With the absence of oxygen, a human will die. But, strangely, with just a little oxygen the human body will become stronger.
Ever since the 1968 Olympics, which were held at about 7,000 feet altitude in Mexico City, Mexico, people have been curious about what competing at or training at altitude does to the body of an elite athlete. Many people were worried that the decrease in oxygen available at such heights would adversely affect the performance of endurance athletes, but that the thin air would cause less air resistance and help out anaerobic (sprint-oriented) athletes. The hypothesis was roughly true; many records fell at the shorter distances during those games.
After the Olympics though, the curiosity about altitude’s affect on athletes did not fade. People began to realize that there are definite and measurable benefits to training at altitude and competing at sea level. While training at altitude, an athlete’s red blood cells increase, VO2 max is heightened, and EPO also has been proven to increase. All of this means that an athlete’s body adapts to working with less oxygen. When people who train and live at high altitudes return to sea level to compete, they are able to use the abundance of oxygen at lower altitudes to their advantage.
Though it happens slowly and for better or worse, an amazing characteristic that all humans possess is the ability to adapt to challenging circumstances.
In two weeks, I will be doing a little altitude training of my own; I will be returning to the beautiful, yet tumultuous city of Kabul, Afghanistan.
Returning to Afghanistan is altitude training at its finest. Not only will I be pushing my athletic limits in the thin air of this 6,000 meter high land, I will be navigating the politically tense and economically depressed reality of daily life in a city that has been at war for three decades now.
Why am I going back to Afghanistan when I have just recently returned from a 10-month long teaching fellowship there? The short answer is, to teach. I have been awarded a grant by the Department of State to return to the University to conduct a teacher training workshop.
Another answer is, How can I not?
How can I not return to a place that is in desperate need of education, when I have the skills to help, and the means to go there?
How can I not return to a country that is at war, partially due to the fact that an uneducated and illiterate majority were strong-armed and conned into believing that the Taliban would rule them with a fair and objective hand, when I know that the education I can offer them will chip away at the ignorance which has landed them in this situation?
How can I not return to a city that welcomed me with open arms, and asked me to be part of their family, part of their history, part of their lives as if I was their sister or daughter?
Being back in Kabul will be challenging. Not only will it be harder to breathe, but it will be harder to ignore the poverty and injustice that is rampant in that land. It will be a strain to feel the dust in my lungs, to see the bombed out buildings, to hear the widows begging for a cent or two, to listen to the sad stories of my friends. It will be a test of both the body and the spirit.
But I welcome this experience with an open heart and mind. Just as the absence of oxygen will make me a stronger athlete, so will the testing of my spirit make me a better person. Being with my friends in Kabul, living their lives, knowing their hardships and their happiness, reminds me why life is so special. Without challenges, how would we ever know how good life is; without adversity, how would we know how strong we are?
This is “altitude training” at its best. This is why I am returning to Afghanistan.