Sunday, 6 October 2013

Joining the Mile High Club....

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
Luckily, I was able to discuss things in advance with my partners at work, and arranged to take some "leave without pay" in order to be able to go, so in September I headed off into the unknown for 3 weeks.

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 didn't fare much better when I actually got to FR either as, even though I can speak French fairly well, nobody could help me when I asked for directions to a named street. about midnight....I found the old "Grand Hotel" (now private appartments) and rang Fionnuala Britton who came down to let me in. 

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 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...
Feeling ill isn't the best, and it's worse away from home at altitude, but luckily I had just planned to take it very easy for the first few days with some gentle runs and lots of relaxing. In fact, I think I did lots of relaxing for my whole time there - it's amazing how time passes when you're reading a book (or several) in the sun!

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
In the first couple of days, I made a vague plan for my time there - nothing complicated, but incorporating a long run and a faster/effort session every week with some easy running in between (including a few trips up to run Paula's Loop as it was my favourite place to run - up high, great views, totally alone in the hills and usually only seeing horses and cows while out there).

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).
Not a bad view to wake up to every day….

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 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
Some people struggle when they go to altitude (and indeed on there return to sea level) as they try to do too much and simply exhaust themselves. It's easier to do that in a flatter place, as the fact that you have to run uphill whatever direction you go in, means that you do really "run easy" most of the time. Many people do their speed sessions more on time than distance, or do shorter intervals, to adjust for the altitude, as you cannot compare intervals run at home to those on a track at 1800m elevation. Unusually for me, I actually struggled more with longer runs....finding myself running out of energy and having to stopping and even being sick on one occasion. That'll teach me for not having enough respect for the strength of the sun at altitude, and underestimating all the ups and down when running "down to the lake"!
I ran down to the Lake to join the Irish girls!

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!

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