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Racing at Altitude

By Clare Morin


As competitors were flying into Nepal to undertake the first Roving Race in a mountainous region, some were wondering whether altitude was going to play a big part in the race.


Altitude sickness often strikes those who head into the mountainous region of the Himalayas. The main cause is ascending too quickly. “Altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness occurs when a person does not get enough oxygen due to decreased oxygen content in the air at high elevations,” explained medical director Brandee Waite. “This occurs when the body does not acclimate to the lower oxygen content quick enough to keep up with the ascent.”


“Acute mountain sickness is like a hangover,” explained Laurie Kates, another doctor on the medical team. “Fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, headache. High altitude cerebral edema is like a drunk – confusion, poor balance and so on. This can lead to a coma or even death.”


With such potential dangers involved, the event organizers were taking no risks. The organizers had a state-of-the-art medical team, and even a helicopter on standby throughout the race.


Event Director Samantha Fanshawe explained that the altitude was a major factor when planning the course, and even though the race has the highest altitude of all RacingThePlanet events, “the course was designed not to go too high as we understand that most of the competitors are working professionals who do not have time to acclimatize and much higher would not have been safe without acclimatization,” she said. Then adding, “Although it was a challenge not to go too high in Nepal!”


The highest point in the course was in fact not much higher than the highest elevation in the Atacama Crossing, although this year’s Roving Race did include a lot more ups and downs, unlike in Chile where competitors start at the highest altitude and are always going down from there. 


We caught up with competitors throughout the race to see if anyone was feeling any effects from altitude, and found very little mention of the topic at all. British competitor Rebecca Pattinson said she had felt some effects, “I felt the air was thinner and breathing was more labored… but it is hard to train for it in Monaco.’


Chuck Wilson of the United States said, “It was no problem at all, totally fine. I train and run in the mountains all the time.” He added that he did at one point consider heading to Nepal early to acclimatize early. “But I went on an elephant safari instead – it was great, I would recommend it to anyone!”


Samantha Gash, Ryan Bennet and Jimmy Serpless were not taking any chances, and spent a few days acclimatizing before the event even checking out some sections of the course. But after doing this they seemed more concerned about the terrain, and didn’t even bring up the topic of altitude at the group discussion at the hotel before the race.


In the end, it wasn’t the massive mountains that negatively affected the health of competitors. The biggest problem turned out to a microscopic bug that worked its way into the digestive systems of some of the competitors early in the race. And while the affected competitors pushed their bodies through the endless kilometers, that bug probably felt bigger than Everest.


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