Two weeks of altitude training in the Alps
by Abhinabha Tangerman
For professional runners high altitude training is an inevitable necessity. It’s a form of legal blood doping, since the lack of oxygen at high altitudes - starting from 1600 meters and up - forces the body to increase its amount of red blood cells, the sprightly little messenger boys that transport oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Most athletes spend about three to four weeks at altitude before an important race, shaping their bodies into highly efficient O2-delivering machines.
Although I’m not a world-class athlete, I do consider myself a passionate runner and amateur of the sport. In Amsterdam where I live and train I am a member of a local running club and regularly run races from 3000 meters to the marathon. And just like any other half-decent amateur runner (my marathon PB is 2:27) I also have impossible dreams and occasional delusions of grandeur. So in a flash of inspiration I decided to accept the invitation of my good friend Vajin Armstrong from the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team in New Zealand to join him for two weeks in the Swiss and Italian Alps.
Vajin actually happens to be a world-class athlete in his chosen sport of ultra-trail mountain running. He frowns at anything below marathon distance and often races between fifty and a hundred kilometers, sometimes even a hundred miles. And that’s only the horizontal part of the story, since ultra-trailrunning also involves tackling mountains, sometimes entire ranges of them, making this a sport for hardened individuals and feisty adventurers delighting in physical discomfort, suffering and agony. The upside is they run their races in the most beautiful places in the world, and mostly on trails, forest paths or dirt roads.
Our shared friend (and SCMT member) Samalya Schäfer from Germany also joined us for a few days. We spent our first week together in the Swiss town of Davos, where Vajin would run the Swiss Alpine Ultramarathon, a grueling race of 78K with 2600 meters ‘vertical’ - meaning a tremendous amount of climbing. Samalya and me registered for the friendlier K21, a half-marathon on forest trails with 600 meters of climbing.
Vajin took third place in his race. I ended up 13th after probably the toughest, most unforgiving and most traumatic race of my life. Coming from a country where the highest mountain measures a waspish 300 meters, I was thoroughly unprepared for what I foolishly thought of as just another half-marathon. At the halfway point my tongue was close to my shoelaces. It didn’t help that we missed a turn and ran an extra mile uphill, and then downhill again, adding 3K to what already felt like an ultramarathon. Life is an experience, they say.
One of the best side-effects of high altitude training is that you are permanently surrounded by breathtaking scenery. On my first morning run on the trails in Davos I stumbled upon a beautiful waterfall in a lush forest, framed by the august backdrop of the ever-present towering mountains, and found myself grinning ear to ear with ecstatic glee. I came to the Alps as a kid with my parents and the sweet smell of the pine trees brought back fond childhood memories as well.
In our base camp at 1550 meters we lived our own self-styled Olympian dream, going out twice a day for a run, taking time to stretch, working on our core muscles and eating veggie wraps and pasta, making sure we got our fill of carbohydrates. In the evening we watched running video’s and documentaries about the Kenyans and Ethiopians to keep our inspiration high. And of course we meditated mornings and evening to maintain our spiritual standard and open up our bodies and minds to the divine grace.
We learned meditation from our spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy, who is also the main inspiration in our running lives. His philosophy of self-transcendence and going beyond your present capacities and limitations is the fuel of our athletic careers. Sri Chinmoy’s unimaginable progress as a weightlifter has instilled in us an unshakeable belief that the will of the soul combined with the grace from above can accomplish impossible things. We may not be world-class athletes, but at least we have world-class dreams.
While in Davos we also visited the world-famous track at St. Moritz, an hour train ride away and the mecca of high-altitude training in Europe. Many of the world’s fastest runners at all distances regularly come to St. Moritz to train. Running on its hallowed outdoor track gave us wings, as if some of the speed generated there rubbed off on you. We met a kind-hearted Moroccan runner there, whose PB in the 3000m steeple chase was 8:08 - from another planet altogether.
After Davos, Vajin and I travelled through to Livigno, a little town just across the border in Italy. The view of the mountains there was even more stunning than in Davos. With its little wooden houses and grazing cows, their bells gently chiming, it felt like time had stood still. We did not though, and kept on churning out the miles.
The highlight of that second week was a three hour long run through the valleys and up and over the passes of the surrounding mountains. We ran from 1800 to 2700 meters, Vajin powering up the mountain sides, me trailing far behind feeling like a ninety-year-old, all huff and puff. Yet standing on that mountain top a current of satisfaction and accomplishment run through me, the beautiful view of the valley below its outer reward.
The two weeks flew by in no-time, leaving me utterly inspired and hungry for more.
Next year Vajin wants to go to Ethiopia. I’ll have to start saving up!