Monday, 6 July 2009

High Fidelity

29 June 2009, 7.31am: summit of the Strahlhorn (4,190 metres)

I’m just back from Saas Fee, high in the Swiss Alps at 1,800 metres above sea level. For the past ten days, TEAM fivemarathons’ Martin and I have been undertaking some serious high altitude marathon preparation on the 4,000 metre peaks around the Saas Valley. With overnight ascents of the Strahlhorn (4,190 metres), Allalinhorn (4,027 metres), Weissmies (4,023 metres) and Lagginhorn (4,010 metres), it was quite easily one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, but also definitely one of the most rewarding. It was the first time that our guide had had four successful attempts for these peaks, so Martin and I were very relieved. I can understand why it’s a rare occurrence; everything has to come together at once. You need good weather, reasonable snow conditions and you’ve got to hope that your fitness is up to it. Martin and I are both marathon-fit, but I still found it very hard work.

Without a common frame of reference, it’s quite difficult to explain why high altitude mountaineering is such an undertaking. Imagine being awoken at 2am every morning, to set out into the pitch black and freezing cold night, roped to two other people, ascending across a desolate wilderness, into increasingly thin air, towards a summit which is several hours away. Let me break it down for you: the regular and unwanted wake-up calls in the middle of the night must be like having a small child; the ice cold welcome as you set off is analogous to what you can expect when you tell your partner that you’re about to take yourself off to Switzerland for 10 days and they’re not invited; the being roped together is strikingly similar to the several weeks you are going to have to spend, upon your return, doting on the abovementioned partner, vainly seeking to earn forgiveness for your trip; the desolate wasteland is like a bad night out in Bolton; and the thin air / lack of atmosphere is like having a bag over your head / a season ticket at Old Trafford respectively.* Forgiveness for a mountain trip is a minefield which I have neither the diplomacy nor eloquence to negotiate. In 2004, when I announced a month long trip to the Andes, my then girlfriend declared that if I ever disappeared on another similar trip, she’d be gone, if and when I ever got home. I ill-advisedly quipped that it sounded like a “win-win” scenario and added aviation fuel to an already incendiary situation.

Climbing the Dri Horlini

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I’m interested to see the difference that the altitude training makes to my running performance. The science is fairly straightforward: the body adapts to the relative lack of oxygen at high altitude by increasing the mass of red blood cells and haemoglobin, which means that the blood can carry more oxygen; upon your return to oxygen-rich sea level, you retain a higher concentration of red blood cells for 10-14 days, and this explains why you feel stronger: more red blood cells, coupled with higher oxygen density. Unfortunately, my training has been interrupted for a least a day or so, while I deal with an ear infection, which I managed to pick up just before Friday’s summit attempt on the Lagginhorn. It currently looks like a cauliflower has been clumsily selotaped to the side of my head. A problem with your ears can affect your balance, which is far from ideal when you’re 4,000 metres up, roped to two others, teetering on the edge of a 55 degree slope, trying to get your crampons to bite into the ice. Certainly, Martin and our guide wouldn’t have thanked me for losing my balance and towing the three of us down the mountainside towards a 500 feet drop.

3 July 2009, 7.33am: summit of the Lagginhorn (4,010 metres)

In many ways, the trip home was more difficult to negotiate than the Swiss 4,000ers. The flight from Geneva departed late, followed by an extended wait for our kit bags to arrive in Liverpool. In the arrivals hall, I noticed that John Lennon Airport has adopted a line from Lennon’s “Imagine” as its motto: “Above Us Only Sky”. As I grew more impatient, I wondered if the baggage handlers had adopted a different line from the same song: “Imagine No Possessions”. I applied the same thought process to my delayed Virgin Train back to the Lake District. A suitably light-hearted strapline could be just what they need. “Virgin: We Don’t Go All The Way”, or, my particular recommendation, “Virgin: You’d Think We’d Never Done This Before”.

More tales of mountainous derring-do next week. Only a week on Monday until I fly to San Francisco for the next marathon.

*Apologies to regular blog viewers, who may have seen the atmosphere gag before. Some things just get better with age.

Barcelona, 1 March 2009
London, 26 April 2009
San Francisco, 26 July 2009
Berlin, 20 September 2009
New York, 1 November 2009

This week’s training schedule:

Monday, 6 July 2009 Rest
Tuesday, 7 July 2009 Speed work
Wednesday, 8 July 2009 6 miles steady
Thursday, 9 July 2009 8 miles easy
Friday, 10 July 2009 Rest
Saturday, 11 July 2009 Warm up, then 5 miles at race pace, then warm down
Sunday, 12 July 2009 13 miles steady

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NYC Marathon, 2004

NYC Marathon, 2004
NYC Marathon, 2004