Written by Maura Beattie and Garrett Zatlin
The 2020 NCAA Indoor Championships will be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico this upcoming March at the University of New Mexico. The campus, which is located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sits at an altitude measurement of approximately 5312 feet, a perfect destination for altitude training, but not necessarily for those who don't train in the mountains.
Although there are plenty of athletes who attend universities sitting high in altitude, there are still plenty of those whose universities sit closer to sea level. There will be athletes who benefit from the altitude at New Mexico, but then there will be athletes who could potentially struggle due to the inability to acclimate to the lack of oxygen.
Let's consider how the Northern Arizona athletes will fare versus a school such as Wisconsin.
Flagstaff, Arizona sits at 6909 feet of elevation, and there are even certain areas of Flagstaff that surpass 7000 feet. Madison, Wisconsin, on the other hand, holds an altitude reading of only 873 feet and there is not a mountain in sight, only mounds of dirt that midwesterners call “hills.”
Certain athletes, such as Geordie Beamish (NAU), Joe Klecker (Colorado), Dani Jones (Colorado), and Weini Kelati (New Mexico) will theoretically benefit from the altitude at NCAA's where as Oliver Hoare (Wisconsin), Edwin Kurgat (Iowa State), Yared Nuguse (Notre Dame), and Katie Izzo (Arkansas) may not be as accustomed to the multi-thousand foot difference.
The thin air in Albuquerque will make the distance races, aside from the 800 meters, extremely tactical as the thin air deters any thoughts of asserting an aggressive pace (and we have the numbers to support that...but more on that in a moment).
Racing at altitude means that an athlete’s heart rate increases much more quickly due to less oxygen reaching the muscles. Therefore, an aggressive pace could burn out any non-adjusted athletes who chooses to follow suit. If an athlete decides to double in any of the distance events, especially the 3000 and 5000 meters, altitude makes it harder to recover from maximal efforts.
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Let's take a look back at the 2014 NCAA Indoor National Championships which were also held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That was the last time the indoor national meet was held at a significant level of altitude.
Below, we went back to those national meet results and added the elevation of each school for each participant in the distance events. We opted not to include the 800 meters due to our belief that altitude has a minimal impact in the shorter events.
As we review the men's results, we found that a total of 14 event entries were from schools that sit at a somewhat significant level of altitude (which, for our purposes, is 2000 feet or more). Of those 14 entrants, eight of them finished as All-Americans (roughly 57%).
With the exception of the DMR, a runner from an altitude-based program finished inside the top three in each of those distance events at the 2014 Indoor National Championships.
But the times? Well, the altitude seemed to have a pretty significant impact.
The winning times for the above four distance events were 4:02 (mile), 8:11 (3k), 13:46 (5k), and 9:37 (DMR). The 8th place times for the above four distance events were 4:04 (mile), 8:14 (3k), 14:09 (5k), and 9:44 (DMR). When you compare those marks to the past few years of national meet competition, they are notably slower than what we are used to seeing (with the possible exception of the 5k).
And how about the women's races?
Well, the problem with the women's races is that there were only two athletes (entered in a total of three races) who came from schools where the altitude was higher than 2000 feet. However, the results were promising for them.
Emma Bates secured a pair of 4th place finishes in the 3000 meters and 5000 meters while Colorado's Shayala Kipp was 7th in that same 5000 meter race.
And the times? Those were reflective of the altitude as well.
The winning times for the above four distance events were 4:38 (mile), 9:14 (3k), 16:20 (5k), and 11:05 (DMR). The 8th place times for the above four distance events were 4:40 (mile), 9:20 (3k), 16:34 (5k), and 11:05 (DMR).
In most years, those times are significantly faster, even if the race ends up being tactical.
In total, between both the men and the women, we had 17 different instances where an altitude-based athlete ran in a distance event at the 2014 NCAA Indoor Championships. 11 out of those 17 times, they walked away as an All-American (roughly 65%).
That is a very favorable number for this year's group of altitude athletes, but it also means that we would see some surprise misses in this year's top eight if that 65% statistic holds true in March.
Here is a quick glance at the current favorites from altitude-based schools who are expected to qualify for this year's indoor national meet (not including the 800). Take note that BYU's Conner Mantz is expected to pursue the Marathon Trials this winter while Birk-Jarvis and Courtney Wayment may be redshirting...
- Tyler Day (Northern Arizona)
- Luis Grijalva (Northern Arizona)
- Geordie Beamish (Northern Arizona)
- Joe Klecker (Colorado)
- John Dressel (Colorado)
- Carlos Villarreal (Arizona)
- Whittni Orton (BYU)
- Sarah Feeny (Utah)
- Dani Jones (Colorado)
- Makena Morley (Colorado)
- Sage Hurta (Colorado)
- Tabor Scholl (Colorado)
- Weini Kelati (New Mexico)
- Charlotte Prouse (New Mexico)
- New Mexico DMR (men)
- Colorado DMR (women)
- BYU DMR (women)
That list leaves us with 17 names, which is the same number of altitude qualifiers that we saw in 2014. We could always see other athletes like Peter Seufer (Virginia Tech), Adva Cohen (New Mexico), Rachel McArthur (Colorado), or any of Northern Arizona's promising young stars, but these 17 names feel like somewhat safe bets.
So what have we learned today after reviewing the results of the 2014 National Championships?
Well, altitude really does have an impact in how races are executed on the national stage. Unless you have Edward Cheserek in your race, chances are that the race will be significantly slower than usual and it will likely require a strong finishing kick in order to secure a national title.
As for All-American opportunities, there will be a clear (albeit limited) advantage for these runners when they toe line in Albuquerque, New Mexico this March. They will certainly be favored to earn a spot on the podium based on 2014's results, but they are far from being automatically granted a top eight finish.
Results from one national meet six years ago will not dictate who succeeds and who struggles at NCAA's come March. It is, however, a nice glimpse into what we could end up seeing two and a half months from now...