One of the most frequent questions I am asked as a runner moonlighting as a researcher in high altitude exercise physiology, is how to train for a race at altitude while living close to sea level. Imagine you live in London and found yourself winning a place at the CCC. After your initial excitement, you panic realizing you only have one week of annual leave remaining and cannot spend much time getting yourself acclimatized to the higher altitude trails of Chamonix. Are you doomed to fail? Certainly not!
There are some intricate changes that happen in the body to adapt to the changing partial pressure of oxygen at altitudes greater than 1800m. Within 24 hours of arrival at altitude, you can expect a faster heart rate and breathing rate, increased urination, a decrease in VO2 max, and increased EPO production (yep, EPO- which gained a lot of attention thanks to a certain cyclist!).
These complex interactions may help in explaining the symptoms that may arise from exposure to altitudes above 2000m- such as orthostatic hypotension, hypertension, headache, and acute mountain sickness (AMS). 75% of people will experience some form of AMS within 24-72 hours of ascent to altitude over 1800m. So how can you get ready for this adventure?
4-8 Weeks before race
Chantelle has a Bachelor of Science degree and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in High Altitude Exercise Physiology.
Lover of mountains and all things outdoors.
Sometimes I can be a real pain. Just as sometimes, I can be scatty, forget where I have put something, forget to buy more bin bags etc. Often, I can worry too much, over-think and over-analyze. Sometimes, I can be moody and answer in mono-syllables. It's a bad day if you meet me when all of this is happening.
We all have our quirks for sure. So what does this have to do with running? Obviously, these traits are not me at my optimum, but I find when I need a bit of ‘me time’, it is running that brings me back.
Running on trails is, for me, a bit like a time machine. The day stops, and it is all about the moment on the path. My worries mean nothing to a trail outstretched. Life’s concerns or angsts are inconsequential.
I got into trail running without any intention to, in my early twenties, and the love for it hit me like a ton of bricks. Specifically trail running on mountains, I just had a thing for those trails at altitude. My first ultra was in 2014, which spanned from Switzerland back to Chamonix, and it went pretty well. After this, I have continued to run in many different cool and diverse places, from the rugged Lake District to the peaceful and very beautiful Imlil Valley in Morocco. Running is the most intuitive of movements and yet it brought me such a feeling of just being “me”.
What is great about it, is that it becomes a really subjective sport. Whether you want to work out something on your mind, whether you want to glide down big valleys or whether you want to go slow and just trundle along to your ipod – there is not official book about how to do it. You just do it your way. It is all about you, that moment, the mountains and that trail.
Maybe in some ways it is why the sport can help celebrate my less than perfect bits too. Trails are “scatty” with rocks and roots, but that makes it interesting underfoot. “Overanalysing" can be quite useful when considering that race profile. Being a bit moody on occasion? Well, I often fun a bit faster when I’ve got a bee in my bonnet.
I run because it feels great. Trails are fundamentally, roads of adventure. I don’t really think there is such a concept as being ‘good’ or ‘’bad’ at the sport because it accommodates every place, every person and everything. We all have our good and bad moments on the trail, just like in life, yet even these are determined by your experience and relationship with trail running. A sport objectively brilliant but subjectively interpreted.
If you want to try it, or perhaps to take your running in a new direction, it just requires a thrill for the adventure, and a good pair of trail shoes. The rest, is just about you.
It's a common question among runners. Why do you run? Some people think it’s some weird fitness obsession and it ends there. Many have memories of cold, muddy school cross country lessons or have slogged around a local city road race. I always ran as a kid but discovered trail running after moving to the Alps for a winter ski season. It was the perfect antidote to my unhealthy seasonnaire’s lifestyle and I soon found myself running further and enjoying it. I met Nikki supporting friends during a race several years ago. We were both running the Mont-Blanc marathon and said we should hook up for a run sometime. I remember being nervous as I was so used to running alone, but before you knew it we were training together as often as our busy schedules permitted, spending weekends in the mountains and planning future races.
We seemed to want the same things from running, to explore new routes and to push ourselves in terms of distance. Ultra-distances and mountain trails appealed to us both, probably as a result of living in Chamonix, the home of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc and where running a marathon is not considered an extraordinary thing to do. It hasn’t always been plain sailing though and our relationship with running and with each other has been tested. Like when I got severe, drug-resistant double pneumonia that landed me in intensive care and hospital for 3 weeks and took a ridiculously long time to recover from. Nikki was always there for me, bringing me running films to watch in hospital, new races to consider and a card signed by Kilian Jornet! However it totally destroyed the uphill power I used to enjoy and it also meant that, as we tried to resume training together, I just couldn’t keep up. Not only had I gotten slower, but Nikki had worked hard to get faster and the gap kept on widening. It was tough to come to terms with these changes, but now we appreciate and understand that we have different abilities and needs from the sport, which sometimes are in line with each other and sometimes are not.
Nikki also suffered a major injury which took her out of the running game for the best part of a year. This was another difficult period as Nikki had to sit on the sidelines and miss out on races and adventures that had been planned for a long time. I really missed my running buddy, fully understanding what it felt like to have to take a forced break and miss out on all the fun. When we planned our first overseas trip together with a group of friends, we didn’t start small. We went in, all guns blazing, to the Everest Marathon, which involved flying to Nepal, a two week trek to Everest Base Camp and running a marathon back to Namche Bazaar. Weather conditions were challenging and made the whole experience tough at times, but we took a lot away from that trip and it was the beginning of our plan for this venture. Since then we’ve been to the USA for the 6-day Transrockies Run and have arranged other trips for the Tour du Mont Blanc, the GR5, the Trans Gran Canaria and the Haute Route.
Running is something we both used to pursue separately, but doing it together really has changed our lives. Not only does it give us the confidence to be adventurous, but running as part of a group is safer and enables us to explore more. We travel all over the world with our running pals, making more friends and adding to our merry band in the process. We share ideas about kit, routes, races, off-load work stress and have a flipping good giggle. I really couldn’t imagine life without running, or without Nikki of course! I really hope you can join us to share our passion. Sam x
thoughts, feelings and tribulations about running by runners.