Episode Six: In the Spare Air
Hello from Flagstaff!
About a week before we left Victoria, Sarah and I joined the rest of our crew at The Cottage, a dwelling that serves as the WestHub’s guesthouse. We crammed into cushy chairs and clustered over the backs of couches. From the center of the room, Trent and Heather debriefed us on the upcoming month of training. In a week, we would abscond seaside Victoria and migrate to the cool and dusty desert of 7,000ft Arizona.
For the next month, we would eat, sleep, and train in the spare air of a mountain town. Before joining the WestHub, I thought that athletes trained at altitude to augment their red blood cell count, so that they can increase their capacity to transport oxygen. In reality, altitude’s complexities reach far beyond the circulatory system, and its rigid environment imposes a multi-faceted set of challenges.
From his stance in front of The Cottage’s wood stove, Trent explained that living in this de-pressurized and low-oxygen environment alters muscular metabolism and increases economy of movement. While these benefits are more difficult to measure than hemoglobin and iron levels, they are equally necessary for high levels of competition. While Trent spoke, the athletes in the room tensed and leaned forward. It was as if an electric current hovered around the perimeter of the room. I glanced at Sarah and she twitched me a small smirk.
Then, Heather spoke.
“You need to respect altitude.” She spoke solemnly. “There’s a new rhythm to being up there. It’ll come out in strange ways, and it might come as a shock.”
Flagstaff, Arizona assumes a paradoxical aura, something of the earthy and of the uncanny. The oversized town resembles the set of an indie film, with its hipster cafes, street art, and Victorian storefronts. Throughout its quaint streets walk cowboys and hippies, students and meth heads, and, strangest of all, elite endurance athletes.
For the next month, Sarah and I will live in chalet-style condos that squat along the Coconino National Forest. Here, the proximity to the sun seems to have sapped all colour from the low grasses and ponderosa pines. The landscape takes on a sepia hue, and we run through dusty trails imprinted from a tintype.
With the mountain and desert terrain comes a whiff of the eerie, a peculiar propulsion. Last week I walked up a set of stairs and, choking and lightheaded with the tremendous effort, I wrenched open the front door. A fluffy topper of snow coated the pink blossoms of the cherry trees.
Deprived of oxygen, the body does not recover as normal. This can result in energy depletion and, by extension, an increased risk of injury and sickness. Our coaches modify training plans accordingly. However, altitude’s impact on the body also resembles the psychological symptoms of anxiety. An elevated heart rate, shallow breathing, and a triggered sympathetic nervous system makes everyone feel a sense of constant unease. This transforms us into jittery, fretful, and uptight specters of our usual selves.
Last Tuesday morning, Sarah arrived at the track already taken in by the change. Unlike her typical loquacious mannerisms, she hardly spoke during the activation and warmup, keeping her eyes to the blue mondo.
That day, Heather had us work out Kenyan style, where one runner glides behind another in a perfectly spaced single file. This exercise in pacing, gait, and rhythm demands that runners relax, settle in, and trust their girl up front.
As our crew slung around the track at a casual 1k pace, Sarah couldn’t soften into the line and run along the rail. She half-stepped whoever ran in front, her long legs reaching wide round the turn.
Geoff Harris, the WestHub assistant coach, shouted in her direction. “Sarah! Get on the rail!” In the next repeat, she started tucked in, then darted out after a few strides, continuing to run wide.
By the time we reached the second set, she had worked herself into a frenzy. During one particularly uneven repeat, I felt could basically feel the fire pouring from her nostrils. My own temper spiked far beyond reason. Running on the rail can be stressful, because it forces you to account for forces beyond your control—namely, the quickly moving bodies that surround you. I wanted to jab her with an elbow and mutter seriously dude, cool your heels. When we crossed the line she threw up her hands and stalked to the infield. I glared after her.
Geoff jogged over to Sarah, his shaved head, ginger beard, and black painted nails glinting in the oversaturated sunlight. He started to explain the importance of the exercise, but she cut him off.
“No. Nope. I can’t relax.” Her eyes widened and she spoke with a frantic energy she rarely displays. “I keep getting clipped. People keep stepping on my heels. It’s easier to run on the outside.”
Trent raised the point that, per lap, running wide forces an athlete to run eight meters further, and is not ideal in a race situation.
Sarah filed in between Adrea and me, and we finished the workout.
Altitude makes us feel as though something is wrong with us. A deep draw of air is perpetually unsatisfying. It’s as if the capillaries in our lungs are clogged or scabbed over. We know to back off our mileage, to allow more time for sleeping and rest. Horror stories of athletes that broil the first week — and then flatline — have scared us into respecting our limits. However, the most uncomfortable feeling exists within our altered mental state. To live here, we must recognize that the changes to our bodies and inside our minds are the result of an external force. From there, we then learn work within that uncomfortable state.
After the workout, Sarah and I cooled down through the trails, lifting our legs at a snail’s pace. In the week’s first (overcooked) easy run I’d experienced a lethargy I hadn’t felt since my athletic retirement. Now, my paces dragged to the tempo of an unathletic middle-schooler. Sarah settled in beside me.
She sighed. “I feel so weird today.”
“You do seem a bit off.” I looked at her from the corner of my eye, to see if the anxiety had dissipated or if she was still possessed by a gremlin. We all experience bad days on the track, and this story about Sarah calls the kettle black. Two days later I would mess up the entire group’s pacing, and I have been known to clip Laurence’s heels eleven times over two hundred meters. We began to run up a hill, and our heartrates shot up again.
When we crested the hill, Sarah spoke again. “I was out of line, wasn’t I?” She said it more to herself than to me.
By the end of the run, I admitted that I felt weird too—far edgier than normal and fluctuating into drastic yet unnecessary emotions.
We talked through it, and as always, the conversation shifted away to more interesting things. “Want to make hot cocoa tonight?” I asked.
She exclaimed, “From scratch!?”
The idea that a location can trigger an internal conflict feels both strange and humbling. Arriving in this town has forced us to not only respect our body and mind, but the challenges our teammates face. We keep breathing when it feels like there is no air, and we keep calm until the acclimatization period ends. Settle in. Crack a joke. Look up at the flinty blue sky.
Yes, our bodies will adapt to this deprivation: our blood will grow rich, our muscles will harrow, and our form will evolve to greater economy. But here, in this dry, strange-tempered town, Sarah and I focus on leavening each other’s energy, feeling each other’s cadence, and reminding each other to breathe, as we float through the dusty wilderness.
Thanks for reading!