and visit I feel like I’m dying when I run. I don’t think racing right away or acclimating for 3 weeks is enough to compensate for the altitude.
    Laura recently posted..2011 running reviewMy Profile