Saturday, 24 May 2014

Featured Country of the Month: USA

The United States has been our featured country for April and May (it got two months because there is so much on offer there), and over the last 8 weeks or so we've shared photos, facts and information about some of America's top altitude training venues.  This blog post aims to bring some of that information together, and to provide further insight into my experiences training at altitude there.

For me, one of the great advantages to training in the US, is the trails.  The country is covered with national and state parks, national and state forests, wilderness areas, and other federal lands. This means that there are large areas of lands which have free access to the public which are crossed by well marked multi-use trails, fire-roads and unpaved roads.  Towns such as Flagstaff and Boulder have a network of well-groomed trails, while towns such as Mammoth Lakes have access to a range of more rural tracks and trails. Whether your a trail runner looking for challenging single-track routes, or a speedy track runner looking for fast, flat, traffic-free roads for your sessions, there are usually plenty of options no matter where you are in the States.

Local trail maps can be purchased in most running shops and outdoor stores, or downloaded from the National Park Service website. Details of good trails for running can be found on the localeikki website, or through the websites of local trail providers (e.g. Flagstaff Urban Trail System, or City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks).

Many British athletes combine a stint of altitude training in the US, with early season track races on the US circuit.  The invitational and open meets in California (e.g. Stanford Invitational, Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, Mt Sac Relays, Oxy High Performance Meet) are particularly popular, and easily accessed from any of America's top altitude training destinations.  If you want an extra special racing experience, why not spend some time acclimatising before racing at altitude.  Good options include BolderBOULDER 10km and the Leadville 100 Trail in Colorado, the Sedona Marathon and Flagstaff Summer Series in Arizona, or the Duke City Marathon in Albuquerque.

There are a large number of towns and cities at altitude in the West and South Western states, and you shouldn't have too much difficulty finding somewhere at altitude to suit your needs.  If living in a large city is important to you, Albuquerque (NM) should be to your liking, while on the other end of the scale, Mt Laguna (CA), with a population of less than 100, is the perfect retreat for those looking for isolation.

Colorado, as the highest state, has a particularly large number of venues suitable for altitude training, including Boulder (1,655 m), which is probably the most popular, Colorado Springs (1,823 m), which is home to the USOC Altitude Training Centre, Mancos (2,137 m) and Estes Park (2,293 m).  California, too has good variety with the ski resorts of Mammoth Lakes (2,400 m), Lake Tahoe (1,897 m) and Big Bear Lake (2,058 m) offering good facilities and a choice of accommodation in the summer months, and Mt Laguna (1,749 m), a mostly snow-free getaway.  Flagstaff (2,100 m) is Arizona's premier altitude training spot; Park City (2,100 m) in Utah is growing in popularity; and New Mexico's offer includes Albuquerque (1,619 m), Santa Fe (2,134 m), Los Alamos (2,231 m) and Taos (2,124 m).

Outsider magazine recently reviewed their top 10 US altitude training sites.  Their feature can be found here.

I have visited Mammoth Lakes, Flagstaff, Boulder and Albuquerque, and while each has its merits, Flagstaff shone brightest for me.  The town is small enough that you can get by without a car, and you are never more than 50 metres from a trail.  The running community are very friendly, and there are many opportunities to run with the local athletes.  Albuquerque was, for me, the most over-rated, but I'm sure it would have been more appealing if I had stayed in the foothills and had had access to a car.

Mount Laguna is such a top secret training venue that it didn't even get a mention in Notes from Higher Grounds.  However, British steeplechase international Luke Gunn, gave us the low-down during his recent training stint there.

Cost of living, particularly in ski resorts like Mammoth Lakes, or trendy towns like Boulder, can be high. Accommodation is of a high standard, but can be expensive.  Groceries are a lot more expensive than in Europe, and though eating out is cheap, finding restaurants selling good, healthy food can sometimes be difficult.  Sports massage and gum access can also work out more expensive than back home.

It's very difficult to survive in the US without a car.  Even if there are public transport links, few people know about them, so getting directions by bus or train can be difficult.  The cost of car hire should be factored into your budget.

Athletes planning to race after returning to Europe from the US will have jet lag to overcome.  Travelling east results in more greater jet lag in most people than travelling west, so care should be taken when putting together your race plan.

If you would like to hear more about travelling to and training in Boulder, Albuquerque, Flagstaff or Mammoth Lakes, get yourself a copy of my book, Notes from Higher Grounds: an altitude training guide for endurance athletes here:

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Guest Blog 7: Luke Gunn from Mt Laguna

The latest guest blog post is from GB international steeplechaser, Luke Gunn, who is currently training in Mt. Laguna, California.  Luke has represented GB in the 3000m steeplechase at World Junior, European U23, and World University Games, has twice competed at Commonwealth Games, has a personal best of  8:28.48, and is a 4-time British Champion.  He has also represented GB at the European and World Cross Country Championship.  Luke combines athletics with a full-time job at University of Birmingham where he is the Sports Scholarship Manager, and mentors a range of up-and-coming athletes.  He is currently chasing the qualifying standards for this summer's European Championships and Commonwealth Games.

It is great to be in the mountains again, away from the bustling world.

This is my first time in Mt. Laguna, which is just short of an hour's drive from San Diego Airport along the I-8 into the Cleveland National Forest of California. We are only 20 minutes from the Mexican border, a fact which a wrong turn from the airport brought home to us with a bit of a shock.

Mt. Laguna is not a big place at all, unlike a lot of mountain resorts in the United States, this does not get much snow - so has not grown into a ski resort. Wikipedia shows the inhabitants to total 57, but if this is the case then they are excellent masters of disguise - as this is a very quiet corner of the world.

The only other altitude resort I have visited before in California was Mammoth Lakes, which looks like a metropolis in comparison to Laguna, so why have we ventured up here and why should others consider it as a training venue?

Mt. Laguna is elevated at 6,000 ft (1,800 m), which many physiologists agree to be the minimum height an elite athlete should sleep/train at in order to reap benefits of altitude training. Unlike many other altitude resorts, the vast amount of running can be done from the door with no need to drive to trailheads or paths (a big bonus for most runners I know). Also unlike a lot of 'ski resort' options in the U.S. the cost of living is nowhere near as expensive. The main accommodation is the Laguna Lodge, which has many cabins with or without kitchenettes, to rent all year round, which are basic but all you need to survive; and a friendly family run business.

The main attraction and what I believe stands Laguna alone from other altitude venues is that you can drive down to sea level in Lakeside or El Cajon, on the outskirts of San Diego, in just 30-35 minutes. I have never come across a venue that makes live-high, train-low such an accessible option. For this main reason, some elite track runners have been using Laguna to train for nearly 3 decades.

I am here to do exactly that, base myself at a workable altitude at minimal expense around racing the now international races of Payton Jordan Invite, held at Stanford University and the Oxy USA Track and Field meeting in Los Angeles - to try and qualify for the Commonwealth Games and European Championships this summer.

We believe that Irish running legend, Sonia O'Sullivan, discovered Laguna during her running career, and that because of her connection to Melbourne Track Club via her husband, Nic Bideau who is coach and manager to many members of the elite section of this club, and that this is why they use this base every April/May to kick off their main summer season.

We are here now with many member of this group including Australian Olympians Collis Birmingham, Ben St. Lawrence, Ryan Gregson, Geniveve LaCaze and Zoe Buckman. Along with many Irish internationals Paul Robinson, Laura Crowe and Paul Pollock, keeping Sonia's tradition with the location strong.

My wife, Hannah England, and I were connected to this group and the camp through fellow British International, Andy Vernon, who was kind enough to invite us along to experience the magic of Laguna. We have just come back from our first competition of the trip at the Payton Jordan invitational, all of us with good results, but the stand out performance going to Andy Vernon, who ran in an incredible 5,000m that saw 17 guys break 13.30. Andy himself ran a huge personal best of 13.11.50 to improve to joint 5th on the British all-time list!

There are 2 main places to run from the accommodation at Laguna Lodge, the Meadow and along the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), with many combinations and deviations possible from either of these sites. The PCT is a single track trail that runs from Mexico to Canada, and many hikers can be found along these at weekends and during vacation periods, at times you may well be lucky enough to come along some that are en route to walking the entire length, they will often be bearded men, sometimes barefoot, but I promise, pose no danger to you. This trail is severe in places, with some very tough climbs and descents, but most caution should be given to the uneven surface, which may find out the more delicate of runners.

The Meadow, which is a 2 mile descent from the lodge, offers the flattest running in the area, with a variety of loops to explore. This is where the Melbourne Track Club did there sessions at altitude, with threshold running, hill reps and a combination of both. They limit their sea-level exposure to once a week only at a high school track in Lakeside, to maximise benefits and make use of the terrain to aid their training. Please note it is a 2 mile climb back up from the meadow, so unless you drive down be prepared to work a little on the way home.

Another track which can be utilised is located in nearby Julian, which is a 20 minute drive along the Sunset Highway, dropping down to only 4,500 ft (1,300 m). This track is a little rough in places, but fine for those who do not wish to drop so low, or maybe just to do drills, hurdle walkovers or other technical work. Also at Julian, there is a small gym, which can be used on a fee per service basis ($11 per day) or a monthly membership for $60. Julian, is also a common stop-off point for hikers doing the PCT, and for this reason there are a few bakeries, cafes and pie shops which are worth a visit on the way home from the gym or track.

For me I love here, the weather is good but not too hot, the lifestyle is very relaxed but most importantly I have been welcomed into a group of fellow runners with similar goals, who train hard but know how to relax and wile away the hours between runs - although they seem to have stopped wanting to play me at poker after taking all their money, whoops!

Many of the group are running at the Oxy High Performance meeting on May 15th, at which point I will have to say goodbye to Mt. Laguna and the United States for another year to get home to race the rest of the season; which will hopefully include the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and European Championships in Zurich.

Thanks to Luke for taking the time to share his experiences, and to give such a comprehensive account of all that Mt. Laguna has to offer.

Photos to follow.