Away From Home, At Altitude

Many runners dream of moving away to train at altitude. For most, that dream may place them out west, but for Tyler Andrews the locale is just a little different. Tyler, whom you may recall won the Run To Remember back in May, is now living and training down in Quito, Ecuador for the indefinite future while working to raise money for the development of a community center. The move to South America alone is big enough but to also move up to an elevation of 9,300 feet can have its own special challenges.
Tyler checked in and gave us a pretty in depth update about what it’s like to train and race in that environment:
Andrews Ty Liga 10kIt’s been an intense couple of weeks in terms of running. I’ve finally gotten settled into a rhythm of training here in the city and it’s going pretty well. It turns out there’s a bit of a running boom going on here in Ecuador, as I’ll have run 4 races in 22 days after this Sunday (as of 9/22)! And they’re pretty competitive – I ran at the regional championship 10km road race in Ibarra placing 4th and then at the National Championship 10km road here in Quito, placing 19th. That 4th place finished was the first time I’ve earned money in a race, so it was a big moment for me, haha.
Anyways, I’m really training through all these and using them as training effect. I’ve been reading a lot of Canova documents and am using a lot of his philosophy in putting together my training plan. I’m sticking to the half this fall, with two big ones on the calendar – one as an early “test” in Portoviejo, Ecuador and a second in November which will be the big test in Trujillo, Peru on November 17th. The hope would be to PR in Portoviejo in October and then maybe run sub-66 or 65’30 in November.
I’m pretty pumped for these races, as I’m training at altitude here in Quito (9300ft) and these later season races are at sea level (so far, I’ve only raced up here and it’s TOUGH!) In the past, I’ve responded super well to descending from high altitudes, so I’m psyched.
Running at altitude on another continent was interesting enough, but then to see the level of success Tyler was having… Well, that did it. A full on interview was needed. We fired up the modems and dialed up some questions for Tyler, and here are the results of that:

So, first of all, what’d you run for times in those races you mentioned? What was the winning time in each? Were you the only gringo?

When I started thinking about living down here year-round, I started looking at the road-racing circuit and was surprised to find a good amount of fairly competitive road races with decent prize purses (especially considering Ecuador’s cost of living). That said, I think I went into these races with a bit of a false-sense of what it was going to take to run certain times.

In short, running road races in the Andes at 9,500 ft is pretty much nothing like running track races at sea level, which is what I’ve been doing in college for the last 4 years. The altitude is the biggest factor, for sure. There is just way less margin for error. You go out too fast in the first 400m or you surge too hard up a hill for 20 seconds and you just can’t recover. There’s so much strategy about how you pace yourself, when to go with a big move and when to hang back, etc. And I’m just now starting to get a sense of that.

So, that being said, I pretty quickly began to look at the times on these courses similar to cross country. That is, I don’t really worry too much about the times at all. I try to focus on strategy, staying with the lead packs, and finishing well. Similar to cross country, most of these courses are quite hilly, often have bad footing (think old cobble-stoned streets), and is all exacerbated by the altitude.

All of this – to get back to your original question – is essentially a preface to the fact that the times I’ve run have been, on paper, much slower than usual – around 34’ for 10km. Still, these were in races won by guys who have run 1’04 half marathons (at this altitude) and they were running around 32’, to give some context. Daniels’ altitude tables (whether you want to believe them or not) cuts about 3’ off over 10km at about these paces at this altitude, so if that’s close to accurate and I’m in about 31’ shape on a tough road course at sea level, I’d be okay with that.

Finally, these couple of races have been true “early season” for me. It’s mostly been about getting experience on the roads and at altitude, against these competitors, and getting a great continuous “tempo” kind of workout. I haven’t really been tapering at all, as I’ve been running 100 -140 miles per week with some big workouts every week, even with some travel days here and there. So, while they’ve been “races,” the real racing for me won’t start for another month or so when I head down to sea level and start to really focus more on time and place.

Oh and to answer your last question – I haven’t seen any other gringos up front at any of these races. There are plenty in Ecuador, usually 20-something backpackers, but I seem to be the only one in the main peleton. Maybe that’s why I’ve gotten so much attention from the other elites and race directors…

For the planned races, what made you target them?

These earlier races have really just been about getting out there and racing again. I didn’t race at all between May and September, so I really just wanted to focus on getting myself out and competing again, as that’s a big part of what motivates me in the first place. I had found one race – the Ruta de Iglesias (or route of the churches) 10k a while back, so I kind of had that in the back of my mind for a while. The other ones just kind of sprung up after I got here! Quito is going through a bit of a running boom right now it seems, as there are lots of road races springing up all over the place. In fact, just recently I even had to choose between two road 10ks in Quito that both invited me to come race, which seemed unthinkable before. [Editor’s Note: Andrews ran a 33:38 for his 10k race, which equates to a 30:46 effort at sea level. That was done coming at the tail end of a 140 mile week, too.] It’s just way less organized, as there’s no country-wide race calendar or anything – I usually just get emails or facebook messages from race directors or my Ecuadorian friends telling me they heard about a race.

Andrews interviewIn terms of overall planning for my competitive season, though, there are two big factors that go into where and when I decide to race. First are the actual race details (distance, date, time, etc.), which are the same questions I’ve used to think about road racing for a long time. And they do have a big effect. In these early meets, I wasn’t super concerned about times, but eventually I really do want to go run some fast races. To do this, I’ll be heading down to sea level – twice in late October and then once in Mid-November. These will be the races that I’ll try to really hit hard and go in well rested and all out. I’m lucky because Ecuador is actually quite small. I can go from Quito at 9400 ft to the coast in 7 hours on a bus (which are very cheap in South America), so it’s quite feasible to travel to lower altitudes to race or even for big workouts.

Second – and maybe more important now – is about money. Now that I’m out of the NCAA, a big part of my racing schedule is dictated by prize money and other compensation (entry, travel, hotel, etc.) Now, part of this is because I’m not making a ton of money right now, but an even bigger part is that I’m now racing for STRIVE to raise money for the STRIVE Center in Perú.

As a commitment to our cause, I’ve committed to donate 15% of all of my race winnings to support the Center for our fall fundraiser. STRIVE runs service trips for high school and college student-athletes to Perú and Kenya. Our biggest most ambitious project is the construction and development of a community center (dubbed, The Center) in rural Perú, where we plan to offer year-round free English classes, tutoring, and athletic programs. We’re trying to raise about $14,000 by the start of next summer and our initial goal is to raise $1,400 by December 1st. This will allow us the bare minimum to fund staff and maintenance for the Center for early 2014.

How are you acclimating to altitude? How long have you been doing it for? And how long did it take you to feel comfortable at it? What are the big differences between training there and training here?

Quito is at about 9,400ft above sea level, which is quite high. Coincidentally, Quito was actually my first experience with altitude and with South America when I came here during a gap year in 2008. In that year when I lived here, I spent most of my time training up here in Quito and when I did go down to sea level, I saw really great results (I went from an 18-minute 5k runner as a senior in high school to running 15’49 after going down to sea level from Quito after just a few months of training here).

Since then, I’ve done some altitude training almost every summer, as I was working with STRIVE in Perú during my college summers. There, I was living in Pisaq, Perú which is about the same altitude as Quito, though a TOTALLY different place to train. Pisaq is a tiny, sleepy town in the Sacred Valley – a fairly rural collection of small towns splattered along the Urubamba River and surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains. It’s a great place to live and train – definitely a quiet, tranquil setting. Most of my runs were along the dirt roads that flanked the river, running from one tiny town to the next and back, passing through forests and giant spreads of farmland.

Quito, on the other hand, is a giant sprawling metropolis. The streets are crowded with people selling fruit, shoelaces, old TV antennae – you name it. And that’s without mentioning the maniacal taxi-drivers, buses spewing black diesel fumes, and motorcyclists death-defyingly slipping in and out of traffic. Still, we Quiteños are lucky in that we have our equivalent of Central Park – the Parque Carolina. I train here almost every day on a bike path or grass loop which goes around the perimeter of the park, with a 4km circumference. The park is about 5km from where I live, so I can get in a normal 18-22km training run while only having to run the same loop in the park 2 or 3 times.

On Sundays, the city shuts down a major roadway that goes the long way through the city (similar to how Boston shuts down Memorial Drive) and so once a week I can run unencumbered for about 30-35km with only other runners and cyclists for company.

Finally, one other (unintended) benefit from these early races has been meeting some other high level runners living in the city. I’ve been invited to train with two different elite groups in Quito, so two days a week I have the option to head to the track (either the paved public track in the park or the mondo track in the city stadium, depending on the group) for some company. This has been a ton of fun – a great way to meet local Ecuadorians and, as always, it’s great to just have other people to run with especially after running by myself for so long.

One of the biggest difficulties that I find training at altitude is how to deal with specific work. This specific work (running close to your race pace) is – up here – really split into specific pace work and specific effort work. The former trains the neuromuscular system to become biomechanically efficient at a certain pace, while the latter focuses on developing the aerobic system.

Pace workouts would contain a high volume of running at race pace (so, for me, around 5’00-5’04 per mile for the half marathon, which is my main focus this season) with ample rest, as this pace will feel significantly harder than it would at sea level. The effort workouts would be composed of longer intervals (2-5km) with less rest, or longer continuous runs of 15-25km at close to race effort (according to Daniels’ altitude conversions, this comes out to about 5’25-30 per mile). Where at sea level, you would be running race pace and race effort in all specific training, here, those are systems that are needed to be trained separately.

Honestly, though, the biggest difference in training for me right now is that I do almost all of my running solo. I was on an awesome college team for 3 years and so it’s a big jump to go from being surrounded by other like-minded, motivated people to being totally on my own. I guess that’s part of why it felt so good to connect with some of the Ecuadorian guys – just for the joy of their company and our shared passion.

Is safety ever a concern? How about adjusting to a changed diet?

I have never had a safety concern here. Quito is a big city and, like any city, be it South American or North American, has beautiful neighborhoods and shady neighborhoods. I’ve spent enough time here over the years that I have a very good sense of my surroundings and feel as safe here as I would in Boston. The only problems I have running in South America usually occur in the more rural sectors and it’s always territorial farm dogs. 99% of the time they’re just aggressive barkers, but every once in a while I’ll get chased down the road. That’s more an annoyance than a real safety issue, though. In general, I’ve spent a lot of time in Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia, and Colombia (and I’ve been running in all of them) and I’ve never felt any more unsafe than I would in the US.

In terms of diet, I’m pretty used to the food here at this point, so it doesn’t really feel like a new diet to me! A lot of what I eat is actually fairly similar to what I’d eat in the states – I still have a big bowl of fruit and yogurt for breakfast. My main meals are usually made up of a lot of rice, lentils, potatoes, with some chicken, eggs, or meat. My new staple post-workout recovery drink is a blended mix of yogurt, fruit, and honey. A great refresher after a hot workout!


No doubt we’ll have more on Tyler’s adventure here, but If you are interested he updates his online training log every Monday. For more info on The Center or if you would be interested in contributing to the cause, just click the links.

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