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Running above 2.000 meters of altitude

Administration day at the office, so I listened to my favorite cycling podcast, In het Wiel. Sorry it’s a Dutch one, but don’t worry the podcast isn’t relevant to this story. What was said is. Tom Dumoulin explained that racing – cycling in his case – above 2.000 meters is hard. Some people are capable of it, others not. The thing is, during the Dolomiti Extreme Trail I’ll be running above 2.000 meters. Way above.

The people who are capable of racing above 2.000 meters are mostly those who live at altitude, says Dumoulin, like the Colombian cyclists and Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz, the 2019 Giro d’Italia winner. Dumoulin, being Dutch, isn’t.

Less oxygen

It all has to do with oxygen. There is a complicated way to say it and a simple way. The simple way: when you breathe, you get less oxygen in. Which means it becomes harder for your body to run.

If you like the complicated version: the barometric pressure of the atmosphere is significantly less than that at sea-level. The result is that oxygen molecules in the air are further apart, reducing the oxygen content of each breath incrementally as you go up in altitude. As a result the oxygen saturation in your blood and your brain is reduced.

Homeostasis

Luckily our body is amazing, because it always adjusts itself to be in balance again (homeostasis). So if there is less oxygen available, but it does need oxygen to work hard, it increases the amount of red blood cells. Those are the cells that deliver oxygen to tissues all over your body.

Problem solved? Well, not totally. Your body needs time to create those extra red blood cells. That’s why if you go from sea level directly to high altitude you can get altitude sickness: headache, vomiting and reduced performance and coordination.

Time to adjust

Luckily the Dolomiti Extreme Trail starts in Zoldo at 840 meters. Sara and I will arrive there 3 days before the race, so my body has a little bit of time to get used to being at that altitude. Hopefully we can go for a walk and get up even higher, so my body can experience that as well.

During the race, the good thing is that I will go slow anyway. I mean, everything uphill I will walk. On top of that, before we go to the highest point of the race, Busa del Zuiton (2.350), we will first climb up to Bivacco Grisetti (2.050m), come down a bit, go up again, come down one more time and only than, go up to Busa del Zuiton. But still, we’ll be running above 2.000 meters for a  lot of hours. Maybe that explains why some people needed 14 hours to complete the trail last year. I’m curious how my body will react.

Training at high altitude

I actually should do a race in the Netherlands shortly after. I mean, the extra red blood cells your body makes, is the reason endurance athletes do their training at high altitude. When they come down from the mountain, thanks to the extra red blood cells, they perform better. For a short period of time, because at sea level your body will adjust again over time as it now doesn’t need those extra red blood cells.

In my case, I think after the Dolomiti Extreme Trail I’m going to give my body a well deserved rest. This is the race I’ve been working towards for the last 12 months, so after it, it’s time for a little break. But don’t worry, I’ve got another big race planned for later this year: the Kullamannen Sibirien Ultra 50. And maybe, very maybe I’ll try to break my personal record on the 5 kilometers, the week after the Dolomites.

Graphic: Dolomiti Extreme Trail

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