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 to help plan his trips.

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