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U.S. distance runners get into tip-mountaintop shape for Olympics

Meb Keflezighi and other U.S. distance runners have found a high-altitude mecca in Mammoth Lakes and have pushed the country's Olympic hopes higher and higher.

March 24, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • Angela Bizzari, left, and Jen Rhines run along a quiet road near Mammoth Lakes. Training at an altitude of 7,800 feet helps athletes produce more oxygen-carrying blood cells, boosting endurance at lower elevations. Like London: under 100 feet.
Angela Bizzari, left, and Jen Rhines run along a quiet road near Mammoth… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Mammoth Lakes -- Meb Keflezighi has been to the mountaintop.

And he liked it so much he decided to buy a house there.

That was 11 years, three daughters, one American record and an Olympic medal ago. Now Keflezighi is as comfortable at high altitude as the Abominable Snowman — and that, he says, is what made a lot of those other things possible.

"We had a vision to be able to change U.S. distance running by coming here," says Keflezighi, the Olympic trials marathon champion and a medal hopeful at this summer's Games in London. "And the vision came true. This was a distance runner's heaven."

Near the summit of the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, Mammoth Lakes is certainly a lot closer to heaven than Keflezighi's former home in San Diego. But Keflezighi, a Christian who blesses himself twice and says a silent grace before every meal, wasn't lured here by faith. He was drawn by science.

Physiologists long ago concluded that the thin air at high altitude causes the body to produce more oxygen-carrying blood cells, making athletes more efficient in endurance activities at lower levels. That also explains the dominance of East African marathoners, many of whom were born and raised in Kenya's Rift Valley or the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, both of which are more than 7,500 feet above sea level.

"When you anecdotally look at how many people are getting the medals and are training at altitude, there is enough evidence that most people shouldn't overlook" it, says former UCLA track coach Bob Larsen, who has been coaching Keflezighi since he won four national titles for the Bruins in the late 1990s. "You have to conclude that if your red blood mass increases dramatically when you've been at altitude for a while, you're going to have an advantage when you get to sea level."

But since Keflezighi moved to this idyllic resort, he and Larsen have been pushing a corollary to that theory, one that says living above 7,500 feet and training anaerobically at about half that altitude will produce even better results. And few places are better suited to such a test than Mammoth Lakes, which sits at 7,880 feet and is just 35 miles from Bishop, which is only half as high.

"The beauty of Mammoth is the high-low," says Keflezighi, who broke the U.S. record at 10,000 meters less than a year after moving to Mammoth. He then saw training partner Deena Kastor destroy the women's national record in the same event the next spring. "For me, it's been very successful."

The area has long been a mecca for West Coast distance runners — Larsen, who skied here in the 1960s, used to bring his UCLA cross-country runners up for a week each summer. And Kastor, 39, visited with her Agoura High team in the 1980s.

"I've been traveling the world since I was 15 competing for this sport, and I haven't found a place I like better," says Kastor, a three-time Olympian who broke six national records and won a bronze medal in the Athens Games after moving to Mammoth from Alamosa, Colo., in 2001. "I love my job, I love where I live, and I think the combination is what allows me to be successful."

Others have tried to copy that success, abandoning previously favored high-altitude haunts such as Boulder and Fort Collins, Colo., and Flagstaff, Ariz., swelling this city of 8,000, which is now home — at least part of the year — to more than a dozen national-caliber distance runners as well as cyclists, race walkers and triathletes. The U.S. Rowing team talked about moving its training camp to Mammoth, and runners from Japan, Hungary Kenya and Ethiopia have visited.

"This place is on the map on the elite side," says Terrence Mahon, a former national-class runner who now coaches Kastor among others in the Mammoth stable. "We're definitely getting more international."

Partly because the air isn't the only thing in Mammoth that's breathtaking. The views are postcard perfect year-round, with snow-capped mountains jutting up on all sides in the winter. And in the summer, when the snow melts, it gives way to pristine running trails that wind around crystal-clear lakes.

"The scenery is amazing," Keflezighi says. "Sometimes you just say 'wow.'"

The community has embraced the athletes. Health-conscious restaurants serving vegetarian meals dot the strip malls along Main Street and Old Mammoth Road while just about everyone who lives here runs, bikes, skis or does a combination of the three. Even Dave McCoy, who founded the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area 70 years ago, was riding a mountain bike well into his 90s.

Then again with just one movie theater — versus three fitness clubs — there's not much to do in Mammoth Lakes besides work out.

"There's really not much going on," says Morgan Uceny, the world's top-ranked woman at 1,500 meters who splits her time between Mammoth and San Diego. "That allows you just to focus on what you're doing in training and recovery and not a lot on outside factors."

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