Monday, February 13, 2012

Feet in the clouds: Annagh Hill race report

The first thing we saw when we climbed out of the bus outside the race registration was the ‘the wall’. This was the name aptly given to the ‘face’ of Annagh Hill which, on this day, rose forebodingly up into the clouds. There would be no messing around with switch-backs or fire roads here: we would have to follow a rustic stone wall directly up the side of Annagh hill.

After a seamless registration process and a briefing from Race Director, Paul Joyce, the race kicked off at a pace that hinted at the trepidation of the leading runners. After 800 metres we took a right hand turn onto the side of the mountain and changed into a low gear for the climb. Turlough Conway took to the front early on, with the rest of the field close on his heels. By the time we reached the first summit and negotiated the ditches at craters across the grassy ridge, visibility was down to about 25 metres and I was chasing the shadows of Turlough, Allan Kelly, and Eanna Cunnane in the mist ahead.

I lost sight of the lads as the route descended and turned right into a forest. When I entered the forest I wasn’t sure whether to cross over the stone wall or to keep to the left of it. The markings indicated a different route from what I had expected. I stopped to assess my options and tentatively scouted down the wrong trail, before Eoin Keith called me back and took off with Paul Tierney down what turned out to be the correct path. I went after them, frustrated but glad for the company. I didn’t know it at the time, but just moments earlier Allan and Eanna had taken a wrong turn at this junction.

Immediately I fell into a deep bog up to my thigh, went in with my hands and then awkwardly attempted to ‘race’ back out of it. Paul Joyce had warned us of three huge puddles on the latter section of the course, but we weren’t there yet. Apparently relative to other hazards, this enormous mud-pool hadn’t even warranted a mention.

The next section was a nasty muddy section through a partially felled forest. Fancy footwork and intense concentration was required to plot the optimal route around/or through the mud, over or under branches and logs that blocked the track. Before long we reached the relative sanctuary of a fire-road. Free at last to open up and inject some pace. My road running instincts kicked in and I careered down the trail around the back of the course in pursuit of the lads. I moved ahead of Paul and Eoin as we hit the inclined switch-back fire-road back towards the ridge. However, the nice firm gritted trail wasn’t to last.  A few minutes later we were back on the boggy ridge. Eoin was gone, but I was closely followed by Paul. Surprisingly we were still climbing, back up towards the top of Annagh Hill. I knew it was going to be a close contest.

Oh right… here are the big puddles. Well, at least they’re puddles (perhaps the term ‘lake’ would be more appropriate) rather than mud-pools. The first two lakes passed by without trouble since we could skirt around the edge. The third pool required commitment. It feels wrong to run at pace into water, when you can’t see what’s underneath the surface and wonder whether you might end up completely submerged. But it was essential, so I accelerated into the water at full speed, and became engulfed in what seemed like a wave of freezing water. My lungs seized as if I’d just dived off the 40-foot pier on Christmas Day.

Happily we reached the top of Annagh hill and took a hard left towards home. Paul passed me out before the brow of the hill, and I sat in behind him, ready to turn it up on the descent. This was the infamous and treacherous descent known as ‘Enduro Falls’, where Eoin Keith took a fall and broke his leg in a battle with Kevin Keane in last year’s inaugural running of the event. I could now fully appreciate the potential for carnage on this hill. For those who weren’t there: imagine the jagged rocks and gradient of Croagh Patrick combined with the mud of Powerscourt ridge. Nasty.

I was adamant that this race would not end my season before it has even begun. My new pair of Inov8 Talon 212 held on exceptionally well and the mud under the rocks meant that there was more give in the surface, so Paul and I flew down the steep trail that wound right and left towards the start finish line. Paul clipped his toe on a muddy rock at one point and just about repeated history, but managed to stay on his feet. This did nothing to sway his confidence, and I wasn’t able to overtake him on the jagged path. We reached the fire-road at the bottom, I was a few metres behind him. I wasn’t giving him an inch, but neither was he. With 400 metres to go, I tried to draw on last year’s speed work to produce some sort of kick, but unfortunately Paul also put the hammer down and all I managed was to hold ground and follow him over the line.

Not the result I was hoping for, but nevertheless a satisfactory start to the season.    

Well done to Turlough Conway, who continued his run of form and dominated the race from start to finish. A big thank you to Paul Joyce and his team of volunteers, without whom this event wouldn’t have taken place. Thanks to Mick Hanney for the pics.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dublin Intermediate XC 2011

Team Rathfarnham (look at the camera... stupid)

Yesterday marked the penultimate race of what, for me, been a long and demanding year of competitive running and training.

In recent years, November has represented my ‘post-Autumn marathon’ off-season. A time of year when the mileage is reduced for a few weeks and you’ll be more likely to find me at a gig, or sitting by the fire in a local pub, than running a set of 400 metre repeats on the track. But this year is different. Since I’ve put marathon running on the back-burner, I’m now working to a new schedule that has me racing right up until mid-December. Whilst I am not, in principle, averse to the extended season, my body seems unwilling to cooperate.

After running well and training hard through the summer, I hit form in September. The run-of-form culminated in a solid performance at the national half marathon (1:12:15), and another decent run at the Dublin Novice XC Championships. However, it wasn’t to last. At this point, I have to cast my mind back several weeks to the last time that I ran well and felt a spring in my stride. It was on Saturday 15th October at Bushy Park when we ran a 35 minute (10.1km) XC pace run. Since then, my form has taken a dive, compounded by a nasty cold/chest infection last month, and a series of back-to-back niggles. Training has been a constant battle.

My training diary over the period is revealing. Where my September log is upbeat and full of positive reports along these lines - ‘felt strong’ and ‘ran well’ - my October and November logs reflects a period of struggle that has manifested itself in the following ways: constant fatigue/lack of energy, illness, muscle soreness, non-recovery between sessions, falling behind at training. There was no actual change in my training over this period. It just started feeling much harder.

This photo fails to capture the despair, because you can't see the guys that I'm chasing

For these reasons, I was a little tentative heading into the Dublin Intermediate XC championships in Tymon Park on Sunday. My trepidation was justified, because (true to form) I failed to fire. Right from the start I lacked the energy and strength that I had in the Dublin Novice XC Championships on 2 October. In a search of answers, I have undertaken a grim analysis of yesterday’s results compared with the Dublin Novice XC results.

Yesterday I finished in 16th place, whereas I was fifth in the Dublin Novice (only ten seconds short of a bronze medal). Of the guys who beat me yesterday, seven are lads whom I beat in Dublin Novice (including yesterday’s second place finisher).

By my calculations (taking a sample group of runners who ran both the Dublin Novice and Dublin intermediate races, averaging out and comparing their times between the two races), and based on my time from the Dublin Novice race last month, I would've expected to finish Sunday's race in 30:15. Whereas I finished in 30:35. This highlights the extent of my underperformance: twenty seconds. In these competitive XC fixtures, twenty seconds makes a huge difference to your result, and the result of your team.

Although not surprising (given recent form in training), this is rather disappointing because I trained very hard in the intervening period, and I even rested up in preparation for the race on Sunday. On the face of it, there is no reason why I should be going backwards.
Assuming I can get over the gluteus medius injury that I'm currently managing, the last race of my season (and the year) is the National Novice XC Championships on 11 December. In the absence of some sort of dramatic turn-around in form, I can’t really see the national novice going well for me. Don’t get me wrong, and I’ll have a good crack at it, and I'm by no means writing myself off. But training seems to have become ineffective for the timebeing, and in any case it’s difficult to design a training plan that would bring me to be where I want to be within such a short time-frame. 

 On the other hand, maybe form can change quickly in both directions.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Dublin Novice XC Championships

On Sunday I raced in the Dublin Novice Cross Country Championships. The Novice grade means that previous winners cannot race (they can still race the Dublin Senior Cross Country Championships in November). The field of club runners is still very competitive, with plenty of 15/16 minute 5km runners in the mix. Only club runners can race. So it’s a hard fought battle, while at the same time offering up-and-coming XC runners a chance to claim a championship medal. The race route was just over three laps of a 2km course (approx), a total of 6.8km.

There is no need to bother with a stop watch in these races, since courses are not comparable and it is all about beating your opponents on the day. Times mean nothing on a XC course. The pace in these short XC races tends to be full on, especially at the start when guys are jostling for a decent position. The first 400m of the race is basically a sprint, since nobody wants to get stuck in the middle of the pack. I took a couple of sharp elbows off the start, and as a result woke up on Monday with a dead arm.
The 2km lap winds around a big field before entering a section of forest with a few hills and sharp corners, then emerging from the forest and winding back to the start/finish line.

I had a few goals for the race. One was to race smart, and hopefully take a medal. The other was to improve on my performance from the previous week’s Rathfarnham 5km, where I got myself boxed in off the start and then sent myself into oxygen debt trying to make up lost ground in the first mile. Having little experience myself in running XC, I had taken some advice from my club mate and XC specialist, Louis McCarthy, about how to approach the race. And I went about following that advice.

So after the initial frenzied surge off the start line, I settled into my own pace and was 16th after the first lap (according to the race official on the start/finish line). I felt strong. So in line with the plan, I started picking off the guys ahead of me. I figured that quite a few of them would be track runners based on their pace off the start, and I recalled that track runners tend to start very fast and then struggle to sustain the pace for the full distance.

I passed 6 guys in the second lap, and found myself in 10th place at the bell (after 2 laps/4.4km). With 2km to go, the plan is really just to run as fast as you can to the finish line without blowing up. I steadily picked up the pace (or maybe I held constant and others slowed down) and I passed four more guys. I could see the 3rd, 4th and 5th place runners just up ahead of me and I was making ground on them, but I was starting to hurt too.

With 500m to go, my club mates in the crowd boisterously alerted me to the fact that one of the guys behind me was really going for it and was about to pass me. Normally you can hear someone coming, but on the soft grass there are no footsteps and hence zero awareness of what is happening behind you. I was already pushing so hard, but I couldn’t fathom being passed at this point. So with 400m to go I managed to find even more in the tank and kicked as hard as I could in attempt to repel the challenge from behind. It seemed to work, because I never saw him.

Meanwhile I was holding ground a couple of steps behind the 5th place guy, and we were going full tilt and  closing in on the 4th and 3rd place runners. But at this stage I didn't think we’d catch them. I was giving it absolutely everything. Pain tore through my body and I could feel that my face was all screwed up like Mo Farah in the World Championships (confirmed by Alison post-race). Alison was there on the side-line yelling for me, and my club mates were there in bright green Rathfarnham colours. Great atmosphere. I held my position to finish in 6th, only 10 seconds shy of an individual bronze medal. Also managed to beat a couple of guys who got the better of me in the Rathfarnham 5km, so happy enough despite failure to take a podium spot.

Distance: 6.8km
Time: 22:36

Monday, September 26, 2011

Need for speed

Three weeks ago I decided to kick the habit of running marathons, and I already feel like it’s one of the best decisions that I’ve made.

The marathon is a great event, and this is by no means goodbye forever. But I've honed in on my goal: to reach towards my potential as an amatuer runner and to take maximum enjoyment from the sport. And I’ve come to realise that the best way for me to progress towards this goal is to take a step back from marathons for a year or two, and instead train for speed.

As I’ve said in earlier posts: in order to run a fast marathon, one first needs to run a fast 10km. In order to run a fast 10km, you first need to run a fast 5km (note: Patrick Makau ran a WR time of 2:03:38 yesterday which is average 14:40 per 5km pace). You can follow this logic right down to middle-distance speed. In other words, you could argue that raw speed is a foundation, and in fact a pre-requisite, for a fast marathon. This is why most of the top marathoners have a track background. Speed is only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle. The other, more obvious pillar, is endurance.

Unfortunately the majority of us long-distance runners, with our modest athletic CVs (and in particular, without a background in track running), are at a significant disadvantage. Because whether we like it or not, time-trials over short distances are usually a good indicator of what we are capable of running over marathon distance (with the right training).

For example, if a runner is not capable of running under 19 minutes for the 5km (3:48 min/km) at a given point in time then he/she will have difficulty breaking 3 hours (4:17 min/km) over the marathon distance (without improvement). This is for the simple reason that, even with ample endurance, the required marathon pace would feel 'uncomfortably fast' and will probably push him or her into the anaerobic zone too early in the race (most likely blowing hard and running out of steam with a good way left to go).

With this in mind, it makes sense for me to shelve the marathon away as a long term target. Or to put another way: 'learn to walk (run fast over short distances) before I run (marathons)'. Instead, I've plotted out a race plan for the season, comprising of shorter distance races on the road, hills, track and cross country. And since August I've training towards shorter races by running these types of sessions:

8x1km off 90 seconds
12x400m off 60 seconds or short jog recovery
10x800m off 60/90 seconds
5x1 mile off 2 minutes
30 minute tempo run
10x300m off 60 seconds or jog recovery
Short hill repeats (30 or 60 second)

It already seems to be working since I already ran a 5km P.B (15:53) over the weekend on the back of a big week of training. Plenty of work still to be done. Just need to focus on training smart: consistency and quality. The results will come.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Copenhagen for runners and non-runners

On the weekend Alison and I went to Copenhagen to attend a wedding. This was going to be a complex balancing act involving the following activities:
  • Running training
  • Watching the rugby world cup inaugural weekend in a country that has not heard of rugby
  • Attending wedding and associated activities
  • Sightseeing
In order to prepare myself for this plethora of events and exercises, I undertook to (a) seek out an antipodean establishment where I could watch live Rugby World cup matches in the morning - we found one called ‘the Southern Cross’ (b) download a Copenhagen tourist information Iphone Application – simple (c) find out where we needed to be and at what time for various wedding events happening throughout the weekend and lock them into Google maps app on Iphone and (d) find some good places to run.

The later three bullet points on the list sorted themselves out. The wedding (of Alison’s friend Caoimhe and her Danish partner Thomas) was a fun-filled day involving meeting lots of friendly intelligent folk and even included a canal boat cruise around Copenhagen, which to an extent also covered off bullet point number four in the list. Here is Alison at Nyhaven.

I was thinking about how cool Danish people are. But then it occurred to me that I may have just met lots of ‘above average coolness’ Danish people, since everyone at the wedding was friends with Caoimhe and Thomas who are cool themselves, and who are friends with my cool girlfriend Alison. Perhaps my observable sample size was too small and not representative of the population. But I am told that this coolness phenomenon is widespread in the city. One thing that is clear is that Danish people all speak fluent English, which makes communication easy for the linguistically challenged. It also enables more enriching conversation with local people, than what you might experience in certain Southern European cities.

Copenhagen is a nice place: combining the grandeur and seriousness of the great Northern European cities (Berlin and Warsaw) with some of the charm and quaint architecture of its cousins to the distant South (Paris and Barcelona). The beautiful people of Copenhagen whizz around on their bikes, with their abundance of wealth and the backing of the World’s most generous social security system, and seem happy to be living there. The city is clean and sophisticated. If Copenhagen were a person, he would look down his nose at the reckless abandonment (partying) that is common on the streets of many of its Anglicized or Spanish counterparts. I suppose that’s why you don’t find many Danish people in Temple Bar on a Saturday night.

The retro bikes and hip style of outfits adorned by people on the street hints at an edginess that doesn’t seem to manifest itself in the bars and cafes throughout the city (with the obvious exception of Christiana, which seems quite culturally and geographically detached from the city). Initial impressions after two short visits have been that Copenhagen is an understated city. I reserve my judgment on that because I suspect that more time would be required in order to ‘discover Copenhagen’.

One’s experience of the city can be somewhat overwhelmed by its expense. We might have enjoyed the broad range of culinary experiences and beers on offer more if it weren’t for the sour taste inevitably left in our mouths by the bill. Once you get your head around the conversion between Euro and Danish Kroner, you all of a sudden feel like you’re being robbed every time you step into a shop, bar or restaurant. This frustration came to a head on our final morning in the city when I was charged the equivalent in Kroner of €7 for an orange juice in an Irish bar while watching Wales v South Africa. I was displeased, even before Wales handed the game to the Boks on a plate.

Anyway, I found some good places to run in Copenhagen:

The Soern (lakes)

There are five adjacent man-made lakes that form a part-circle around North-western Copenhagen. It starts in Vesterbro and finishes in Osterbro. Soern looks like this from the sky:

There is a well-beaten gravel path circling the lake/s, which seem to be very popular with the locals for walking with strollers, cycling, and running. The lakes themselves, along with the surrounding area is picturesque, and the trail is a pleasure to run around. Lots of trees and greenery, and there even a few playgrounds and cafes/bars on the lake-edge if you feel like stopping for a Carlsberg mid-run. This is one of my favourite runs. Here is what it looks like lakeside:


This is a park at the north-eastern end of the five lakes in Osterbro. It is a nice place to run, and has a decent 2km loop around it on wide gravel path. Nice place for intervals or a pace run. Plenty of people around, but not too many that they get in the way.

Amagerfaelled (park)

In radical contrast to the sculptured and well maintained Faelledparken in the North, this place is an overgrown vegetative wasteland of sorts in the southern flank of Copenhagen. While Amagerfaelled park is by no means pretty, it is good for running in because it is large and has a more extensive network of trails throughout.

I jogged to the Park from the city centre for a scheduled 25 minute pace run. Soon after I started I followed a trail around a corner onto a main path and found myself in the middle of an organised race. I was somewhere near the back of a dispersed field, and I spent the rest of my pace run (at 3:33 min/km pace) working my way up the field. Certainly kept things interesting. 

The river near Amagerfaelled is a good spot for jogging too.

If I had more time I would explore the canals and trails behind Christiana, because I think there might be some interesting running routes there.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Irish National half marathon champs race report

Event: National half marathon championships
Location: Waterford
Distance: 21.1km / 13.1 miles
Time: 1:12:15
Pace: 5:31 min/mile 3:26 min/km
Speed: 17.5 km/h

Nerves were running high on Saturday morning when 800 odd runners took to the streets of Waterford for the Irish national half marathon championships. Conditions were good for racing: 11° cloud and drizzle and nothing but a light breeze. The well-established course takes in a loop through the Waterford town centre then follows an ‘out-and-back’ route along the Tramore road. The road is a quality surface and, although undulating, the route is ‘PB friendly’.

My main goal was to run 72:00, which is 5:30 min/mile or 3:25 min/km pace, or 17.6km/h. That would mean running through 5km at 17 minutes, 10km at 34 minutes, 10 miles at 55 minutes. And then just as fast as I can sustain for the final 3 miles (5km). My secondary (and more optimistic) goal was to beat my club mate, Paul Fleming. Despite having being well-beaten by Paul last week in the Tinryland 4 mile race, I thought that I might have an improved chance of beating him over the longer course. Besides, I figured he’d be good to keep within my sights because he would probably run somewhere around my goal time, if not a bit quicker, and would be likely to run a steady and smart race.

The pace was aggressive from the start. The first mile felt good, if not slightly downhill. When I say ‘good’, I mean that the world was going by quickly (fast pace) but on this particular day it felt comfortable. No heavy breathing and no complaints from the legs. Phew. At the 1 mile mark the clock read 5:12. Significantly faster than target pace, but my lungs seemed to be unaware of this so I figured that it was ok. Despite the fast pace, Paul was still about 10 metres ahead of me so I figured that this was a good place to be.

Meanwhile up front, Brian Maher took the early lead behind the pace car, closely followed by my Rathfarnham club-mate Sean Hehir and Barry Minnock. Another club-mate, Mark Ryan, sat in behind them. For the first couple of miles I enjoyed race commentary broadcasted from the loud speakers on the roof of the pace car. I eagerly listened and was silently willing on my club-mates until they, along with the speaking car, disappeared off into the distance. I supposed that in any case, it was better for me to concentrate on my own race than the battle up front.

The Garmin read 16:40 at the 5km mark, which meant that I was 20 seconds ahead of schedule. On the other hand, I knew that the next part of the route was the hilliest and toughest, so it would be good to have that time buffer in the bank. At around this time I was running on my own about 15 metres behind Paul’s pack. Although the breeze was not strong, it would still be easier to maintain this pace in a group. The problem was that they were really moving, and the additional effort involved in catching them would be risky. I knew I could catch up with them, but I thought that closing the gap might draw on my reserves and leave me in debt later in the race.

Fortunately a couple of lads pulled up beside me. Declan Power from Clonliffe and Cathal O’Connell from St Finbarr’s Athletics Club. Declan gestured ahead and said ‘let’s close the gap’. I wasn’t feeling confident about the push so I just went back to concentrating on my own comfortable pace. But reassuringly, after several minutes I found myself next to Declan on the back of the group. Unfortunately at the same time Paul Fleming pushed off the front of the group with a few other runners. I kept it steady and let them go, saving my energy for the upcoming hills and the final miles. When we hit the main hill (off the Tramore Road, up the lane onto the back road section) at around the 5 mile mark, the group seemed to break up around us.

I rolled over 10km at 33:50, which indicated that the hills had slowed the pace somewhat. I wasn’t concerned because I running the same pace as the guys around me. So I reckoned that the drop in pace was mostly to do with the terrain.

After seven miles the course turns back onto the Tramore Road towards the start finish line in Waterford – the home leg. A pang of fatigue struck me at this turn, made worse by the uphill drag. Within sixty seconds I was wishing away the miles. By the time we reached the 8 mile mark I was wondering how I was going to keep this up for another 5 miles. I convinced myself to just hang in there with the three lads. The struggle continued and at the 10 mile marker I began to feel a bit closer to home. I was encouraged to see my Garmin reading 54.57 as I passed the sign, since that meant I was still under 5:30 average mile pace. I realised that despite feeling very tired, I had managed to sustain a decent pace for the previous two miles. All of a sudden seemed plausible that I might hang on, even though it was clearly going to hurt.

At this stage I wasn’t much interested in racing the guys around me. I was much more interested in holding it together until the finish line. The guys around me were merely acting as pace indicators, and surprisingly I was doing ok (except that Declan Power had pushed ahead about 40 metres).

Once I hit 12 miles I knew I was going to make the finish line because I still felt just the same as I did at 10 miles. Tired. So I turned my attention back to the actual race. After all, this was a championship race and my coach, Adam Jones, always says that every place counts. I boldly decided to push ahead of the lads whom I was running with, because I wanted to avoid a sprint finish by putting a gap on them now. Unfortunately after putting a gap of five metres on them, I quickly fatigued and decided that a sprint finish might be easier after all. The three lads caught me back up, sat behind for a bit, and then all passed me with half a mile (800m) to go. Just the kind of confidence booster that I needed at this point.

The finish line is on the athletics track at the Waterford football stadium, and the last 200 metres of the race is around the track. My legs felt ok but after my failed pre-emptive strike and a bout of dizziness approaching the gate for the stadium, my confidence had taken a hit. But a few things happened that re-ignited my confidence. (1) One of the lads looked around to see if there was anyone behind us (which I perceived as a weakness/lack of confidence) (2) we hit the track (normally track racing is faster so all of a sudden I felt like I was actually running well within myself) and (3) I saw the finish line at the opposite end of the track. I recalled the 200 metre repeats that I ran with club mates Louis and Greg on Thursday, and thought ‘just one more 200m is all I need now’.

I bolted on the rubber and this time thankfully managed to make a more decisive move. I passed two lads on the outside of the corner and hammered down the straight so as not to encourage a late challenge, not letting up until I was safely across the finish line. PB. Close enough to target time. Pints.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

High altitude training in the French Pyrenees

After a week of hard training combined with eating and drinking too much in Paris, I said goodbye to Alison and took a long train ride down to the French Pyrenees, to a small village in the clouds called Font Romeu. The plan was to meet my club mates Sean, Kevin, Brian and Louis for a week of high altitude training.

The train journey in itself was quite an adventure, involving catching three trains and 9 hours of travel time from Paris. The final two hour train journey was on an alpine railway line that precariously wound its way up through the mountains to Font Romeu. I elected to sit on an ‘outdoor carriage’, which had no roof or windows. It turned out that this train ride was actually a tourist attraction - nobody else on the train had luggage and everybody else had a camera. It was quite a buzz, particularly the vertigo experienced when crossing one of many deep canyons on the awesome viaducts, with nothing more than a handrail between you and the deep valley below.

Font Romeu falls somewhere between being a quaint village and a bustling town/ski station. It is fairly quiet at this time of year (summer), but the concentration of hotels and apartment complexes hint that the place has a different vibe during the winter ski season. During the summer you’ll find mostly athletes and some hikers/families floating around. There isn’t a lot to do in Font Romeu, other than to train, eat croissants, and to visit one of the many outdoor sports stores and pay extortionate prices for mountain running gear. In other words, there are few distractions and it’s the perfect place to go for a training camp.

We met and trained with a number of athletes who were visiting from the UK and Ireland. Including Joe McAlister from Belfast, Gary Thornton from Galway, Steve Vernon and a few other guys and girls from Manchester. Though these lads are international-class athletes, so keeping up with them was difficult enough even during their supposed ‘easy runs’. On the hard runs we would start together and then the group would split during the run.

For anyone interested in training in Font Romeu, here are a few things to know before you go:

  • Fly to Carcassonne or Perpignan (in the South of France) or Barcelona or Girona (in Spain). Font Romeu is less than two hours drive from any of these places.
  • Unfortunately hiring a car is almost essential, since many of the best running locations are a ten or fifteen minute drive from Font Romeu village.
  • Eating out in Font Romeu is not cheap and you might not end up eating what you wanted (if you don’t speak French). So it’s probably better to stay in an apartment rather than a hotel. That way you can make your own meals and dine in at least some of the time.
  • Apartments tend to be fairly compact, though cheap. Our apartment ‘slept four’ but that actually meant that there was a bunk and a double bed. Four was a crowd, but the company was good and at €15 per person per night you can’t complain.
  • There is a decent supermarket in Font Romeu where you can stock up on whatever supplies you need. And at least two even better supermarkets within five minutes drive.

Places to train

Lac de Matemale / Los Angles: Just 15 minutes drive from Font Romeu lies the lake which is surrounded by both flat and hilly forest trails (depending on what you’re looking for on a given day) and provides the perfect environment for laying down some base work. This is also a good place for sessions, because there are more flatter trails than most other places in the area.

Note that Lac de Matemale is located at an altitude of only 1550 metres, so it is a good place to acclimatize over the first few days. But even running steadily at this altitude is noticeably tougher than running at sea level. The shortest trail around the lake is 5 miles, but this can be extended to at least 13 miles by running further out into the forest that lies between the dam and Los Angles. There are several miles of trails at the dam end of the lake alone that can keep you busy without needing to circle the lake.

After your run, I would suggest taking a dip in the lake at the populated beach area on the Los Angles village side. The water is very fresh and is not too cold. You can also hire kayaks, sail boats and wind surfers here (if you have any energy left) and get some lunch from the kiosk.

The national centre for altitude training (track and swimming pool): This facility is located beside the village at 1850 metres altitude. The track is decent and you’ll see plenty of other athletes around. To give you an idea of the affect of the altitude. We ran a set of 6x1 mile intervals on the track and my splits were 20 seconds slower than they had been the previous week in Paris.

Pyrenees 2000
(1700 metres altitude) – this is a forested area located ten minutes drive from Font Romeu on the main road leading to Los Angles. Here it is on google maps. There are marked loops through the forest, which would be hard to follow without a map or a leader who is familiar with the routes. Hopefully your group leader is not sub-14 minute 5km runners, like ours were (either hang on to the leaders or try to find your own way out)

The plateau – potentially the most interesting and impressive area to run in the area. We were lead by the UK lads from the circular car park (which has a 400m long circle line painted around it) up the steep ski slope to a plateau at 2100 metres altitude. Up here there are a network of trails that run through scrub and sections of scattered low forest dense. From here you have an excellent view of the surrounding mountains while you run. That may be why I tripped on a stone and face-planted in the dirt (cutting my knee up pretty bad). You'll find it only about five minutes uphill drive from Font Romeu. Follow the Sola de la Calma Est road up to the car park and run up to the platue from there.

Once again, you can probably just follow your nose around these trails for a few easy miles, but it helps to be lead by someone who knows where they’re going because it can be tricky to find your way from the plateau back to the car (since the car park is below the plateau).

Mountain trails – there are loads of mountain trails around that you might like to explore. We might’ve done if we were there for longer, and if we were training for a hill race rather than a flat road race. They'd be fairly steep. You can buy maps at the local stores.


  • Quite a few of the lads I met there had a track background (plenty of speed) and are now running longer races, with training focused mainly on mileage and building a base. That means running very few actual speed sessions, but instead lots of miles at steady pace (as distinct from easy pace). But I suppose they already have the speed in the legs, so are afforded the luxury of almost entirely working on endurance base.
  • Progression runs (where you start slowly and increase the pace each mile) seemed popular, and are probably worth introducing into a training program.
  • Re-emphasised the importance of marathon pace runs when training for marathon. Second most important piece of the puzzle after the Sunday long run.
  • It took six days to start feeling more comfortable up at this altitude, and then the next day we left. It just meant that for the first six days the easy runs were not particularly easy. Hard runs were slow, as in you’ll feel like you’re running 3:30 min/km pace but you’re actually running 3:50 min/km pace – hard to get your head around.