Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Places I've Run: Mammoth, CA

Yesterday afternoon, I was contemplating my post for today..I thought, hmm…well…where have I run? Since I so recently posted about Niger, I thought something more domestic might be good…maybe somewhere the opposite of Niger…maybe somewhere mountainous. 

And then, at my workout last night, Mammoth came up in conversation twice, with two different people – in the context of elite athlete training groups, and the benefits of altitude training (so I’m taking that to mean a Mammoth post is meant to be). Also, altitude running has been on my mind recently because I attended a meeting at work where a guy from the Mayo Clinic talked about some of the work they do testing elite athletes at high altitudes.

That being said, back in the day when I was running in Mammoth Lakes, CA, I was in no way anywhere near "elite." Nor was I looking to improve my cardiovascular capacity via altitude training. I was just a wee high school ski racer (haha, I use the term “wee” in its loosest possible sense…more like I was just younger than I am now…and about the same size…actually no, I think I was bigger…).

Anywho – I have mentioned before that I was quite the ski racer in my day, and that many of those races took place at Mammoth Mountain, and also that many of those races were canceled due to inclement weather.

Picture this: mid to late-April, the mountain is literally in it’s own personal cloud of misery, but a couple miles down the road (down being the operative word), the weather is not too bad. Too much time in a condo makes you a little stir crazy – I can only read so many books per day.  And I was thinking, hmm…HS track meets…that’s going to happen the day I return home…perhaps I should prepare a bit…

So out I go, into a windy day, to run. And just FYI, the town of Mammoth Lakes is at a lofty 7,900 feet. This particular run I have in mind was absolutely terrible. I have a very distinct memory of running along a golf course, my throat so sticky I could barely breathe (why does that happen at altitude???), trying to spit and keep running but basically on the verge of tears. 

Yeah, so running in Mammoth. Check.

But it is quite the “it” place if you’re an elite runner. And altitude does have its benefits as long as you’re prepared for it. There’s got to be a reason that Deena Kastor, Ryan Hall, and Meb Keflezighi all train in Mammoth. One common misconception I’d like to point out, however, is that “altitude training” for a couple days isn’t really going to do a whole lot for you. It may just  bum you out. (Because it takes a few days to adjust to the altitude, so your first few runs may be really awful. And speed work at altitude is damn near impossible – even the pros go to lower elevations for their faster reps.)

The benefits are very scientific (you can read more about the science here). Basically, it’s actually just living and sleeping at altitude that helps you the most. Studies have shown that people who grew up at higher elevations have “better” lungs than us low-lands normates.

So if you’re going on vacation up high, don’t get discouraged. Go out for a run. Just give yourself time to adjust before you get bummed with bad running. I think of altitude running as similar to running in extreme humidity – your muscles just aren’t getting the level of oxygen they’d like, so you feel sluggish.

To leave you on a positive note: Mammoth is gorgeous (I LOVE the Eastern Sierras). And at this point in my life, I would love nothing more to live and run there…so if you get the chance, go!