Friday, 23 September 2016

St Moritz Things to Do Part 2: Take Your Camera on a Little Walk

St Moritz is not just one of the most beautiful places that I've been; it's also one of the most photogenic. Water and mountains both have the ability to look different every time you view them, and St Moritz has the perfect combination for an ever changing vista.

When out for my run in the chilly morning air, I had a feeling yesterday was going to be a special day. It was sunny like the previous two mornings had been, but the lake was like I'd never seen it before. Smooth as glass, it was reflecting the town and the mountains in almost perfect symmetry, just like I'd seen in other people's photos. Now, if only I could get this run finished, get showered and breakfasted, grab my camera and get back down before the clouds came out.

As you can see, I made it! I was confident I'd captured some dream shots as I made my way around the lake. Unlike other days, it never did cloud over, and I'm sure the mercury reached the high teens - much warmer than any other day I've been here. However, by the time I'd reached the far side of the lake, the wind had gotten up - the 'celebrated' Maloga winds, according to the Engadin St. Moritz guide, are typical of a sunny summer afternoon, and usually rise around midday - and, within seconds, the reflections had completely disappeared. The lake took on a completely different look, and as if they'd expected it, two sailing boats suddenly appeared.

But don't let a little bit of wind get in the way of a good shot! It's hard to believe this is the same lake as above.


And of course, it's not just the time of day that the vista changes with; theses two shots are taken from roughly the same sport, just at opposite ends of summer - the first was taken on my first visit in June 2012; the second yesterday (September 2016).




St Moritz's beauty has even inspired me to work out how to create panoramic shots. The lake is an obvious subject...



...though the panoramics are also pretty special from the top of the mountain!



Top spots to get some photos:
1. Anywhere by the lake, any time of day, any day of the year, but the sunny mornings, before the wind gets up, make even the most novice photographer look professional.

2. The mountains - the higher the better, and bright sunny days are best, but even the clouds make for interesting shots.



3. Lej de Staz, hidden in the forest east of St. Moritz, is a strangely mysterious place, and offers some interesting shots of water, trees, mountains and clouds


4. The forest trails also provide an interesting subject

But, basically, anywhere by the lakes, in the forests, up the mountains, or down the valley will provide beautiful photos. Be sure to pack your camera!

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

St Moritz Things to Do Part 1: Funicular and Cable Car to Piz Nair

And ideally back down again!

Gifting myself an afternoon off training, I decided to make the most of another sunny afternoon and head to the top of the mountain. Piz Nair, at 3057m above sea level, was the destination, and the funicular and cable car were the mode of transport. The plan was to return to the town on foot. It would be all downhill; how difficult could it be?



Starting right in the heart of St Moritz Dorf (the posh part of town), the funicular takes an almost vertical route to Corviglia (2,486m), which from the lake seems like pretty much as high as you can go. The views from there are pretty amazing, and I was surprised to see so many other people up there, many of whom, it seemed, had arrived by bike. Fair play to them!



After snapping some snaps, and putting on an extra layer of clothing (it was pretty cool up there) I made my way to the cable car terminal, ready for the rid to the peak up ahead. It looked like a steep ride (and a rocky decent) but thankfully I'm not afraid of heights.


Only, as we approached that peak (which indecently, and scarily, will host the start of next February's World Downhill Skiing Championships), I realised we weren't stopping; we were going even higher! There was a further peak which I had missed in the clouds ahead.


The cable car stopped at 3022m; it was just a short, rocky hike from there to the very top. The views took my breath away - ok that was probably the altitude, but still, they were amazing!!!


Now for the decent! Yes, I was still going to tackle it on foot. I'd done the cable car. It was time to get a different perspective on things.

The first bit seemed ok, and surely it wasn't all going to be as rocky as it looked.

Right?

After all, this was a hiking route.

I could handle this.

Couldn't I?

Oh.

My.

Word.

The first 30 minutes of the decent was the single scariest thing I've ever done. There were bits, I kid you not, where I just sat on my bum and sort of shuffled down on all fours.

I now know why hikers carry those pole things!

On a couple of occasions I considered backing out and heading back to the top, but I knew that if I turned around and saw where I'd come from, I'd loose my nerve altogether.

This would all be over soon!

And eventually it was. I had made it to the bottom of the rocky peak, and was back on the wider tracks, no longer fearful of slipping over the edge.



But the hard work wasn't finished yet. There was still another 90 minutes or so of descending ahead. And even that was a lot steeper than it looked from above. An afternoon run would surely have been easier.



Am I happy I did it? Yes, absolutely!

Would I do it again? Hell, no!

And so, in summary, if you're in St Moritz and looking for something to do, absolutely take the funicular to Corviglia. I'd even suggest taking the cable car all the way to the top.

But, please, please, please take it back down again too.

Top tip: If you have a St Moritz Sport Elite Athlete Pass, be sure to show it at the ticket office along with your passport. You'll get yourself a nice discount!

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

St Moritz Trails Part 2: East of the Lake

Aka Hostel - Forest - Staz - Celerina - Via Grevas loop

After a few days of cloudy skies, the sun finally shone on St Moritz this morning. And with it I was reminded of just how good the trails are around here, and how even if I was to stay for months I still wouldn't have explored them all.

Suitable powered on muesli (I am in Switzerland after all) and sunshine, I set off in an attempt to link two out-and-back routes I did on my last visit, and make a more interesting circle loop of the best bits of the forests east of the town.

Terming the route 'the best of', however, would do St Moritz a major disservice - I'm discovering new 'best bits' on every run and there appears to be no end to the surprises on offer - and so I've gone for the somewhat clunker title above.

This trail is approximately 8km long, depending on your starting point, but with lots of opportunities for add-on options throughout. It's more undulating than the lake loop, with a long gradual drag back from Celerina, but is still not anything approaching mountainous. On the forest section you can keep to the wider paths (as I describe here), or take the more technical routes for added difficulty and variety.



Starting anywhere in town, head to the forest entrance at the end of Via Surpunt, just beyond the Youth Hostel. Take the wider main forest path as it twists and turns through the forest towards Lej da Staz, a pretty lake in the middle of the forest. 


Continue past the lake heading north (slightly left at the far end), again sticking to the main path, down the hill until you come to an intersection. Take the route to the left and continue, mostly downhill, until you reach the edge of the forest. Once Celerina (and the pretty San Gian church) is in sight, take a left turn just before exiting the forest along a narrower path. This path will lead to the forest edge again after a few 100 metres, not far from Celerina/Schlarigna station. 

Leave the forest, cross the railway line and take the path alongside it back towards St Moritz. This section is gradually uphill the whole way back, and follows the river and Via Grevas back to the town.


Once you spot the railway bridge, you'll know that the climb is almost done, and soon enough you'll you'll be back at Lej da San Mrezzan and some flat ground.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

St Moritz Trails Part 1: The Lake

After a break of two and a half years, I'm finally back training at altitude, and back blogging about my adventures. Over the course of this trip, I'll be sharing some of my favourite trails in St Moritz and ideas of what to do between training. I'll kick things off with a fairly obvious trail route - the lake loop - and the one on which I kick-started my training this morning.


Lej da San Murezzan (St Moritz Lake) dominates the resort and is a good starting point for many of the town's best runs. It is also the flattest place to run (though, despite being a ski resort, it is relatively easy to avoid the mountainous routes in St Moritz) and, since it more or less follows the water's edge the whole way round, it's impossible to get lost on this one.


The surface, smooth and essentially flat, is approximately 3.5km long. Approximately half it's length is asphalt, while the other half is packed gravel. It's a great place for your first run in St Moritz, and will help you get your bearings. It also offers some of the most beautiful views of the town, and is equally interesting in the clockwise and anticlockwise direction.


The town's track is located just metres from the lake, in St Moritz Bad, and so the lake trail makes an ideal place for a warm up/cool down run.


Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Art of Cross Country

You could say that cross country is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get next. And that’s the beauty of it.

One week you’re floating over a perfectly dry, pancake flat course, the next you’re struggling up hills and through mud, running into that sort of horizontal wind and rain that seems to save itself for race day.

Often the same venue can throw up completely different experiences two weeks in a row, just to keep things interesting.

At a track race, the smallest unexpected detail - an outside waterjump, finishing in the back straight, no lap times being called out, 30 minute call ups, an official reminding you (still without a valid reason why) to tuck in your singlet, wider than normal bends, flowers in front of the water jump, toilets without toilet paper - can mess with the mind, and cause already simmering pre-race anxieties to boil over. 

But at cross country, anything goes.

Hell toilets, never mind toilet paper, are an unexpected luxury!

Cross country is an art form

Summer will be soon enough for carefully timed warm-up routines, racing the clock, analysing progress, cursing headwinds, pollen counts and humidity (often all on the one day) and, when everything goes according to plan, sitting and kicking. Summer will be for formulas and for measuring.

Winter is for conquering hills, measuring performance purely by how much (or little) you had left in the tank, and gently smiling to yourself when, on the last lap, you finally work out the best route through that energy-sapping muddy patch. And if you think you’re going to just sit and kick, you’ll not just risk the result you hoped for, but also much of the fun. 

It’s the lack of lap times, kilometre markers, and any form of measurement other than finishing position that makes cross country so enjoyable.

Winter is when the science of running gives way to the art of running!

Twenty-three years of experience

Twenty-three seasons of running cross country has taken me to 22 of Ireland’s beautiful counties, across much of England and Scotland, and occasionally to mainland Europe; it’s swallowed two of my spikes, never to be seen again; it’s taken a toe nail; and it’s blocked up my parent’s bathroom sink on numerous occasions. 

My memories of running in the early days are dominated by images of four or five of us cramming into my mum’s less than reliable car, carefully placing school books into the back window – where they would inevitably remain for the weekend – and heading to the brown fields of Claremorris, Cavan or Stranorlar.

Sometimes we’d have had accommodation booked in advance, more often than not we didn’t, but we’d always hope that wherever we ended up staying the night before a race would also happen to accommodate some young male runners from Cork or Donegal or Belfast, or such exotic lands. 

And we’d laugh a lot. Those weekends were full of laughter.

And now…

And despite those wonderful memories, I’ve probably enjoyed cross country more in the past year or two than I ever have. And I plan to continue to do so for a few years yet. 

On the good days I’m reminded how much I enjoy it. How fresh, wet mud doesn’t actually hurt, how much enjoyment can be gained from simply reaching the top of a hill, and how, even on the days when I’m the only one from my club or county, this is a team sport. We are all in this together.

And on the bad days I’m reminded how wet socks and hardened mud don’t make for a pleasant journey home.

At last season’s English National, I spent the final kilometre of a gruelling race, where the main challenge was simply staying upright, locked in battle with a fellow mud warrior. We ran together for a while, then I got dropped only to come back on the next muddy patch where I went past my rival, she rallied and dropped me, and then, in the final metres, I came past her one final time. No words were spoken when we crossed the line. We simply turned to each other, shook hands and laughed. We’d both scraped into the top 60! 

Like any other form of art, not every race is going to be a masterpiece. You make a big deal of the good runs, mentally recreating them on an almost daily basis, and remind yourself that the bad results don’t matter. And on the bad days, as well as the good, you’re allowed to laugh.

Occasionally people ask me why I still do it. For me it’s simple. My Mona Lisa may have been created nearly fifteen years ago, but there are still goals to achieve. And I’d like to think that, like da Vinci, I have more than one great painting in me.

And I’ve never raced in Wicklow. I’d like to race in Wicklow!

Disclaimer: 

A small bit of artistic license has been used in writing this piece. My mum’s car only broke down on two occasions, there may have been a small bit of green in Cavan before we started, and though I’ve pulled quite a bit of grass and mud from the plughole, I’ve never actually blocked the sink. 

And occasionally, just occasionally, you know you’ve ran well, not by how far over you’re bent or how long it takes to catch your breath, but by how easy it felt; because truly great artwork is created effortlessly.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Africa the media never shows you

The hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou has been making waves on Twitter and Instagram during the last week. Started by some young Africans wishing to breakdown the stereotype - war, famine, poverty - often associated with their continent.  Beautiful pictures of African landscape, buildings and poeple are being shared via social media, and offer a wonderful alternative to the 'Poverty Porn' that we have come to associate with sub-Saharan Africa.

I've been to Africa ten times now and love the place. But if it wasn't for running and altitude training, I might never have made it to this most beautiful of continents. Each time I've visited, I've been bowled over by how green everywhere is, how friendly the people are, and, in some cases, how advanced things are.  Each country I've visited has sprung up new surprises, and I never cease to be amazed by the beauty of the people and their surroundings.  And I've just touched the surface. I can't wait to explore some more in the future.  

Here are some of my examples of #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou from Kenya, Ethiopia, Morocco and South Africa.


And finally, my personal favourite.


Africa doesn't need our pity, but it definitely deserves our curiosity! Don't be afraid to explore it for yourself.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Guest Blog: Sara Treacy's Best of Font Romeu

European Team Cross Country medallist and Irish Steeplechase Champion Sara Treacy normally spends her busy days balancing work as a doctor with training and competing at the highest level. Recently she spent three weeks at altitude in Font Romeu, and with a relative abundance of time on her hands, she had took the opportunity to explore the best that the beautiful Pyrenees resort town has to offer.  In this post Sara shares her thoughts on the best places to run, eat and play, as well as the best places to relax between training sessions.

Hi! This is my first blog post, so bear with me please people! I’ve just arrived home after almost 3 weeks in Font Romeu breathing scant air, training hard and ‘living the dream’! My second time in the area, I find it a perfect combination for body and soul. Below I’ve included some of my favourite places to eat, drink and relax, and of course trails I love to run.

View of the valley below Font Romeu from Residence le Domaine de Castella where I stayed for the first part of the trip. 

A small skiing village nestled into the culturally rich Catalonian mountain region of Cerdagne, Font Romeu is a popular destination both in winter and summer. If your training camp is doubling as your holidays from work or college and you’re bringing your other half or family, even in the ‘off-season’, it offers more than just the physiological benefits of altitude. The combination of track, gyms and idyllic running routes make it an ideal training venue.

Beautiful views make the hard work a little bit easier. Callum rented a bike form Intersport in Les Angles to accompany me around the lake (and take the odd photo).


On easier days I enjoyed immersing myself in the cultural delights the region has to offer, from the petite boulangeries to the imposing Fort Liberia in historic Villefranche or a trip to the natural hot sulphur baths at St. Thomas to help the legs recover. On the harder training days I would just sit and sip coffee to prepare for run number two, enjoying the white-topped mountain views on the terrace of ‘Chuppa café’.

Fort Liberia in historic Villefrance

After several weeks of work-related stress, it took only a couple of days to settle fully into the slow even kilter that is the athlete’s life in Font Romeu. A typical day involved rolling out of bed to have a small breakfast and that essential cup of tea, before meeting the group to drive to one of the many trails in the area for our morning run, or to Lac de Matemale or the track for a session.

Olympian, Paralympian, future champions... all 'enjoying' training at Lac de Matemale


Job done and the return journey often involved a quick stop for an almond croissant or, one of my highlights, lunch on the sunny terrace of ‘L’Ermitage’ to debrief and recharge after Bud’s most recent concoction of 4s, 6s and Ks. I love the buzz of a busy track and groups of athletes from a mixture of countries working around each with cheers of ‘allez, allez’ ringing out around the track from complete strangers as you struggle to keep on pace, body crying out for oxygen.

Enjoying coffee, discussing training, and making silly faces at L'Ermitage


After lunch, hours were spent as we saw fit, studying, shopping, napping or doing bits of work while sipping speciality tea in Salon de thè l'Après-Ski. It did not take long for the locals to become accustomed to us runners, and my rusty French enquiries about the area were often met with polite enquires about what event I did. I was informed that the Olympic Champion Steeplechaser had been training here recently; nice to know I’m in such good company!

The obligatory photo of food! This was me being all cultural on the first night at Restaurant Le Chaumiere. Everyone else had delicious looking steak

We were blessed with great weather most of the time, fresh mornings and blazing afternoon sun with a cooling wind. This area has an average of 300 sunny days a year (according to the local solar furnace in Odeilla), so when it’s not snowing, the chances are that you’ll have a few nice ones! Late afternoon would find me applying suncream, music blaring, ready for drills on the balcony of the apartment complex. Then the weary legs were coaxed back on the mountain trails for our easy evening run, followed by core and stretching.

Another day, another beautiful trail!

This was my favourite time of the day to explore new trails; main training done for the day I could run relaxed and easy, soaking up the scenery and the smell of pine. Possibly my favourite trail is still within running distance of the village, just a few minutes from Collette Besson gym. It starts off as a wide path with rolling hills and emerges by the picturesque wooden chalets on the edge of Bolquere village. You can follow the little yellow signs for ‘Étang du Ticou’ which will bring you to a small pond and wooded picnic area. I like this trail for several reasons: its close, the surface is good underfoot and on a late run on more than one tranquil evening, I happened upon young deer out to graze or a fox to hunt on this path.

The beautiful Étang du Ticou


Another trail worth exploring if you have a car is up in the mountains on the far side of the valley. With stunning views, this gem of a trail was discovered at the end of the trip, and needs further exploration! Beware, however, there is a nearby military testing zone. Look out for signs with ‘DANGER DU MORT’ to avoid taking the the wrong road!

Start of the trails at Capcir Nordic ski area
There was a lot to do in Font Romeu and the surrounding area.  We attempted a barbecue at Lac de Bouillouses, which went something along the lines of: 'weather? - check, location? - check, fire? - check, food? - check, cooking utensils? - ah sh1t!!!

There are lots of adventure activities, a high ropes course at Parc des Adventure just on the edge of the town, and an animal park (Parc des Animaux), near Les Angles. Unfortunately I missed that trip as I was trying to catch up on some work.

Our attempt at barbecuing failed due to lack of one very important item.
Parts of Lac de Bouillouses, the first reservoir on the River Tet, which winds through the valley to Villefranche and beyond, were still frozen.

At the end of my three weeks I was sad to be going home, but I felt mentally rested, fit and eager to attack the track season ahead. The return journey to Perpignan passed uneventfully on the 1 euro bus, the only catch being that the shuttle to the airport is a ten minute walk from the bus stop, so we cheated and took a taxi with our luggage. We arrived at the airport to discover the flight was delayed by 5 hours, so we checked in our luggage and my boyfriend and I got the shuttle back into town and spent the day exploring Perpignan, which, as it turns out, is a charming little city. I’d highly recommend it! Thinking about it now, I’m already looking forward to my next trip!

Palais de Rois de Majorque in Perpignan
Discount booklet for the many historical and
cultural attractions in the area

Map with my Font Romeu best bits
Zoom out to view the points of interest outside of Font Romeu, and click on the tags to view more information.



And no blog post would be complete without a selfie!

Myself and Callum at the old medieval town in Villefranche

Thanks Sara for sharing this useful information, and best of luck with the season ahead.  

For more information on altitude training in Font Romeu, check out these posts:
Q&A blog with Dean Cunningham, aspiring 10km runner who has trained in Font Romeu
Guest blog with young triathlete Sam Laidlow who studies and trains in Font Romeu
Guest blog from Irish International Steeplechaser Kerry O'Flaherty who owns an apartment in the town
My own updates from my research visit in 2010
Focus on altitude training options in France and Spain

All this information makes useful additions to the details on facilities, travel and other practicalities in Notes from Higher Grounds.



If you have been altitude training and have similar information to share about another venue, then please get in touch.