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Sleeping in the Clouds

Shannon had this grand idea last fall to enter my name in the lottery for the Norseman Extreme Triathlon. For those not aware, this is considered to be one of the hardest races on the planet. It is a full distance triathlon – 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles biking, and then a marathon. What’s unique about this race and what makes it such a challenging event relates to the terrain – the swim is in cold water (50 degrees give or take) through one of the famous fjords, the bike has some rather insane climbs with over 10,000 ft in gain, and the run starts off relatively straight forward, but finishes with nearly 6000 ft of climbing in the final 8 miles on uneven terrain.

(Note – these are not my pictures so I am not taking credit… these are from Norseman)

And then the kicker is the finish line, which is quite literally above the clouds!

A lot higher than what I’m used to in Kentucky!

So the real question, is how in the world do I prepare for this type of a race while living in Kentucky? Well, I am approaching this from several different ways:

1 – My coach, Chris McDonald, has been pounding me with hill training. There’s been lots of hill intervals on the bike, and then on the run, at least 2 days a week I’ve been doing hill repeats and concentrated treadmill workouts at grade. 2 – Shannon surprised me with a weighted vest for Valentine’s Day. Let’s just say I am a little scared of strapping on a 60 lb vest at the end of my runs. I haven’t quite started using this, but I figure I’ll break it in this week. 3 – The hard one for me is how to prepare for racing as high as 10,000 ft above sea level while living at sea level. We’ll just say that my approach is I picked up an altitude tent so we have been experimenting with the sleep high, train low strategy.

My sleeping quarters for the next few months.

Sleeping in an altitude tent is pretty interesting. The concept is that it is a closed system with a filtration tank that reduces the oxygen concentration of the ambient air inside to a specified level… so, you can sleep at the oxygen concentration of Denver, Colorado if you choose the gauge to be 5,000 ft. My tent goes up to 12,000 ft, but I intended to gradually ease up to a target of 10,000 ft. The first few days I started at 3,000 ft. Aside from the tent being pain-stakingly hot, in which case the first additional purchase I made was a small fan, I didn’t seem to have a problem with sleeping at that altitude. About 1 week in, I thought it would be fine to just jump to 9,000 ft. The guy I purchased the tent off of gave me an oxygen saturation meter. It measures your blood oxygen levels by scanning the nailbed of your index finger. Most healthy adults live with an oxygen saturation about 95%, and more times than not, probably about 96-97%. The deceiving thing about the tent is that it takes about an hour to equilibrate to the desired altitude level, so I am very likely asleep before the oxygen content drops. The first night I slept at 9,000 ft (which was less than 10 days in), I woke up at around 1 am quasi-gasping. My oxygen saturation was 89%. The funny thing is that a lot of people who smoke or have lung disease live with an oxygen saturation in the high 80s, but if you are used to being much higher than that… you feel like garbage now! That night ended with me turning off the machine and sleeping in Asher’s bed, and then starting over again at 5,000 ft and I very systematically went back up in elevation weekly.

Now, a little over 10 weeks in the tent, I am back up to 10,000 ft, my sats are sitting in the mid 90s and my heart rate is back down to a resting rate in the upper 30s. I wish I had measured my hemoglobin and hematocrit levels when I started so I could see how that stuff changes, but nevertheless, I can personally identify my own body’s physiologic improvements and I am now sleeping back to normal, the morning headaches are gone, and my workouts are back on track – and I feel like I am able to push myself harder and the legs are responding better. Even our new dog, Beatrix, is used to sleeping in the tent with me now, although I think she prefers a little more reasonable altitude, like 5,000 ft! Shannon’s not very interested in sleeping in it, after the first night that she opened the door and said she it was like opening a sauna door.

Norseman will be on August 4th and I’ll be taking the whole family. Then it will be a quick 10 weeks later that we will be heading back to Kona for the Ironman World Championships.

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