Browne and Johnson are among the half-dozen runners on a Nike team dubbed the Oregon Project, a stealth experiment headed by onetime marathon star Alberto Salazar to create a radically better runner. Over the last eight months, they’ve lived in a five-bedroom Portland bungalow, training pretty much like other top-tier racers. They run about 105 miles a week, sleep 10 hours a night, and wolf down pasta by the bowl. But the rest of their regimen is highly unusual – a multimillion-dollar lab project that relies on up-to-the-minute, sometimes untested, scientific theory and technological gizmos.
For starters, there’s the house itself. Research shows that sleeping at high altitude increases the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which, when combined with intense, low-elevation workouts, dramatically improves athletic performance. Of course, it’s logistically tricky to live high and train low – unless Nike makes you a special mock-altitude house. Which is exactly what happened. Molecular filters inside the house remove oxygen, creating the thin air found at 12,000 feet. Runners eat, sleep, watch TV, and play videogames at what their bodies think is high elevation. Meanwhile, they train at Portland’s sea level.