Racing at high altitudes


People talk about altitude playing a major role in athletic performance and the research shows that yes, indeed it does. The question is, does it play a larger role on your psyche or your body?


Sunday July 15, 2012, I raced in Flagstaff, Arizona at Mountain Man Sprint, which is coined, “The toughest race you will ever love”. Flagstaff sits at approximately 7,000 feet, and I had a feeling I was going to feel the effects of the altitude change.  The fact is the body can adapt to the high altitude through immediate and long-term acclimatization.  The body immediately recognizes the thinner air and lack of oxygen and increases breathing rate, this is all fine and dandy so long as you are not trying to race.  Not only does increased respiration lead to increased heart rate it also aids in dehydration.  Once I arrived in Flagstaff on Friday I increased my fluid intake and hoped my body was going to handle the change appropriately. Hyperventilating while swimming is not exactly how I want to start my race, so naturally I sought advice from my trusty Coach Toby Baum with Red Iron Coaching; we sat down and put together my race plan.

As badly as I want to master this sport, right now, I realize I have so much to learn and improve upon, and am realizing mastering triathlons is going to be a never-ending journey because there are always so many different variables at every race.  The great thing about sprint distance triathlons is that they are achievable by all walks of life and the time commitment is very short.

My pre-race was a little different this time around because we had traveled up north for the race as a family and my sister joined us. I got up very early and did my thing and then got my family together before heading to the event. Once there, I went into race mode and turned all parenting duties over to my wonderful husband. I set up my transition and did my typical walk-through of the mount/dismount line, assessing my surroundings, and looking at the swim course. I did my warm-up run and got into my Orca 3.8 wetsuit that my sponsor, Triple Sports, loaned me for this race.  It is a sweet suit with buoyancy pads, and felt so smooth in the water.


As I stood in the water before my wave took off I remembered my coach telling me that there would be a handful of people breast stroking before the first turn buoy in the water due to hyperventilating.  Why?  Because of the lack of oxygen at 7,000 feet.  With that bit of information, I decided to start slower than normal and build slowly. Before I knew it, I was passing men that had started 6 minutes in front of me; I passed some that were breast-stroking, some back-stroking, and some clinging to a kayak. I remained cool and steady (mind you this was my 3rd triathlon and I still lack a great deal of experience), and continued at my own pace, but about three quarters of the way through my swim I realized I needed to pick it up, so I swam like hell.  As I exited the water and ran up the boat ramp, my sister yelled to me, “You are 10th!” and I knew I had some work to do.


Transition one was decent but I had a heck of a time getting out of my wetsuit and that cost me some time, but I also passed 5 women in transition, which is why getting your transitions down is key to making up and gaining time on your opponents.


My bike was interesting; This is where I really started to feel the effects of the altitude on my body.  I was telling my legs to go harder and faster but they were not responding.  My heart rate was elevated for the same effort I put out down in the valley and knew my body was trying to acclimate.  It is a beautiful out and back course where you can get low and just fly, and I was fortunate enough to borrow some Mad Fiber race wheels and they like to go fast, so not to disappoint, I pushed it. In hind-sight I realized I left a little out there on the course, and I think I could have dug a little deeper and gone a little faster; this is my crazy nature of not being satisfied because I always feel I can do better.  But I wasn’t sure how I would respond to the altitude and if I would have enough to give on the run, which is where the lack of experience comes into play.  Each race I walk away from I learn more about myself and more about this awesome sport.


My second transition was fast and much better.  I was in and out in 1:01. Once again my sister was screaming to me, “You’re 4th and have 4:09 to the lead girl!”. She did exactly what I needed her to do. It was now GO time.


Running for me is like no other. I know what it’s like to run uncomfortable (in pain).  I knew I did not have enough real estate to catch the lead female but I was going to work hard to close that gap, plus you never know what kind of race your opponent is going to have.  As I ran I felt the lactic acid building and my lungs getting tighter. I told myself, it is 20 minutes of pain, suck it up and do it! I ignored the signals my brain was sending to my body and stayed focused on my turn over and just kept putting one foot in front of the other as fast as I could.  I ran down male after male and many of them cheered me on. The run course was also an out and back course, which is an advantage to be able to see your opponents at the u-turn.  I saw the 3 women I was running down and we nodded at each other in fair play. Even though I knew I was not going to catch them today I was not about to give up another spot. I still raced my best and left everything I had out there on the run course. I had the second fastest run time of the day.


I’m proud of myself for showing up and executing my race plan as designed. I learned that I need to continue to cut myself some slack and recognize that I am new to a sport that lends to experience, but I also realized I was too conservative on my swim.  I learned that if I play it conservative in the beginning of the race, I’ll have the juice to finish strong, but I won’t be truly happy with the end result.  However, there is no telling if I had laid it all out there during the swim if I would have had the same run.  The only way to truly learn what your upper limits are is to go all-out.  So next race, it’s time to be willing to fail.  Not fail, like not finish, fail like take my body to complete failure and see what my true limits are. I know I can finish, that’s not a question, the question is how far can I push it and still finish strong.  Lastly, I learned that in short course racing the altitude definitely plays a larger role on your psyche than your body, at least for me. Oh, and I finished 1st in my Age Group and 4th overall with a finish time of 1:11:39….not too bad 🙂

Set your goals high, test your limits and go for it.


Thanks for reading, until next time, have fun and be safe out there.

About sherianne

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is SheriAnne Nelson and I am happily married to my husband Mike. I’m a mother of three beautiful children ages 9, almost 6, and 3, am a passionate fitness professional, and a Star Diamond Level fitness coach within the Team Beachbody program in Scottsdale, Arizona.

  • redfield baum

    Excellent race report!  Congrats on your race.

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On PinterestVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Google Plus