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Sonia O’Sullivan: Striving to fulfil aspirations at 7,000 feet

Vast network of running trails attracts some of world’s best distance runners to Flagstaff

The city of Flagstaff in northern Arizona state sits at around 7,000ft, or 2,100m in new money, not far from the Grand Canyon, which we all know is one of the world's great natural wonders, and by some distance the most popular tourist attraction in the USA.

These days Flagstaff is also the biggest attraction for some of the world’s best distance runners: the thin high air, the vast network of running trails, that’s the big attraction here.

In part it’s about the commitment to a pre-season altitude training camp that will lead to athletic rewards later this year, these athletes chasing fast times or qualifying standards that will lead to national team berths at the World Championships and European Championships taking place this coming July and August.

I arrived here on Monday with the Nike training group I coach, and soon found myself sitting around the table at one of the many houses rented out to athletes at this time of year enjoying a cup of tea.

I can’t help but wonder what draws the athletes here, the dream and hope of success, elevating their current ability to even greater heights, fast times and championship finals.

I called around to visit the Dublin Track Club, led by coach Feidhlim Kelly, with his entourage of athletes, including Michelle Finn, Andrew Coscoran, Paul Robinson and Sean Tobin. The afternoon downtime leads to some general conversation and eventually how they are all working together to chase their dreams and reach their goals.

The self-investment by these athletes is required to be able to match and compete with the best athletes in the world – just to reach the starting line.

Some will have bits of funding to cover expenses, but it’s the personal sacrifices and willingness to commit and not cut corners that drives them on to travel across eight time zones and 10 hours of flight from their regular home base.

This is not a life of luxury, but when you are in it together it makes the challenges worthwhile, supporting each other and enduring the time spent away from home and exploring new trails and tracks in the thin mountainous air.


It’s still debatable if the training camp has as much effect as the altitude factor when it comes to deciding where to set up camp. Athletes from all around the world come here, from the USA, Canada, Japan, Netherlands, Germany Sweden, Australia, and Ireland, and mostly likely they will meet up daily at some of the popular running spots.

Still, you do wonder is it a fear of missing out or a necessity for athletes to train at such altitudes, where everything is harder physiologically on the heart and lungs. Not just when training but when eating sleeping and going about daily activities.

There comes with it many risks and challenges to overcome, the travel and altitude adaptation for one, then the ability to train within a level that you can reap the benefits and not wear yourself down. The enthusiasm to jump right in and train hard can so easily outweigh the benefits. Especially if you don’t respect the adaptation phase.

There is also the factor that not all athletes will adapt as easily. When you are training in groups it can be hard to listen to your body when you want to keep up and stay involved with every run and training session.

There’s lots of science to back up the training effects, but most people just rock up and start running without too many measurable checks along the way, hoping they don’t push too hard. Once you go over the edge it’s hard to come back and recover with the limited time and urgency to make the most of your time away from home.

Old record

Each athlete has their own individual aspirations. Andrew, Paul and Sean, with the addition of Hiko Tonosa Has, who is training in Ethiopia, will come together next weekend for the 4x1-mile relay at the Penn relays, an event organised to attract teams to come and challenge the 37-year-old record held by Ireland from the GOAL charity race in Dublin in 1985.

With the advanced technology and altitude training camps, the plan is to surpass the high standards set my Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O'Sullivan, Frank O'Mara and Ray Flynn. An average of 3:57 per mile would match the record and looks achievable on paper, but when you look back at the amount of solo running required it's not as easy a task as one might think.

The Penn relays has a long tradition and link with Irish athletes representing their colleges, particularly Villanova, Arkansas and Providence.

Not always a big draw card for the elite athletes, but when the event has such tradition and history the athletes can be attracted to come together and create a memorable piece of history that will stay with them for life.

We only have to look at how much it meant to Eamonn, Marcus, Frank and Ray back in 1985, something they still feel brought them closer together as people, not just athletes, and remains a special race that always brings up good memories. They could never have imagined the record would have stood all this time.