Apparently the Spartan Race World Championships will be in Squaw Valley next year. Again. That would make 3 years in a row in Tahoe. For a race that has “World” in its name it certainly seems to be attached to the state of California to the exclusion of the rest of the world. However, this isn’t about that.
As awesome outdoor places go, you could do a lot worse than Squaw Valley Resort. I mean, it epitomizes the perfect made-for-tv combination of scenic and brutal. But this isn’t about that either.
This is about Spartan’s attitude towards altitude. Squaw Valley starts at 1890 meters and climbs to 2790 meters (that’s 6200 feet up to 9153 feet for the one or two countries that still use them). Yeah…so what?
The official elevation profile for SRWC 2015 (Credit: Spartan Race)
This what: human performance gets worse and worse in every way the higher up you go unless you are lucky enough to live and train at altitude. This is a very real performance hit and a significant handicap to all those racers coming in from the “lowlands”. But don’t take my word for it…
The National Football League
Mile High Stadium in Denver, home of the at-times-mighty Broncos of the NFL, sits at a piddling 5280 feet above sea level. This is anywhere from 1000 to almost 4000 feet LOWER than Squaw Valley, and yet it is plenty high enough to mess with NFL caliber athletes.
The Visitors’ Perspective
From the Baltimore Ravens’ website:
“The Denver Broncos may have the most tangible homefield advantage in the NFL.
It’s not that their fans are louder or that their stadium traps crowd noise, it’s the fact that the city of Denver sits about 5,200 feet above sea level (Baltimore is about 480 feet above sea level). That’s why the Broncos’ former stadium was famously called Mile High Stadium for 41 years.
The higher altitude creates a challenge for opponents, who quickly have to adapt to exerting themselves in that atmosphere.
“The altitude is going to be a problem,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “Unless we’re going to drive there and practice there for the next week, we can’t really prepare for it.”
“We know and understand that it’s going to be an issue,” Pollard said. “That’s for us as pros to step into that thing. If that means going out at pregame, running as much as we can, trying to get gassed as much as we can, that’s what we need to do.”
The Home Team’s Perspective
Lest the Ravens, or any other team complaining about the home field advantage the Broncos enjoy, be accused of unwarranted whining, I now present some material from the Denver Broncos’ website:
“I’m telling you — it’s not a myth. It really isn’t,” rookie running back Montee Ball said. “Speaking of when I first got here and was running around, it was very difficult the first two weeks to catch my breath. For now, us as Broncos players, we love the altitude because it’s an advantage for us.”
The main issue, Colorado native Mitch Unrein explained, is that less oxygen reaches the body at higher elevations. So not only is it harder to breathe, muscles get fatigued faster and players tire out quicker.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and I don’t think you ever really get used to trying to play in this altitude,” the defensive tackle said. “Obviously, we’re more accustomed to it just because we practice in it every day. But for teams that come up here, I know it’s a struggle for them just to try to catch their breath after a long drive and just trying to keep fresh after every play.”
I will be the first to admit that anecdotal evidence from the NFL is pretty low on the totem pole of credible scientific stuff. However, what it lacks in terms of double-blind control group-ey rigor it makes up for by being outside the artificially controlled world of the laboratory i.e. it’s real-world stuff from the real world athletes. That having been said, a bit of hard science is never a bad thing, so buckle up.
(a tiny bit of) The Science
A common misconception with what happens to the air we breathe at altitude is that there is less oxygen. In fact, the composition of the air does not change, it just becomes thinner: air is less dense the higher up you go in Earth’s atmosphere. The oxygen concentration remains the same at about 21%, but there’s just less air in a given lungful the higher up you go. As anyone who has tried on an “altitude” Training Mask can attest, not being able to get enough oxygen into your body definitely impairs your performance.
There are heaps of scientific studies on the effects of altitude on the human body. Every single study indicates that there is a very real degradation of many aspects of human performance with increasing altitude: cognitive performance, endurance performance, appetite, ability to sleep, ability to not die, etc. In terms most endurance athletes will be able to relate to: going up reduces your VO2 Max and decreases your Time to Exhaustion at a given work rate. These are real things that have been measured tens of thousands of times with tens of thousands of people.
Notice from the graph on the left that fitter athletes (those with a higher initial VO2 Max) take a bigger hit than their less fit competitors, going from 75 down to 60 compared to going from 65 to 55. The practical upshot of this is that it is the top-notch elite athletes that you WANT to have at your race who have the biggest incentive to not show up if it’s at altitude.
Waitaminute! What was that about dying? You said “dying”, right?
Yup. Thought that might grab your attention. This is as real as altitude effects get, and they’re not pretty. Go too high too fast and you are on a timer: if you don’t get back down in time, then you die. Simple as that. Nobody knows this better than mountaineers going after the ultimate summit.
Everest and the Death Zone
I have adventure raced with a family who all summited Mount Everest. I was mildly freaked out during their expedition, as I feared for their lives. Base Camp is at a ridiculous 17,500 feet. The summit is over 29,000 feet, which is well into what climbers refer to as “the Death Zone”. This refers to any climbing done above about 8000m (26,000ft). If you were picked up from home and dropped off at this elevation you would be dead inside of 15 minutes. The majority of deaths on Everest are due at least in part to altitude, not falls or the cold or avalanches.
An Aussie bloke I know ran the first ever high altitude rescue service last year on Mount Everest with a team of 5 Sherpas. They were finally able to pluck climbers off the mountain from above Base Camp, as there was now a dedicated team of altitude-adapted Sherpas combined with a special high altitude helicopter. There is no better illustration of the fact that air density is way lower at altitude than watching a regular chopper try and fail to even get off the ground in the Himalayas. Even with the B3 chopper, they would need to sometimes leave the medic on the mountain in order to be able to take off with the victim, as both together would be too heavy.
Is Spartan Trying to Kill Me?
Don’t freak out that Spartan is trying to kill you! People can live for prolonged periods of time at elevations up to about 6000 metres (19,685 feet), so there is nothing life-threatening about Squaw Valley.
“Individuals have lived for as long as 2 yr at an altitude of 5950 m, and there was a miner’s camp at 5300 m for several years. The highest permanently inhabited town in the world at the present time appears to be La Rinconada, a mining village of over 7000 people in southern Peru at an altitude of up to 5100 m, which has been in existence for over 40 yr.” – High Alt Med Biol. 2002 Winter;3(4):401-7.
The examples from Everest are at the extreme end of the altitude spectrum, at the edge of survival. I used them because it makes things like the altitude performance hit glaringly obvious.
Okay, we get it: altitude bad. But since we are all breathing the same air, isn’t it the same for everyone?
No, and therein lies the problem with having SRWC at significant altitude.
If you ever want to see the reality of altitude acclimatization, again we need look no further than Everest. By altitude acclimatization I mean a gradual and progressive exposure to higher and higher elevations over several weeks to allow the body to adapt to the decreased availability of oxygen.
Climbers spend 95% of their Everest summit attempt slowly going up and down the mountain to progressively higher intermediate camps in order to acclimate to the elevation. Most climbers will end up climbing the mountain 3 times from Base Camp. They can’t overdo it, because even Base Camp is too high for long-term habitation. Any more than 40 days and most climbers would be too weak to attempt the summit.
The following is the Everest summit attempt Acclimatization schedule from MountEverest.net.
- Trek to BC 10 days
- Arrival BC April 1
- Climbing C1 April 7
- Back to BC April 8
- Climbing C2 April 11
- Back to BC April 13
- Climbing C2 April 17
- Climbing C3 April 19
- Back to BC April 20
- Trekking down April 21
- Back to BC April 26
- 1st summit attempt May 1-7
- Trekking down May 7-12
- Back in BC May 13
- Last summit attempts May 16-30
As you can see, altitude adaptations take time. If a top racer wanted to try to ensure that they could perform near their best in Tahoe, they’d need to spend at least 3 weeks living and training at a comparable elevation. That’s pretty much of a non-starter for most people.
In NASCAR-speak, it would be like going to a non-restrictor plate race and being forced to use a restrictor plate. It creates a very skewed playing field.
NASCAR Restrictor Plate Racing
Spartan Nation is not far removed from NASCAR Nation, so here is another way of looking at this whole altitude snafu. I’m referring to the restrictor plate, which is the “altitude training” mask equivalent for race cars.
“A restrictor plate or air restrictor is a device installed at the intake of an engine to limit its power. This kind of system is occasionally used in road vehicles (e.g., motorcycles) for insurance purposes, but mainly in automobile racing, to limit top speed to provide equal level of competition” – Wikipedia
“The restrictions are in the interest of driver and fan safety because higher speeds are closer to out-of-control than the 190 MPH range used for Daytona and Talladega…” – Wikipedia
With advances in engines and aerodynamics, cars were simply starting to go too fast for the course on the superspeedways. Slowing down the cars seemed like a good idea, except that it slows down the faster cars much more than the slower cars. The result of restrictor plates in NASCAR on superspeedway races is to have almost all cars going at nearly the same speed, in one giant pack. This makes for a super-competitive race and virtually guarantees that every superspeedway race will have “The Big One” – an epic pile-up involving a dozen or more cars. Exciting for the fans and great for TV ratings, but maybe not the best thing from a racer’s perspective.
Now imagine there were a handful of cars – let’s call them the Altitude Adapted Racers – who were given an exemption from NASCAR: they wouldn’t need to use restrictor plates at superspeedway events like Talladega.
“Rusty Wallace tested a car at Talladega Superspeedway without a restrictor plate in 2004, reaching a top speed of 228 mph (367 km/h) in the backstretch and a one-lap average of 221 mph (356 km/h).” – Wikipedia
It’d be a colossal blow-out, with the unrestricted cars finishing multiple laps ahead of the pack (barring crashes and the like). Ridiculous, yes, but why am I talking about NASCAR racing?
It’s a brilliant analogy. Just like the race cars, the human engine also needs oxygen in order to run. Going to altitude, where the air is less dense, is effectively putting a restrictor plate on the racers. Well…most of the racers. Some people live and train at altitude. Those few athletes are like my hypothetical Altitude Adapted Racers, the ones who don’t have to use a restrictor plates. Makes for a very uneven playing field, doesn’t it?
OK, that would never fly in NASCAR, but come on dude; we’re talking about humans and endurance sports here, not race cars.
Yes, and I’m glad you pointed that out. We have 1 perfect example of what happens when you bring the best athletes in the world to altitude and ask them to compete in a championship.
The 1968 Mexico City Olympics
Mexico City sits at around 7350 feet, so is very comparable to the altitude racers encounter at SRWC in Tahoe. Sprinters, jumpers, and throwers had a field day, as the thinner air allowed a truckload of world records to be set during these Games. The endurance athletes, on the other hand, had their proverbial asses handed to them.
Below are the Gold, Silver, and Bronze medal results from the major endurance events at the Mexico City games: the men’s 5000 meters, 10,000 meters, and marathon races. Beside them for comparison are the medal-winning performances from the previous Olympics, which had been held in Tokyo at an elevation of 131 feet.
In addition to the times, I have included what placing the winners from 1968 would have finished at back in 1964.
Finally, look not only at the times, but also the nationalities of the athletes. This, ladies and gentleman, was the start of the East African domination of distance running which endures to this day. These are runners who lived and trained at altitude.
NOTE: There are no women’s performances, as they were deemed physically incapable of safely racing distances longer than 800 meters. That only changed in 1972 when they were allowed to run the 1500. Then the marathon finally in 1984. But that’s a story for another day.
|Event||Tokyo 1964 (131 ft)||Mexico 1968 (7350 ft)|
|5000 metres – GOLD||Bob Schul
14:05.01 (good for 10th)*
|5000 metres – SILVER||Harold Norpoth
United Team of Germany
14:05:16 (good for 11th)*
|5000 metres – BRONZE||Bill Dellinger
14:06.41 (good for 12th)*
|10,000 metres – GOLD||Billy Mills
29:27.40 (good for 11th)
|10,000 metres – SILVER||Mohammed Gammoudi
29:27.75 (good for 12th)
|10,000 metres – BRONZE||Ron Clarke
29:34.2 (good for 16th)
|Marathon – GOLD||Abebe Bikila
2:20:27 (good for 10th)
|Marathon – SILVER||Basil Heatley
2:23:31 (good for 16th)
|Marathon – BRONZE||Kokichi Tsuburaya
2:23:45 (good for 17th)
* For the 5000, none of the podium times from 1968 would have made it out of 3 of the 4 preliminary heats in Tokyo 1964.
I’d love you to show you more examples of this type of thing but I can’t, since they’ve never held an Olympics at altitude since then. Whaddaya know: a committee that got something right.
The performance hit imposed by altitude is due to simple physical and biological facts: lower air density resulting in lower oxygen availability to working muscles. Performance at altitude is trainable to some extent, but significant adaptations take weeks or months. You can “aaarrrooo!” and STFU until the cows come home: it won’t make any difference.
Given all of the above, why the hell would a top-notch Spartan racer spend thousands of dollars to travel to the self-proclaimed biggest Spartan race in the World, knowing for a certainty that they will not be able to perform at anywhere near their best? The answer is that, for the most part, they won’t. This will continue to be the case until and unless Spartan moves their championship race down to a sensible elevation. Yes, that means Breckenrige is out.
No endurance sport should have a championship race at altitude, and Spartan needs to recognize that, put their athletes first and get the heck out of Tahoe.