Life as a travelling physiotherapist at an Altitude Training Camp.
By Dane Verwey
Wow, what a trip! A trip that definitely needs a blog. So, why not type now, when its so vivid, I’m doing nothing else at this moment and it will make it easier to share my experience with everyone when I’m back home! Yep, I’m currently just at Flagstaff airport waiting for my flight, exhausted and keen to see my loved ones, yet content, enlightened and now the owner of one bloody healthy haematocrit!
Over the past 4 weeks I have been the travelling physiotherapist for some of Australia’s best distance runners in Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff is infamous for being an amazing altitude training venue, an absolute mecca. It sits at 2,200m above sea level, it has an abundance of trails, beautiful scenery, shops/restaurants/cafes and amenities at your disposal.
As I sit here, my mind is a rush as to what to write, so many experiences, do I write them all? What ones do I talk about first? I just got an amazing farewell from all the athletes, their gratitude meant a lot. I got presented with the current official BLK Aussie singlet and shorts and many kind words. It was a testament to how well the camp went and what lasting memories we all created.
Another feeling that sits with me right now as I write, is how incredibly grateful I am to be sitting down and resting haha! This is saying something for someone who loves to work hard and to run a lot. I got a great insight as to what elite level 1500 and 5000m training looks like and just how hard top level runners train. Farout! they train hard!
I suppose without the distractions of work and life, the athletes were able to maximise their ‘rest’ throughout the day, which meant they were able to train harder. The level of training I saw over these four weeks certainly wasn’t sustainable year round. It couldn't be.
Back in Aus. I had got into the habit of just ambling around for my easy runs at 5+min/km, there was none of this here! Even at 2,200m above sea level where you get out of breath just walking up stairs to your bunk bed, easy runs were often between 4:20-40/km. Philo sometimes rolled 3:50-4:10/km?!
The pupose of the trip was largely to act as a training camp leading in to the Ambulant World Championships in Dubai scheduled in November.
Some of the athletes (and now great friends) that were on the trip were;
-Michael Roeger (a 3 time paralympian and T45 bronze medallist from Rio in the 1500m),
-Jaryd Clifford (7th in the 1500/5000m from Rio Paralympics in the visually impaired classification),
-Tim Logan (a 14:03 5k guy, Jaryd’s best mate and his guide),
-Sam Harding (another visually impaired athlete vying for selection in the 1500m for Tokyo Olympics),
-Deon Kenzie (the 2017 World champion in the 1500m for those with cerebral palsy) ,
-Keely Small (an up and coming superstar with a 2 flat PB for the 800m at just 18, 2018 Gold Coast Comm. Games rep and Youth Olympic 800m champion),
-Millie Clark (2:28 marathoner and 16th from the Rio Olympics),
-Jack Holden (another solid 1500/5000m guy and training partner of Jaryd and Tim)
-and last but not least Philo Saunders (the coach of the group/ Sports scientist, who at 43 years of age is still showing no signs of slowing down, he has broken 3:50 for 1500m 123 times!) .
We got so lucky with the weather, every day was sunny and 20 odd degrees. In fact most of the time it was ‘shirts off’ weather for runs. It was only in the last week that the weather showed signs of getting colder in the morning, with a forecast of snow next week. Poor Millie is set to stay in Flagstaff another two weeks! Ouch!
All 10 of us stayed in a two story town house at 3440 South Walkup Drive, which was just a 2 minute jog from the Urban trail (a popular running jaunte), a 5 minute drive from Firecreek (the best coffee in Flag) and Run Flag (the local running store), a 2 minute drive from Walmart, a 10 minute drive to Wholefoods, and a 10 minute run to Northern Arizona University.
I was in a 4 bed bunkroom with Jaryd Clifford, Tim Logan and Sam Harding. We had a cooking group roster which was great for dinner as it meant we only had to cook every 4th to 5th night. There were some great dinners as everyone competitively tried to out do each other. It was quite an experience for Jaryd Tim and I cooking for a party of 10. Some of our dishes were; burgers, stir fry, egg plant lasagne and carbonara. Some other great dinners that I remember from the trip were; Philo’s Bolognese and pizza, Keely’s curry, Sam’s pie and whatever Millie whipped up on a weekly basis.
Once every week, normally the night after Thursday’s session, the squad would all go out for dinner in Flagstaff. Some of the standout restaurants we went to were; Karma (a Japanese/sushi style place that you had to book in advance), Criollo(a latin American style restaurant), Pizzacletta (gourmet oven cooked pizzas) and the Outback steakhouse (yeah go figure, a hilarious take on Austraila).
As the trip played out days blurred into one, such was the routine everyone one was in. Daily Iron supplements were taken to help maximise red blood cell adaptation to altitude. Being at altitude and with a humidity of just 10% everyone doubled down on hydration, with crazy alternatives like; Cherry Gatorades or 500ml Dr Pepper or Cola Kombuchas! Only in America! I relished sampling all the crazy flavours.
Philo bought along a couple of pairs of Normatec compression boots from the AIS. These were used daily for 30 mins by most athletes. I’d never used these before but became quite a fan. I vividly remember putting them on at night before bed after one of the Sunday long runs, I definitely felt good after, be it psychological/physiological or a mixture of both?
Each morning there was always an unspoken race to the shower, to not miss out on hot water. Or the toilet, such was the adverse effect of the iron tablets!
With one fridge for 10 hungry distance runners, you could imagine the fridge was jam packed with food. Muesli, yoghurt, eggs, oats, fruit, jam bagels, honey toast, OJ, bannanas, berries, were all consumed like they were going out of fashion.
Other regular moments were; the lovely aromas of coffee, the soothing acoustic harmonies of Sam Harding on the guitar, coldplay playing on spotify, the coffee grinder in action or Dion setting off the fire alarm again!
It was funny how the atmosphere was always so different on session days or easy days in the camp. There was non-stop jokes, banter, laughter, singing on easy days. Whereas the silence was palpable on session days and athletes were primed and ready to go hours before the workout, stretching, with headphones in getting amped trying to make every post a winner.
After the morning run, there was often either a trip to wholefoods to re-stock on supplies/food or a relaxing lunch/coffee at Firecreek or Macy’s.
From here my day as the physio of the camp would begin upstairs at the house. Fortunately we got through the camp with out any major injuries of mishaps. My job was to try and prevent injury and liase with Philo to manage the loads of athletes that were showing signs of fatigue or weren’t coping. Most of the athletes had great relationships with physios/ S n C coaches back home and were quite educated about their body. My role as the travelling physio is more to ‘fine tune’ otherwise well oiled machines. I prescribed exercises when I thought it was appropriate, I educated when I felt it was necessary.
Most of the athletes were carrying ongoing niggles that would flare up here and there in the trip according to the training load. As a consequence- I went through 300 needles, 2 tubs of massage cream, 3 bottles of massage oil, I was largely a glorified massage therapist, the team mechanic.
At the end of each week on Sunday at 5pm Philo and I reported back via skype to Vic Moore the head physiotherapist of the Paralympic aths team (here we would touch base and plan accordingly for each athlete pending progress). I also had to record comprehensive notes on each athlete on AMS for all the coaches and medical personnel back home to keep everyone in the loop, communication is key.
I was so rapt that all the athletes got through near on full training for the trip, and really only a handful of runs were missed or modified during the 4 weeks. Pools, bikes or elliptical machines weren’t even needed!
Once a week the squad would venture down the mountain to lower altitude eg, Sedona (1300m), Camp Verde (900m) or Cottonwood(1100m) to hit some quality workouts. Early on in the trip after one of these sessions, Keely got a case of really sharp abdominal pain. Philo and I feared the worse, thinking it was appendicitis, we rushed her back to Flagstaff ED, while the rest of the squad carried on to the factory outlets in outer Phoenix. Fortunately, urine/blood tests and CT scans all came back normal. Keely soon felt better as she hydrated, so we put the episode down to potential abdominal cramping from being severely dehydrated. After one day off, Keely was back feeling as good as new! She payed a lot more attention to hydration for the rest of the trip after this.
Two times a week the whole squad would go to the gym for running drills, functional running exercises and heavy strength exercises- like Olympic lifts and plyometrics. The program was led by Philo and I would individually alter the program for those that were sore and add some specifics or alternative exercises in regard to their current niggle.
Another two times a week those that were competing in Dubai would do some passive steam room heat exposure. I joined in a couple of times, it was tougher than I though it was going to be. We would do 2 by 15 minute bouts in the steam room after a run. I wore my heart rate strap and was staggered to see my heart rate up at 130bpm after 30mintues just sitting there.
During the trip we bumped into a lot of running superstars because as I said Flagstaff is a running mecca! On the first Sunday long run up A1 we ran with Steph Bruce and Scott Smith from the Hoka NAZ elite group coached by Ben Rosario. This was the week before they both ran PBs of 2:27 and 2:11 respectively at the Chicago marathon. I also saw Ed Cheserek a couple of times, once in Buffalo Park carpark where he kindly shook my hand and another time I saw him fly by effortlessly and smiling in a tempo on Lake Mary Road. I also saw Matt Llano out on Lake Mary Road a few weeks after his 2:11 PB from Berlin.
We caught up with and had a run with two of the Kiwi NAU college athletes, Theo and Mitchell. They were gearing up for their 4th consecutive tilt at the coveted NCAA XC title! The day before we caught up with them they had completed 30 by 400m reps in 70 seconds at altitude! They also mentioned that of the 19 senior men on their roster they were all between 13:24 and 14:30 in 5000m ability!!!! What a training group hey?!
And last but not least, I shall not forget that some of the group bumped into and got photos with Sir Mo Farah in a café in Flagstaff. Everyone as a whole was just so approachable, such is generally the way in the global distance running community!
Several times during the trip we caught up with Dan one of the Sport physiologists from Hypo 2. Hypo 2 is where a lot of sports teams go for altitude training camps. Dan had some great stories, be it his 3 week experience earlier this year helping Venus Williams train post the 2019 Australian Open or his stories about testing Ryan Hall or Bernard Lagat.
Millie didn’t come till we were 2 weeks into the camp. She sure is fit at the moment and has carried forward her momentum post her 2nd place finish at this years Gold Coast Marathon. She is training for Houston marathon on Jan the 19th 2020. She is trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. She hit the ground running as soon as she got up to Flagstaff, having now done several altitude training stints.
Being more a marathoner myself I welcomed her arrival as it meant I didn’t have to try to keep up with the rest of the groups crazy fast 1500/5km track sessions although I had learnt a lot from these sessions. Philo sat me down during the trip and went through his past 15 odd years of documented training on an excel spreadsheet on his computer, these short and speedier workouts really had been meticulously tried and tested over the years!
Millie and I trained together over the last two weeks and ticked off some great workouts; 800 repeats at NAU, Mile repeats in Cottonwood, 2km repeats at Buffalo Park, 3k repeats and then 5km repeats along Lake Mary Road.
Millie’s story really is an amazing one. Her mum represented Australia in gymnastics. Millie was initially great at gymnastics as a junior but then citing that she wasn’t going to be tall enough to get to the highest level she followed her athletics dreams. She initially went to Drake College in the US as a 400m hurdler but then after 1yr and an amazing VO2 max test they encouraged her to become a distance runner. Millie initially found it hard to 'just finish 5kms let alone race it' and looked at the other top distance runners in her college as far superior to her. However, with persistence and training Millie finished 4th in the NCAA XC in her final year. After college she was soon encouraged to try her hand at the marathon, she watched Jess Trengove and Lisa Weightman run so well at London Olympics in 2012, she once again just assumed they were a league above. Millie debuted in the marathon at Amsterdam in 2:29 and then went on to come 16th at the Rio Olympics, ahead of Jess and Lisa! Millie told me this story on one of our last sessions of the camp, here in lies the beauty about running, never set a ceiling on your performance, with persistence and patience you certainly can surprise yourself. Millie’s story is a perfect example.
Some of my favourite runs of the trip were; the snow bowl and waterline runs, both were at 2,600-2,700m above sea level with incredible views and fun technical trails. The hills on these runs would just knock the stuffing out of you. Mountainairre, A1 and Mailboxes were satisfyingly in their own way, as they were brutally tough long runs, with lots of ups and downs and the group wasn’t ever going slow. Doing these runs each week made you feel so strong and fit.
At the start of the trip I dusted off my heart rate strap for the first time in a couple of years. I did this so I could better gauge my perceived effort up at altitude acknowledging that I wasn’t going to be able to go off my sea level pace. By about the third week I saw an obvious drop in my heart rate on my easy runs, it coincided with me feeling more comfortable on the hills and in the tempo sessions with Millie. Interestingly enough, at about the same time point, Tim Logan noticed a similar shift in his.
I was amazed at some of the sessions others in the squad did. Whether it was Keely Small’s 1:32 600m timetrial at NAU track (2,200m above sea level) or how powerful she was with her snatch’s in the gym. Roeg’s 34km long run along Mountainairre averaging 3:50/km where he nailed a 14km strava CR, knocking off Flagstaff local greats; Jim Walmsley and Scott Fauble. Seeing Dion and Sam again after not seeing them since the 2015/2016(Flagstaff camps where I helped physio too) and just how much they had both collectively grown and developed as runners. Seeing Cliffy run four 70-72sec 500m reps at NAU, run a 3:01 for a 1200m timetrial at Cottonwood or run a 1:58 800m into three 59sec 400ms into four 40-42 300ms at NAU.
Being around such a tough, ever positive and ambitious group of people was infectious. The group effect was real, you couldn’t help but not get pulled along with it.
During the trip I also got a first hand experience as to just how much Sam and Cliffy’s visual impairments affected them in day to day life and in general. There were several trail runs throughout the camp where Cliffy and Sam suddenly would near on trip or have to slow considerably. Not once did they complain, rather they sought a way forward or around it and kept going. I could say the same about Roegs, having just one arm and the inconvenience this can cause him throughout the day. Or Dion with the fatigue he gets with his cerebral Palsy. Not one complaint. Infact they are all so good at coping, so good that I’d forget daily about their disabilities. For example I remember firing the basketball at Cliffy and sconing him in the head, his skills were that good I forgot about his visual impairment, I mean he just nailed a three point jump shot! Everyone was inspiring in their own way but these guy were particularly on so many levels!
Later in the trip I also got a chance at trying to guide Cliffy with his 30cm guide rope. Tim, Philo and Cliffy would practice this on all the double runs of the trip and then do some drills together after. I was utterly terrible at the guiding process and immediately got an appreciation that guiding is a skill in itself. I thought you just had to run but it’s a far greater art than that. My cadence of 200 steps per minute just was too different to Cliffy’s beautifull springy ‘Mo Farah like’ form. Tim, Philo and Roegs were far better at running in sync with Cliffy. They all moved effortlessy together, the inside legs and arms moving as one.
Philo, really is a great coach. All the athletes respected him so much. Yes, he is knowledgeable, experienced but more than that he is a great listener and extremely caring. All the athletes trusted him and felt like they could open up and tell him anything. He created a relaxed, happy, funny atmosphere when the squad needed such and a serious/time for business approach when required too.
Other highlights of the trip were when we all had a chance to pop down to the Grand canyon, Antelope canyon, the outlets and the basketball in Phoenix. After seeing Devon Booker at Flagstaff wholefoods in the first week with Timmy Logan (he gets 25 million a year and is re known for hitting a 70pt game 2 yrs ago), I officially became a sworn Phoenix Suns fan. I even got a top to prove it from the Nike outlet. It was great to see them get up for the win against Sacramento and boy, does the NBA deliver an exciting package! It was non stop entertainment for the entire 2 hrs we were there, it felt like a grand final, yet it was merely round 1 of the regular 80 round home and away season! Athletics could learn so much from the NBA’s package/delivery.
Well, after 3,000 words of waffling, I feel like this is a good insight to my experience as a travelling physio on an altitude camp. I’m just about to call Vic Moore who will be looking after Cliffy, Dion and Roegs in Dubai for the final verbal handover. All three athletes are in great knick and after a stirling training camp, we are all pretty confident of some strong results in 2 weeks time! I am so grateful for this experience, it was so fun being but a small part of the journey with these athletes and as an added bonus I was able to notch up some valuable altitude training for myself too. Thanks so much Athletics Australia and Philo for this opportunity!