1000 meters at 3399 meters

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This Wednesday, we announced to our students at Miguel Grau that they would be participating in an Olimpiada!

Yay! Excitement and cheers all around. Once we explained that the Olimpiada would begin with a timed kilometer run, however, the enthusiasm was quickly replaced by groans of dismay. It was an unusually small group that day, and the court at Miguel Grau is dauntingly large—making 10 laps seem like no easy feat. To motivate the girls to participate and run to the best of their ability, I volunteered to run the 1K with them and said that we would all get through it together.

For the past couple of weeks I had been telling the girls that the 1K would be a breeze. Although it seemed like a long distance, in less than 10 minutes they would be finished and be able to give themselves a pat on the back for their hard work. Now staring down the barrel of the 1K myself, I wasn’t so sure that I was up to the task.

The elevation of the city of Cusco is 3, 399 meters above sea level. That’s 11,150 feet. And that, my friends, is very, very high. When I first arrived in Cusco the altitude hit me and my lungs like a ton of bricks. A couple days after my arrival I filmed a short dance video. After just 15 minutes of dancing, I was completely winded. Our first “hike” up to Cristo Blanco, which is probably more accurately described as a 20-minute uphill walk, was similarly agonizing.

Danielle and I after our first “hike” up to Cristo Blanco.

This happened because at high altitude, the air pressure is much lower than at sea level. This makes it much more difficult for oxygen to enter the vascular system, which results in fatigue and difficulty breathing. The process of acclimatization, or getting used to altitude, involves the production of more red blood cells that can carry more oxygen and an increase in lung size. Although I definitely feel the effects of acclimatization, walking up the steps to our apartment every day is still a struggle. Just a couple of weeks ago I sprinted up the steps home to retrieve a forgotten bag and run back down in time to catch the bus, and I was doubled over in pain throughout the entire ride to school.

The stairs leading up from Choquechaca to our San Blas apartment.

So as I stood at the starting line (or starting cone) for this timed 1K, I prayed that my red blood cells wouldn’t fail me now and that I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself in front of a group of 4th graders. Danielle shouted “En sus marcas…listas…vamos!” and off we went. I started off at a manageable, steady pace that I hoped would not tire me out too quickly but still carry me across the finish line in a reasonable amount of time. My timed run had the added challenge of using precious breath to cheer the other girls on and encourage them to run alongside me. By lap 7 I wasn’t quite feeling like dying yet, so I decided to pick up the pace. I sprinted my 10th lap and am proud to say that I was barely out of breath! In fact, I got back out there and ran the last couple of laps with the girls. Although I was initially wary of the 1K, I was ultimately pleased to put my physical fitness to the test after four months of sports classes with rambunctious and energetic young girls. The next challenge is to run 3,399 meters, one for each meter above sea level!

– Adrie

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