- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

SANTA FE, N.M. — When I was invited to train for two weeks with the Nike Oregon Project in Portland, I realized this was more than just a trip to the runner’s equivalent of a sports fantasy camp.

I knew I would be involved in one of nation’s most intense, most revolutionary training programs that could only bolster my performance at the USA Masters Championships in mid-March.

The Nike Oregon Project, based near Nike’s corporate headquarters, is an experiment on how to best harness the benefits of altitude training for some of the world’s top runners. The premise is that athletes who were not born at 10,000 feet can gain a competitive edge by training hard at sea level and living a few days at 10,000 feet.

Several years ago, Nike funded the program, which included the purchase of a house overlooking downtown Portland and Mount St. Helens and refitted the interior with altitude systems simulating the lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet.

Alberto Salazar, Nike employee and legendary American distance runner, was a driving force of the project. And he has carefully chosen world-class athletes to live in the house and train for world and Olympic competitions.

If this theory could work with world-class athletes like Dan Browne, who qualified for the Olympic 10,000 meters and marathon in Athens, maybe there would be some benefit to a 45-year-old middle distance runner preparing for a major competition.

Train low, live high. I could do that.

In theory, that was the plan. But once I reported to the Nike House in Portland, there was a change of plans with the group and off to Santa Fe we went. Now I would be living for two weeks at 7,000 feet but also training at 7,000 feet. Yikes!

I still was able to experience the Nike House for a couple of days. The obvious highlight is the altitude rooms, but the underwater treadmill on the back patio was interesting, too. This way you can run on the treadmill without the pounding.

Another benefit to the program is the in-house massage treatments. From 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., massage therapists come in to work out the runners’ sore muscles.

Massage is so critical that on the road, the runners get massaged by local therapists every day. There is no need for pressurized rooms because everybody here is now at 7,000 feet.

Nonetheless, we spent the few first days running 45 to 50 minutes, attempting to acclimatize as quickly as possible so we could begin intensive threshold training.

I joined the three middle-distance men, all hugely credentialed runners: Alex Kipchirchir, a 20-year-old Kenyan who has run 3:48 for the mile; 28-year-old Julius Achon, the George Mason University standout from Uganda who still holds the college 800-meter record of 1:44.55 he set in 1996; and Mike McGrath, the Portland native who in 2003 led all U.S. prep runners in the 800 meters in 1:48.56.

My coach begged me not to compete with them on the runs. For one thing, they’ve been living at 10,000 feet for months while I have been 10 feet above sea level in Washington. Second, these are world-class runners and I am not.

Yesterday’s sessions began with a 45-minute run at 9:15 in the morning, which is fine as long as you are running downhill. Then we spent a couple of hours in the weight room doing core exercises that would humble even a 3:48 miler, so I didn’t feel so bad. Again, we had to battle the altitude.

We took naps before hitting the hills for more running at 4 p.m. The joke going around was that I would sleep well at night.

Strangely, Santa Fe is making life challenging. A six-year drought broke a few weeks ago, and it rains every day now. The average precipitation for February, 0.5 inches, fell Friday night alone. America’s oldest capital city is supposed to have 300-plus days of sunshine. Instead, we had gray clouds that were pretty close to the ground.

You tend to forget about all the elements as you stare down the toughest one: lack of oxygen.

And if this training doesn’t eventually kill me before I leave in two weeks, it has to have some major benefit to my racing. We shall see. Time to nap.

Stay tuned.

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