Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Colorado Mountain High

Only someone who just arrived on the planet Earth would not know that increasing elevation impedes performance. It’s not that the percentage of oxygen is lower at higher elevation; it’s that the partial pressure (PP) of air is reduced the higher you go. Barometric pressure is what drives oxygen across the membrane of the alveoli and onto the hemoglobin of the red blood cells. The higher you go, the more “disbursed” or spread out are the molecules.

So, what are the implications for competing at altitude for the Challenge? And, doesn’t the SCBA help? Since many of the competitors run the course in less than 2 minutes, the energy requirements come from a breakdown of ATP to ADP, and from
ADP to AMP. These are energy bonds that do not require the presence of oxygen to create energy. But, the payback, or recovery system is aerobic. The positive pressure SCBA helps slightly, but everything is relative. Since the second stage regulator operates on a slight “delta” or difference above ambient, you’re not getting much of a boost.

Theoretically, if you could maintain the PP of sea level inside the face piece, altitude would not be a factor. On a similar note, I’ve written a short proposal on climbing Mt. Everest in a Scott SCBA. If you could keep your sea level atmosphere with you, you could scamper up the peak in short order since the distance and terrain from the last pitch is pretty much a walk in the park. What makes things so difficult is that every step. even on bottled oxygen represents a near-maximal contraction. So, even breathing 100% oxygen, you have only about one-third of the pressure driving the molecules across the alveoli’s membranes. Of course, switching out bottles presents the logistical challenge. You’ll need a lot of Sherpas.

Our recent experience in Vail (8000’ or 2438M) precipitated an acute metabolic acidosis response in everyone. While we claim the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge to be the “Toughest Two Minutes in Sports™” at sea level, it can be a real butt-kicker at elevations above ≈3500’.

We noted that about 30 competitors who played last year did not make the return trip this month. We think we get it. If you already have your ass kicked at sea level, imagine what altitude will do. Vail is a world-famous destination. Many of us have tagged a white water rafting trip to the event, or found other exciting forms of recreation. To keep this venue alive for the out years, we need to hear from you. We have a simple survey form that will help us better plan for the future.

Please follow this link to take this one-minute survey.

Maybe this venue should be exclusively the “Colorado Rocky Relay Championships”? Take just a few minutes and tell us what you think.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What's Drugs Got To Do With It?

The CBS 60 Minutes story on alleged doping by Lance Armstrong has spawned countless newspaper articles, several of which I have read. I’m not an expert on the topic, but I do have an opinion.

While at the University back in the ‘70’s, I had two graduate students who were on the US Olympic and Junior weight lifting team. At the time, the official position of such organizations as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) went something like this: “these attempts at enhancing performance through the use of drugs do not work.” All the while, the East Germans were kicking our collective asses.

I was administering IM (intra-muscular) legally prescribed anabolic steroids to these lifters and observing the addition of 30+ pounds of lean muscle mass in the matter of a few short months. So much for the official position of the scientific-medical community.

Fast forward forty years and we now are awash in an epidemic of ergogenic aids. Sports figures have gone to jail and more will follow. This was the era where rampant steroid use was in vogue in the NFL; while we were not testing at the time, (I was a consultant to the Washington Redskins for 8 years); many players had all the clinical manifestations of anabolics.

About a dozen years ago, one of my sports medicine physician friends remarked that we needed to start drug testing. This was validated by some of our competitors who were complaining about benefits that were not attributable to just working out. Naively believing that signing a waiver that included language to the effect that “I am not using any banned or illegal substances,” would do the job- and finding it not so, we started testing- to the strenuous objections of some competitors who were never seen again. A couple of my physician friends said that as an organized sport “You know you’ve made it when it becomes so important to win that you’re willing to cheat.“

At, or about that time, one of our standout competitors stated that he didn’t care if people used drugs; “let them do whatever they want,” he opined. I’m not sure he would have felt that strongly if he was routinely getting beat by someone that was obviously “on the sauce.”

With the advent of drug testing, we began to catch people. In fact, for a while, we were running an unbroken string of positive tests were in people who may have actually believed what they were taking was “clean.”

Most recently, we have not uncovered any users. The sophistication of drug testing spawns all sorts of counter measures, and so goes the vicious cycle.

I believe that some of the positive tests were in people who may have actually believed what was written on the labels of the products they were taking. There are so many products out there that the FDA simply can’t police the entire market. We have always maintained that it is the competitor’s responsibility for what they put in their body. Alternatively, there are products that bear the seal of a reputable testing laboratory.

A few years ago, I attended the NFL Combine in Indianapolis where drug testing was one of the scientific-legal topics. To be approved by the NFL, a supplement company has to post a $.5M bond. That pretty well separates the wheat from the chaff.

So, back to Lance. No one has even come close to his accomplishments, not the least of which was a near-death experience with cancer. No one has his physiology- the subject of a scientific session some years back at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. No one athlete has been subjected to the numbers of tests for drug use, and he has passed every one.

On the down side, with the resources available, you can be sure that there will never be a drug test, the results of which Lance did not know before. The “positive” test criteria is liberal and you can detect the presence of synthetic anabolic steroids. People have become educated on when to cycle off to ensure that their values are within “normal” limits.

It’s disturbing to see someone that you’ve admired for years be accused by eyewitnesses. In a sport where the likelihood of winning without pharmacological assistance is a remote possibility, claims that “he’s using” are to be expected. The practical reality is that if you don’t do what virtually everyone in cycling is doing, you’re not going to be a contender.

So, why not just say, “Screw it. Do what you want. We’ll lose a few people each year”- but wait- we’re already doing that. One of the major unintended consequences is that you’ve opened up the entire scholastic sport system to unmonitored use. We know that this is going on in high school, but who has the money to test? And without any semblance of illegality, the problems are magnitude.

A sports psychologist did a study on Olympic athletes, asking if they would be willing to take a pill that would ensure victory while cutting five years from their life. Most said “yes” they’d take the pill. It’s a shame that sport has become so contaminated. It’s also tragic that it has taken professional sports so long in the face of bitter adversity, to take a lead in enforcing a drug-free competition. It’s a shame that there are always a few bad apples that want to cut corners, be it banned substances or illegal gear. The relevant question is, “are we any better?” I hope so.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Men of a Certain Age

In 1974, my friend and fellow firefighter Willie Barreto and I swung our legs over our motorcycles and headed South for the University of Tennessee where the 20th Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine was being held. My fascination with exercise science would take me on a intriguing and circuitous route. As a graduate student, funding for travel was always a challenge and the hospitality of the Knoxville Fire Department helped defray costs. There may have been 300 scientists at the meeting, but I was in sensory overload. Last week, I attended the 58th annual meeting in Denver. Over 6000 of the more than 25,000 members attended the five-day meeting.

Now a fellow and card-carrying member of the organization, I was looking for familiar faces in this sea of physicians, educators, researchers and all-around cool people. Their joie d’vie is infectious and the breath of knowledge was not unlike attempting to drink from a fire hose. But there are two members in particular that I was looking for: Dr. Jack Harvey, team physician for a bunch of Olympic, professional and scholastic sports, and my co-author of our book, Hard Work, Dr. Brian Sharkey.

Jack’s accomplishments both within his profession and his extra-mural activities could be the subject of a major motion picture. Over the past 20-plus years we’ve telly-skied, ran and mountain biked the Rockies- much to our mutual satisfaction. Jack was helpful in writing up our medical guidelines for treatment of Firefighter Combat Challenge competitors who were in over their head.

Brian, in addition to his tenure with the University of Montana has been intimately involved with health and fitness issues for the US Forest Service wildland firefighting community as well as the US Nordic Ski Team. As a research associate, he worked closely with me on my nearly six-year USMC project, conducting one of the most comprehensive, multi-environmental physiological overlay studies of of its kind. His professional contributions include the pack test, now a standard for getting your Red Card- the “good to go” benchmark for wildland firefighter.

The three of us would capture one of those rare opportunities to connect at Jack’s ranch and swap stories and reminisce over great food and adult beverages. Our recollections of events of the past become more woollier with each retelling. Our scars are like tattoos, but with more interesting stories.

The following day, I would head to Ontario for our fifth event of this season. Again, I would meet friends and Challenge competitors such as Walt White and John Walka who have been a part of the SFCC for 20 years! Incredible when you think about it. Participation in the Challenge can be a life-changing experience, as attested by one of this week’s competitors who lost over 30 pounds in his quest to find a new life.

In reflecting back upon the people who have helped in so many ways, I can say that the friends that I have made along the way are precious and valuable in so many ways. The collective energy of people who are winners is contagious. The common thread that seems to bind this community together is not just the relentless pursuit of athletic excellence, but the camaraderie that takes place outside of the banner line. As a consequence of their involvement, friendships have been forged that span the continent and even the globe. I hope that you’re getting your fair share.