A Midwesterner shares his mountain yearnings and high-altitude woes.

The majority of outdoor enthusiasts live with the painful realization that they do not live in Colorado. Forced by various circumstances to inhabit a place that is not surrounded by exhilarating outdoor recreation, flatlanders scrimp, save and plan active vacations in paradise, i.e. Colorado. Unfortunately, once they arrive, the excitement of starting a Pike’s Peak Marathon, Iron Horse Bicycle Classic or Gore-Tex TransRockies run is all too often deflated by the invisible demons of altitude.

Sure, you expect some acclimatization challenges, but most sea-level athletes don’t expect to find themselves bent over, grabbing their knees and gasping for air like a two-pack a day smoker. “Elevation does a lot of bizarre things,” says Kreston Rohrig, the medical coordinator for the Gore-Tex TransRockies. “Cramps, headaches, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping and fatigue—they’re all symptoms of a body trying to adjust to the change in elevation.”

Although there are numerous medical research studies dealing with the effects of elevation, there’s no definitive way to approach traveling to a high elevation event, according to Ron Ilgren, the director of the Pikes Peak Marathon (where 40 percent of participants come from outside of Colorado). “There’s two schools of thought,” he explains. “One says you come out the day before, don’t acclimate and run the race before your body tires from the lack of oxygen. The second approach suggests coming out and spending a month or more at altitude.”

Many participants split the difference and come for a week or two to prepare, but it’s just not long enough. “Somebody who comes out a week before and thinks they will acclimate can actually see a detriment,” Ilgren says. “Your body is still learning to cope with the lack of oxygen for that period of time.”

While a month in Colorado sounds like every flatlander’s dream, it’s pretty much impossible to make a reality. So we continue to show up a couple days before events, with a full training logbook but woefully unprepared to handle high elevation. Go ahead and blow by us on the racecourse, and just ignore the wheezing and panting. In the end, we’ll have a finisher’s medal from a Colorado endurance event to display on our mantel, and none of our friends back home need to know how badly we suffered to get it.

1,600 Feet

The length of the new High Lonesome zipline at Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort and Spa—the second longest in the state. Riders will hit speeds of 40 mph on the High Lonesome, strung nearly 80 feet above the ground. More information at devilsthumbranch.com

—Louis Dzierzak