Picture a sunny Canary resort designed specifically for the needs of athletes of all abilities combined with a quiet location at a small lagoon on the Atlantic coast and you have Club La Santa. Aoife and I have travelled down to the Danish-owned facility for the second year as part of the annual Crusaders trip (the club owns time-shares here).
Club La Santa is designed as a self-contained village close to the village of La Santa and sports a running track, tennis courts, an Olympic pool, basketball and football courts, a gym, sports halls, a leisure pool and a wellness centre. For us the most exciting thing is “the menu”: literally every hour offers the choice of a circuit class, yoga, pilates reformer, zumba, boxing practice, body toning, fitball or any other class you can imagine. We have our favourites (particularly the circuit classes) but to each their own. If windsurfing, kayaking or biking is what you are about, you simply hand in a token to get the mode of transport of choice.
Like last year, I travelled to La Santa off the back of good winter training (Dec-March), a spring and summer ruined by injury (April to July) and an early stop to the cross-country season with another injury (August to November). So there’s no better place to get the old ticker back working properly and get the body in the sort of shape to start serious consistent training again. With plunge pools, cheap massage, warm weather, rich food and plenty of naps, you can live the perfect life here: that of a professional athlete.
Running Challenge XXII
Apart from classes, each week at La Santa focuses on a specific sport or event and naturally our club travel down during the Running Challenge (now in it’s 22nd year) which consists of a gruelling four races in four days: a bumpy 10km on road, a 13km ridge run up one of the smaller volcanic mountains around, a 5km beach race on loose sand and finally the “Vuelta de Tinajo” half-marathon race. Aoife and I signed up along with three of the girls from the club as well as a contingent of Wexford runners (DMP and SBR men) and a large crowd of female and male Sportsworld members. Some local competition for a far away place where most of the runners come from the huge Copenhagen club Sparta.
As always, I couldn’t just run this challenge: I had to formulate a plan, preferably a master plan. I knew two things: 1) I was more unfit cardiovascularly than at any point in the last few years and 2) Very hard anaerobic running would only make me less fit as the week progressed.
So, I decided that I would try to find my threshold pace in each run and only go slightly beyond it towards the end. In addition, I’d buffer the runs with plenty of aerobic running and would ensure I picked a moderate to hard intensity for the classes we had decided to do in the afternoon. It’s not La Santa unless you train 2-3 times per day (then it’s just a holiday!) but with four hard races, proper recovery and marshalling of the available resources would be the key to leave the island stronger than before and resume my marathon training.
Three of the races (all but the beach race) finish and start on the track at La Santa, a detail I have a particular liking for especially as it allows an unimpeded late charge. Saturday featured a social jog with all the challengers in the morning. We then did 2 hours of body toning and fitball classes back-to-back (my stomach still hurts three days later!) before a leisurely swim and an evening jog around the lagoon. All set?
Not so. I felt sluggish, my breathing was shallow, the heart was uneasy and the body heavy for the first race. I had clearly eaten too much and my body was not prepared for any intensity. Looking at the two 5km loops ahead and the 25 degree plus heat, one thing was clear: most of the field would go off to fast, heat up too fast and blow up on the last loop.
I decided to start super-conservatively in the hope of “getting the body” going and then push on from there. Aoife was close by from the start and told me later that as we passed through a 3:58 first kilometre and saw me plodding along she thought “What is he at!”
When the heat was done with us, we were faced with two straits of strong head-wind. Aoife and I were essentially racing each other for the first time in years. “Tug in behind me,” I said, “I’ll break the wind for you.” She declined as my rhythm didn’t suit her. We were making up places as planned throughout the race. Granted, I was far from were I would have been six months ago, but raced well within my current capabilities. On the final steeper climb ahead of the last 2km, I broke a gap and got away from Aoife. The risk was averted, a domestic upset would not manifest!
I took out another four runners next to the white walls around La Santa and while the legs were full of viscosity and lacked sprite, I still got another two on the track. It’s great to finish a race on a high and when I stopped, I could note that I had managed to break 40 minutes (just about!) although my official time was 40:22 (the route was slightly long, perhaps because of the many bends which could have been run better). I was 58th out of the eight or so hundred competitors. Aoife too broke 40 minutes for the first time, and gave thanks to my careful start having held her back. “I thought I couldn’t pass you,” she explained. It was some race to record a PB in. Sportsworld’s Paul Duffy had finished a distant second after a run-away Danish-man but would celebrate victory the following day on the Ridge Run and the team competition looked to be a battle between Sparta’s Danes and Sportsworld’s Irishmen.
In the afternoon we signed up for our favourite circuit: the “EasyLine” circuit which consists of three laps of a mixture of resistance, plyometric and abdominal workouts. Thirty seconds hard with 15 seconds transition. The beauty of EasyLine is that the machines are hydraulic so the more power you put into them, the more resistance they push back at you. This loosened us up nicely although I had worries that would have taken the life out of my legs for hill run the next day…
“You should have the advantage today,” the boys from Sliabh Bhuidhe Rovers told me ahead of the next run. They’d all finished in 34-35 minutes for the 10k, so I didn’t get my hopes up. Especially as the route now only had a few hundred metres of technical downhill after a few nasty falls on the dark volcanic rocks had made La Santa’s “Green Team” volunteers reconsider the original route.
The Ridge Run featured a few steady kilometres on road before veering off left onto dusty desert tracks. After my initial discomfort the day before, I suddenly felt eminently comfortable. My breathing was easy, the legs barely felt the gradient increasing and I was smiling to anyone in general and waving at our loyal supports (Michael, Caroline, Susan and Niamh) throughout. Eventually, the leading Sportsworld lady came up and started pushing the pace. As always masculine pride demanded that I stay with her so I snapped out of my leisurely climb and started working. As the dirt path led onto the rocky ridge, my pace dropped a bit and she and a few others build up a small gap which they held as we crested the top.
I pulled back a huge gap immediately on the short rocky descent but then we were back on tame dirt-road with a strong wind blowing head-ways. We still had six kilometres home, so I decided to stay patient despite my efforts making not the slightest dent in the lead the group ahead of me had. But it’s never over until the fat lady sings for a Lydiard runner (or so he claimed himself) and as the path grew a bit steeper and a bit sandier, ever more runners drifted back to me. I ambushed the Sportsworld girl and a few others by being quick on the turn at the last aid station (a trick they had used on me just thirty minutes prior). The only urge I felt now was accelerating and it turned out to be one of those races where the legs just kept giving and I could run aggressively to the finish. As the final icing on the cake I caught a runner with my sprint in between the two finishing mats. A cruel way to get caught but you have to keep running hard to the line.
When doing so a lot of activity back to back it’s very important to get your acidity levels in the working muscles back to normal before the next day and jogging is the best way of doing this. After each run I did 15 minutes cooldown in barefeet on the grass and then another run in the afternoon of 3-5km. These were what you could call “disgustingly slow” (5:30-6:00 minute kilometres) but that’s the way they are meant to be. So if you want to use this technique, do what I did and look at the waves, the Western-like desert around and lap up the sun. Oh, and stay away from other runners!
In the afternoon, we had our highlight so far: we went to the Boxing for Beginners. This was a fantastic workout and I took to it with gusto (I like to think I the instructors visible excitement came from the passion I put in my hooks, jabs and uppercuts). We started with some fun sprint-drills (such as having to sprint from prone) and in addition to technical instruction on the basics of the sport, we had to do a boxing-inspired circuit and finished off with a 400m sprint race! We were only two men in the race, so we got a 15 second penalty. Somehow the sight of ten ladies galloping away from me put the devil in me and I spurted down the track in a mighty sprint. We had been threatened that every girl that finished ahead of us would incur a penalty of five push-ups. I caught Aoife in the home-straight and another at the death. There was only a few metres to the last three, but despite a good effort, there was no way around it: fifteen push-ups for René and more for my unlucky male compatriot behind me. Perhaps the 400m is my calling…
What lies ahead
This post is written in a rush at the La Santa reception area (one hour internet for three quid being the price) but the battle continues with the 5km beach race and the grand finale: my trademark event the half-marathon. So far I feel stronger and more energetic every day (only my calves are in bits) so here’s to two more good races. I’ve only done nine races this year before this week and soon it’ll be four in four days, almost a third of the year’s allotment. Sane? Probably not. A good way to get your mojo back. Absolutely….