Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Last Minute Christmas Gift Ideas for Runners

Those of you who've read my book, or followed my blog from the beginning will know that I've got a little bit of an obsession with books.  And I'm mad into that running malarkey! And Christmas is fast approaching. With that in mind, this post is all about running books and related gifts that you can buy for the runner in your life, or, of course, for yourself.

5. Town of Runners (DVD; Jerry Rothwell)

I went along to watch this movie in London when it was released in 2012, and was instantly reminded of the beauty of Ethiopia.  The documentary tracks the progress of a group of young athletes from Bekoji, Ethiopia - the town which has produced such distance running legends as Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba - and portrays some of the difficulties encountered by those wishing to follow in the footsteps of their heroes.  Ethiopia is beautiful, Ethiopian running is beautiful, and this story will, no doubt, have you wanting to visit the East African highlands.

4. Wild Running: 150 Great Adventures on the Trails and Fells of Britain (Jen Benson and Sim Benson)

This is a guidebook for those who dream of exploring Britain's forest, mountain and coastal trails.  It includes 150 hand-picked runs, chosen for their sensational beauty and simple navigation, for those looking for a relaxed, scenic run, or a 'hard-as-nails' challenge.  Route maps, photographs and trail descriptions are included, along with information on safety and training advice.  Ideal gift for anybody who enjoys running off-road.

3. From Last to First (Charlie Spedding)

There are far too many running autobiographies to mention, and to be honest, I was starting to feel that once you read one, you'd read them all.  That was until I read this simple, yet inspiring and useful book. In telling his life story, Spedding shares useful tips and advice, and the alternative approach to autobiography will have inspired to train like never before.

2. Believe Training Journal (Lauren Fleshman and Roisin McGettigan-Dumas)

This is a great gift for any female runner.  The year-long journal, written by two professional athletes who have been there and done that, inspires and educates, covering an important aspect of training each month - from goal setting and setbacks to nutrition and body image.  The journal isn't dates, so can be used at any time of  the year, but what better time to get stuck in than when the new year begins?

1. Notes from Higher Grounds (Elizabeth Egan - yes that's me!)

It would be a bit daft for me to write a blog about running books and gifts and not put my own publication in the number 1 spot.  This book is all about altitude training destinations; it is a sort of travel guide for runners, but isn't just for serious athletes.  Anybody that has ever dreamed of training with the Kenyans, or running along endless mountain trails will love this book.  I was whole-heartedly passionate about this project from the very beginning, and four years later, published a book full of tips, photos and advice to inspire other athletes to use running to explore the world.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Altitude Training Options: South Africa and Lesotho

South Africa’s diverse natural beauty and pleasant climate (most of the year) make it a popular tourist destination.  It’s colourful political past also make it an interesting place to visit, and once you’ve saved for the airfare, travel is relatively cheap.  Security and personal safety are, however, always a concern, and visitors should take reasonable precautions against crime, particularly in the large cities.  Trips can be very rewarding, and facilities are generally better than elsewhere in Africa.  Best of all, South Africa provides a great opportunity to train in a warm, pleasant climate during the northern hemisphere winter.

Potchefstroom is possibly the best known of the altitude training destinations in South Africa, but, while the facilities there are excellent, at 1,350m above sea level it is hardly high enough to initiate an altitude training response.

The small tourist town of Dullstroom (2,080m), located east of Johannesburg, is a much less well known training spot, but has a greater variety of trails, is safer, has an excellent choice of holiday accommodation, and is considerably higher.  The area is particularly beautiful, but lacks a track and other training facilities.

Photos from my trips to Potchefstroom and Dullstroom can be viewed here. There are blogs from South Africa  hereherehere and here.

Somewhere that has excellent facilities for many sports is the High Performance Centre (www.hpc.co.za) at the University of Pretoria, where there is more than 70 hectares of land dedicated to sports facilities.  The centre’s altitude is approximately 1,350m, with areas up to 1,500m within the city.

Johannesburg also has some altitude training possibilities, though the city’s reputation for crime is a major turn-off for foreign visitors.

The entire area of Lesotho, a small country which is completely surrounded by South Africa, sits above 1,400 m of altitude.  Covered with rugged mountains and spectacular scenery, Lesotho has a massive tourism potential, and authorities there are beginning to develop altitude training opportunities.  AfriSki resort (3,030m) and Mohale Village (2,200m) are among the currently available options.

Adriaan Geldenhuys wrote a guest blog on altitude training in Lesotho for us in 2013.

Potchefstroom and Dullstroom are detailed in Notes from Higher Grounds: An Altitude Training Guide for Endurance Athletes.  The book also contains further information on training options in Pretoria and Lesotho.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Altitude Training Options: Ethiopia

Ethiopia is less well known as an altitude training destination than neighbouring Kenya, but the opening of excellent training facilities like Yaya Village and the success of the 2012 film Town of Runners have done much to increase the country’s appeal.  Indeed, Ethiopia’s tourism potential across the board is considerably underdeveloped, and many are surprised to learn of the country’s beauty, cultural diversity, and friendlessness, and that Ethiopia has nine UNESCO world heritage sites!

Sululta, a small town just 11 kilometres north of Addis Ababa, is where many of the athletes who live in the capital carry out their daily training sessions.  It is also home to Yaya Village, a purpose-built training resort which has attracted athletes from across the world since it opened in 2011.  The eucalyptus forests, dirt roads, and grass clearings make for varied running terrain, and the recent opening of a synthetic track, owned by multiple Olympic Champion and world record holder Kenenisa Bekele, is a significant addition for those with a need for speed. 

Those who want to get to the real heart grass roots Ethiopian distance running can visit Bekoji, aka Town of Runners, a small town south west of Addis Ababa.  The town has produced athletes who, between them, have won 10 Olympic gold medals, broken more than a dozen world records, and won more than 30 world championship titles.  Derartu Tulu, Kenenisa and Tariku Bekele, and Ejegayehu, Tirunesh and Genzebe Dibaba.  Visitors to the town have the opportunity to watch the next generation of world-beaters train, and to meet the coach who guided the aforementioned stars in their earlier years.

The Great Ethiopian Run is the largest road race in Africa, and each year it attracts hundreds of overseas participants wishing to test themselves against the altitude, the heat, and more than 10,000 other runners and joggers.

Blogs from my 2010 visit include: Ethiopia by Picture, Farewell Africa...For Now,  This is Ethiopia, Can I be a 'Funrunner' for a Day?, The Carb Queen is Dead and Gone,  and Addis, while during my 2014 visit I blogged about meeting Haile Gebreselaise, wrote about my trip to Bekoji, and summarised my trip in a photo blog. Shane Benzie from Running Reborn wrote a guest piece about training in Bekoji for us in July, 2014.

Additional photos can be viewed here (2014 visit) and here (2010 visit).

More information on altitude training in Ethiopia, and details  of how to arrange a trip there can be found in Notes from Higher Grounds: an Altitude Training Guide for Endurance Athletes.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Altitude Training Options: Rest of Europe

Over the past few months, I have posted brief summaries of altitude training options in France and Andorra, Spain and the Canary Islands, and Switzerland.  In this post, I look at some of the other options for altitude training across Europe and summarise the general pros and cons of training on the continent.

The mountainous areas of Continental Europe provide scenic training options; however, unlike the Rift Valley or the elevated Plateaus found in North America, these options are mountainous, and not particularly suited for those who don’t fancy running up and down the side of a mountain. Additionally, because of Europe’s distance from the equator, the snow-free season is relatively short, and, at best, stretches from April to September. Most of the available options are based in ski resorts, making them expensive compared to African or North American options.  There are few options to live above 2,000m.

Despite the above drawbacks, there are many advantages to staying in Europe for altitude training.  Budget airlines operate regular flights to most European cities, so getting there, at least, can be relatively cheap.  Even Teneriffe, the furthest away the European options, is served by Ryanair flights from the UK and elsewhere.  As mentioned previously, the European mountains are particularly beautiful, as tranquil glacial lakes contrast with the dramatic mountainous landscape.  The pine forests, with well-groomed trails, that cover many of the mountainous regions, are ideal for care-free off-road running.  There are endless opportunities for trail and fell runners, and trails are generally located close to the hotel and accommodation options.  Europe also offers numerous ‘live high; train low’ options.  There are few safety issues.  And for track runners, getting out races on the European circuit is generally quite easy.

Some of the options available include
  • Turracher Hohe, Austria (1,763m) – A small ski resort approximately 60 km north-west of Klagenfurt.
  • Kuhtai, Austria (2,020m) – A well-equipped, visitor-friendly resort located just 40 km west of Innsbruck. 
  • Rila Mountains, Bulgaria (2,050m) – An isolated area with a well-equipped sports facility specifically designed for altitude training.
  • Sestriere, Italy (2,035m) – A ski resort in the Italian Alps close to the French border, which boasts an athletics track, and is popular among road cyclists and racewalkers.
  • Livigno, Italy (1,816m) – A ski resort in Lomardy, close to the Swiss border, which is particularly appealing to mountain bikers.
If you know of any other altitude training hotspots in Europe, please let us know.  We'd love to share with our community.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Altitude Training Options in Spain

Sierra Nevada in southern Spain is one of Europe’s best known altitude training destinations alongside Font Romeu in France and St. Moritz in Switzerland,  The excellent facilities at CAR Sierra Nevada make it a good option for a variety of sports, but the lack of suitable trails means that it doesn't attract the same number of distance runners as the other aforementioned options.

Another Spanish option is Tenerife in the Canary Islands.  Mount Teide, an active volcano in the centre of the island, is particularly popular among professional cyclists.  The weather and the ability to ‘live high; train low’ are among the draws.  However, the expensive Parador Hotel de Canadas del Teide (2,146 m) is the only accommodation option at altitude, and it’s quite isolated from ‘civilisation’.

Sierra Nevada is one of the options featured in Notes from Higher Grounds: An Altitude Training Guide for Endurance Athletes, and further details of CAR Sierra Nevada can be found on www.carsierranevada.com.

Blog reports from my visit to Sierra Nevada can be found here and here.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Featured Country of the Month: Morocco

Over the course of September we featured Morocco as an altitude training destination.  The North African country has a rich distance running history, and though the reputation of many of their champions has been marred by less than exemplary doping records, there is no doubt but that the residents of Ifrane, the most popular of it’s altitude training destinations, appreciate and understand athletics.

Ifrane is a small town situated at 1665m of altitude in the Middle Atlas.  It has a track, a good variety of trails, and other facilities for athletes.   It’s functions as a university town, ski resort and as a tourist rest spot, means that there are good restaurants and some comfortable hotels and apartments, and cheap budget flights to Fez, less than an hour away, make it an easily accessible option for European athletes looking to try something a little bit different.

Large areas of the country are mountainous, and adventurous runners will find many more training options, particularly well suited to trail and fell runners, within the Middle and High Atlas Mountains.  Earlier in September Howard Chambers wrote guest post for us on the relative merits of Imlil as an altitude training spot.

Ifrane one of 15 venues featured in my book Notes from Higher Grounds: An Altitude Training Guide for Distance Runners, which can be purchased on Amazon for just £20.  Below is a sneak peak of the Ifrane chapter of the book.

Photos from my visit can be viewed on both Facebook and FlickR

And blog posts detailing my experiences in the town can be viewed here and here.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Guest blog 8: Howard Chambers on Imlil in Morocco

To coincide with our Featured Country of the Month focus on Morocco, the latest guest blog post is a short piece about Imlil in Atlas Mountains, thanks to Howard Chambers of The Right Altitude.  I've not visited, but if the pictures are anything to go by, it looks like a beautiful option, particularly for trail runners.

Set at 1,820 metres, the village of Imlil sits below the towering Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco and in fact North Africa. Imlil, and its surrounding valleys, is a world apart from the bustle of the city, and a place of peace and seclusion.

The high Berber villages in this region are connected by centuries-old donkey tracks and are still the only way of accessing many of the most remote mountain villages. These paths and tracks offer an unparalleled running experience for the trail runner wanting to train at altitude.

The area offers all year round opportunities, though snow often lies low into the valleys in mid-winter, but summers are much cooler than temperatures than low lying Marrakech with an alleged 300 days of sunshine.

The area also offers a yearly Etape cycle ride and is regarded as one of the toughest in the calendar, with some 40k of ascent to the ski slopes close by.

Thanks to Howard for the information and beautiful photos.  Imlil is located approximately 60 km south Marrakesch, and can be reached by grand taxi through the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains.  Budget airlines Ryanair and Easyjet operate flights to Marrakesch from the UK.  Luxury accommodation is available in the Kasbah (pictured above).

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Featured Country of the Month: France and Andorra

France is bordered to the east by the Alps and to the west by the Pyrenees, meaning that a considerable amount of the country is located as altitude.  The tiny principality of Andorra, which borders France, consists mainly of mountainous terrain, and has an average altitude of just under 2,000m.  While the steep inclines of the mountainous regions are most suitable for cyclists, the town of Font Romeu (1,850m) is a popular altitude training destination for athletes in a range of sports, including athletics, triathlon and swimming.  The ski resort is home to CNEA, the official French altitude training base.

Font Romeu is one of the most popular training bases in Europe, if not the world, and has been used by many of the world's best distance runners, including Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah.  It has been one of British Athletics altitude training bases since 2010, and is a particularly popular sport among the Irish distance-running elite.

Font Romeu isn't just for elite athletes though.  The friendly town is suitable for anybody wishing to enjoy the great outdoors, and runners of all levels will appreciate the varied trails, and beautiful views.  Trail runners will find suitable routes in all directions, and speed demons can access fast, flat routes a short drive away. There is a variety of activities on offer, and a holiday in Font Romeu doesn't have to be based solely on running.

Pros: There are excellent facilities, including a track in the town, gym facilities and two swimming pools.  Numerous budget airlines fly to the airports in the region, including Perpignan, Barcelona, Girona, Montpellier, Carcassonne and Toulouse.  It is relatively easy to get to and from races around Europe during the track season.  There is an excellent choice of self catering accommodation.

Cons: Food and accommodation can be expensive during the peak season. It is necessary to travel to get to flat training loops.  English is not widely spoken in the town.

Photos of my visit to Font Romeu can be viewed via Facebook and FlickR

We've had a few guest blog posts about Font Romeu over the last year, including:

Q and A blog with Dean Cunningham, aspiring 10km runner who has trained in Font Romeu
Guest blog from young triathlete Sam Laidlow who studies and trains in Font Romeu
Guest blog from Irish International Steeplechaser Kerry O'Flaherty who owns an apartment in the town.

In addition, the following is a post that I wrote during my visit to Font Romeu in 2010:
Font Romeu Updates 

We'd love to hear from anyone that has done altitude training in Andorra, or elsewhere in France, particularly in the French Alps.  Please comment below or email info@altitudetrainingcamps.com.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Guest Q&A: Dean Cunningham on Font Romeu

The latest blog post is a Q&A piece with running enthusiast, and relative newcomer to the sport, Dean Cunningham.  Dean, from Inverness in Scotland, has visited Font Romeu twice and agreed to share his perspective as a non-elite runner on the French altitude training base.  I am forever reassuring athletes of all levels that they don’t have to be international athletes with Olympic aspirations to train in these great venues, and I think what Dean has to say reiterates that point.

Altitude Training Camps (ATC) Dean, thanks for volunteering to answer some questions about your altitude training experiences in Font Romeu.  As means of introduction, can you give us a bit of background about you and your running?

Dean Cunningham (DC) I first started running in September 2011 purely to give me something to do. I clocked 36:30 for 10k on the road in March 2012 off approximately 25 miles per week, which just consisted of casual running and no structured training or sessions. Shortly after that I started training with Inverness Harriers AAC and despite a few injuries through late 2012 and early 2013; I have been training "properly" for about 18 months now. 2014 has been a good year; I have progressed quite a lot and currently run 80-90 miles per week, including 2-3 sessions and 2 weights sessions. I’ve now run 33 flat for 10k, so progression is coming along nicely, although that’s nowhere near as fast as I want and I know this is just the start of what’s to come.

I work 37 hours a week in server/infrastructure technical support, which is mentally challenging in itself, but usually still manage to run twice a day. It is hard to fit all of the training around work, but I know what I want from myself and I am willing to work hard for it. And I have to pay the bills as well unfortunately!

I love running mostly because you get out what you put in. If you are willing to work hard and put in the training, the progress you can see from yourself can be awesome. In reality it’s all still very new to me, I am constantly learning, but seeing myself progress and get fitter, faster and stronger is a huge motivator. I have never been one to ask myself “what if…”, so giving it as much as I can to see where I can get to is the only option for me.

ATC As a non-elite runner, what attracted you to Font Romeu?

DC I remember reading and watching videos of Ryan Hall training up in Mammoth and Flagstaff. It looked amazing and I started wondering if there were places in Europe where athletes went to live high. I found lots of information online about St. Moritz and Font Romeu and it all started from there. Initially the biggest attraction was that it seemed so accessible to anybody and is just a short flight and car journey from the UK.

ATC You’ve been to Font Romeu twice. Tell us about your visits.

DC My first visit was in May 2012. I went with my girlfriend for 2 weeks. This trip was more a relaxing holiday with lots of running thrown in. We are not lovers of sitting on the beach, and love busy/crowded places even less, so Font Romeu ticked all of the boxes for us. It was fantastic in every way; we both loved it and after the 14 nights we were both genuinely upset at having to leave. The lifestyle, weather, scenery, just everything about the place was perfect.

My second visit was from late April to early May 2014 - 16 nights in total - with a teammate from Inverness. We shared an apartment with Irish International Eoin Everard for the first week and then with Irish 800m record holder Roseanne Galligan.  This trip was more of a training stint at altitude than a holiday - eat, sleep and train in the French Pyrenees. It was awesome.

ATC How did you find the altitude?

DC It’s really noticeable, or at least it is as soon as you do something other than normal walking or standing around. For some reason, people think you’ll get out of the car, draw a deep breath and it’ll be really apparent. But it’s not. It’s when you tackle the hotel/apartment stairs with your 20kg suitcase that you get found out and wonder what on earth is happening to you. I think in the grand scheme of things I was really OK with the altitude and acclimatised well. After 7 days you think you feel fine and you are back on sea level terms, but after 10 days you feel better still and realise at 7 days you were nowhere near usual sea level terms. It is definitely a long gradual process of your body readjusting and coping with the altitude and it’s really interesting to observe.

The only advice I had on training at altitude was taken from the Internet and books I had read, including Jack Daniels’ book [Daniels Running Formula], which has a good section on altitude. Eoin was on his 3rd stint at altitude and was very helpful. There are no set rules or laws; being able to listen to your body and gauge how to shape your training around that is always the best approach, but help and advice from others can really help.  Don’t be worried if after 5 days you still feel tired and struggling to run easy whilst your training buddy is smashing out miles on the track! Everyone is different.

ATC Do you feel that you benefited from training in Font Romeu, and if so, in what ways?

I benefitted massively. Most think the thin air/red blood cell increase is what it’s all about but that’s only a small part of it. Structuring your days around nothing but training and having that time to properly recover is a major benefit.

Living and training with high level athletes and seeing how they trained and structured their day was another major learning experience I brought home and try to apply to my own training now.

All these experiences and lessons learnt out in Font Romeu are the cake, with the fact you are up high and receiving the benefits of thin air being the icing on that cake. Since coming back months ago now, the natural altitude stimulation effects are of course gone, but I am training as hard, running faster and I am fitter.

ATC What are the highlights of Font Romeu for you?

DC The main highlights for me about FR though would be:

Accessibility to trails - Within 5 to 15 mins of the town itself there are countless options for runs/sessions. No matter what you have planned, on your doorstep is the ideal place to do it.

Facilities - It might be in the middle of nowhere up a mountain (which is a GOOD thing!) but it has everything. Track, gyms, pools, multiple supermarkets. This would be plenty, but then you have all the little things such as bakeries, butchers, cafĂ©’s. And again, it’s all on the doorstep. It’s a home from home.

Weather - It’s fantastic! It hit 29 degrees when I was there the first year. This year was not so warm but every day was sunshine and very little, if any, rain or bad winds. In my 2 stays there, I have never even had to consider moving or altering my training plans because of weather.

Lifestyle - It’s all about training. So having that time in the middle of the day to actually recover, eat at the right times and sleep at the right times makes a massive difference. The French people have their downtime in the middle of the day also; everything is just so laid back and easygoing compared to back home. I could genuinely live and follow the way the people in FR structure their daily life - it makes so much sense to me.

ATC Does Font Romeu have any drawbacks?

DC It’s a French town, everyone speaks French and very little, if any, English. This is not a drawback to me personally. I loved having to pick up the language. The locals love it when they see you after 2 weeks and you are able to have a conversation with them.

Another would be that you ideally need a car to get around. It’s a manageable trip with no car but the convenience of having one is not to be underestimated. You are on the edge of a mountain, it is pretty remote, so whilst everything is really on the doorstep of the town, it’s those 5 and 10 minute drives to trails and places to train which are just a lot more manageable with a car. Hire cars are cheap enough for 2 weeks or longer and well worth it if you are sharing the cost with others. 

ATC Would you recommend Font Romeu to a friend?

DC Absolutely! I never shut up about the place. Everyone wishes I would move there and stop telling them how great it is. I recommend it to friends and colleagues, they all assume it’s just for athletes but it’s the ideal different from the norm escape with lots of amazing things to see and do.

Font Romeu is everything you want it to be - whether it’s a relaxing break, hard training stint or a mixture of both. Whatever your level, you can visit for the same reasons that elite athletes do; living and training in an excellent environment isn’t just for people at the higher end of athletics. Font Romeu is accessible and beneficial to everyone.

ATC Do you have any future altitude training plans?

DC I would love to someday live and train in Albuquerque, NM as it looks fantastic out there, not because I am a massive Breaking Bad fan, honestly….  

ATC Is there anything else that you would like to add?

DC Thank you very much for the interview, I really hope my rambling does help someone out there and encourages others to head to FR and see how amazing it is.

Finally, thank you to Kerry O’Flaherty.  She was a great help and hostess for my latest trip.  Her apartment can be rented and it is one of the best places to stay in FR, especially for athletes.

Massive thanks to Dean (pictured above at the track in Font Romeu), and we wish him continued success in the sport.  It’s nice to hear that he used the resources on  www.altitudetrainingcamps.com to help plan his trips.

If you liked what Dean had to say, show your appreciation and give him a follow on Twitter: @xdcx88.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Featured country of the month: Switzerland

Switzerland is our featured country for June.  With large portions of the country situated in the mountains, it's not surprising that there are some towns and villages located at altitude, but elevated valleys, such as the Engadin, means that you won't always be running up the side of a mountain!

All this month we have been featuring Switzerland and it's altitude training venues on twitter and facebook. Here are some of the country's altitude training highlights.

St Moritz (1,856m) is by far the most popular destination, and is the Swiss national altitude training base. The town is one of the oldest ski resorts in the world, has twice hosted the Winter Olympic Games, and hosts a range of weird and whacky sports and activities on ice and snow in the winter months.  The lakes, forests and mountains which surround the resort, aren't just a winter playground, however, and there is ideal training terrain and facilities for distance runners, cyclists and triathletes, among others.

St. Moritz is particularly beautiful, and there is lot of beautiful scenery to enjoy both while training, and when relaxing afterwards.  The flat trail circles the lake ....

... and well-groomed, undulating trails criss-cross the forests that surround the town.

Pontresina (1,805) and Samaden (1,721m) are located a short distance from St. Moritz, and are both popular bases in their own right.  The same trail system links the three towns, and there is a variety of holiday accommodation available across the whole area, which may be cheaper than St. Moritz.  Pontresina has a swimming pool, and there are good facilities for a variety of sports in Samaden, which also has flat paved routes particularly suitable for racewalking.

There are also a number of towns west of St. Moritz with access to the trails, including the lake-side Champfer (1,825 m) and Silvaplana (1,815 m), both pictured below.

Davos (1,560) is also used as an official Swiss Olympic training base, and it's moderate altitude and excellent facilities makes it a popular choice.There are excellent facilities for a range of sport, both in Davos, and in nearby Kloisters (1,179m), and an excellent network of hiking and biking trails in the area.

Notes from Higher Grounds: An altitude training guide for endurance athletes  features a whole chapter on St. Moritz, and the surrounding towns and villages, and as well as practical advice on how to get there, where to stay, and when to go, has interesting facts about the town and its sorting history.  The book can be purchased here for the special price of just £18 for the month of June.

St. Moritz is without doubt the most beautiful venue that I visited, and I took the opportunity to take lots of photos.  More pictures can be found on facebook and flickR

Monday, 2 June 2014

Training in Kenya: the low-down

I still remember the smell in Nairobi airport, and the excitement I felt when travelling to the centre of Nairobi, on my first visit to Kenya in 2005.  The next day I would be travelling by bus along the edge of the Rift Valley to Iten, the heart of the most successful distance running community in the world, and I could barely contain my excitement.  Back then I still had big dreams in athletics.  I had competed for Ireland at the World University Cross Country Championships the previous year, and now that I had my PhD out of the way, I wanted to reach the next level in the sport.

Things rarely work out as planned.  My athletics career never took off.  But unknown to me then, that trip to Kenya planted the seeds for a much greater adventure, and in ways I could never have dreamed of, led to successes away from the track.  Almost nine years later, I published a book on altitude training venues around the world, which was inspired by that first trip.  I developed a love-affair with Africa, and have been back numerous times, expanding my world view, and a developing a relaxed attitude to life that has since served me well.  This piece will look at why Kenya is such a great training venue, and why runners of all levels can be enchanted by the country’s simple beauty and friendly people.

Accessibility to athletes
If you want to train among the stars, Kenya is the place to go.  Though Ethiopia often challenges Kenya on the medals table at major championships, Kenya’s medals are generally distributed among a greater number of athletes.  When it comes to middle and long distance events, no country has more world medallists.  And in few countries are the athletes so accessible.

Over the years I have trained in the same gym as David Rudisha, been introduced to Saif Saaeed Shaheen, and met Sammy Korir, then the second fastest marathoner in history, without even being aware that he was a world class athlete.  That’s not to mention all the current and future stars that I’ve watched train on the dirt tracks at Kamariny and Chepkoilel, and been passed by on the trails around Iten.  And it’s not just the Kenyans that train here.  Double world and Olympic champion Mo Farah spends long stints training in Kenya, as do a number of Europe’s other top distance runners.  More recently, American distance runners have been sampling what Kenya has to offer.

Despite their success, there is no pretension among the majority of Kenya’s best runners.  They all know that they are only ever one bad race away from being a forgotten name, as the next talented teenager takes the spotlight.  They come across as humble, and are always encouraging of visiting athletes of all levels.  If you happen on a Kenyan athlete on a recover run, they are likely to run at your pace, but don’t expect them to show any mercy during a workout.  If you’re really lucky, you will get to know the athletes a bit better, and may even be invited to share ugali or chi in their homes.

Endless dirt roads
One of the highlights of training in Kenya is the seemingly endless choice of dirt roads to train on.  Most roads are not paved – a welcome respite to injury-prone legs – and even those that are, have a dirt trail running alongside them.  The terrain is mostly undulating, with long challenging drags and small hills, but not mountainous.  Many towns around Eldoret have dirt tracks, which are great for low impact workouts, and short recovery runs when you’re looking for relief from the hills.

Most of the Rift Valley area north of Nairobi is situated at a moderate altitude (1,600 m to 2,400 m), the ideal elevation range for inducing an altitude training response.  You don’t have to be an elite athlete to benefit from altitude, and runners of all levels will find it easier to run when they return to sea level.  Visitors should aim to stay for at least 3-4 weeks, and reduce the volume of training for at least the first 10 days.  Training too hard is the most common reason for not responding to training at altitude.

Cultural experience
It’s not just the running culture that you’ll get to sample – Kenya is a great place to go to experience everyday African life.  From taking a trip in a matatu to visiting a local market, the simplest of daily tasks can provide a wonderful insight into the Kenyan way of life.  Try grinding corn and making your own ugaili, attempt to get your shoes as clean as the locals do, and marvel at the core stability required to cycle a bike stacked high with cases of coca-cola, a few chickens and large bunches of bananas.

Where to visit
Thanks to the successes of past students of the local St. Patrick’s High School, Iten is probably the most famous of all the Kenyan training bases.  Athletes from all over the Rift Valley flock to the town in the hope of becoming the next champion.  Lornah Kiplagat’s world renowned High Altitude Training Centre (HATC), has hosted athletes from right across the world, and has a well equipped gym, swimming pool, and the most recent addition, a 400m Tartan track.  Kerio View is also a good place for athletes to stay, and the 400m dirt track at Kamariny is where all the athletes train.

The nearby city of Eldoret is also home to hundreds of aspiring and accomplished distance runners.  It has a greater choice of shops, restaurants and services than Iten.  Athletes can usually be spotted around Kip Keino Stadium on the east of the city, where a lot of local competitions are held, and at Chepkoilel track on Chepkoilel University College Campus approximately 10 km east of the city.

Athletes also live and stay in other towns around Eldoret, including Kaptagat, Kapsabet and Mosoriot.  Mosoriot, located in the Nandi Hills, 30 km west of Eldoret, is a recently developed option for western athletes looking to train in Kenya while getting the authentic village experience.  The Rift Valley Running Center, run mainly by Run for Life volunteers, opened there in 2005.  Visitors stay in basic, but adequate, accommodation at the centre, eat traditional Kenyan food at the adjacent Cafe Milka, train on the dirt trails around the centre, do workouts at the nearby Mosoriot Teachers Training College, and do weights sessions in the centre’s gym.  The centre is located close to Eldoret Airport

College or university students can volunteer to be part of one of the many projects operated by Run for Life in the area.  Visitors can choose to run the Rift Valley Marathon, half marathon or team relay which takes place nearby every March. Runners of all levels are welcome at the centre, and, in association with Run for Life, we’re offering one lucky middle or long distance athlete the chance to stay at the Rift Valley Running Centre free of charge for 6 weeks during winter 2015.  The winner will be responsible for covering their own travel and food costs during the stay.

Competition entry is now closed.  Winners will be announced shortly.