Rites of Passage
This past week I was traveled with the High School team I coach to Estes Park Colorado for our annual summer cross country camp (or as we referred to it: high altitude hard-ass training camp). For those unfamiliar with the YMCA in Estes Park, it sits at roughly 8010ft elevation. Elevation starts to affect the body anywhere between 4000-6000ft because as the atmospheric pressure decreases, the amount of oxygen molecules also decreases. At 8000 ft, the amount of oxygen available is roughly 25% that of sea level, which is basically the effort equivalent of trying to run while breathing through a straw. The primary benefits of altitude actually happen gradually over time, with the body adapting to this lack of oxygen by creating more red blood cells to increase the efficiency in delivering oxygen to the muscles. This change occurs over the periods of months, not days, so the benefit of the camp comes primarily from mental strength rather than physical efficiency. Nearly every run at 8000ft is hard, whether the pace shows it or not.
In particular, the final day of camp features a run called El Muerte, appropriately and affectionately named by one of the first participants who found it so hard he needed to lay in a ditch on the side before getting to the top, and believe me, I understand why. El Muerte is a 2 mile time trial that is entirely uphill through the YMCA campus, with an average grade between 7-8%. To not walk is an admirable feat and the time more closely reflects what you could run in a 5k vs a 2 mile run. It reminds me a lot of my own High School running days at the running camp in North Carolina we attended. During that camp, our team did one run organized by just us instead of the camp itself called Avery Creek. While the name Avery Creek doesn’t have quite the same oomph as El Muerte, the time trial packs a punch. This one is a full 5k with an average grade of 4-5%, so instead of elevation it adds over a full mile, and times are roughly 5 minutes slower than anticipated 5k times during the season.
There is no doubt these runs build some physical strength, but their primary benefit is mental strength. They are rites of passage, and the runners that finish them aren’t the same as the ones that start. These types of workouts are ones that put you through the gauntlet, they break you down and tear you apart physically so that you can see how well you can mentally hold all the pieces together. Once you reach the other side, they are reassembled in a way that makes you more confident and powerful in a way that few other workouts could.
As I look back at my high school days, prepare for this season as a high school coach, and coach/train others and myself for Iron-distance triathlons, I realize that these workouts are critical to success.However, in order to be truly beneficial there are a few rules of thumb. The first is that there can only be a couple of them sprinkled throughout the program because even though they build mental toughness, it still takes a while to put the pieces back together. The second is that they should be similar, but different than the race itself. Both of these time trials were hard running but weren't necessarily about running fast. In the same way, a big Ironman training day shouldn't involve doing the whole race, but instead focusing on certain elements of the race. For instance, a 120 mile bike with a short 15-30 min brick run or Yasso 800 track workout. The goal is to highlight certain elements of the race so that you can look back during the day and know that no matter how much it hurts, you've hurt more in training. The third rule of thumb is that even if it hurts, you still wan't your best performances to come on race day. Figure out where you need to build or fortify your mental game and find a way to push through your threshold in that space so that you can see what kind of athlete and person makes it through to the other side.