I knew the transition to altitude would be difficult, but it has been difficult in ways that I did not necessarily anticipate.
I thought that the hardest part would be the actual workouts and being able to push myself hard enough. I have had a bit of a sour taste in my mouth with regards to training "high" after the disaster of 2005 and my two terrible races (last year and this) at high elevation, so I really wanted to prove to myself that I can train here and that the benefits when I race will be massive.
Let's rewind. 2005. I was selected to the U23 World Championship Team. So excited! USA Triathlon decided that leading up to the event, which was held in Gamagori, Japan, that the U23 team should all come together in Colorado Springs for about 2 weeks before embarking. Brilliant. I was not in a place to challenge the decision, so I went along with it. Bad idea. I ended up struggling to train as it was only my 2nd stint at altitude ever. Come race day I had about 800 meters worth of good swimming in me, which had me out of the water in 4th on the first lap and then the race fell to pieces and so did I. I swallowed probably a gallon of the gasoline ridden water which ended up making me very sick on the bike. End result, dehydration and a DNF. Yes, I attribute most of that to the trip to altitude as I didn't have time to acclimate. I don't think I would have won worlds that year, but I certainly don't think I would have DNF'd.
2007 & 2008. Racing at altitude. BAD idea. I came here for the Longmont race last year (not planning to race when I arrived) and raced in Valle De Bravo, Mexico earlier this year which is at an elevation even greater than that of Boulder. Both races started out relatively well but by the run, I was toast. Struggling to breathe, over heating and pretty miserable. End result for both of them... not pretty.
So, you can understand why I was a bit nervous about coming here for the summer. I certainly do not have the most positive track record when training and racing here. But, I also knew that I had never really acclimated properly in the past and I had never been as fit before.
I was shocked at how well my body seemed to take to the adjustment (though, it is still adapting) because I could run for almost 2 hours at a good clip and not feel short of breath. In the past, running and swimming were nearly impossible for the first few weeks. Cycling is alright, not perfect, but with short hard efforts my body is able to handle the change. But still, swimming seems to be the one thing that I am really struggling with.
Perhaps it is because you are in an environment where your ability to breathe is already limited. I quickly found that I have to breathe a lot more which definitely slows me down and it makes it hard for me to find a rhythm in the water. I also find myself beginning to panic at times. I don't like the feeling of getting behind in my breathing and then the anxiety over the lack of oxygen amounts and it only makes it worse. Maybe, part of the issue is that being a "swimmer" for so long, I know what certain intervals should feel like and it is hard when you either can't make the send off or feel like you have to work 3x as hard as normal to make a time that should be so easy. That is where the mental side of acclimatizing comes in.
Physically, altitude trashes you. It is harder to recover from each session and in general your body just feels fatigued. I don't do a sport where there are many easy days, so it becomes almost a battle between your physical status and your mind. I think these first few weeks can either make you or break you and most of that depends mainly on your ability to meet the changes and the challenges head on mentally.
Friday was my first hard treadmill session here. Not only was it hard, but it would have been considered hard if we were at sea level. There were speeds and times written down that I have come no where near meeting even when I could breathe and now suddenly I am expected to achieve them in an environment where I have less oxygen and a body that had not rebounded properly from all of the other long mileage we were logging. But, I wrapped my head around it and went for it. One interval at a time, I took on the challenge. I had some moments of breaking, but pulled myself back together and ended up having an almost perfect session and probably the best run I have had to date. The key was all in my head.
Today, however, after a long ride (nothing hard) I was feeling totally trashed. I took a short nap and when I woke up I had no idea how I was going to get through a 6k swim. Diving into the pool, immediately thrown into the set, I started to suffer. The interval was fast, and I knew it, but I went for it. Unfortunately, the panic and the lack of oxygen ended up winning. I had gone flat out for the first 10 minutes of a 85 minute set and I cracked. Almost in tears, I was fighting with myself at the wall. I had 2 choices, give in to the fatigue and the mental games that the altitude has been playing on me in the pool, or drop the interval by 5 seconds, get back on task and walk away with an almost as great set. A few words were exchanged between me and myself... got to have those conversations... and I was back on task, back into the set.
It was disappointing not being able to complete the set at the fast interval, but I also had to step back and realize how hard I have been pushing here and what I have been asking of my body. It is easy to get caught up in times and numbers and to compare them to sea level... when I can breathe... but I think the mental lessons I am learning are going to far out weigh my ability to complete all of the sets with no problems if I were still down at sea level.
... but, all that being said, all the positive lessons to be learned... I really do miss my oxygen!! :)