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Racing at altitude while not trained to - The Tahoe Relay

Posted Jun 16 2009 7:53pm
The last time before this weekend that I had been to Tahoe, I got married. That weekend was fast, special, wonderful, romantic, etc., etc. and it left no time for me to run. I have never run in Tahoe. Actually, I have never run at altitude. The altitude around Lake Tahoe varies from about 6200 feet up to 7000 feet. I felt every foot of it this past weekend when I participated in my first Tahoe Relay.

I went up there on Friday with a carload of friends and got home last night. I'll make the report as brief as possible, but as some of you know, I tend to be long winded with my race reports.

First indication that I might not do so well during the race was a shake out run of 20:00 on Friday evening before dinner. Maria and I went out and I was breathless within minutes. When we got back to the cabin, I looked at my Garmin and we had run at about a 9:45/mile pace... and my heart rate was close to 150 (but I lied to Maria and said it was just under 140). I didn't want her or the other gals on the team to worry.

I did my best to sleep well that night, but got about 5 hours. I awoke with the sun and the birds singing in the trees (just after 5 a.m.). The downside to that was that I was not running until close to 3:00 p.m. I was assigned the anchor leg (#7), which was 10.5-ish miles. The teams running had to be self supported as there was no aid on the course. The course was the two lane highway that goes around the entire lake, making a total of 72 miles. Our team did a great job supporting itself! We all got along great, and we all helped each other throughout the entire race. We managed to finish in 9:25, which was a team PR. Some of the gals have run the event 4 or 5 times prior, but none of their past teams had been this fast.

Anyway, let's get to my leg. I started at 7,000 feet and finished where the race started, down at 6200+ feet, but there was one very big and long hill climb followed by a good stretch of down hill and then a lot of nice rolling hills. Lucky for me none of the returning runners on the team told me about the hill climb I'd have to make. If I had known I would have freaked out because as it was, I freaked out while ascending it! It was absolute torture for me because I was already feeling winded even though I was only going at an average pace of less than 8-minute miles. I think I climbed the hill at a near walk pace of maybe 13:00 minutes if I was lucky.

After that hill climb, which was at about 2 miles in, my psyche was nearly battered... but I recovered as quickly as I could while running the downhill. I did my best not to take the downhill too fast because I knew my legs would be toast for the rest of the race. I had the BEST views of the Lake during my leg. Just breathtaking. I wish I could have taken pictures. The scary, scary part was avoiding being struck and killed by the motorists up there. The shoulder was literally less than a foot wide at times, and definitely no more than a foot wide unless it was at a turn out. I prayed the rosary during the first few miles! I really thought I was going to get killed by a car.

I saw the team at two mile increments where they gave me water or sports drink. It was salvation to see them at regular intervals. It helped the race go by faster because we were pretty much running all by ourselves out there. I passed one man in the beginning, got passed by a woman just after I crested the monster hill, and then passed a man and a woman in the last 3 miles.

My stomach was kind of upset already, so I didn't take too many fluids although I felt incredibly thirsty. The weird thing is I had been drinking water and sports drink throughout the day to avoid that dehydrated feeling. I have since learned that altitude does very tricky and strange things to the body.

All was fine, I was averaging a 7:35 pace up until about the last 2 miles. And then it just got REALLY cold. My arms, hand, legs and face felt freezing and I could feel my muscles getting very tight. I knew it was getting colder when only one team member got out of the car at the last "aid stop." Although I tried not to slow down, I did. I ended up with an overall pace of 7:46/mile, finishing in 1:21 and some odd seconds. Not since the Ohlone 50K have I been so ecstatic to be done with a race. Within a half hour afterward, I felt so, so, so ill. Just overwhelmed with nausea and headache, and I also felt like I was going to have some major diarrhea. As soon as we got back to the cabin, I forced some food down my throat and drank some sports drink. I took the hottest shower that I could because I was shivering to the bone, and then I put on sweats, a long sleeve t-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt and a thick fleece jacket, and then crawled into bed as soon as the gals left for dinner and the casinos.

I could not sleep though. But after battling with my body in the bathroom, I felt about 50% better. When the gals got back at about 11 p.m., I went out to the family room area and chatted with them until 2 in the morning. I was WIDE AWAKE! I finally just had to will myself to sleep and I might have fallen asleep at about 2:30. I woke up at 6:30 and could not go back to bed.

Strangely enough, I felt pretty good but very exhausted. I was able to go out for a recovery run with the gals, very short and very slow. About 30:00 at a 10:30/mile pace. We were all very tired. I still felt winded, but not sick. I was very discouraged with my race because I know I'm in better shape than my finish time indicated. But Coach Pete reminded me that altitude is not to be taken lightly. He said that under the circumstances, I did very well and that if I take it nice and easy this week, not doing any more than easy running and one day of striders, I should be ready to race my best at the 8K this weekend.

Lesson learned: if I'm going to race at altitude I either have to get up there a week in advance and acclimate as best I can, or get up there no more than an hour before the start of MY leg so that my body does not have time to respond to the altitude change. And if neither option is feasible, then I have to resign myself to the fact that I will not only race slowly, but I will probably feel seriously ill sometime during the race, or afterward.

For now, I'm home. At sea level. Drinking lots of water and trying to eat carbohydrate rich foods for a few days. And I ran very easy today for 41:00 and did not feel sick at all... just sluggish.

Will I return to this race next year? At the moment my answer is no. But not because the race was horrible, it was not! It was well organized for a relay that takes place on a two lane highway. I probably won't go back because the fresh memory of feeling so horrible after the race, unlike any race I've run before.

I will post pictures soon.
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