Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Utah Paradox

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I raced for the University of Wyoming Ski Team which was, at that time, an NCAA Division 1 program.  Each year, we drove west on Interstate 80 in January for the University of Utah Invitational races. I-80 parallels the Union Pacific railroad line all the way from Laramie to Park City. When I was a freshman, as we were nearing the Wyoming/Utah border on I-80, we passed a westbound train loaded with car after car of military equipment: tanks, troop carriers, artillery guns. One of my older teammates said, “I’m so glad we’ve finally done it – the USA has declared war on Utah!”

We were listening to The Mountain Life on the local public radio station on our way to ski practice this morning, and they had a psychiatry professor on the show named Perry Renshaw. He used to be a Harvard guy but is now a Utah guy and he was describing all kinds of contradictory research findings from studies he's been involved in. He told us that surveys indicate that people who live in Utah are the happiest people in the USA.  That sounds reasonable enough.  Then he went on to say that Utah has the highest suicide rate in the USA. Obviously, something was not adding up.

At 5,000 feet of altitude, there's 15% less oxygen available to us. According to Dr. Renshaw, it might be the high altitude living and the low-pressure ambient air that's causing all this depression... and all this happiness.  Of course this makes pretty good sense to me - it would take more than just my own fingers and toes to count all the times ski racing at high altitude has made me depressed.  I can think of many times at the 2km mark of high-altitude ski races where I've thought, "I'm in trouble. This is not going to end well. What a bummer."

But of course the high altitude makes us happy, too.  Where else could we come home from a morning of skiing in January and eat lunch on the deck in shorts? I haven't seen any frowning faces around the team so far this week.

But according to Dr. Renshaw, it's not as simple as that.  If I understood him correctly, according to his theory the thin air at high altitude makes it more difficult for our bodies to produce serotonin.  This lack of adequate serotonin production has been linked to depression, which is of course linked to high suicide rates. Bingo! Mystery solved. (Of course, I could have gotten it wrong. We were laughing hysterically at Dr. Renshaw's Darth Vader breathing.)

But what about all the happiness reported in Utah?  As it turns out, despite the thin air, people around here like to charge out into the mountains every chance they get. Dopamine is the juice that makes us feel good when we're out exercising in the mountains. All this playing in the mountains makes our bodies produce lots of dopamine. All this extra go-juice flowing around in our systems makes us feel extra happy - until the lack of serotonin catches up with us and we go for our guns. And speaking of guns, Utah's got more guns than any other state in the union, which is another factor that Dr. Renshaw mentioned when talking about the high suicide rate here. Apparently it's easier to shoot yourself if you've got a gun handy. As a side note, I will mention here that Utah is the only state in which I've laid my grimy little hands on an AR-15 Bushmaster assault rifle, the choice of school shooters everywhere.

Later this week, we'll begin testing ski waxes in preparation for our upcoming races (Sunday and Monday). It's been very warm and sunny. Obviously, the yellow and red warm-snow waxes will be the fastest in our testing, right?  Wrong. This is Utah. As my local wax-expert friend says, at Soldier Hollow the rules go out the window. The snow tends to sublimate here; it goes directly from solid (snow) to vapor. It doesn't tend to melt to liquid first before evaporating. Thus, we use super cold weather wax while skiing in short-sleeve shirts - another Utah paradox.

The M's. Testing the Trabs

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