Friday 22 September 2017

Forty-two hours in Copenhagen; nothing at all to do with altitude

It may have been short, but my 42 hour trip to Copenhagen last weekend was definitely action-packed and eventful. Indeed, it was a bit more eventful than I would have liked.

Needing a new challenge after a prolonged chest/sinus infection last January, February, March… called an abrupt end to a cross country season that was only getting started and hampered any chance of a decent track season, I signed up for the Copenhagen Half Marathon. The original, optimistic target, for what I was reliably informed was a pancake flat, fast course, was 80 minutes, or at the very least a revision of my six year old best of 84:04. Those targets were gradually readjusted as one tiny setback after another (ageing, mainly), hampered training. I got the odd session in, and had done one run of longer than an hour and a half, so going into Sunday’s race, I still believed that sub 90 was possible.

Hitting two kilometres at 85 minute pace I was acutely aware that I was going too fast, and took the foot off the proverbial pedal a bit. I hit 3km faster than I ran for 3000m steeplechase at the Irish Championships earlier this summer, and went through 5km still well on target for sub 90. But I was slowing, and long before the half way point, I was swallowed by the 90 minute balloons group. The target would need to be revisited again! Momentarily, 1 hour 40 mins became the new point at which I would be truly ashamed. Thankfully I started to feel good from about 6km out, and was able to pick things up in the final stages. I even managed to sprint up the home straight to cross the line in 94 minutes and 33 seconds. The time, a personal worst (not my first of 2017) by more than 4 minutes, and more than 10 minutes slower than my best for the distance, was nothing to be proud of, and was initially a disappointment, even if I had 94 minutes and 33 seconds to come to terms with the fact that this wasn’t going to be a memorable performance. But given that last May I was struggling to run 30 minutes at 9 minute/mile pace, it was a decent step forward.

But that’s not the whole story!

We set off on Sunday’s 13.1 mile tour of the Danish capital in glorious sunshine. ‘Perfect conditions for racing’, the commentator reminded us moment before the off. And so they were. Somewhere along the way it clouded over, but the conditions were still pleasant, even if the water stations couldn’t quite come fast enough. The first welcome drops of rain started to fall as we passed the interesting Nyboder district (17km), and the following couple of kilometres passed quickly. By 19km, the light drizzle had turned to heavy rain and soon after a torrential downpour accompanied by all the light and sound effects of an electrical storm. The kit which I had earlier taken care not to dampen too much at the drinks stations was quickly saturated, as were the running shoes. The bolts of lightening and cracks of thunder were disturbingly close together, and a quick look upwards revealed an unavoidable line of electric wire linking street lighting along the entire length of Strandboulevarden. Nothing could be done but forge on for the finish line as quickly as possible.

After 10 minutes of very heavy rain, the finishing straight had become waterlogged, and the final run-in was through 3 or 4 inches of water. Finally I felt at home! Finishers medal, plastic bib, water, apples and other treats were quickly collected from brave volunteers smiling in the middle of a muddy, waterlogged field, and I mustered all the energy I could to get running again and make a bee-line for my hotel. The rain eased somewhat, but the respite was short lived. Shelter had to be sought to allow the worst of a heavy hail shower to pass.

We really were getting the full Danish weather experience.

But that’s not the whole story!

A quick shower, refuel and change of clothes later I was back out on the now sunny streets on a mission to experience as much of Copenhagen as I possibly could in the few hours I had available to me.

Views from the bridge. Tick. Nyhaven. Tick. Ice cream. Tick. Amalienborg Slot. Tick. Gerfioun Fountain. Tick. The Little Mermaid. Tick. Kastellet. Tick. A closer look at Nyboder. Tick. Rosenborg Castle and Park. Tick. The narrow streets of the main shopping area. Tick. Overpriced pizza. Tick. Some light souvenir shopping. Tick. Tivoli Gardens by night. Tick.

Back to hotel.

Pack bag.


I was exhausted after an action-packed day, and in a deep state of unconsciousness when, at 2.30am, I was rudely awoken by a heavy racket in my room, and the quick realisation that there was an intruder. I quickly worked out that the noise was coming from the window, which in my box-sized room was just centimetres from my feet, and that somebody was putting a lot of effort into pulling by sodden, smelly, worn-out runners through the slightly ajar window.

‘Oi, oi, oi,’ I shouted, quickly followed by ‘F*** off, you bastard,’ as I grabbed my precious shoes. The perpetrator eventually let go (what sort of a thief doesn’t drop everything and run as soon as they’ve been interrupted, anyway?) and toddled off with himself, but not before my heartrate hit a point not reached hitherto that day, dramatic sprint finish included.

There’s no getting back to sleep after an event like that!

Just as well I had an early flight to catch.

But that’s not the whole story

It wasn’t until Tuesday that I realised just how bad things had got at the finishline on Sunday’s race. The finishing mats had floated down the finishing straight, three people were hit by lightening, and the race was eventually discontinued about 2 hours and 15 minutes after the start. Reports of snow, however, were misplaced. It wasn’t anywhere near cold enough for snow.

I had to wait until Monday, and my arrival in St. Moritz, to see some of the real white stuff!

And that’s where the real story begins…

Sunday 19 March 2017


It's that time of year again when many track athletes head to the hills for a spot of altitude training in preparation for the summer track season. The trails of Font Romeu, Flagstaff and elsewhere will get busy over the Easter period as athletes of all levels go in search of thin air.

If you're heading to altitude this spring, and would like the chance to win a copy of Notes from Higher Grounds, then be sure to use #AltitudeTagIt when posting your photos on Twitter and Facebook. All photos suitably tagged before 30th April will be considered.

We'd also love to hear from anyone willing to share their altitude training experiences. Whether you're an altitude training novice interested in reporting on how you're adapting to training; an expert willing to share a few tips we'd love to hear from you. We're looking for all types of gest blog, whether it be a photo blog of your Ethiopian adventures, suggestions of Boulder's Top 5 cafes or a summary of the top trails in Albuquerque. All published guest blogs will be rewarded with a copy of Notes from Higher Grounds.

Don't be shy; get involved and lets get #AltitudeTagIt trending.

Thursday 20 October 2016

St Mortiz Travel Tips

Over the past month I've been sharing details of my favourite trails in St. Moritz, posting photos from my afternoon exploring expeditions, and suggesting some things to do between training. Here I share a few tips on travel and staying in St Moritz. Everything else you need to know about training in the town - including how to get there, where to stay, what sports facilities are available and how to access them, tips on booking accommodation, and other useful information - can be found alongside information about 14 other altitude training destination in my book Notes From Higher Grounds. It would make a great Christmas present for you. Go on, you know you want to treat yourself!

Taking the train
If you're travelling from Zurich to St Moritz by train, book in advance. This will save time/effort at the airport/station and also a bit of money if you're willing to commit to a set time. You can save up to 50% of the standard price when booking in advance (you can book up to 30 days before intended travel), which, when we're looking at standard prices of 70-80 Swiss Francs each way, can add up to quite a bit. Your booking will also let you know which platform you arrive on/leave from, making transfers easier. You'll need to show your passport as well as your electronic (smartphone) or printed ticket on the train, and your ticket will absolutely be checked.

While the route that changes in Landquart is quicker, the one through Chur is more interesting (both are pretty routes, but there's an extra degree of architectural beauty with the Chur route, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Bernia Express route). It is a highly recommened journey!

While the large Co-op shop in St. Moritz has the widest variety of food, it is not always the cheapest option. Large quantities of fruit and vegetables can be bought at a reasonable price there, but for better allround value try the Denner supermarket across the road from the ice rink/gym building, or the Aldi supermarket in Samedan.

Eating out is expensive, but most appartments are well equipped for catering for yourself and with a good variety of fresh food available in the town's supermarkets, eating in is definitely a good option. There are several public barbacue sites in the town.

Public toilets are plentiful in St. Moritz, and you'll even find some at the busiest points on the trails, so you should never really get 'caught out', so to speak. They are, in general, just port-a-loos within a wooden cabin - to make them look nice. However, the wooden surround does make them a bit darker than normal though, so be careful. They are generally clean, and well maintained, so usually have toilet paper. There are even changing cabins by the Lej da Staz, so you can get changed before/after a refreshing dip.

Like everything in St. Moritz, maps are expensive. But there are such a valuable resource. The free streetmap will help you find your way around town, but the more detailed mountain biking and hiking maps, available in many of the shops and supermarkets in the town, will give you great ideas of where you can run, and what the flattest/hilliest runs might be.

And in case you missed them, here are the other blog posts from my most recent visit:

Trail suggestions
St Moritz Trails Part 1: The Lake
St Moritz Trails Part 2: East of the Lake (Aka Hostel - Forest - Staz - Celerina - Via Grevas loop)
St Mortiz Trails Part 3: The Other Lakes (Lej da Champfèr, Lej da Silvaplauna and Lej da Segl)
St Mortiz Trails Part 4: Down the Valley (Celerina, Samedan, Bever and beyond)
St Moritz Trails Part 5: Behind the Mountain (Val Roseg)

Things to do
St Moritz Things to Do Part 1: Funicular and Cable Car to Piz Nair
St Moritz Things to Do Part 2: Take Your Camera on a Little Walk
St Moritz Things to Do Part 3: Take in the Olympic Sites
St Moritz Things to Do Part 4: The Heidi and Ursli Trails

I had planned on visiting the museums and putting together some suggestions of what to do on a rainy day, only it didn't actually rain while I was there, so stayed outdoors instead. Sorry! Maybe next time.

Meanwhile, you can have a look through some of my photos from the trip on FlickR

Tuesday 18 October 2016

St Moritz Things to Do Part 4: The Heidi and Ursli Trails

Most things to do in St Moritz involve physical activity of some form. And climbing a mountain is an obvious way to spend a sunny morning or afternoon in the resort. In a previous post I described my trip to the top of Piz Nair, and my hair-raising hike back down again. If you don't fancy something quite so energetic, but would still like to get a view of the town from above, perhaps you can explore the novel Heidi and Schellenursli trails on the lower slopes of the mountain on which St Moritz is perched.

You'll find a trail head just west of St Moritz Dorf by the Segantini Museum. This trail winds gently up the mountain; the trails as this end of town are less steep than the ones directly behind the village. (The Talabfahrt St. Moritz Bad ski trail from where Via Somplaz and Via Chavallera/Via Survretta converge is also a good place to start your ascent).

After climbing through the forest along Via Laret and some narrower trails you'll reach a road (Via Laret and then Via Signal) which meanders up the mountain through the ski area. After following this for a short time, you'll reach the start of some of St Moritz's more novel mountain walks. If you're travelling with children, these are a particularly nice place to spend an hour or two, but adults, too, can be entertained and enchanted.

If you don't feel like climbing up the mountain, take the Cable car from St. Moritz Bad to Signal and walk down Via Salastrains to the trail head, or take the funicular from St. Moritz Dorf to Chantarella (the first stop) and walk across to the start of the Heidi trail near by.

Heidi Flower Trail

This kilometre-long walk, which is relatively flat and suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs, will be of particular interest to flower lovers, with approximately 200 different Alpine species laid out in pretty flowerbeds. You can pick up a free brochure detailing the plants present in the Tourist Information office in St. Moritz Dorf.

St Moritz was, of course, one of the filming locations for the 1952 Heidi film, and the Heidi Hut, used in that film, still stands. It can be found not far away on Via Salastrains, just before the hotels in the Salastrains ski area.

Schellenursliweg (Ursli and the Bell Trail)

This trail tells the story of Ursli, a small boy, and the Bell in four different languages. The rhyming story (yes, it rhymes in all four languages!) is written out in 'chapters' at different points down along the trail.

Carved themes bring the story - a local fairytale - to life.

It's important to remember that the story runs from top to bottom, so start at the trail head by the Heidi Flower Trail, and head back to the town, rather than the other way round.

Don't forget to take your camera. The views of the town from the hill are pretty cool.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

St Moritz Trails Part 5: Behind the Mountain

Val Roseg

When you think you've explored all that St Mortiz has to offer - circled the lakes up the valley; explored the valley around Celerina, Samedan and beyond; ran the forest trails to the east of the town; even tested out the mountain routes to the north and west - there are still surprises awaiting.

Looking at my treasured map the other morning, I felt that there couldn't be many more surprises - sure, there were paths and trails that I'd never reach on, but after two visits I felt that I had a good feel of the area and all that there was on offer.

But there was one possible option left. My map showed a valley at the back of the mountains south of the town, and the access from Pontresina seemed pretty flat. Only problem was that I knew that it would take almost 30 minutes to get to Pontresina - if I was going to make this, I'd have to do longer than the planned 60 min run.

And so off I set...

From Lej da Staz, take the trail behind the restaurant towards Pontresina. The first section is slightly uphill, but then it's gradually downhill all the way towards Pontresina station where the trail comes to an end.

Leaving the station to your left, follow the road for a couple of hundred metres past some houses until it veers right just before the river and turns into a trail again. Do not cross under or over the railway line at any point.

The trail here is wide, level and gradually uphill, and stretches on for miles up the valley. At first it looks like it is one long straightway with spectacular - but similar - scenery as far as the eye can see. But the scenery does change. There are more trees in parts, cool waterfalls, and as the path gently meanders up the valley you get different perspectives of the mountains. You even cross a bridge to the other side of the river at one stage! The incline does also get a bit steeper in places, but the route is so beautiful you hardly notice.

Don't forget to look up. The glacier covered Corvatsch peak is straight ahead, and mid-summer offers a surprising winter feel to this outdoor wonderland.

I ran the route as a simple out-and-back; the mountains gave me little other option, though it is possible to do a circular route if you don't mind a fairly serious mountain climb. The range is at its lowest at Fuocla Surlej on the town side of Corvatsch (still 2755m mind!), with the decent towards Silvaplana. If your fit and up for a challenge, this has got to be a pretty spectacular route. The Scott Engadin St. Moritz Mountainbike Map suggests doing this route in the opposite direction. It rates the route as 'technically demanding over long distances'.


Tuesday 4 October 2016

St Mortiz Trails Part 4: Down the Valley

Celerina, Samedan, Bever and beyond

Down stream from St. Mortiz, the valley widens to offer an almost endless choice of flat trails in the Celerina/Samedan area. This is where I've been happily doing my long Sunday runs, and while not as pretty as the lakes around St. Moritz - it's a very high standard to be fair - the area offers nice variety and, apart from the final climb back to the town, miles and miles of perfectly flat ground.

From St. Moritz simply head towards Celerina via any one of a number of routes. You can run via the forest and Lej da Staz to Celerina station as described in my best of East of the Lake post; head all the way to Pontresina and back the Flax valley towards Celerina; take Via Meistra from St Moritz Dorf (past the Bobsleigh course), or simply down the path beside Via Grevas from the lake.

Once you approach Celerina you can simply take any of the marked paths down the valley away from St Moritz. The valley is littered with trails, all running practically parallel to each other, with paths and bridges connecting them at various points.

The main paths are alongside the two main rivers - The En/Inn which flows from St Moritz, and the Flax, which flows from Pontresina. There are other paths alongside the various ponds and smaller tributaries in the area, along the edge of the mountains (particularly from Bever onwards) and a flat, surfaced path - used for inline skating - around the airport runway.

With mountains at either side of the valley, it's difficult to get lost, so just take a path in the right general direction, follow it to your heart's content, cross a bridge and head back via a different route. 

Just remember to keep enough energy for the final wee climb back to the town!

 ...just a few more shots...

Saturday 1 October 2016

St Mortiz Trails Part 3: The Other Lakes

Lej da Champfèr, Lej da Silvaplauna and Lej da Segl

While Lej da San Murezzan forms the focal point of the town and the path around it is a great starter running route, it is far from the only beautiful lake or flat running route in the area. For a whole new world of beauty and a great trail network, head roughly south west from St Moritz Bad along the edge of the river En valley, towards Champfèr.

As you approach Champfèr, you'll reach a footbridge across the river. You can choose to go left of the river from here, along the edge of the forest, or take the more open route on the Champfèr side of the river (or better still, take one route out and the other back. The route on the Champfèr side is marginally longer, and also wider and more level, though the route on the forest side is also very runnable, but slightly rocky as you reach Silvalpana/Surlej.

When you reach the bridge between Silvaplana/Surlej, cross the bridge, and take the path to the left (Surlej side) of Lej da Silvaplauna. There is a path at the Silvaplana side, which runs along by the kitesurfing and windsurfing centres, but ends at the campsite.  The first section of the path is through open grassland, slightly above the level of the lake, but as it meets the forest it rejoins the lake edge. On a calm sunny morning, the vistas from here are particularly spectacular. On a windy Saturday afternoon, the lake will be a blaze of colour as windsurfers and kitesurfers get their weekly adrenaline rush.

At the far side of the lake, you'll reach Sils im Edigan/Segl. If you are going for a really long run, you can carry on through Sils/Segl and run alongside Lej da Segl to Maloja. Those of us with purely human qualities, however, will likely have reach our limits long before this point, and will have turned and headed back towards St Moritz - I have not comments to make on this section of the run; I simply didn't make it that far. 

It's approximately 10km from St Moritz to Sils, and a further 6km to the far side of Lej da Segl. This is a mostly flat route, though you can add hills if you please - the forests to the south of the lakes provide plenty of opportunity to do so.

Friday 30 September 2016

St Moritz Things to Do Part 3: Take in the Olympic Sites

St Moritz hosted the Winter Olympics in 1928 and 1948 and is getting set to host the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. It's difficult to avoid the excitement in the town surrounding next February's event - countdown clocks, posters, banners, that sort of thing - but sites and points of interest from the previous Olympics can also still be seen around the area.

The facilities which the town seems most proud of are the bob and skeleton routes used for the Olympics. When I first visited St Mortiz in 2010, I visited the start of these, acknowledged their existence, and thought nothing more of it. But when I spotted this guy (picture below) when taking the bus from St Moritz to Samedan, and realised how close it is to the road, I just had to see exactly where the course went. And so, on Sunday last, 501 days before the opening of the 2018 Games in ‎Pyeongchang,‎ I took a little trip down Winter Olympic history.

St Moritz and the Winter Olympics
St Moritz is the birthplace of resort holidays and one of the oldest ski resorts in the world. It hosted the second edition of the Winter Olympics in 1928 (Chamonix in France hosted the first) - which saw 464 athletes from 25 nations compete for 14 sets of medals in six sports - and again in 1948 when it's neutrality during World War II made it the ideal candidate and the existence of the 1928 facilities gave it a head start in the relatively short run-in period. This time, 669 participants from 28 countries competed for 22 sets of medals in alpine and Nordic skiing, bobsleigh and skeleton, figure skating, speed skating and ice hockey.

St. Moritz-Celerina Olympia Bobsleigh Run
Switzerland won 10 medals at the 1948 Games, including gold and silver in the two-man bobsleigh, and it is the bobsleigh run that forms one of the main remaining Olympic sites of interest. The track is constructed from scratch every year and is the only naturally refrigerated bobsleigh run in the world. It was first used in 1904, making it the world's oldest too.

Following the first snow in mid-late November, the skilled workers take three weeks to construct the track using about 15,000 cubic metres of snow and 7,000 cubic metres of water. Technology means that the construction has gotten somewhat easier over the years, but this is still a very labour intensive task. While the same track area is used each year, and great care is taken to level out the ground exactly, the natural construction means that there are minimal changes in the alignment from year to year - adding an extra skill element for the bobsleigh drivers. 

This video gives you some idea of how, each winter, the summer route is turned into 'the largest ice sculpture in the world'.

There is also a great selection of photos showing track construction on the track's website.

During the summer months you can take a walk down the course and get some sense of what it might be like to ride the 1,722 metre track at more than 130 kph. The start is off Via Maistra, just beyond the Klum Hotel.

If you visit during the winter you can experience the run for yourself in a 4-man bob (with an experienced driver). But you might want to start saving now - the cost for this 75 second run is 250 CHF (about €225); that's more than €3 per adrenaline-filled second!

The Cresta Run
The Cresta skeleton course - one of the few tracks in the world dedicated solely to skeleton - can be accessed just across the road from the Bob Run (the junction entrance), though it's start (top) is a bit higher, close to the leaning tower and Cresta monument. It's finish is just beyond the finish of the bob run, close to the village of Celerina. Like the bob run, the Cresta Run is constructed freshly each year. It using the natural topography of the hill, and banks of earth as a buttress for iced packed snow.

The sport of skeleton originated and developed in the Graubünden region of Switzerland, and was featured on the Olympic programmes in both 1928 an 1948 - the only occasions it was contested until it was added permanently to the programme in 2002; the year in which women also first contested skeleton at Olympic level.

The run is owned and operated by the all-male St. Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC) created by British military officers in 1885. Women have been excluded from the course since the late 1920s, because of injuries sustained by female racers and the never proven belief that excessive sledding causes breast cancer. Women are sometimes, by invitation, allowed to race from the Junction start only. St. Moritz has hosted 22 World Bobsleigh/Skeleton Championships, but these races have been held on the bobsleigh course.

The Olympic Stadium and other sites
The Olympic Stadium - now a driving range and located close to the start of the bobsleigh run - hosted the opening and closing ceremonies for the Games, as well as the skating events. The stadium building is essentially unaltered since 1948 on the outside; internally it has been converted into residential apartments.

Nearby, the Klum Pavilion, which also played a role in the Olympic Games, is currently being restored and will be used for the medal presentation for the 2017 FIS World Championships.

The original Olympic ski jump (Olympiaschanze), which had been in use until 2006, was still in place when I visited in 2012. The original jump has since been taken down and the area is currently a construction site. According to the St Moritz website: 'The regular ski jump is being rebuilt (hill size 106 m), with the addition of a new training ski jump (67 m). Two jumps for younger skiers (47 m and 17 m) are also being renovated and fitted with mats for use in summer.'

Finally, the Olympic stone, which commemorates St. Moritz hosting the Games on two occasions and lists the medal winners from both Games, is located at Plazza Paracelsus 2, just off Via Mezdi, in St. Moritz Bad (by the swimming pool).

Friday 23 September 2016

St Moritz Things to Do Part 2: Take Your Camera on a Little Walk

St Moritz is not just one of the most beautiful places that I've been; it's also one of the most photogenic. Water and mountains both have the ability to look different every time you view them, and St Moritz has the perfect combination for an ever changing vista.

When out for my run in the chilly morning air, I had a feeling yesterday was going to be a special day. It was sunny like the previous two mornings had been, but the lake was like I'd never seen it before. Smooth as glass, it was reflecting the town and the mountains in almost perfect symmetry, just like I'd seen in other people's photos. Now, if only I could get this run finished, get showered and breakfasted, grab my camera and get back down before the clouds came out.

As you can see, I made it! I was confident I'd captured some dream shots as I made my way around the lake. Unlike other days, it never did cloud over, and I'm sure the mercury reached the high teens - much warmer than any other day I've been here. However, by the time I'd reached the far side of the lake, the wind had gotten up - the 'celebrated' Maloga winds, according to the Engadin St. Moritz guide, are typical of a sunny summer afternoon, and usually rise around midday - and, within seconds, the reflections had completely disappeared. The lake took on a completely different look, and as if they'd expected it, two sailing boats suddenly appeared.

But don't let a little bit of wind get in the way of a good shot! It's hard to believe this is the same lake as above.

And of course, it's not just the time of day that the vista changes with; theses two shots are taken from roughly the same sport, just at opposite ends of summer - the first was taken on my first visit in June 2012; the second yesterday (September 2016).

St Moritz's beauty has even inspired me to work out how to create panoramic shots. The lake is an obvious subject...

...though the panoramics are also pretty special from the top of the mountain!

Top spots to get some photos:
1. Anywhere by the lake, any time of day, any day of the year, but the sunny mornings, before the wind gets up, make even the most novice photographer look professional.

2. The mountains - the higher the better, and bright sunny days are best, but even the clouds make for interesting shots.

3. Lej de Staz, hidden in the forest east of St. Moritz, is a strangely mysterious place, and offers some interesting shots of water, trees, mountains and clouds

4. The forest trails also provide an interesting subject

But, basically, anywhere by the lakes, in the forests, up the mountains, or down the valley will provide beautiful photos. Be sure to pack your camera!