Finding Adventure...

It Just Got Real

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Altitude.  It is the natural enemy of endurance sports.  The reason is simple...oxygen.  The body needs oxygen and needs it in great quantities just to function normally, let alone to participate in an endurance activity.  Our bodies can do some pretty great things without food and even without water, but try to go more than a minute or two at rest or even just a few seconds while working hard without oxygen and things go south in a hurry.

What's that got to do with altitude?  Simple, there's less oxygen available due to the air pressure reduction that happens the higher we go.  For every 18,000 feet above sea level that we go, there's half the oxygen available as the previous level.  Most humans will start to feel the effects of altitude at around 5,000 feet...simple things like a little shortness of breath just going up a single flight of steps!

If you've been following this blog, you already know that I'm training for the Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race.  In case you've forgotten, it's 103 miles of distance to pedal, but the real issue is that the entire race happens between 10,000 and about 13,000 feet.  On top of that, there is 14,000 total feet of climbing.  So as you can imagine, that means there are some very serious hills in terms of both grade and distance, and with them being above 10,000 feet, the altitude will definitely be a huge factor.

So what can someone who lives basically at sea level do?  You can either move to altitude and train and live there, or do what some consider to be a better alternative, and that is "live high, train low."  What that means is you find some way to spend at least a third of every day at altitude, and do all your training at sea level (or near it).  The theory there is that you only need about a third of each day at altitude for your body to acclimate to it.  So it boosts the EPO in the blood (yes, the same stuff that performance enhancing drugs help with, except in this case it's completely legal since there are no actual drugs involved) and you get the benefit of that higher level of EPO while training with plenty of oxygen.  That keeps your body from breaking down as easily from the lack of oxygen while working hard.

Altitude Tent
So how do you achieve that?  The most common way is an altitude tent that you sleep in.  There are a variety of tent styles, but I chose the one pictured, which is a full enclosure.  The air supply for the tent is an air unit that's in another room to suppress the noise from its compressor.  What it does is scrub a set percentage of the oxygen out of the air that it feeds to the tent.  So it's not exactly the same as going to altitude, but it's the same effect.

So I'll start sleeping in the tent at a simulated altitude of about 3,500 feet, and move from there every week or so on up to 10,000 feet (the limit of my air unit).  Now, my wife refused to sleep in such a contraption, but fortunately there was enough room in our bedroom to setup an additional double bed and put the tent on that.  So we'll be sleeping apart for a while.  Obviously not ideal, but sometimes you have to do some extreme things.

Oxygen Sensor
In my case, this is probably a little more important than for most people who do a race like this, because I seem to be more prone to altitude problems.  I've had altitude sickness just from two days of snow skiing in Tahoe (which is 10,000-13,000 feet as well), and can feel the effects pretty significantly at anything above 3,500 feet. 

Pulse Oximeter
In an attempt to monitor what's going on, I have an oxygen sensor, to make sure my air unit isn't scrubbing too much oxygen.  After some testing, it seems to be working fine and I'll start to use it for the first time tonight.  I also have my own pulse oximeter so I can monitor the oxygen content of my blood.  So between the two, I should be fairly well covered medically.  A plus of the pulse oximeter is that it gives you your pulse easily and quickly, and my resting heart rate is down to 42!  That's pretty good.

Zero To Rollers In About Five MInutes

For those unfamiliar, what you see here is a set of bicycle rollers.  You put the back wheel of the bicycle between those two rollers close together, and the front wheel will sit on top of the other one.  When you pedal, the back tire spins both the rear rollers, and the middle one has a belt that connects it to the front roller.  So your rear wheel spins the roller that drives the belt that spins the front roller and thus spins your front wheel.

Only yeah, you have to balance well and keep the bicycle centered.  Those rollers are only 15 inches wide, and even the slightest of movements will cause the bike to move sideways quite a bit.  So any lean makes you move sideways.  Any steering input makes you move sideways.  You can even just move your bottom on the saddle enough to move the rear of the bike and cause the whole thing to move sideways.  Guess what happens if you look sideways?  Yep, you move sideways.  Small breeze?  Move sideways.  Solar flares?  Move sideways.  Okay, you get the idea.

So what's the point?  Training.  Unlike a traditional "trainer" that you mount the rear of a bike in with a resistance unit spinning against the rear wheel, on rollers you're actually balancing yourself constantly.  It's a much more active exercise for the body than just the spinning motion of a trainer.  It also forces one to work on pedal smoothness.  Ultimately, I'm told a rider with a lot of roller experience can ride on these with no hands and never move.

That's ultimately, though.  To start with, one has to learn to ride on rollers at all.  It turns out it isn't very hard to do, it's just hard to convince yourself you can do it.   And I've heard all kinds of stories about funny crashes and such, though I'm told the worry about crashing is overblown.  The thing about rollers is while it feels like you're moving (and can feel like you're moving fast), in reality you aren't.  So a "crash" is really just a "fall over sideways with your legs spinning."  So the key is to not worry about crashing.

Easier said than done.  So as you'll see in the video below, I put big foam crash mats beside me.  I wasn't worried enough to buy these, but I had them sitting around.  The double bonus here is that they effectively raise the floor beside the rollers a good bit.  That's nice because these rollers are about five inches above the floor and thus stepping on and off is a bit of a pain without some sort of aid.  But as you can see in the video, it wasn't that bad thanks to how thick the pads are. 

Also, I want to give a shout-out to Victor.  He convinced me to try rollers, all the while scaring the heck out of me when I saw his rollers.  They are the same as mine except they are only 10 inches wide instead of 15 inches like these.  I still don't know how the heck he rides those!  Aside from convincing me to try rollers, he also built both my road bikes and some of my mountain bike wheels (look him up at his company website, Bicycle Lab).

Now, if you've read this far, you have intestinal fortitude that's off-the-charts.  That's good, because this might be the most boring video in the history of man.  This is video of my first time ever on rollers.  By the end I was to the point I could ride about as long as I wanted to without flying off.  Enjoy!