While in Ecuador this summer, I've kept a journal. Looking back through it, I find this note about summiting Volcan Chimborazo: 12 July 2011
“The mountain almost killed me. Chimborazo is a monster. I started climbing at eleven pm under a full moon and returned to refuge two at seven am this morning. I have one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had, but the crazy thing is that I actually summited Chimborazo (the summit being the location on earth that is closest to the sun and farthest from the center of the earth due to the way the earth bulges at the equador). Starting at refuge two, which sits at 5,000 meters, I climbed to Ventimilla summit at 6,225 meters (20,423 feet) - less than 50 meters below Whymper summit, which stands at 6,267 meters (20,561 feet). Unfortunately, the snow was more than waist deep between the two summits and we therefore turned back while the sky was still dark, the full moon above like a flashlight shining through thick fog that made the strangely shaped snow take on human and animal forms when we turned our headlamps off to take in the summit’s landscape as if we weren't there.”
The rest of this entry is a mess of exhaustion. I summited Chimborazo in 5.5 hours, my entry says, and I claimed that summiting Chimborazo and then returning to the refuge was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I still stand by that. What else is hard? Running at altitude to get ready to summit Chimborazo... but more importantly to prepare to race when I return to the states.
Now back to the present:
I came to Ecuador this summer to learn Spanish so that I could better care for Spanish speaking patients (I’ll be a doctor in three years) in the future and because Forest Hills Runners is a community running group that should be accessible to all the people in Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, and Roxbury - those who speak English and those who speak Spanish. I think I succeeded quite well at learning a lot of Spanish, though I’m far from fluency. I still have a long way to go to get there, but I’ve learned a lot in a short period.
What I didn’t realize when I made the decision to spend the summer in Ecuador was how high many of the major cities in Ecuador really are. Or... perhaps I should say that I knew that the cities were high, but didn’t understand what living at 2,700 meters (9,000 feet) really meant. Nor did I have any comprehension of what it would feel like to run at 2,700 meters. I knew, at least theoretically, that oxygen was important for living (and thus for running), but when you’re at 2,700 meters or higher, you begin to appreciate oxygen in a new way. Here it is, laid out as clearly as I can: running above 8,500 meters is like running through pudding. Your legs feel like lead. Your lungs feel like they’re full of butane and when you pick up the pace, the speed is like a spark and the burning floods your chest. Your head spins like you’ve just eaten a ten-course-meal before your run and your vision goes spotty more than I'd like to admit. Well... that’s what happens on bad days (a little less than a quarter of the time). It doesn't help that you spend about half of your time trying not to be eaten by groups of guard dogs that seem to enjoy nothing more than chasing runners, foam spraying from their grizzled maws.
Then you have good running days, which happen about five out of every seven days for me at sea level. At 9,000 feet, I had five good days of running in seven weeks. Those are the days when you actually benefit from the altitude. Either my form was right on those days or I’d gotten enough caffeine into my system to release enough glucose to fuel my run or my breathing was more consistent than normal. No matter what it was on those days, I felt lighter than at sea level. My form held throughout those runs and my turnover was quick, my legs responding whenever I asked for a little more.
The rest of the runs, which account for about 75% of my runs in Ecuador, were hard. My vision didn’t distort, my body didn’t start pretzeling or cramping, but at no point did I feel “good.” I wonder if this is because I’m not meant to be living at altitude, if I’m not resting enough, or if I don’t fuel correctly. Long story short, I don’t know if I would be a runner if my home were in the high sierra of Ecuador. It’s a lot harder to convince yourself to keep running when it’s this hard. I guess it also doesn’t help that I’m used to running fast and fast doesn’t feel like an option at 9,000+ ft. When I run a six-minute mile at 9,000 feet, the pace feels like a 4:30 - a touch slower than my fastest mile ever. This makes the Ultimas Noticias 15k (a race that’s been run in Quito since the 1960s) that much more incredible. That race is run at 9,200 feet and the winner this past year - a Peruvian - ran it in 46:25 (4:59 pace). The record is held by Patrick Nthiwa, a Kenyan, who ran the 15 km in 44:44 (4:48 pace) - a time that is inconceivable to me after training at this elevation for seven whole weeks and still not feeling capable of holding sixes for more than a few miles.
When I first started running, I didn’t like it at all. I was running with my soccer team in preseason and I was 14. We ran two to three miles at a time and I thought it was torture. Later, in college, I ran to prove something to myself and to get myself back in shape after deciding that smoking and getting chubby was a great idea. Finally, when I started running in New York’s Central Park after graduating from college, I began to enjoy running. It was only later, after turning 24 or so, that I genuinely started to love running. Finding an appreciation for running was difficult for me. I wonder if I ever would have found it if I’d grown up at elevation in Ecuador. The only thing I can say is that I’m happy for my life - for the way it's panned out and for the fact that I found running when I did... and now I’m happy I can share this thing that I love so much with others through FHR.
I can't wait to get back to Boston in early August to run with all of you. Kristin, Ilan, and Elsia have said great things about the runs this summer. It'll be great to meet all the new people when I return and to help FHR grow and connect more people in the JP area. Keep on running and I'll see you all in August.