Bryan Lewis, who won the High Cascades 100 mountain bike race on July 21, felt nauseous and dizzy during the highest point of the 100-mile course, which is nearly 7,000 feet.
Lewis, a professional racer who lives and trains in Charlottesville, Va., is more accustomed to exerting himself at 600 feet – an altitude where the air's oxygen is denser.
"Seven thousand feet is the spot where things start getting weird for me," said Lewis, 27. "With altitude like this, I would punch up a hill, and I would be out of breath and struggling to recover quickly. I was lightheaded, which may have been food and water driven, but altitude definitely played an effect in that as well."
Many Central Oregon athletes relish the region's dry air, abundant sunshine and its elevation. Out-of-town athletes wonder if the locals enjoy an altitudinal advantage when training and racing in their backyard. A variety of coaches and experts say they do. If an athlete does not have the advantage of living at high elevation, they can accelerate the air race with altitude sleeping tents, which can simulate altitude thousands of feet higher than where one actually rests her head.
While Bend sits around 3,600 feet, endless trails and roads that wind through the Deschutes National Forest can approach 7,000 feet, and some Cascade mountains exceed 10,000 feet.
Lewis, who races in both mountain bike and road disciplines, is no stranger to competing at elevation. He has raced in the Tour of Utah and the Crusher in the Tushar. The latter race climbs the state's Tushar Mountains and rises above 10,000 feet.
Tim Burnett, a kinesiology instructor at OSU-Cascades, said the effect of altitude on the body is very real but often misunderstood. When visiting athletes complain about Bend's elevation, it's probably the dry air that is bothering them. By the third or fourth day at altitude, fluid loss caused by drier air can take a cumulative effect on the body, inhibiting its ability to function normally, Burnett said.
"Thirty-five hundred feet isn't that high," Burnett added. "One of the problems that people have when they go to higher altitudes, it's colder, which causes the humidity to drop. Each time you breathe you fully humidify that air. With each breath, you're now using more fluid (to do so), rather than using that fluid for cardiac output or sweating or other uses you would need during a race. So, that (altitude effect) can definitely be problematic."
While Lewis doesn't consider the High Cascades 100 a "high race" like some of those in Colorado or Utah, he still took preemptive measures to ward off effects of the Cascades' altitude.
"It's a simple idea: Get there as late as physically possible," Lewis said. "Or, get there two to three weeks in advance. If the race happens on your third, fourth or fifth day in elevation, it's going to be terrible."
Burnett agrees with Lewis' strategy.
Thinner air becomes an issue for most people beginning at 7,500 or 8,000 feet, Burnett said. Air pressure decreases the higher up you go. Low air pressure means there is less oxygen in any given amount of air. Whether someone will feel altitude sickness at the elevation varies from athlete to athlete, he said.
"There are some people who can be up there who don't feel much and others who feel nauseous," Burnett said. "There is an inherent 'some people feel it, some people don't.' "
A major refrain that rolls off the tongues of Central Oregon athletes and coaches is, "live high, train low." That's to say, sleep at higher elevation causes the body to create more erythropoietin – or EPO – which is a hormone made by the kidneys that promotes the making of red blood cells, which deliver oxygen to muscles.
Training or competing at lower elevations allows you to "get to a higher output. You can do more because of the oxygen," which is richer, Burnett said.
But athletes can cheat topography without buying a second home in the mountains. Altitude tents let athletes simulate altitude in their own bedrooms. Results begin to appear after three to four weeks of 7- to 9-hour nightly sessions.
"As you simulate (elevation), you create not only EPO but also the maturation of blood stem cells, which require time to mature into red blood cells that can carry oxygen to the muscles," Burnett said. "You can fake living high when living at sea level."
Cody Peterson knows his way around an altitude tent. An elite multi-discipline bike racer, Peterson used an altitude tent while preparing for a number of national-level mountain bike races held at elevations beginning at 6,000 feet. To gain an edge, Peterson slid an air mattress into the altitude tent he set up in a guest bedroom.
"They're hot, and they're loud," Peterson said referring to the minifridge-size generator that pumps deoxygenated air into the tent. "I didn't have the stink problem, but they're hot, and it's like sleeping with a vacuum running in the room."
Peterson, 38, also coaches at Bowen Sports Performance, which rents two altitude tents. In-town rentals cost $400 each month. The studio also ships them all over North America, most recently to Iowa. The customer pays shipping, which is costly because the generator weighs about 60 pounds. The tents can simulate the air pressure 10,000 feet above whatever elevation they're being used.
"If I'm in Vail (Colorado) in an altitude tent, I'm at the base camp on Everest," Peterson said. "If I'm at the coast, I'm in Vail."
Interest in the altitude tents grows each summer before the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, a Colorado mountain bike race that doesn't dip below 10,000 feet and attracts racers from Bend and all over the country. Bowen Sports Performance also offers an "altitude bar," which gives customers a super-dose of thin air by wearing masks attached to a running altitude tent.
"You can get some pretty solid benefits from that, too," Peterson said.
The elevation spike during the High Cascades 100 didn't bother Peterson, however, because training and racing at elevations between 3,000 and 6,000 feet and beyond is a matter of fact for Central Oregon athletes. (Peterson finished fourth in the open men category.) Even so, Peterson has a friend who abided by the "train low, sleep high" doctrine so literally that he used to sleep in his vehicle while it was parked halfway up Mount Bachelor at 8,000 feet so he could build his EPO levels.
"Yeah, I've heard of people sleeping in vans (in the Mt. Bachelor parking lot)," said Cameron Clark, also a coach at the studio. Mt. Bachelor's parking lot is close to 5,700 feet. Clark considered sleeping in his car in preparation for the Tour of the Gila, a multi-day bike race in New Mexico, yet thought better of it.
"It was just too much," Clark said.
Last year, professional cyclist Carl Decker, 43, sold the altitude tent he used for 10 years. The stakes are lower as he ages, he said.
Decker bought it at the beginning of his professional career to give him an edge; only a handful of his racing peers were using altitude tents, he said.
Decker didn't find the tent intrusive, although the tent was "hot, stinky and sweaty" in the years before he installed a custom air conditioner to cool the air in the tent, which is less breathable than one used for camping.
"It's more a matter of money and space. It doesn't interrupt your life that much," Decker said. "Everything else you do in training is harder; your diet is harder."
It helps that Decker's significant other never insisted on having a fancy bedroom, he said. His tent, which he borrowed from a professional triathlete friend, fit over a king-size bed.
"To the uninitiated, it looks like a scene from 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,' " Decker said with a chuckle. The funniest jokes made at the expense of his alpine tent are Decker's, such as the one about joining the "mile-high club."
"To someone who knows what's going on (with altitude tents), it's interesting and cool," he added. "Sleeping in an altitude tent isn't hard, but it does show a level of commitment that not everyone can make."
As Decker readies for future races without the benefit of the altitude tent, does he feel under prepared?
"A little bit, yeah," he said.
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