As his training partners moved away from the San Francisco bay area and his brother went to the Pacific Northwest, Garrett Heath knew where he wanted to go.
The Rocky Mountains.
The former Winona Senior High School state champion and Stanford All-American spent the past several months living and training in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he hopes the thin mountain air will help him earn a spot on the U.S. national team.
“I always wanted to do more altitude training,” said Heath, who will compete in the men’s 1,500-meter run at this week’s USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. “I had some experience in the past but nothing longer than three weeks. In order to get the effects of altitude training, you need to be there more than three weeks.”
He’s hoping the move to Colorado will help him get to Moscow, the site of the 2013 World Championship in Athletics.
“It’s the ultimate goal of the year,” Heath said.
Training in thin air increases the body’s red blood cell count — the same goal of blood doping, although Heath is doing it the natural way. Red blood cells transport oxygen to the muscles.
“The hope is when you go back down to sea level, you have a higher carrying capacity, and you are able to perform at a higher level,” Heath said. “You can monitor it, you can take blood tests, check your hemoglobin levels and track those to see if your RBC count is higher. But in the long run it comes down to how you feel.”
Heath said he feels great. And the results prove it.
On May 31, he won the 1,500 in 3:38.54 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., holding off a strong finish from Kenyan Jonathan Kiplimo and former Oregon runner Jordan McNamara. In April, he beat Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano by .12 seconds in the USA 1 Mile Road Championships in Des Moines.
“I feel stronger at the end of races,” Heath said.
He then set a personal record in the 5,000 meters (13:20.01) at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational at his alma mater.
He hasn’t yet broken his personal best of 3:36.03, set last year, in the 1,500. He posted a 3:38.54 in a strong headwind at the Pre Classic and a 3:37.47 at the Oxy High Performance Meet, a race that featured all of the nation’s top middle distance runners — including Manzano and another Olympic medalist, Galen Rupp — but for some reason not the times many expected.
“Some of the pacing got changed up,” said Heath, who was in the lead pack near the finish. “The race didn’t play out like most people expected.”
Running a strong time is important for Heath and anyone else gunning to make the world championship team. It will take a top-three finish in the 1,500 final, plus reaching the “A” standard qualifying time — this year it’s 3:35 — set by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
If the standard isn’t reached this week in Des Moines — no American has reached it yet this season — athletes can enter other meets over the next few weeks in order to hit the standard.
“A lot of the summer season is over in Europe,” Heath said. “It’s set up to go pretty fast.”
Heath said he’s more concerned about place this week rather than time.
“You have to make the final first,” Heath said. “Once you are in the final, anything can happen. I feel like I’m in shape to get the time in the right race.”
Heath is signed up for the 5,000 as well, but may forego that in order to concentrate on the 1,500. His younger brother, Elliott, another Stanford grad, will compete in the 5,000.
Garrett Heath said he expects to see some friendly faces in the crowd as his parents will make the trip from Winona.
“It’ll be nice to be back in the Midwest,” he said.
The 1,500 trials start at 5 p.m. Thursday. The final is scheduled for 5:40 p.m. Saturday. The final-only 5,000 is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Sunday.