by John Calderazzo
|Having a bit of fun: Alene Nitzky pointing in the opposite direction of a Goodwater sign she found in Arizona ... in other words, she means Badwater, the Death Valley marathon considered the world's toughest race. She competes in the mid-July race every three years. She just returned from this year's race where she helped out on the medical team rather than participating as a runner.
|Alene Nitzky changing a drip line during work in the PVH infusion center.
Alene Nitzky has found a novel way to train for ultramarathons she runs to raise money for the new Poudre Valley Cancer Center. She sometimes sits still and alone for up to an hour.
In a sauna.
If that sounds crazy, consider that one of the races the 48-year-old outpatient oncology nurse at Poudre Valley Hospital has prepared for is the Badwater Ultramarathon, considered the most ridiculously extreme running race on the planet. The suffer-fest starts at the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 285 feet below sea level, in Death Valley. It ends 135 miles and three mountain ranges later, just above the sometimes chilly elevation of 8,000 feet on Mt. Whitney, in the Sierra Nevadas. All told, it requires 13,000 feet of altitude gain.
Oh, and the race takes place in the middle of July, when desert floor temperatures easily reach 120 degrees F.
Thus, her sauna training.
In the months leading up to the race, Nitzky will sit in the dry heat with two or three frozen water bottles, acclimating herself and preparing her body to process fluids. She strives to find a balance between liquid intake and outtake—that is, sweating without losing the vital electrolytes she’ll need for running in what’s basically an outdoor furnace.
“In races like these,” she explains with a smile, “you can’t fight the heat. You have to accept that you are part of the heat.”
Of course, when she’s not putting in two consecutive days of 12-hour work shifts helping cancer patients, she logs miles of running on Fort Collins’ bike paths. Or she does what she calls “rock repeats” at Horsetooth Mountain Park. Rock repeats might sound like a simple task, but ... well, it's far from it. What she does is go to Horsetooth Mountain and runs 4.5 miles of vertical gain and descent, and she does this 10 times.
She doesn’t lack for workout company. She’s married to Dennis Leck, manager of Medical Center of the Rockies’ Environmental Services and a former nationally ranked distance runner. She also has been active for years in the local outdoor recreation community. In addition, ultramarathons require a support team to keep her in liquids and food.
Last summer, working through the PVH Foundation and Tortilla Marissa’s restaurant in Fort Collins, Nitzky completed a Death Valley “desert double" during the Badwater Ultramarathon, Crossing the finish line on Mount Whitney she turned around and ran back down to the start. She covered 270 miles in 110 hours. That's nearly 2.5 miles an hour. In 2011 alone, she ran three long, long races to raise funds for the Cancer Center.
Compact and sturdily built at 5 feet 1 inch, Nitzky was well into her twenties when she realized she had the right biomechanics and what can only be called a gift to run far and enjoy it. Since then, she’s also realized that what could be a selfish and time-consuming sport can also help others.
“People are fascinated by extreme sports,” she says. This makes her races good vehicles for fundraising, she explains. They can also raise awareness about the connection between wellness of body and mind, a balance many of us can achieve through physical activity and a thoughtful diet.
With a doctorate in natural resources recreation from Colorado State University, Nitzky worked for years as a personal trainer and consultant for athletes. But eventually nursing seemed like a chance to make a deeper difference in people’s lives, so she went back to school. She’s been working at PVH for six years, and calls nursing “the best job I’ve ever had.”
Logging all those miles in training and competition allows Nitzky time to think about her patients beyond the often-hectic, minute-by-minute requirements of her time on the hospital floor. Dealing with extended physical pain, she finds both a release from job stress and empathy for the many kinds of struggles patients go through.
Those struggles can include a sometimes-stressful misunderstanding of chemotherapy. Nitzky explains that patients generally come in expecting a chemo treatment ordered by their doctors, but if their blood count for the day runs outside of certain limits, the treatment may have to be postponed or changed.
As an oncology nurse, one of her jobs -- and joys -- is to help the people in her care understand why this is so and to reduce their anxiety, in turn keeping them more engaged in their treatment.
She says, “I just love being able to explain something complex and put it into words a patient can understand.”
Words are something else she works on when she’s running. She is an active and lively blogger. Often, miles into a jog, she will compose her entries for for Journey to Badwater blog and entries for her Facebook page. Somewhere in there, you may also find the sentence that perhaps best sums up her philosophy: “Life is an ultra, and every finish line is the starting line of the next adventure.”
Even when you sit quietly and alone in a sauna.
John Calderazzo teaches creative writing at Colorado State University, where he also co-directs a climate change outreach and educational program, Changing Climates at CSU.