Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Altitude Training versus EPO use

Something’s been annoying me recently, and when something annoys me I do what I do best, I moan about it.  Below is my slightly tongue-in-cheek take on the differences between EPO use and altitude training.  In the interest of keeping things simple (and lets face it, when I argue, things need to be kept as simple as possible), when I refer to a drug’s secretion naturally in the body I give it it’s full name (e.g. erythropoietin), and when I’m referring to the drug in it’s synthetic, exogenous or administered form, I refer to it in abbreviations (e.g. EPO).

And, so, for those who I haven’t lost already, let’s cut to the chase….

‘Legalise EPO’ they say, ‘because you can’t ban altitude training, and they’re essentially the same thing’.  ‘The only difference between EPO use and altitude training is that one is banned in sport and that the other isn’t’, I’ve recently heard people argue.  ‘They both increase red blood cells, so they must be the same thing’; a simplistic, and ignorant, statement which not only misinterprets how EPO and altitude training work, but completely ignores the ethos behind drug-free sport.

People’s arguments suggest that if there were different legislators in sport, altitude training might find itself on WADA’s prohibited list, or that one day we might see EPO legalised in sport.  As somebody who has strong anti-doping convictions, but has benefited from altitude training, for me, EPO use, and altitude training are worlds apart. 

To argue that EPO use and altitude training are the same thing because they have similar effects would be the same as saying that steroid use and weight training are similar (they both increase muscle size), and that taking an afternoon nap following training would be just as unethical as injecting HGH, as to do so would cause an increase in human growth hormone secretion and expose the body to it’s benefits.  In fact, hill training, endurance training, recovery runs, fartlek training, plyometrics, good nutrition, heat acclimatisation… and pretty much every other form of training, increases the body’s ability to perform through increased hormone secretion, increased tissue growth and/or increased neural adaptation, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that any of these are on the same moral footing as using banned performance-enhancing drugs.  Training is very much allowed!

The drug EPO is not only banned in sport, but it is a prescription-only drug, designed to help keep individuals with an inability to produce it naturally healthy.  It is not (or at least should not be) available for healthy individuals to purchase and use without medical reason.  Conversely, individuals around the world have the right to be born or live at any altitude at which human life is possible.

The use of EPO is extremely dangerous.  Prolonged or excessive use can have at least two fatal consequences in humans.  EPO increases red blood cell production, and the more red blood cells you have, the thicker your blood becomes.  Blood can in fact become so thick that your heart is no longer able to pump blood around the body.  If that happens, you die.  Additionally, EPO use can affect your body’s natural ability to produce erythropoietin.  Without erythropoietin you can’t produce red blood cells, and without red blood cells you can’t transport oxygen around the body.  Oxygen, I hear, is fundamental for human life (and not just in life involving sport), so that’s pretty crap.  Of course you don’t have to die, but you do become dependant on EPO.  Altitude exposure at or below 3,000m, even over a prolonged period of time, though not without it’s side effects (crazy dreams for example), is unlikely to kill you!

And now to the scientific bit, and the crux of my argument. Just because two things have the same end product, doesn’t mean that they are the same thing, physically, morally or legally.  We’ve already agreed (unless you’re the real argumentative type), that training in sport is allowed, and indeed encouraged if you want to be any good at sport, and call me an idealist, but I feel that injecting ourselves with any substance (when not medically required) to take a short-cut to enhanced performance is not in line with drug-free sport, irrespective of whether that substance is banned or not.

Now, I will agree that a large portion of the response to EPO use, and to altitude training, is the same, but there are some fundamental differences.  As we mentioned before, EPO use increases red blood cell production; increased red blood cells carry more oxygen around the body; and a greater oxygen carrying capacity increases endurance performance.  The main way in which altitude training is proposed to work is that the reduced atmospheric oxygen stimulates the body to increase erythropoietin synthesis, which in turn increases red blood cell production, increased red blood cells carry more oxygen around the body; and a greater oxygen carrying capacity increases endurance performance.  Taking EPO makes training easier.  It allows the body to recover quicker (because the body is not the one synthesising the EPO, which believe you me is stressful business for the body), and allows you to train hard day after day.  Altitude training on the other hand is a nightmare!  It’s impossible to breathe, you sleep 14 hours a day, simple tasks like walking to the shops can tire you out, you can’t run as hard or as long as you can at sea level, and think again if you think you’re going to do session after session after session.  Like lots of other beneficial training methods (e.g. weight training, hill reps), you need to recover.  Increased EPO increases red blood cell production.  More EPO creates more red blood cell production.  Altitude exposure increases erythropoietin, and subsequently red blood cell production, to respond to the reduced oxygen in the air, but once it’s adapted, it doesn’t keep on producing erythropoietin.  More altitude exposure doesn’t mean more erythropoietin.  And the real catch is that some people’s bodies are so against the whole erythropoietin synthesis lark that they don’t bother.  Yes, not everyone responds to altitude.  The good news though is that these people are usually the freaks that find altitude training easy.

For me altitude training and EPO use are as different from each other as helping old ladies cross the road and sticking needles in little babies’ eyes.  Other methods of increasing endurance such as altitude tents, altitude masks, iron injections, blood transfusions and blood doping may fall various degrees closer to the proverbial fine line, but training your ass off in difficult environments is not the same as injecting yourself with a drug, which you’ve acquired illegally, to make the route to the top easier for yourself.

Now, I don’t’ know if all of you, or in fact any of you, have managed to read through my waffle, but I have sure as hell enjoyed putting up my side of the argument.  If you’d like to agree or disagree, then please leave your comments below.

I’ve been Elizabeth Egan, and, I’m for drug-free sport (and afternoon naps).  Thanks for reading!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Thirteen things I won't miss about London

Since it's been a while since I last blogged, I thought it was time for an update.

And no surprises; Eliz is on the move again.  Not to altitude again, but back home to the Emerald Isle to get this book done and dusted at last.

I was having a little think yesterday about some of the things that I dislike about London, and in the interest of readability (and to prevent too much moaning), I've summarised them into 13 things that I won't miss about the city (I tried to keep it to a nice round 10, but just couldn't):

13. Police sirens.  Not a day goes by that I don't meet an emergency vehicle of some description when going to or from work.  One day I met 7 police cars in a journey that is no more than 4 miles.

12.  People thinking I'm strange for refusing a plastic bag when buying a single pint of mile from the corner shop less than 100m from my house.  Or maybe that's just me getting used to the idea that I'll soon have to pay for plastic bags again back home.

11. Feeling like I'm the only white person living in my postcode.

10. Noticing that I'm the only white person living in my postcode.

9. Having a postcode.  I've had 4 postcodes (2 work ones; 2 house ones) in the 16 months that I've lived here, and it's not convincing trying to remember the right one when providing information to prove my identity.

8. Dangerous drivers doing u-turns in front of me at every available opportunity, or pulling halfway across the road knowing that the traffic will just have to stop.  Oh and drivers inability to pull over/get out of the way when an emergency vehicle is coming through.  It's not like they don't get enough practise.

7. Other cyclists cycling through red lights, especially those that do it to get in front of me, and then cycle at two miles an hour so that I have to keep passing them.

6. Pedestrians who don't look when they are crossing the road.

5. The constant smell of weed.

4. The constant smell of wee.  Well poo to be more precise!  Did you know that they Jubilee Greenway is built on a massive sewer?

3. Getting caught up in the rat race every time I make a tube journey, and becoming irate every time somebody blocks my way on the escalator, like as if getting through life is one big race.
2. The constant fear of becoming the person that London has the potential to turn me into.

1. Feeling like I'm coming across as ungrateful because I'm not in love with the place; almost like I'm denying someone else the great opportunity to live in this wonderful city just by me being here.

I guess it hasn't been all bad though.  There are a few things that I will miss...


...let me see...

...Hold on a second...

...I'm thinking...

...Well there is the...

...Well, no... not that either...

...Wait now, I've got it...

...There was the Olympics!  Wow, what a few weeks that was!

Of course, how could I forget the Olympics.  One of the reasons I came here in the first place.  After being in or near a number of Olympic stadiums during my travels, it was great to actually be in one where there was some actual Olympics going on.  And what a night to get my first taste of action - Saturday 4th August. PM. Forever to be known by the Brits as Super Saturday.  Three gold medals for the hosts in the space of just over half an hour.  What an atmosphere that was.  Some days I feel that I am very privileged.  And that was very definitely one of those days.  Surprisingly, the Brits become way more tolerable when they're winning stuff. 

And of course there were two gold medals for the Irish, and two renditions of Aramhan na Fhian, in the same night in the Olympic Stadium during the Paralympics.  I was there that night too.

And there was Beth Tweddle, the greatest British Gymnasts never to win Olympic Gold, finally win an Olympic medal.  I was there for that too.

And there was Dean Miller, someone who I've seen grow from boy to man, and endure some heartbreak along the way (well metatarsal break to be more precise), run his first Paralympic race and give winning a medal a very gallant attempt.  I was there for that too.  And I was just nine rows back from the starting line.

I guess I was pretty lucky to be there at all.  To see that many races and events, I was privileged.

And of course, a green stadium.  You can't beat that!

All this talk of green; it's making me sound like I'm terrible homesick.  I'm not.  But I do know when it's time to move on.  And I do know London's not for me.  And so Ireland, here I come.  And book, well time to get you finished once and for all!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Fifteen Venues Later

It's 10th June 2012, and I'm sitting in yet another airport.  The final destination has been visited, and another Olympic venue to add to my list.  St Moritz was everything that I expected, and more; the perfect place to finish my travels.

To say that the weather is temperamental is an understatement.  In the space of eight days I saw rain, snow, wind, cloud, and sunshine.  The snow I guess was the biggest surprise, but it wasn't a great deal - two inches is easily melted by lunchtime, and for once my 'owl' personality played to my strength!  This morning I had not choice though, and I was out in the snow for my final run at altitude for a while.  The beauty of running in the snow at that time of the morning is that the only footsteps are yours - there's a certain sense of pride in knowing that you're up, out and at it while everyone else is sleeping.  The downside of course is that, despite being alone, if feels like you're in the middle of a giant snowball fight - the trees periodically lightening their branches of their load.

Already in the past two years I have been at or inside the Olympic stadiums of Mexico City, Moscow, Barcelona, Melbourne and London.  While Winter Olympic cities don't have a stadium in the same sense as the Summer Games do, they do usually still have a central arena of some description.  St Moritz, home to the Games in 1928 and 1948, has a building which overlooks the old ice rink (now a driving range), just beside the world's longest natural bob run.  The stadium building looks the same on the outside as it did all those years ago, but has since been converted into residential apartments inside.

St Moritz is very much the home of winter sports.  It has held the world bobsleigh and skeleton championships a record 21 times and in 1904, the world’s longest, and last remaining natural bob run was opened.  It was chosen as the venue for the 1948 Games because of Switzerland's neutrality during the war, and because the facilities used for the 1928 Games gave them the head start they needed with only 18 months lead-in time. 

St. Moritz isn't just about snow though, and is ideally set up for training is almost any sport.  For athletes like me who love a bit of variety, and prefer off-road routes, it's like heaven on earth.  I did 14 runs while I was there, and no two of them were the same.  In fact if I had stayed another week, I would still be discovering new routes.  And the best bit - the trails started just 10 metres outside of my apartment.  For a runner, you can't ask for much more than that.  Well you could ask for a track close by I suppose.  Well what do you know, that was less than half a mile away.

Apart from the running, there hasn't been much to report.  I celebrated a birthday - well I spent all my pocket money on a small pastry, enjoyed it with a cup of tea, and acknowledged the passing of another year.  I've been pretty organised for me.  The flights have been booked since Christmas, the accommodation sorted 3 weeks ago, and the transport from Zurich to St Moritz researched well in advance. Incident wise it's been pretty plane sailing - no missed trains or flights, no last minute hick-ups,  no clumsy accidents.  Ok, that's a lie.  But I was doing well until yesterday when I was on an escalator.  Absorbed in getting photos of the fine artwork displayed I managed to forget that I would reach the top at some stage.  The escalator delivered me to my destination, I was standing still, back facing the wrong way, and almost fell over right in front of a group of people.  Luckily I do the embarrassed look very well (years of practice I suppose), so they didn't need to say anything.  I walked away with nothing hurt but my pride, and they got a smile out of it.  Everyone's a winner!

 Anyway, I mentioned something about not missing a flight - better go catch this one back to London.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Off to St Moritz

Yesterday I left work at 3:00pm in an sort of excited haste.  Not only was it nice to leave the office early for a change, but I was excited to be commencing my final journey for this project, and I didn't want to miss that flight. Not that I'm glad that the traveling is ending - in fact I'm already planning a follow-up tour to promote the book - but it's more the sense of satisfaction that comes with reaching the final straight; that boost that you get from completing something, especially since there seemed to be little chance of me completing the journeys while still owning the clothes on my back.  At 6:10pm yesterday evening I was on my way to Zurich.

This trip is sentimental in more way that one.  It marks the final trip of the most exhilarating journey of my life but, just over a decade ago, my last visit to Zurich was the start of another very significant period in my life - my PhD years.  During the week I was trying to recall that visit, but could remember little of it.  In fact, I couldn't even remember what time of year it was.  As the plane touched down on the tarmac at Zurich International Airport the memories started flooding back.  It was not long after the September 11 terrorist attacks and security was tight.  I was in the middle of a long-distance relationship.  I had nearly missed the flight, which, despite what my family might have to say, was the only time I had seconds to spare before check-in officially closed.  The flight was delayed some 2 hours.  I was confused by all the signs in the airport - I had mistakenly thought that French was the main language in this part of the world.  Everything was expensive.  There were lots of churches.  It was very pretty.  It was a crisp Autumn day.  I only had 24 hours in the place.  It was my first tip outside the EU, and only my second time to continental Europe.  I took lots of photos with my little film camera.  I bought a lot of chocolate.  A lot has changed since.  Nothing has changed at all.  Zurich is still expensive and I'm still taking lots of photos.

Like then, I had little time to spend in Zurich this time round, and this morning I left for St Moritz by train.  Not long after leaving the station the beautiful Lake Zurich appears on our left.  As the train makes it's way away from the city I see the picture postcard Switzerland that seems so familiar: rugged mountain tops, green meadows reaching right to the forests; grazing cows precariously hanging on to the steep slopes, steep-roofed log houses set into the hills.  The rivers and lakes are a beautiful turquoise; the clearest I've ever seen.  The houses seem to have no boundary fences; the Alps provide all the garden they need; the fields and forests their playground.  The train makes it's way along the valley floor, passed all this beauty, until we Chur.  There I change trains, from the fast moving inter-city one, to one that is build more for climbing and twisting and winding.  This train is built for sightseeing, and not for speed.  At that's ok, because I have all the time in the world.

The Albula and Bernia lines of the Rhaetian Railway form only the third railway in the world to receive World Heritage status.  As it travels between Thusis to Tirano it winds through the mountains, gaining and loosing altitude through the dramatic countriside utilizing a series of clever spiral tunnels.  Between Bergun and Preda the line gains 400 metres in altitude inside a horizontal distance of 5 kilometres.  As the train croses over and back the valley and does 360 spirals through the mountains, you sometimes think that you're about to had back home.

At every corner there is breath-taking beauty, meadows full of flowers, snowcapped mountain peaks, trees, trails, waterfalls, rivers.  And then we arrive in St Moritz.  And I can't wait to explore!

Friday, 27 April 2012

A day in Fez

This morning we left the rain of Ifrane behind.  After 10 days of training in the fresh air it was time to travel back to London.  Just a short trip to Fez, and another leg of the journey would be over.  Though I'm disappointed to be heading home, I've had a huge smile on my face all day today.  Usually when I come to the end of a trip I'm ready to go home; ready to get on with the rest of my life.  This time around, another week would have been greatly appreciated.  As hard as I wished though, it was not to be.

And so why do I have a smile on my face?  Well because I'm really enjoying my last day in Morocco I suppose.

This morning after inadvertently bargaining with a taxi driver (the jist of the story is I walked away from taxi driver because I couldn't understand what he was saying, he thought I thought the price was too high, he gave us the ride for a song), we headed down the hill towards Fez.  It was nice to see the country in daylight, even if it was through the pouring rain.  As we approached the city the rain stopped and I knew then it was going to be a great day.

We got a mini taxi from the new town to the gates of the medina in the old town and then stepped into what can only be described as a dream.  Along the narrow winding streets were tiny shops which sold everything from colourful pottery, wooden carvings and intricate silverwork to tacky plastic toys and big cotton knickers.  The smell of food from the small restaurants and stalls was divine, and the sight of a fully laden donkey trotting down steps in alleyways barely wide enough for two people to meet only added to the feeling that we were in a different world.

As we're are flying later today, both AnnMarie and myself had our small trolley suitcases with us, something which brought us a lot of attention.  We were offered all manner of accommodation for the night, and one guy even promised the luxury of an indoor shower.  Such a shame we couldn't take up on the offer.  We soon warmed to all the attention, and it was nice to hear English been spoken again - the perfect reintroduction to out everyday lives.  In fact we really got into the swing of it, and smiled as we said 'no hotel required' and made an areoplane imitation before the friendly locals could even get the word 'hotel' out of their mouths.

And it wasn't just hotels that we were offered.  One young man seemed particularly obliging.  'What is it you're looking for?' he said.  'Hotel? Food? Husband perhaps?' Alas the thousand camel I thought he was offering turned out to be just a cow and camel.  Beggars can't be choosers I suppose, but for some reason I didn't even think that offer was completely genuine, and passed on this occasion.

We seem to be getting the hang of the 'point-and-hope-for-the-best' approach to ordering food.  For 10 dirhim (about 80p) we managed to get a large selection of cookies and pastries from a small bakery where nobody spoke English.  And before we left the medina we had a delicious £6 3-course meal which will hopefully see us through to home.

And just like that our few hours in Fez was over.  Time to go to the airport and board a plane back to London.

This has been one of the most enjoyable trips so far.   Morocco may not have been how I expected, but it was definitely what I needed. I'm sad to leave, but already excited because I know that some day I'll be back. Let's just hope that it rains a little less next time round.

Back in Africa

Although it was almost dark as I touched down in Africa again, the greenness of the countryside greeted me, and surprised me yet again.  Even though all my previous preconceptions of Africa have been wrong, Morocco I was sure would be dry and barren!  Wrong again it seems!

As I take the 1 hour taxi ride between Fez and Ifrane, I can tell that there is a stark contrast between North Africa, and the sub-Saharan parts of the continent which I have previously visited.  Despite this, I can also see the similarities.  In the dark and teeming rain, the drive up the mountains to my home for the next 10 days has all the dangers of driving on the roads of Africa, but none of the excitement.  Darkly clothed people walk on the verge of the unlit road, making their way home in the downpour; the lights of the taxi silhouetting them, and saving them, at the last moment.  As the road twists and turns further up into the middle atlas, the taxi driver makes halfhearted attempts to pass laden trucks, pulling alongside them, before the lights of an oncoming car makes him think better of it.  I look forward to seeing some of the countryside in daylight.  When we eventually arrive in Ifrane, I can tell that the town is nothing like the Africa I have seen before; the light dusting of snow which has just fallen reminding me that I'm a long way from the sun-drenched plains of the rift valley.

As my first day indicated, Morocco is anything but dry.  In fact it rained almost all day, and only just before evening fell on Friday could I eventually venture out and investigate my new surroundings again.  After hurting my little toe earlier in the week, I decided to give it one more day to recover, so a run wasn't planned, but it was nice to finally get out of the apartment.  I had awoken earlier in the day to the sight of a stork on a nearby rooftop.  I quickly crept out of bed, grabbed my camera, and carefully opened the window to catch a shot without frightening her away.  Ten days later she doesn't seem to have moved, and I later realised that there are about 8 other storks nesting within sight of my bedroom window.  In fact the town is full of them.  On that first evening, I also discovered some monkeys playing at the edge of the forest; the closest of them within touching distance of me.  Unfortunately my camera wasn't so close this time, and I haven't spotted them since.  Just my luck.

I was very apprehensive about coming to Morocco.  As a Muslim country I was worried about running around, particularly on my own, and was very glad when AnnMarie joined me on Sunday for the remainder of the trip.  In fact, now it's difficult to see what I was so apprehensive about, and why I would ever have left a place like this out of my research, just because I might get a little bit too much attention!  Apart from our distinct lack of French, we're doing just fine.

Ifrane is a university town of approximately 10,000 people, situated at just over 1,600m in the Moylen (mid) Atlas.  In the forest just above the town sits the green-roofed royal palace, the summer residence of the Sultan of Morocco.  During the winter months, the town is a ski resort, and with it's distinctively European, rather than Moroccan, architecture, the town has a very alpine feel to it.  The town was built as a hill station during French occupation, a place where the colonials could go and feel like they were at home.  While there's not much to do on rain days (of which we've had many), Ifrane offers a plenitude of lovely walks, and of course lots of places to run.

Morocco have a great tradition in distance running, and legend Said Aouita was the first to use Ifrane as a training base.  Today numerous Moroccan and French athletes train here, and it's easy to see why.  Good food, relaxed atmosphere, cheap cost of living, smoothly surfaced roads, and miles and miles of trails make Ifrane perfect for running.  Shame about all the rain though!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Another Journey Home

Alas, another journey has ended, and again I find myself in transit. The past week in Dullstroom has been very enjoyable, mostly training, and relaxing. Rather than bore you with the details, here are some of my favourite photos of the area and the trails, and some photos from my visit to the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Centre just down the road.

South Africa has been very different than I expected; yet again Africa throws up some surprises! The two training sites that I visited were each very different, and my brief stops in Johannesburg and Pretoria, highlighted to me just how diverse this South Africa is – and that’s without visiting the coast. I’ll definitely come back at some stage, but for me the country lacks some of the ‘soul’ of east Africa. Of course that means much less of the hustle and bustle of east Africa, which isn’t always a bad thing.

Next stop: Berlin half marathon on April 1st, followed by Morocco the following week for my penultimate altitude venue. Almost there now!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Christmas in Potchefstroom

And so I’ve spent my third Christmas in five years in Africa.  This has probably been the quietest yet, but no less enjoyable.  After the ice and snow of ’09 and ’10, it was nice to have a warm Christmas again.  Christmas morning I went for a run in the scorching heat around the North West University campus where there is a specially set out cross country course, a 400m grass track, and lots of well kept pitches to run on.  After an enjoyable run, I went back to ‘Cosy Cottages’, the very pleasant place at which I was staying.  After some lunch, I relaxed by the pool, took a walk around the town, did some bird watching, did another run, eat and slept.  I know it sounds a bit dull for Christmas, but for me, apart from my family not being here of course, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it.  And if you’re getting a bit jealous of the heat and sunshine, it did absolutely bucket it down all day Tuesday. It’s not all sunshine, so to speak.

New Year’s Eve was even more low-key.  I did my long run in the morning, got a little bit dehydrated, and was pretty much whacked out for the rest of the day.  I went to bed about 10pm, and as is starting to be tradition for me, I managed to just about stay conscious until midnight, acknowledged that another year had arrived, rolled over, and slept soundly for the rest of the night.

I spoke to Dad before I left Heathrow at the beginning of this trip, and we chatted about how another year had nearly finished, and how we were going to make 2012 the year of living in the present.  The past is finished, and not worth living again, and the future is not yet ready for us, so best to live in the here-and-now.

And so, to the here and now.  I arrived in Dullstroom via Johannesburg yesterday.  Again there were thunder showers yesterday evening so I didn’t get to explore very much. I was pleasantly surprised to see how beautiful the place was when I went for a run this morning.  Dullstroom is a lot more rural than Potch, and the countryside around the small town is as beautiful as I’ve seen anywhere on my trips so far.  The town itself has an interesting selection of shops including an antique shop, no less than two chocolatiers, a clock shop which boasts the largest selection of shops in the southern hemisphere, a small brewery, a shop selling locally produced cheese, and a whiskey bar which reportedly has the second largest selection of whiskeys in the world.  Add to that a small supermarket and a few restaurants, and what more could you ask for?

Despite the modern shops and the reputation of Dullstroom for flyfishing, mountain biking and other Western pursuits, there is a small township close by, and the town feels far more like the Africa that I know and love than Potch, or even Johannesburg.

And now?  Well I guess it’s time to go and do some living in the here-and-now.  I might even go check out some of those clocks.

Have a very special 2012, and I hope that this year is the year that most of your dreams come true.  Not all of them mind, because as someone once said, ‘if today were perfect, what would be the point of tomorrow?’