Saturday, 26 January 2013

The importance of back up plans

The year was 1993, the month was January, the day was probably Wed, - though that's one detail I don't remember - the venue was Adamstown.  I was lined up in my bright yellow Donald Duck tee-shirt and my bare feet ready to take part in my first cross country race.

Now, 20 yeas later, almost to the day, I'm sitting in Dublin Airport waiting for a flight to Liverpool for the North of England Cross Country Championships.  The flight has already been put back from 07:45 to 10:15, but that's an ever moving target and until the inbound flight leaves Liverpool we won't actually know when we'll be flying.  And while the race was reported to still be going ahead at 07:50 this morning, that could still all change.  It's ok though.  I have a back up plan.  After a moment of madness last Monday I entered a 3,000m Indoor Race for tomorrow, just in case something like this happened.  I've not raced indoors for about 12 years, and I'm nowhere near track shape, so I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for eight kilometres of mud and snow today.  But I must admit, there is something very comforting about having a back-up plan.

And all this delay has given me some time to think.  Time to think about that first race 20 years ago.  Time to think about what I've achieved.  Time to think about what I've learned.  And time to think about back-up plans.

The gun went and I shot off like the proverbial bullet; straight to the front of the field.  I think I even created a bit of a gap on everyone else.  But then I was tired.  I had to stop and walk.  Loads of people passed me.  But I got going again and started to hold my place.  I even managed to pass one or two up the final hill to the finish.  I ended up 10th.  It was a county schools race.  There were lots of people behind.  I was ridiculed by my classmates for my naive tactics.  I didn't care.  I hadn't held anything back - those who know me know that I rarely do - and I thought that maybe, with a bit of practise, I could give this running lark a bit of a go.

I've been trying to think what my goals were back then; what I wanted from running, and if I ever achieved it.  I'm sure that Olympic stardom featured in my dreams at some stage, but back then I think I just wanted to be able to maintain the effort for the whole race, to win races like that, and to be looked up to by my classmates rather than be given a hard time by them.

Three or four months later other girls were upset because I statred to beat them.  The old guard of medal winners was being disrupted.  Four into three didn't go.  I had started to feature, and by May that year I won my first county title. 

I may never have realised my Olympic dreams, but running has given me so much more than the medals I've won or the dreams I've realised.  Corney as it may sound, it's made me the person I am today.

When I do deliver workshops with young performance athletes I ask them to list some of the skills and qualities that competing in sport has given them (particularly so that when they come to apply for jobs for which they have no obvious experience for they can look to their transferable skills), but I've never actually done that exercise myself, at least not until now.

And so what has running given me?  Well, aside from the fact that every educational or career decision that I have made since I was 15 has either been determined by the fact I am an athlete, or resulted from my direct and indirect experiences as an athlete, it has shaped my personality and my skill sets.  It's given me memories to cherish and most of all it's given me more enjoyment than I could even have imagined.

I didn't have many friends at school.  Truth is being a geek just isn't cool when you're 13.  Running though gave me a tiny bit of credibility, and it gave me a friendship circle away from school.  It showed me that if you work hard enough you can achieve things.  It showed me that there is more than one 7 o'clock in the day.  It thought me about setting and achieving goals, managing expectations and dealing with nerves.  It thought me to accept defeat, and to be humble in victory (a little easier when you always finish 2nd of course).  It thought me to manage my time, and it thought me to be a good team player.  It thought me the importance of a back-up plan.

And when I'm sitting here thinking about what I've learned, I'm also reminded about the things I've forgotten.  Unfortunately I've long forgotten to run like a naive 13 year old; to let everything out, and not to conserve too much; I've forgotten how to manage my life; and some days I've forgotten how much I enjoy running and racing like my life depends on it.

While I accept that the way I ran that race in 1993 isn't the best way to run a race, I do think sometimes that we can be too obsessed with the 'right' way to race.  Sport should be a way for us to express ourselves, and to demonstrate a little bit of our personality.

And so, when this plane eventually takes off, and I eventually get to Knowsley to race, I'm going to paint with my feet a little bit of me in that snow.

And so to the importance of a back-up plan.  The importance is not that I have something to fall back on if Plan A doesn't work out; it's that I have something to take my mind off the fact that Plan A isn't exactly going according to plan.  Oh and also that when I'm lined up with 8km ahead of me later today, I can think that no matter how bad it seems, the alternative, a fast 3km in a packed stadium, would have been so much worse.  

Unless of course I don't get to Liverpool.  In which case, wouldn't a 3,000m in the warm indoors make a pleasant change??!!!


At 09:50, the estimated time of departure was again adjusted - to 11:45 - too late for me to make it to my race.  Seats were offered, however, on the slightly delayed 10:10 service to Manchester.  We landed in Manchester at 11:30, I ran all the way to the train station, made the 11:40am train to Liverpool with about 30 seconds to spare, got a lift from the station to the race and made it to the course spot on time for the warm up.  And through it all I was as cool as a cucumber.

To say that the course was a challenge would be an understatement.  Where there wasn't six inches of snow, there was six inches of mud.  But then I love a challenge, and true to myself, I rose to that challenge.  The muddier the course got, the deeper I dug.  And what's more, I enjoyed myself every step of the way.  Beats being stuck in an airport - that's for sure!

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Guest Blog 2 - Adriaan Geldenhuys from Lesotho

In this, the second of our guest blogs, South African athlete Adriaan Geldenhuys talks about his experiences altitude training in Lesotho.  Lesotho is a small country completely surrounded by South Africa, and which has the distinction of being the only country in the world completely above 1,400m altitude.  And from the photos Adriaan has taken, it looks very beautiful too.

Adrian himself is a1500m runners, and started taking the sport seriously just after finishing high school.  He had a successful season racing in Europe in 2012.  He is studying sports science in Potchefstroom, under Jean Vester (who coached Olympic silver medallist Hezekiel Sepeng), and hopes to make the South African team for the 2013 World University Games.  We wish him every success, and thank him for taking time out from his training to tell us about Lesotho and all it has to offer.

Altitude training in Lesotho
Afriski in Lesotho is a skiing resort through the winter months of June - August. The mountain adventure sport activities and training camps take place during summer months of October - April. It’s located in the Maloti Mountains 3222 m (10570 ft) above sea-level, operating in Southern Africa near the northern border of Lesotho. The resort is approximately 5 hours' drive from Johannesburg, South Africa via the steep Moteng Pass and the Mahlasela Pass. It is considered to be the highest road pass in Southern Africa.

Most roads here in the Maloti Mountains of Lesotho are gravel roads running through the scenic mountains. The road to Afriski namely the A1 is still a gravel road close to Afriski. It is best to train on this road because it's not that hilly. The other roads are mainly 4x4 tracks and run steeply into the hills and is only used by 4x4’s and the many local shepherds. In Afriski itself there is a road on top along the few condos witch is a straight flat gravel road for approximately 1200m where faster repetitions can be done, its about 3100m above altitude with no virtually no traffic. 

We do a few sessions including a uphill fartlek and a uphill tempo run up the last stretch of the Mahlasela Pass reaching almost 3300m before it winds down 4km to Afriski. This is my third year and we have done some tests before and after the 21day training camp. The red bloodcell count increased a lot. The first year (2010, November) I came straight from sea level, my hematocrit count increased from 43 to 48%. Other athletes who train all year round in Potchefstroom with its medium altitude of 1400m resulted in a increased hematocrit count from around 45-46% to 48-50% in only 21 days. 

We go down to do some steady runs 15km from Afriski down the Mahlasela Pass where the road run past Oxbow Lodge. The altitude is approximately 2450m and you can feel the difference in the 800m fall.  If you go further down the Moteng Pass you drive through a lot of villages and huts scattered alongside the tarred road. The tarred A1 runs from the border up the Maloti Mountains and stop at Oxbow Resort 15km before you get to Afriski. Long runs can be done up in the Maloti mountains without travelling from Afriski where we base, without big hills if you follow the A1 away from Afriski. Long runs can also be done down by the villages where the altitude ranges between 1850-1900m. 

The border into South Africa is approximately 85km from Afriski. We go once a week down to the border and into South Africa to the town Fouriesburg (10km from border) or Bethlehem(45km from border) to do some training on the Tartan track in Bethlehem or Fouriesburg a gravel track witch are both around 1800m above sea level.

Afriski are still developing more and more for the summer months' activities. They’re getting some gym equipment like stationary bikes, treadmill and free weights aswell. The accommodation is exceptional by any standards.

We eat three balanced meals a day at the Sky Restaurant witch is the highest restaurant in Africa. There you can find Wi-Fi aswell.

The athletes range from 800m to 5000m runners and are all top South African athletes, mostly from Potchefstroom and then some other athletes tag along aswell from other training groups throughout South Africa. Guys from France and the UK have joined us too.

The reason why we choose to train here in Lesotho are when we go back to Potchefstroom to train with the other international athletes, we can train harder for longer and recover faster, thus it results in better performances and faster times every year for everyone. It is also a great place to build some natural power for running the hills and the roads are extremely good for the legs to keep you injury free. 

Ryan Sandes uses Lesotho in his preparation for endurance races aswell. In 2010 he became the first competitor to have won all four of the 4 Desert races, each a 250-kilometre (160 mi), 6/7-day, self-supported footrace through the Gobi Desert in China, the Sahara Desert in Egypt, Atacama Desert in Chile and lastly Antartica.

The Lesotho Olympic distance athletes also train here in the Maloti Mountains. It's a regular training facility for triathletes aswell.

Adriaan Geldenhuys, 16/1/2013

Monday, 14 January 2013

Guest Blog 1 - Tom Fairbrother from Kenya

As I've not been doing any travelling for a while now, and have very little to blog about these days, I have invited some other athletes to contribute guest blogs about their adventures at altitude.

Below is the first post from Tom Fairbrother who is spending some time in Kenya at the moment.  The postgives an interesting insight into his first impressions of Kenya, how easy it is to meet famous athletes there, and the drawbacks of trying to train at altitude when not fully fit.

Tom will be blogging regularly on his own blog: during his stay in Iten.  If you're training at altitude and have some interesting ovservations to report or photos to share, please do get in touch (


Kenya - Week One

Having spent a great Christmas and New Year's Eve with all my friends and family, I set off for my three month stay at the High Altitude Training Centre in Iten, Kenya.

Since booking the trip in September, I ran a great first Half Marathon in 1:12:30 but unfortuantely picked up a calf injury at mile 21 of my first Marathon, eventually finishing in 2:38:55 in Munich, which was 4-5 mins slower than I hoped for.

This subsequently heavily affected my training up to Christmas. I had a three week spell where I literally did not run at all and I had to pull out of several races, missed the whole XC season. When I did start to feel better and get back running, I found I would pick up little niggles that would mean 2-3 days off.

However, I still set off to the tiny village in Africa, which is still home to numerous WR holders and Olympic Champions from 800m to Marathon. I arrived after what seemed like an eternity, leaving my house at 3:30pm on Wednesday and not reaching the Camp until Friday at 10:30am.

I did not get through unscathed as I somehow managed to lose my bank card in transit, so I had to cancel it and request a new one. Natwest will only send it to your home address, so I will need to get my mum to post it out to me. Luckily I have enough cash to last a while.

On my internal flight and bus transfer to the camp was a UKA team, consisting of numerous high class athletes. Amongst them were Scott Overall (2:10 Marathon), Lynsey Sharp (Olympic 800m runner), Tom Lancashire (1500m), Michael Rimmer (800m), Eilish McColgan (Steeplechase).

Last by no means least is Mo Farah. He arrived today, with his room being fitted out with his own sofa, his own TV (the only other is in the lounge) & his own pillows/duvet! 

It will be great to watch him train, although it is probably optimistic hoping to tag along to one of his easy easy runs as I imagine he will keep himself to himself. I may however try and make sure I am conveniently starting my run as he heads out, and see what happens!

Training in Iten poses many challenges; for a starters it is located at an altitude of over 8000 feet, which is almost twice the height of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK! In addition, the miles and miles of orange trails are very firm and rough, with the routes themselves extremely undulating. 

As well as the British athletes, in the camp are a Dutch Marathon runner (forgot his name) ranked 5th in Europe & USA 1500m Olympic finalist Morgan Uceny, with more UK athletes expected next week. 

After unpacking and relaxing, I ran an easy 4m at just under 8:00 mile pace. The first run at altitude is always tough, simply due to the lack of oxygen being this high up. I actually felt okay, but am very conscious not to push things this early. A general rule is that your pace will be around 30secs a mile slower at altitude. 

My first full day (Saturday) I headed out at 7:10am with a runner called Nic from Colchester for an easy 5m (7:30 pace). Due to the location of the camp, which is situated on the top of a hill, the last 2 and a bit miles were all up hill, so I was blowing a little towards the end, although I did drop Nic with about 1 mile to go. 

After an hour of stretching, followed by a gym session, I had a massage as I was struggling with quite a sore back from the flight. The therapist who massaged me said he has worked with many champions at St Patricks School. He informed me that David Rudisha will be in Iten from the end of January and will be using the gym here at the camp.

The massage itself was brutal, lasting over 1 hour 15 minutes and costing only £11. He found my agonising pain hilarious, and said UK massages are to easy! 

I was relaxing in the Lounge and met Lornah Kiplogat, multiple World Champion and owner of the Camp, as well as the Chairman of the Kenya Athletics. As you do.

Saturday night I felt quite tired, which was definitely the case as I slept for 10.5 hours! I headed out for an easy run to check out the infamous Kamariny Stadium, where all the great Kenyans past & present do their track sessions.

Located 1.5 miles from the camp, I arrived at around 9am to find it completely empty, so I couldn't resist running on it. I ran 6 easy laps around the track. There is much speculation as to how long the track actually is, from 400-410m!

I then headed 1.5m back to camp, reaching 6:55 pace. However, I still managed to get dropped by a local wearing jeans and a shirt who I ran past. He was walking when I passed him, so I can only assume he couldn't resist smoking a foreign runner!

I did some more stretching on my return, followed by a core session in the gym and more sunbathing (29 degree again!) and then an easy 2.5m recovery run, making 7m total for the day.

So after my first two and a half days in Kenya, I have managed 17m and two gym sessions, so productive but still very watchful and cautious. I would say the biggest benefits of training in a camp is the extra time you have, normally occupied by work/family etc.

You have so much more time to warm-up, stretch, workout in the gym & mix with other runners. In addtion, the food is all cooked for you and is all perfect running fuel, low fat carbs, organic veg, protein etc. 

I am missing my friends and family, but the camp has wifi so I am in regular contact through FaceTime, and more successfully, WhatsApp, and I am only here for 13 weeks and will be home in no time.   

Being around such top athletes is certainly inspiring, so hopefully on my return in April I will be a leaner, stronger and faster runner, and more importantly have learned and benefited from the experience of living in Africa for three months. 

Tom Lyle Fairbrother, 6th Jan 2012