Adventures at Altitude: How the Mile High City Took My Breath Away, Literally

The Centennial State has been good to me so far. In the wake of my grief over losing Lucky, I find myself most at peace when my poor, sea level-spoiled lungs are gasping for thin, Rocky Mountain air. It’s the pounding on my knees, the familiar, repetitive motions, the sun beating down on my already sunburned shoulders. The throbbing and aching and sweating are welcome if fleeting distractions, and the runners’ high after a long jaunt is usually enough to ward off Lucky-related tears for awhile.

Before I moved to Alaska, I always felt like everyone who complained about the altitude was a wuss, which is at least in part a function of my long-held belief that asthma is mostly a myth. Bear with me here. Asthma is sort of like migraines, in that it’s a thing a few people really have and require treatment for, but which lots of other people say they have whenever it’s convenient: a mild headache after work, probably curable with some ibuprofen and a nap, becomes a migraine; “I’m too out of shape for this” becomes asthma. My feelings on altitude-related illness at the elevations you encounter in the Rockies were similarly cynical until I lived at sea level, but now that I’ve spent the last nine months in close proximity to the ocean, I’m a believer. I knew the first few weeks at home were going to be tough, physically speaking, what with the altitude and all.

I was right. I felt pretty fit when I left the Last Frontier, but the dry climate of the Mile High City was enough to suck the wind out of my proverbial sails, not to mention my lungs. And anyway, even at my fittest, I still manage to look like a huge dork most of the time.

This morning I remembered that I’d agreed to run a six-mile trail race with my mom in Estes Park next weekend, which means I have just over a week to feel acclimated at 9,000 feet. (I’m really good at planning ahead, you see.) Thinking I’d better get my butt in gear if I wanted to avoid humiliation, I headed to North Table Mountain to get a few miles in. Table Mountain is a popular spot for mountain bikers and runners, and there’s also some good climbing there. I decided I could tolerate its profound lack of shade (again, solid planning on my part on this ninety-plus-degree day) since it’s usually pretty quiet during the week, which appealed to me because I didn’t relish the idea of having an audience for what would inevitably be a sweaty sufferfest.

I needed to get at least six miles in, I decided. Usually when people say, “I needed to get at least six miles in,” they mean they have some sort of specific training plan and have determined the number of miles their body needs to go to be physiologically ready for a given event. When I say I needed to get at least six miles in, I mean I figured six miles today would be enough to mentally prepare myself for race day (“You already did this last week, remember? Why can’t you go faster?” I’ll ask my legs), and the “at least” means I planned to see how desperately awful I was feeling at mile three and decide how much farther to go before turning around and slogging back to the trailhead.

It was somewhere in the middle of this between-three-and-four-miles-out decision that a handsome mountain biker peeled around the corner just in time to witness me performing a poorly executed snot rocket, which resulted in an unsightly streak down my already sweat-soaked shirt. It was not my finest moment.

“Forty-five degrees!” he called over his shoulder, speeding down the dusty singletrack. Apparently this rule applies not only to urinating in windy conditions, but also to expelling snot. It’s the little things, I guess.

I finished my run (slightly over six miles; I turned around shortly after the snot debacle) looking and feeling like a wet cat. It was miserably hot, and I didn’t have my cheerful running buddy with me, oblivious to the heat even with his black fur, darting in and out of the bushes and racing back to check on my progress. His absence is going to take some getting used to.

Feeling cranky and melodramatic, I practically collapsed into the car when I got to the trailhead, desperate to roll down the windows and get the A/C going, not to mention guzzle the half a Nalgene I’d left to boil in the passenger seat. It was only after this embarrassing display that I noticed the same mountain biker (who’d beaten me back) was putting his bike back on his Subaru, politely pretending not to notice my tantrum.

“My dog got hit by a car and I just came from sea level and I hate being hot,” I wanted to explain, but my (admittedly limited) social skills urged me to act like a normal human being. If this were a cute story told by someone with better social skills than mine, we would have struck up a conversation, he would be charmed by my inept snot rocketing and lack of heat tolerance, and we would have made plans to mountain bike together next weekend (in this fantasy, I am a serviceable mountain biker), but there’s a reason I refer to my social skills as limited. Instead, I waved awkwardly and drove away.

Despite the mild embarrassment of being caught in an unsuccessful snot rocket, I learned a few things today. The forty-five degrees thing, of course. I was also reminded that although you can start your hike as late as you want in Alaska in June, here at home you really need to get out before it gets hot and/or rains, which it will. I may have felt like a sack of lard today, but I imagine I’m probably fitter for having done it, or at least that’s what I told myself as I contemplated a third slice of pizza tonight.

I have never been one of those relentlessly cheerful people; in fact, I have a hard time not lapsing into cynicism even when things are going well. Just as a painful day of skiing with an 80-pound pack drove me to push harder, though, I know what I have to do this summer: it got off to a pretty bummer start, but I am determined to make it a success, one way or another, even if the only win is blowing my snot somewhere other than my shirt.

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