Going up high with one of the most eminent running teams in the country
“It’s hard.” Centro says after putting in 70 minutes on the dust filled turns of Jeremy Ranch Road. “Everyone out here is fucking fast. And this time we don’t have an acclimation period. Coach is up to the intensity and we were out of altitude just long enough to feel it. The second day back we hit a workout like we were at sea level.”
The Bowerman Track Club has 9 athletes residing under one roof at 8,170 ft in Park City, Utah. After 9 weeks of altitude training in PC leading up to the National Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, athletes Moh Ahmed, Matthew Centrowitz, Woody Kincaid, Lopez Lomong, Courtney Frerichs, Marielle Hall, Shelby Houlihan, Karissa Schweizer, and Colleen Quigley had just days at home before they packed their bags and headed back up again.
Rather than echoing the countless blogs we’ve all read about oxygen absorption and endurance performance, I wanted to spend some time diving into the experiences and lifestyle of altitude training from an athlete perspective.
4 guys, 5 girls, and skinny air.
“We eat, train, and clean together. It’s a lot of time with the same people. Training is so hard, and everyone is constantly tired and hungry which means patience can be low and tension sometimes high. But we also have so much fun. We laugh so much because we are delirious and have countless inside jokes from all the time together. We jam out to music in the car and get into some deep conversations on runs.” Colleen concludes, “Altitude trips bring us all closer together and create bonds that we will have for the rest of our lives, long after this running thing is over.”
Lopez adds, “We have really learned to embrace what everyone has to bring to the team.”
From an outside perspective, the lifestyle of an elite athlete is easily misconceived. Track athletes get paid to fly to incredible locations to train, encapsulated by some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Easy right? Courtney contests, “It’s not a vacation where we just hangout, run a little, and watch Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, I love altitude training, but it’s so hard. Being away from home for an extended period of time can be very draining. We do have downtime, but we are needing to use that time to recover and unwind because we are putting so much energy and time into our training up here.” Her tone eases as she adds, “The scenery is really the best part, I feel like you get twice as much as you work for.”
The sun is beaming down at Matt Knopp Park as Centro gives his take on adjusting back to PC. “Luckily I don’t have a wife or girlfriend, but being away from friends, family, and loved ones is hard. I think for the group as a whole, those things are probably the hardest. The most challenging part about adjusting for me personally is the fact that there’s no Chick-fil-A or really any fast food for the matter.” He laughs. “I probably have the worst diet on the team. There is one Burger King here, but no one else is eating there so I am not just gonna go by myself.”
Altitude training provides an environment where the athletes are encouraged to eliminate distractions and give all of their attention to how they can improve both mentally and physically.
Shelby reveals, “I cut out alcohol and sugar. At home I have a hard time because no one would know if I were to have a drink or eat sweets. I could cheat if I wanted, and I probably would. But up here we keep each other accountable.”
“The most challenging part about adjusting for me personally is the fact that there’s no Chick-fil-A or really any fast food for that matter.”
With such a demanding training schedule, each individual's mental strength is challenged. No one wants to go back to a house full of the same people who just dropped them on a tempo run or saw them consumed with defeat after a bad workout.
Marielle comments, “It’s a stressful period. Everyone is getting ready to compete and there are other factors like injuries, anxiety, and health. It just adds more tension and you absorb other people’s energy. You want to support each other, and you want to make sure your bad day doesn’t make everyone else have a bad day. If you want to bitch and moan at home you can, but out here you have to be more conscious.”
Back at the house, I am greeted by Miko, Shelby’s Cat. Everyone is making jokes that the thin air is making Miko lose weight. “I swear it’s hard work up here.” One of the guys shouts from downstairs.
Although a majority of the waking hours are already spent with each other, group dinners, trivia nights, and quality time together are important to the team. Marielle and Colleen prepare food on the grill for the girls while Moh is making pasta downstairs for the guys.
“We don’t just run, we’re a bunch of pool sharks out here.” Centro grabs the cue stick and winks before scratching, “Nah, honestly we’re really bad.” Early 2000's R&B is playing in the background and he quickly focuses his attention on the music rather than the game in front of him, dancing ensues.
Lopez, Woody, Shelby, and Hassan Mead (a good friend of the BTC team who occasionally trains with them while in Park City) circle around the table for a game of poker. Woody is talking a big game but folds before he ever sees a hand, while Shelby is wearing her poker face and throws down bets. Her bluff is called, “Another hand with absolutely nothing.” She laughs.
Though known for his strong opinions and lack of filter, Woody keeps training exciting. “He is one of our youngest team members and a never-ending source of randomness and fun.” Lopez states. Woody ends up winning the poker game, I guess it pays to sit back sometimes.
“This is my favorite camp so far. The guys are laid back and always up for something, that’s how I am. I don’t want to be focused on running 100% of the time, I want other things to do. When we play games it gives me a little break from running without doing anything detrimental. I’m enjoying it.” Shelby says.
People of all different shapes and sizes turn their heads as some of the most elite track athletes in the country approach the center of the gym. Though their attempt at being inconspicuous is valiant, eyes from around the gym hold their gaze a little too long as the athletes begin their session. Many of the locals likely having no idea who the athletes are, but they are still clearly intrigued with the fit bodies that move through the gym.
A middle aged man walks up to the group, “I had a body just like that but I left it somewhere when I tasted beer and haven’t found it since.” With a couple of laughs from the group they continue their workout.
While Centro dances on Hassan, it occurs to me that in a couple of times I have accompanied the team to the gym, he is always the center of attention.
It’ll likely come as no surprise that Centro is often times distracted from the task at hand and Coach Pascal Dobert is repeatedly pulling him back to the workout.
“Lookin' good, Marielle!” he yells from across the gym, “Proper form Colleen, tighten that core!”
“Centro talks 24/7, from the moment he opens his eyes to the moment he goes to bed. It’s honestly been so fun to have him at altitude camp this summer. He really does lighten the mood and make us laugh a ton. He can totally take a joke so I make fun of him a ton and he serves it right back.” Colleen shares, “But he is also super kind and thoughtful and a great teammate. There’s never a dull moment with him.”
Per usual, the team heads over to the smoothie bar after their workout. Centro picks up his smoothie at the end of the bar and directs his voice to the high school kids working, “If I feel good tomorrow I’m hittin this shit every day…” he takes a drink, “Yep. You need a promotion. Tell your boss.” The kids laugh.
Though it would be easy to assume the athletes are provided with top of the line facilities as they prepare for Worlds, instead they’re vying for space next to the locals at the public gym, sharing lanes in the pool with families and aerobic classes, performing hurdle workouts at the local high school during football practice, and using the track facilities at surrounding universities.
To be one of the most successful running groups in the country, mental and physical dedication are required at all times, but also sacrifice.
Tackles are made and spirals thrown as Colleen is practicing hurdles. “It’s not glamorous,” she says matter of factly. “This trip I’m sharing a room with Marielle. We both have tiny twin beds, my feet sometimes dangle off the end, and we have no AC . We drive an hour each way to workouts. I think Jerry wants it this way. He wants us to be a more blue collar group, he wants us to stay humble and hungry and to keep our heads down and do the work. The glory will come later when we are on the podium at championships. And then it’s back to work again.”
Chris Brown’s smooth voice is singing his early 2000’s hit 'Forever' while Karissa, Shelby, and Marielle add to the melody. They’re headed to Utah Valley University for one of the hardest workouts at Altitude Training so far. Shelby abruptly turns down the music and says to Marielle, “Wait. Skydiving. I want to go skydiving in Croatia. And we could ride camels. What about renting a yacht? Come on,” She begs, “stay at Worlds longer, it’ll be fun!” Marielle laughs but is reluctant. With Worlds being spread out over several days, she plans on leaving Doha before Shelby even arrives.
It should come as no surprise that Shelby is always up for an adventure. She recently purchased a Volkswagen bus and has been watching countless YouTube videos trying to decide what she wants to do when she converts it.
Karissa turns up the music and grabs Shelby’s phone as she’s about to become the car DJ. “Wait. Pandora? Why don’t you switch to Spotify or something!”
Shelby laughs, “I don’t want to have to switch everything over. I mean, I don’t pay for the premium version so I have a limited amount of song skips but it keeps it fun.” Karissa and Marielle laugh and shake their heads.
"He (Jerry) wants us to be a more blue collar group, he wants us to stay humble and hungry and to keep our heads down and do the work. The glory will come later when we are on the podium at championships. And then it’s back to work again.”
Coach Shumacher arrives at the track and shares the workouts with the athletes.
“Coach, you do know we’re not at sea level right?” Karissa jokes, though clearly dissatisfied.
I ask some of the athletes how they are feeling leading up to Worlds.
Lopez confidently states, “I am feeling strong and working on the mental preparation to be ready to perform at my best at Worlds. I am working hard every day to try to reach new levels of fitness. I’m excited to use this world championships and extreme heat in Doha as a launching pad for my training and preparation for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.”
Courtney shares, “I’m feeling really good about things leading into Worlds. I’ve definitely had my most consistent year to date in terms of training volume and execution, and have made big strides in my flat race, I am excited to see how that translates to the steeple. I feel ready to put myself in the mix and see what can happen.”
While executing the hardest workout in PC yet, the girls offer each other support between gasps for air.
After finishing her steeple workout, Colleen waves to two young high school girls sitting outside of the fence. Joy is beaming from the faces of the young girls as Colleen and Courtney invite them to join their cool down.
Heat is radiating off the track as the boys begin their workout. I can’t make out what Lopez is shouting, but when he crosses the finish line, it’s clear that he and his his sweat enveloped body are feeling good.
High fives are exchanged as the boys cross the line. It’s agreed amongst the group that Woody came to play today and he’s happy with his effort. Though exhaustion is apparent, it’s overall an impressive showing on the track for the boys today.
“Fuck that hurt.” Centro catches his breath.
Courtney affirms, “Gotta love the burn of skinny air.”