Although I’ve been to three foreign countries now in the last two months, I’m not exactly a world traveler. I’ve been to a grand total of seven countries now but before going to Costa Rica in June, the last international trip I’d taken was in 2006, and before that in 2004.
One thing that I’d not encountered in all my travels before this week was high altitude. I suppose the highest-altitude place I’d visited was Denver, which is about 5,400 feet. I may have driven through a mountain range or two as well.
But Mexico City was different. It sits at an altitude of 7,400 feet above sea level. That’s 2,000 feet higher than Denver. Still, I knew this going in. I was well aware of the altitude, but wasn’t exactly sure how I’d react. I knew that in terms of athletics, athletes unaccustomed to the altitude can encounter all sorts of issues, but I wasn’t going to run a race or bike 50 miles. I was going for a business trip with maybe a workout or two thrown in the mix.
What I learned, though, was not what I expected. No matter what you do – walk, run, sit, stand, lie down, sleep – the altitude is an ever-present factor. It does not care what you are doing; if you are not used to the altitude, it will wear you down.
It wore me down for the better part of the week. Pretty rough.
As I wrote prior, when I first got into town, the first thing I did was to go on a run. I’d say around 2.5 miles or so is what I did, but that’s just a rough estimate. I was fine during the run. I expected to be gasping for air at some point but I didn’t gasp or do anything out of the norm. I struggled a bit towards the end, but it was my fourth consecutive day of running, so that likely had something to do with it.
Afterward, though, I felt strange. I lied down and realized I had a headache. It wasn’t a pounding headache but it was definitely present. Another thing too was I felt quite lightheaded. I don’t know if this is common – it happens to me every now and then – but when I was laying down I saw spots. They were like little spots that appeared and vanished quickly. They just sort of came up on me all of the sudden, tiny spots likely brought on by the altitude.
But the worst thing about the altitude for me was my ever-present state of feeling short of breath. I did not take a deep and effective breath for the entire week I was there. I always felt short of breath.
The only way I can describe it is with helium. Have you ever sucked on a helium balloon? I’m sure at some point of our lives we all have, or at least have been around someone who has. When you suck on that helium (and I’ve done it only to make my voice sound funny, not make me feel funny) you are in essence taking a breath, but it’s not oxygen you are breathing. So while you are breathing something in, it’s not exactly a refreshing breath. It just feels like some gas that isn’t quite serving its purpose.
Since the air is thinner at a higher altitude, it’s not exactly the same type of oxygen my lungs are normally used to. So while I was breathing the air, it was thin and didn’t really fill my lungs properly. So while normally I’d take a breath and fill my lungs with, what, 80-100 percent of capacity, it felt like I was sucking air in and only taking in 50-70 percent at best. It was almost as if I was purposely taking in short breaths. So often, I’d exhale deeply thinking I’d been cheating myself of a full breath of air when instead that did nothing.
My headache eventually went away, but others in our group experienced it too so I wasn’t the only one to have to deal with it. The first full day I was there, I slept a lot too. I think that’s another effect of high altitude: sleepiness.
Anyway, while it wasn’t necessarily a miserable time for me down in Mexico City (except for most of Tuesday when I had an upset stomach and was completely drained because of it), the altitude did have an effect on me. There was really no way around it, though. Some studies have shown that it can take up to 10 days to acclimate to the high altitude.
I didn’t want to stick around another five days to see if I could have taken a normal and deep breath of air.
Of course, the second I got off the plane in San Francisco and walked around that bustling airport in search of my connecting flight, I took my first real breath of fresh air since stepping onto the play in Los Angeles on Monday.
And I've been taking deep, random breaths here at home ever since.