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.

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