I have now come down from altitude to race twice, but I still seem to be none the wiser as to how best to go about getting the best out of myself at sea-level after months at 2,500m. I’ve always thought that running was more art than science and that definitely seems to be true in this case; some research says you should race immediately whilst some says you should wait for two to three weeks. For some, I suspect, the best time is somewhere in between.
When I’m running in the forest at 2,500m the week before I head back to the UK, struggling to get enough of the thin, dry air into my lungs, I fantasize about running in cold air and having 35% more oxygen to breathe at home. It’s going to feel so easy, I tell myself every time.
When I get back, though, the reality is slightly different. It didn’t help in December that I had a 31-hour door-to-door journey from where I was living in Addis to my girlfriend Roslyn’s house in Taunton (the classic Addis-Nairobi-Djibouti-Amsterdam-London route), but even after a direct overnight flight my body takes time to adapt to the weather, lack of sleep and increased oxygen. The first run is never as I imagined it. I am lethargic, and whilst I might not be breathing heavily my legs feel un co-ordinated.
My first race back was a local 5km in Yeovil and was, I realised, almost a year to the day since Manchester marathon, the last race I had actually finished. I set off at three minutes per kilometre pace, which felt extraordinarily fast, and the race was over before I knew it. I ran a little over fifteen minutes, which, as my coach pointed out, didn’t really tell us a great deal about my fitness. ‘You’ll find out in Edinburgh,’ he said.
Four days later I was warming up in three jackets around Holyrood Park. The 5km race had been run in near tropical conditions (eighteen degrees!) and now it was two degrees and a cold wind was howling up the Queen’s Drive. The Great Edinburgh Run elite field contained two very respectable runners in Dan Wallis of New Zealand and Rob Watson of Canada, and I had a brief chat to them before the race started. ‘We’re going to start at a steady pace and run the race as a progression run,’ Dan said. ‘We’ll run the first mile in about 5.25.’ You can do that, I thought, but I knew Tewolde Shettlestone usually liked to start fast and I didn’t really want to hang around when it was so cold. I led through the first mile in just under five minutes, with Dan and Tewolde just behind me. I thought we might as well get a run for our money.
At about the four mile point, after the three of us had been sharing the pace, Dan decided to demonstrate his class and floated away from us. I ran to the five mile point with Tewolde before Rob caught us and went past, taking Tewolde with him. There was no real let up on the course – it felt like I was constantly recovering from a hill or battling the wind – so I just focused on working hard and spreading my effort evenly. On the long downhill drag towards eight miles I realised I was catching Tewolde, and as I pulled level he urged me on; ‘iso, Mike!’ he said, patting me on the back as I went past.
I finished third, but I had to dig pretty deep and my calves were shot to pieces afterwards by the hills and by running hard on the roads for the first time in ages. By the middle of the week I could already feel the tell-tale signs of a cold, and by the time I arrived at the Istanbul half marathon I was feeling pretty rough. That, effectively, was the end of this particular trip back. Still, I got to meet Zersennay Tadesse and have breakfast (bread, fruit and sugary tea) with Leonard Patrick Komon, so all was not lost.
Hopefully I’ll learn something from each of my trips back and sooner or later I’ll be able to produce a performance that justifies the work I’m putting in out here.
Michael Crawley is one of our sponsored athletes, and focuses primarily on the roads. He is also an ESRC-funded PhD student at Edinburgh University, studying the culture of long-distance running in Ethiopia. Over the next few months he will be living and training in Ethiopia, and learning one of the main languages used there, Amharic. He will be writing about his experiences of training in various locations around the city with different groups of athletes, and about trying to turn himself into a better runner in the process.