Altitude training was suggested to me earlier this year, but several things about the very idea scared me.
For starters, I didn't think I was a runner of a good enough standard that altitude training would benefit me. Secondly, I was training for a different marathon to the two girls already heading out to train, and so we would have been at different points in our training cycles. Thirdly, the thought of going to Boulder to stay at Steve Jones' place and run with Freya Murray and Susan Partridge was something way beyond any running dreams/ambitions I had ever had. Fourthly, I was running a marathon fairly early. The year, and so there would still be a lot of snow around at altitude. Lastly, and most importantly, I was told that I would need to go for 3 weeks minimum to make it worthwhile, and there was no way that I could take that much time away from my work.
The idea did niggle away at the back of my mind, along with my mantra "you don't regret what you do, just what you don't do", so when it was suggested again in the autumn marathon training cycle, I decided to do what I could to give it a try.
|Easy to see in daylight|
It really was the unknown, as I flew to Barcelona and then hired a car, which unfortunately didn't come with maps or satnav, and tried to find my way up to Font Romeu in the dark. I'm told that it's a beautiful drive, but I have to confess that it wasn't a highlight of my trip. Not only did I feel ill (lovely sinusitis - must've been a going away present from some patients), but I discovered that you have to ignore all of the signs to France and keep driving along the Spanish toll road towards Andorra. After driving for what seemed like hours, with the tollbooths that were manned claiming to have never heard of FR, I finally stopped at a roadside frankfurter bar to ask for help. I was so relieved to find out that I was still on the correct road, and just had to go through a 5km long tunnel before crossing the border and winding my way up tiny little roads into the Pyrenees.
|The "Grand Hotel"|
I was sharing the apartment with Finn and another Irish athlete, Alan McCormack, while the rest of the Irish squad were due to come out for their training camp the following week. They were both brilliant at making me feel at ease and advising me how to settle in and acclimatise as both have trained at altitude before, with Finn being a full time athlete (and double Olympian.......wow not worthy.....and so nice and friendly too!).
Finn has been to FR on many occasions but neither Alan nor I knew anywhere to run she guided us on a gentle run in the morning to point out some of the trails, the track, a mile long "exercise loop".......and most importantly, to point out the bakery, where I finished every gentle morning run after that. As we wandered to the bakery......yummmmm......fresh French bread/croissants/pain an chocolat.......we found ourselves in the middle of a classic car rally through the Pyrenees - fascinating!
|A friendly local...|
I managed to follow up the sinusitis with a thumb infection which, along with the altitude, did give me some amazing dreams, but despite this, I found myself sleeping better than I had in months, so there's definitely something to be said for taking a long break from work and getting away somewhere never mind actually getting some training in.
Naively, I hadn't realised that FR itself isn't on a plateau; it's situated on the side of a hill, and so every run involved some more hills. Combining this with unaccustomed altitude, I found that most people run according to time (or, later on, according to perceived effort) rather than going by pace or distance.
Some flatter runs could be had at the "High Altitude Lycée" (round the pitches or the track) in FR or you could drive down about half an hour to Lake Matemale and run round it/through the woods there. Still, It was nice to have so many different trails to choose from when running straight from the door, whether you got lost winding your way back from the next village, avoided huge cows in the woods, played on the rollerblading/cross country skiing training tracks, or headed up to Paula's Loop around the highest point in the locality.
|The highest point on Paula's Loop|
I soon settled into a rhythm: working in the mornings on weekdays (I confess to having taken some work with me as I felt guilty at having more than a week away from work) after a bakery trip, and then spending the afternoons reading, going to the laundry or the supermarket, being a tourist, meeting others for coffee and Nutella crepes (more frequent after one of my friends arrived with the rest of the Irish squad), and just generally chilling. I got into the habit of going running at a similar time to Alan and Finn (in the early evening) which meant I got back to use the shower and start cooking my dinner first. Having no tv was no great loss as we resumed the lost art of conversation at/after mealtimes.....and if you really wanted to, you could take a cushion along the corridor and sit on the stairs where there was Internet and watch things there (as we did when following the Great North Run).
Time passed by really quickly, with the weather being rather kind. I'd wake up to beautiful clear skies most mornings, and had hardly any use for the waterproofs I'd taken with me. I was nervous about any "proper athletes" seeing my attempts to run, but actually hardly saw anyone else when out.......my main companions were horses and cows (all wearing cowbells, and generally wandering around freely) with the odd deer thrown in. I occasionally overlapped with other people using the track, but apart from the time a couple of Kenyans passed me (they were running easy and I was doing an "effort"), it was actually rather interesting to watch people learn to high jump, or to see a racewalker do intervals.
|A trail loop for intervals|
When the rest of the Irish Squad came out, Chris Jones (the Irish endurance lead and Fionnuala's coach) kindly let me see their physio for some vital treatment to my plantar fasciitis and heel fat problems (see previous blog) and I also had a few blood tests done with the squad looking at adaptation to altitude. What was interesting for me to see, was that my iron level was dropping, despite taking my usual supplements, which didn't help my energy levels. It also meant that there were more people around for coffee and crepe trips in the afternoons!
All in all, I loved my time out there. A combination of being away from the stress of work, having beautiful places to run, amazing weather (it was either sunny, or there were dramatic storms), good sleep and lovely bakeries meant I returned home feeling strong as I entered my pre-marathon taper!
Let's just hope for some good race results now, but even if things don't go according to plan, I think the trip was definitely worth it!