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The Dangers of Running at High Altitudes

Posted Nov 29 2009 8:30am

I am certain the more seasoned runners have their stories and years of experience of running races throughout the country. Well I am slowly collecting my own. As a check in point before the Vegas half next weekI decided to do the Sparks Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving. Just a 10k... no biggie right? I knew it was at a high altitude than my stomping grounds but I figured that Vegas was alsoso it could help with training...

Altitude Check
San JoseCA -- 85 feet above sea level

Las VegasNV -- 2,001 feet above sea level

SparksNV -- 4,494 feet above sea level

Yeah... so about that jump... it means there is no freakin air up there!!! Having lived in Wyoming for college at 7200 feetI was aware of the dangers of exercising at high altitudes. And I had taken all of the precautions I could. From flying in two days before. Hydrating. Slowing down my pace time.

I went into this 10k with the hope of beating my 10k time from July but recognizing that altitude might slow me down. My primary goal was to finish and chalk it up to training.

SPOILER: I did finish.

I felt fit that morning. I had done all of my prep worklaid out my new long sleeve tech tee and other gear the night before. I woke up and had my normal on the road running brekkie (half a larabar since I was full at half). I had my caffeinated cliff shot 15 minutes before start since I have issues drinking coffee the morning of the race. And I had packed some Luna Moons just in case.

My sister was running her first 10k ever. She is a high school cheerleader and runs a couple miles for training and had a pretty quick time but had never gone 6.2 before. We talked about the altitude and what is might mean for heralthough she lacked the asthma and other medical issues I have (lucky duck!). She understood she should slow down if she got light headed or started wheezing (which to her translated into: play with the dogs along the trail as her rest break!).

We were in the middle of the pack when the race started. There was also a 2 mile walk/run that started in the wave after us. It didn't take me long to figure out that despite the race not having a pace or sweep timethe slower folks were going for the two miler. How did I figure that out? While I can normally go for 8 minutes without breaking for a walkI could barely breathe after 3. So I waved my sister on and recognized I was not going to be the fastest person on the course. And then proceeded to watch most of the city of Sparks pass me by.

At mile two there was a loop around where you could pass the people in front of you and then pass those behind you. I waved at my sister when she passed meand I am willing to admit I was a touch jealous. I was even more frustrated when I saw only a handful of people behind me.

But I reminded myself that this race wasn't about time but rather endurance. Between miles 3 and 4 I traded places with some race walkers as I continued to hold to my revised walk/run intervals. At mile 4the race walkers passed me as I stopped at the water station to recover from the beginning of what I should have recognized as an asthma attack. I began coughing and wheezing something pretty bad.

I saw an 8 year old pass me walking and whimpering. I caught up with him and we chatted for a bit about how he wanted to be done and his family was all ahead of him. We agreed we would try jogging together for a whole minute and then we would take a walking break. One of my favorite things to do is motivate othersso motivating the kid to finish renewed my energy. Even if he didn't want to run again after that walk break and waved me on.

The last 1.75 miles was around a lake. A lake where everyone else was hanging out because they were done. I am pretty sure I was the last one who was waved through to finish the race because when I finally got around that lake I saw the last couple folks (including the 8 year old and his brother) being waved straight to the finish.

In the last .2 miles my chest got tighter and breathing got harder but this is the part of the race where people are all watching. I was getting words of encouragement from everyone and I didn't want to walk it. But I did walk part of it before jetting for the finish line.

I crossed it and checked my time but forgot to stop my watch. It was 1:30:? (15?30?45? it was one of those three!) and my previous 10k PR at sea level was 1:29:25. Yes... I am a slowpoke. But better slow than not at all!

I won't know what my actual time was from my start but I look forward to seeing the clock time when the results get published. Why did I miss my time?

I collapsed on the street corner while having an acute asthma attack. My right lung felt like a solid rock and I couldn't take in any air. I asked for a medic and was told there wasn't one at the race site. People went off to look for a race organizer while I attempted to use my inhaler but I couldn't even intake enough oxygen to use my inhaler. I yelled out to ask for oxygen but I don't know if anyone was even paying attention. I got dizzier and the rest of my chest clutched up. Every intake of oxygen got to the back of my throat and caused me to wheeze and hack. My mom and sister finally got to me and asked if anyone had called 911. No one had. By the time my family was able to figure out what was going on and was about to call 911my chest had relaxed a bit and I was able to intake oxygen. I convinced my mom that at this pointan ambulance wasn't necessary and I would let her know if I needed to go to the hospital. I managed to get in a dosage from my rescue inhaler and started to feel betterso despite wheezing and some soreness in my chestI figured I was fine. (I did go see a doctor on Friday and aside from some lung irritationI really am fine now).

So running at a higher altitude can be dangerous. And something every runner should take into consideration if they don't already. Don't have asthma? My sister who is healthy was wheezing and had minor chest tightness as well. She felt light-headed and dizzy towards the finish and had to rest after finishing.

I will compete the 13.1 miles next weekendand while the altitude is not as high as SparksI will recognize that I might need to take more walk breaks than I had planned. Luckilythe Rock and Roll organization has a medic station at almost every mileso what happened at the finish line of my 10k shouldn't happen again!

(Although in the end... even if my finish was 1:30:45... I still only missed my PR by 1:20!!!)

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