SI Vault
Gwilym S. Brown
July 11, 1966
While the experts debate how an athlete can get ready for the sky-high Mexico City Olympics, Marathoner Buddy Edelen is finding out for himself in the thin, chill air of Colorado
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July 11, 1966

America's Gritty Guinea Pig

While the experts debate how an athlete can get ready for the sky-high Mexico City Olympics, Marathoner Buddy Edelen is finding out for himself in the thin, chill air of Colorado

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I've never been very fast, but I've always had a lot of guts," says Leonard (Buddy) Edelen, who until last year was the fastest marathoner the U.S. had to offer. For the last 10 months Edelen (pronounced Ee-da-lin) has needed all the guts available in his wispy, 5-foot 10-inch body. After 28 years of breathing the good, thick air between sea level and 1,500 feet, Edelen has committed himself to a year of living and training in Alamosa, Colo., which is barely in the same atmosphere. Training for the marathon is tough enough work. Doing it in the oxygen-poor air available at 7,540 feet is simply compounding the agony. In case anyone has been allowed to forget, however, this is almost exactly the elevation of Mexico City, site of the 1968 Olympic Games, and Edelen is planning ahead. His progress—snaillike though it may be—is being watched closely by everyone interested in high-altitude competition, by coaches, officials and athletes who think a man must train his lungs to compete in Mexico City and by those who think the problem lies less in the lungs than in the head.

For Edelen, an extraordinarily resilient and optimistic Midwesterner (he was raised in Sioux Falls and graduated from the University of Minnesota), the experiment has been a revealing, if sometimes discouraging, one. Altitude aside, taking up residence in Alamosa is not a move to consider lightly. Its population of 6,205 is friendly almost to a man, and on the western edge of town is the surprisingly modern, trim and attractive campus of little Adams State College. But the town lies becalmed and thoroughly isolated in the center of the flat, 50-mile wide San Luis Valley with a year-round climate officially drier than the Sahara Desert, and winter temperatures that can drop to a crackling 51� below zero. That kind of cold can make it tough on a man who makes a habit of taking early-morning runs.

Until a year ago Edelen had never heard of Alamosa, which is not necessarily surprising. He went there to train and to earn his Master's degree at the behest of Fred Wilt, once a famed distance runner, now an FBI agent, author of several learned track-and-field publications and athletic adviser to Edelen and a passel of other runners. From 1960 to 1965 Edelen had been living in England (also on Wilt's advice), teaching in secondary schools and earning a reputation as one of the most formidable road runners in Europe (SI, June 1, 1964). He also finished a creditable sixth in the 1964 Olympic marathon in Tokyo.

Then last year mentor Wilt decided it was time for prot�g� Edelen to start getting ready for Mexico City. Adams State College not only has good training facilities—including a big, new, $1.6 million field house with an indoor track and special exercise rooms—but town and gown had combined to form a committee to promote the use of Alamosa as a pre-Olympic training site. Wilt correctly reckoned that Edelen, who dedicates himself to any project he is in as though it were his last effort on earth, would fit perfectly into the town's plans. With a phone call to the college Wilt secured for Edelen a position as a graduate assistant in the department of education and psychology. This involves at least 40 hours a week of study, research, taking classes and giving them as well. Edelen was an immediate hit.

"Quite frankly, I was scared to death at the idea of training at high altitude," he says. "I thought I might die of a heart attack or something. But I did want to try it for a year, to get an idea of how tough it was and how necessary it is if you hope to do well at Mexico City."

He found out soon enough. For the first three weeks he had nosebleeds, two or three every day. He attributes these to the dry climate as well as the high altitude. His pulse rate fell off immediately, from an already low rate of 40-to-44 beats a minute to 34-to-38. It climbed back to normal after four weeks. For the first three weeks he also found it impossible to run more than eight or nine miles without reaching a state of total, breathless exhaustion. In his sea-level days an eight-or nine-mile run, to Edelen, was hardly more than a warmup.

Only recently has Edelen been able to overcome one of the most painful symptoms of high-altitude running. "After a fast, high-pressure run I'd get cramps similar to those you get with dysentery," he says. "It felt as if my insides were being torn out."

The low supply of oxygen has had its most dramatic effect, however, on Edelen's all-out, timed workouts on the college cinder track. They seem to be taking place in slow motion. This is hitting Buddy Edelen where it hurts the most. "Would you like to hear about my two greatest training sessions?" he is likely to ask, peering hopefully at a companion through glittering hazel eyes. What he has to tell is not anything that happened recently at Alamosa, but how, back in England in 1962, after a three-mile warmup run. he once bashed out 20 quarter-mile sprints at an average of 62.5 seconds per quarter, recovering after each with nothing more restful than a quarter-mile jog in from two to 2� minutes. This is a marathoner, mind you, not a miler. Or he will recount the time, also in England, when he churned out no less than 45 quarters at an average of 70.8 seconds each, jogging for only 60 seconds in between.

Edelen enjoys recalling these sessions of ineffable self-torture because, as the weeks go by in Alamosa, the memory of them takes on a dreamlike quality. In the world of thin air the lungs simply cannot supply the muscles with enough oxygen to keep them going full blast through a long workout.

"It's like spinning your wheels," says Buddy. "For example, one night I decided to run 12 quarters by the clock at an average of about 66 seconds. I felt I could cope with that pace. I ran the first quarter hard, checked my watch and found it had taken 72 seconds! I was finally able to force myself to do a couple at 69 seconds, but it was absolutely the fastest I could possibly go."

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