Himalayan Lungs

I went for my first run since returning from Nepal. I’ve been looking forward to it for about 5 days because I figure it’s as close as I’ll ever get to feeling like Superman. I came back about 5 pounds lighter (not a surprise) but that isn’t the reason. I hiked about 70 miles in 10 days and got myself in pretty good shape, but that isn’t it either. It’s living at elevation. For 10 days I was between 7,500 and 14,000 feet in the Himalayas.

This is where anatomy gets profound. When you are subject to thinner air, you make red blood cells which are more efficient at grabbing oxygen. Not only that, but your circulation increases to distribute it more quickly. Your heart rate also increases and respiration does as well. This is why climbers spend days and weeks acclimating during a climb like Everest; the body will, to a point, conform to its surroundings and allow you to do things that you otherwise couldn’t. (The ceiling is between 23,000 and 26,000 feet – the body can’t get more efficient than that. Everest is 29,029 feet.)

We overnighted at Namche, 11,450 feet. Almost all trekking and climbing groups on the Everest Highway do this. The reason is, until this point the body has been able to climb pretty easily in the available oxygen, regardless of where you came from. But Namche is high enough that if you flew from Kathmandu (3500 feet) direct to Namche, you’d be ill in a matter of minutes. You’d become light headed, nauseous, have slurred speech, massive headaches and perhaps other, more nasty stuff. If you flew from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp (16,800 feet where there is half the oxygen as sea level) you’d black out shortly after arrival, your lungs would fill with liquid and you’d probably die within a half hour from the extreme change and lack of oxygen. But (and here’s the profound part again, in case you missed it) our bodies, when given the chance, can conform to function normally in those conditions after acclimation time. It takes about a day per 1000 feet for your body to create enough high-elevation blood cells to do the extra work (note to anemics: it’ll take you much longer). Each day that you go higher, your body is creating cells that are more and more efficient.

So back to running. After you have acclimated for some duration – say a week – and your body is full of these amazing cells, they stick around and you keep the effects for about a month – that’s how long it takes for your blood to completely replace itself. So even though I am back home, and have been down from the highlands for almost 2 weeks, I still have the magic cells and they let me run like Carl Lewis today. And I felt like Superman – I couldn’t tire myself out and it was a powerful and amazing feeling just to go for a run.

During that run, I was composing this post, but I was also thinking to myself about runners. I wondered why there aren’t more competitive Sherpa runners. They already have double lung capacity over the rest of us. They live at elevation, so their bodies are full of magic cells. I’d wager, if given the chance, they could outrun most Kenyans. But I don’t know any Sherpa runners (and I know my share of Sherpas). Then I thought, maybe it’s like the cobbler wearing 4 inch stilettos. He could do it, but wouldn’t that seem a bit ridiculous?