It is 6.40am on a Sunday morning. I am lying in bed, trying to keep as still as possible. My alarm went off ten minutes ago, but with each attempt to rise, my aching muscles respond with violent disapproval. Instead, I have resigned to watch as the light of dawn dances with shadows on the bedroom floor, brought to beautiful fruition by the many trees in the wood outside. They too dancing, but with the wind. My thoughts wander to the mountain outside. Its natural beauty, rising through clouds, dwarfing even our simple dwelling at 2000m. I have been living in the mountains for the past two weeks, its great mass casting an aura of endless opportunity. It is with this thought that I finally rise to greet a new day at altitude in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona.
Once we hit the road, I start getting excited about the run that lays ahead. A 25km long run at 2400m above sea level to bring to an end a 135km week, the biggest in my career so far. The run tracks its way through an extraordinary forest rich in the sounds of nature and far from the relentless buzz of city life. Today’s run is one of the more spectacular in the Flagstaff region.
Throughout this trip, I have been staying with a group of fellow Aussie distance runners. Old friends and new friends, runners of various distances and levels of experience. Runners in our group included; Paralympic 1500m silver medallist Deon Kenzie, Olympic 3000m steeplechase and 5000m finalist Madeline Hills, Olympic Marathoner Milly Clark, Commonwealth Games 800m runner Josh Ralph and the wise ageless warrior Philo Saunders. At 17, the company I was keeping was invaluable to my learning experience and over the course of only a few weeks helped mature me as a runner.
After a quick drive, our car pulls off the highway and comes to a halt at the opening of a dirt road, that I assume stretches far into the distance. Waiting for us, as we pile out of the cars, is a group of about 30 local runners, our training partners for the day. At 8am, in one swift movement, as the morning sun finally crests the mountains peak, the days run begins.
One of my favourite type of runs is a hard long run and it does not take long for today’s run to become one. As the road at our feet bears the brunt of our rhythmic pounding, our lungs desperately clinging to every breath, our muscles waking into methodical action, a lead group begins to form. I begin to listen to the chatter around me and it soon dawns on me who I am running with. There are around seven guys running with me. I have worked out who they are. On my right are a group from the NAZ (Northern Arizona) Elite Group including 2:11 and top-10 Boston marathoner Nick Arciniaga and his compatriot, 2:12 marathoner Matt Llano. On my left, is my trusted running partner, the man overlooking my training over the next few months, Philo Saunders. In front is the best ultra-marathoner in the world, the winner of 100-mile (160km) trail races, Jim Walmsley. Then there was I. Seventeen years old and still with 18 months of High School ahead of me, dropping sub-4 minute kilometres in the mountains with some of America’s and even the World’s best distance runners. My incredulity and disbelief at my position in that moment was unbounded.
My whole time away was consumed with these type of awe-inspiring experiences.
I ran in snow for the first time. A simple fartlek (Swedish for speed play), became one of the most painful sessions of my life. I ran in shorts and without gloves. Fog turned to ice on my glasses, numb hands were rendered immovable lumps, snot froze to my face and my toenails became a lifeless black colour. It made me tougher.
Then there was my first run at altitude through the famed Buffalo Park. A 10km run at a pace that during the run I perceived as comfortable. However, soon after, I was a wreck. Drenched in cold sweat, head spinning, I collapsed on the nearest rock. All I could see was white and I felt as if I was fighting to remain conscious. I had made the rookie error of underestimating the mountains thin air and the time my body would take to adjust physiologically. It was embarrassing, but I learnt my lesson.
As I grew accustomed to the added challenges of running in the mountains, I began to unearth results on the track that I thought were beyond me at this point in my career. I was able to push my body to realms I had not thought were possible for me to reach. I left Flagstaff a fitter, faster and more experienced athlete than before.
One of the most valuable experiences of my trip to Flagstaff was spending some time with my fellow blinky (vision impaired) distance runner, Sam Harding. In Australia, it is not often for me to come across athletes who face similar challenges to me and understand what it is like to be running at an elite level with a vision impairment. It makes training easier when you know someone else is riding the rollercoaster with you. If I am struggling visually with a section of a run, Sam is usually struggling too, so we help each other out. Even if we have to do a whole mornings run at walking pace, which did happen (See Instagram picture). Training with Sammy helped reinforce my confidence that being vision impaired is no barrier to running.
Where to next?
For the next few weeks, the aim is to maintain my current speed and fitness. My next stop is Canberra (June 18), for my first 800m race since 2014, a chance to test my speed.
Then, it is the big one, the World Championships. First, though, I am off to Cologne, Germany to make final preparations before flying to London for the Championships, to be held in the 2012 Olympic Stadium. On July 17, I will run the heats of the T12/13 1500m and on July 19, if all goes to plan, I will line up in the final.
Previously, I have three 7th place finishes from three races (including missing 6th by 0.01 in the Rio 5000m) at the international level. This time around I am in far better shape than ever before!
I am setting no limitations on possibility!
Exciting times lay ahead!
Sample Week from Flagstaff (See Strava for more)
- WU (Warm up) CD (Cool down) ‘ (mins)
- Runs @ 2000-2200m altitude unless specified
AM 6.3km (7:38/km, 2700m alt.) “Survived tough trail with Sammy”
PM 11km (4:12/km) + Sprints + Gym/Plyos
AM 5km WU, 3×3’-2’-1’ (equal to rep jog recovery), 5km CD (17.8km overall)
“This was the snow session”
PM 8km (5:07/km)
AM 14km (4:31/km)
PM 4.2km (4:45/km)
AM (1400m alt.) 5km WU, 300m-400m-300m-400m-300m (6’ cycle recovery) Splits @ 40,55,40,55,42, 5km CD (Overall 11km) “Lactic”
PM 8km (5:19/km)
AM 5.6km (4:24/km) + Gym
PM 1.6km Treadmill Test
AM 5km WU, 6×3’ hills (2’ jog recovery) dist. 800-830m each, 5km CD (Overall 17km)
PM 5.6km (4:48/km)
AM 25km (4:07/km, 2400m alt.)
“The long run from the story above”
135km Week in the Mountains.