Exercise and fitness
Viewpoint: Running into Thin Air
Last Updated Nov. 15, 2006
It's raining outside and I have a race to run.
I don't mind. Rain in Mexico City is something runners welcome. It washes away the air pollution.
But the rain won't do a thing about the altitude.
No matter where you go in Mexico City, indoors or out, rain or shine, you cannot escape one fact: you are 2,200 metres — about 7,300 feet — above sea level.
There is an adage in running about how long distances humble ambitious runners. Add altitude to that list.
This city is an unforgiving teacher to the ambitious runner. Her thin air demands new, lower expectations. It demands patience. It demands time. Getting to today's race has been all about learning those lessons.
I've had about two months here to do my schooling. I'm running four days a week. Most of the time I run on a treadmill in a gym. I don't like the traffic, the maze of cars, the selective adherence to traffic laws. My outdoor day is Sunday when the traffic is light and the air quality is at its best.
Rubber legs and light head
My first run was a week after I arrived. It was a Sunday morning in mid-September, an easy five kilometre trot down the Paseo de la Reforma, the wide avenue that cuts through the city core. I set out at my normal eastern Ontario sea-level pace.
In minutes I was short of breath. At 15 minutes, when I turned around and headed back toward the apartment, my head was light, and then the headache started. I slowed down to a walk, gasping for air. Humbling.
A week later, I ran the same course, more slowly. It was a bit better, but at the end my legs were like rubber, my head was light and I was bone-tired.
Was this going to get any better? I was running regularly, doing weights, walking a lot. I should be getting used to this. The guidebooks talk about a seven- to 10-day acclimatization period. I had to be settling in, no?
5 minutes off best 5K finish
The next test was a 5K race in mid-October. The Canadian Embassy here puts on a Terry Fox Run. About 3,000 people lined up at the starting line. I settled into what I thought was a comfortable pace for me, around five minutes per kilometre. Too fast. At about the halfway point, my legs went rubbery and my breathing became laboured. Time to walk a bit. My finish time was a full four minutes slower than my best 5K finish.
At my gym I ask one of the trainers about running here. He's 40, a strong masters runner with a personal best of 38 minutes for the 10K. That is quick. He says he adds three to five minutes to his 10K times when he races in Mexico City.
"You have to adjust," he tells me.
I slow down on the treadmill. When I run outside, I warm up slowly, I try to do one or two hills, I don't push too hard. I listen to my body and I can feel an improvement, but the steps are small. My sea-level instinct is to push hard, rest and let my body adjust. Here I can't push anywhere near as hard and I need much more rest. My body is taking longer to adjust. I have to be patient.
Now it's race day. My goal is to finish between 50 and 55 minutes. My best 10K time is 47:30, so I have trimmed my sails. The rain has stopped and it's about 12 degrees: perfect conditions.
This is a big race, the Nike 10K. There are 23,100 runners in matching yellow shirts packed into the start area. The first two kilometres take 12 minutes. It's going to be a slow day, but at this pace I am feeling pretty good.
The mass of yellow jerseys spreads out as the race continues, and I pick up the pace. I turn over a couple of kilometres at 5:15 each. I'm feeling pretty good. At 7K, I pick it up a bit more and run at a pace of 4:55 per kilometre.
Then the teacher pipes up.
As I cross the 9K marker, I start to gasp, my legs get heavy and I slow down. I pushed too hard and my body is pushing back.
But there's good news. Instead of a headache and a walk, I just slow down for a minute and get my breath back. I run the last half-kilometre hard and cross the line in 53:14. I make my goal.
If this were Toronto or Ottawa I'd be disappointed. But here, seven minutes slower than my personal record is progress given where I was two months ago.
There will be more races and I expect my times will improve. But my lesson is learned. When you run up high, keep your expectations low — or be prepared to be humbled.
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