Wednesday, June 25, 2014

RunCamp, Newcastle - June long weekend

Camp is something of a nostalgic concept to me these days; I have fond memories of jazz camp and other musical escapades that occupied me in my teenage years, and some less-fond-more-strange memories of the one Sport & Rec camp that I attended age 10 at Lake Burrendong. To this day I wonder why they teamed me (smallest camper of all) with the second-smallest camper of all and sent us out orienteering with instructions to "Take X steps northwest, then X steps east..." etc. If that's not a recipe for losing little campers, I don't know what is.

But I digress. I saw an ad for a running camp last year sometime in a magazine, and was quite intrigued by the idea of spending a weekend devoted to all things running with a bunch of similarly-obsessed people. So, when my longtime friend and fellow runner Polly told me she was attending a camp being held over the long weekend by RunLab, I was quick to sign up.

It turns out that the brains and driving force behind RunLab is Vlad Shatrov, a former champion triathlete who recently ran 2:25 in the Paris Marathon and has a passion for helping others achieve their running goals. RunLab is his pride and joy and has been taking up most of his time since the end of 2013, but this is the very first camp they've held. His enthusiasm is evident in the group emails that fly around in the weeks leading up to the camp, and I manage to taper for it by NOT racing on the weekend immediately beforehand. This turns out to be an excellent idea - even the impressive camp schedule gives no real clue as to just how strenuous the weekend is going to turn out to be, which is - in a word - VERY.

See all that yellow? That's running. And not just jogging, oh no.
DAY ONE: Saturday

I arrive in Sydney late on Friday night in the midst of an absolute tempest: wind, rain, and it's really cold. Conditions in Newcastle are similar, and to be honest I have some serious misgivings about the weather forecast, which calls for more of the same over the entire long weekend. But as Polly and I drive north on Saturday morning the clouds miraculously clear, and at 10:30am we arrive at Glenrock Scout Camp to sunny blue skies and not a whisper of wind. The view from the deck on the main meeting hall is glorious:

Yes, that's a beach down there, it will be the setting for some torture on the final day...

We dump our stuff in the fairly basic dorm rooms, meet our coaches and roomies, wander around a bit and then it's time for an introductory 40 minute run around the local area. Courtesy of all the rain in the past 24 hours, this devolves fairly rapidly into a mud-splashing, puddle-jumping joyride through the bush, and I have no chance to look at the scenery because I'm too busy watching my feet. So much for the theory - published in the Wagga Daily Advertiser a couple of months back - that I'm "predominantly a trail runner"; nothing could be further from the truth, although admittedly this leaping from rock to puddle and back again is sort of fun, in an oops-I-almost-broke-my-ankle sort of way. Thankfully, despite the gnarly obstacle course we all make it back to camp without that kind of incident.

After lunch there's a bit of time to relax - and a bike maintenance workshop for those with an interest in triathlons or cycling, which most definitely does NOT include me (for why, click here) - and then it's time for the second session of the day. Based on speed I've been put in the "A" group, but am most definitely one of the slower runners in it; this is something of a change for me, but not an unwelcome one. Vlad suggests some of us run to the start of the trail where we'll be doing long intervals - most of the As are up for it - and this part of the run involves wading across a tidal inlet, climbing a cliff and skipping through more tangled undergrowth. I can hardly wait to see what the workout involves!

At the top of the trail we're split into our 3 groups and given instructions as to what we are supposed to run: a ladder-type group of intervals comprising 2 x 1200m/1000m/800m with jog-back recoveries. Vlad and the coaches - Ben, Sebastian, Josh and Rich - are there to help everyone keep track of what's happening, and we all set off jogging to the start of the first repeat.

Vlad, at right: "And if you run so hard you need to throw up, just do it over there."

PEEP! The whistle sounds and we all take off like hyperactive 8 year olds at a fun run. God, this group I'm in are all fast! Alex and Neil are both sub-2:30 marathoners, Kasey is just 21 and a promising sprinter and short-distance runner......and in fact, everyone else is right up there too. I'm rapidly at the rear  (but not quite the whole way, because there is a nasty hill right before the final 200m, and in my usual form I catch people on it with my shuffly but efficient gait) and rather than making me feel annoyed, it's actually a great motivator for me to keep pushing myself.

This is the kind of workout I've never really done before, where there is time (although not much of it) to wait around between repeats, chiefly because I usually run alone and so there's nobody to wait for. I've never liked stopping during a run, either, but by the second set of repeats it's a very welcome respite from the effort required to get up that hill. And to make things worse I've managed to somehow not bring my Garmin, so I don't know how fast I'm running each repeat. Actually, that's probably not a bad thing after all.

By the end of the session everyone is utterly exhausted, but happy. We of the A team wisely refuse to run back (although someone does suggest it), mainly because during the final repeat the heavens have opened and we are all not only wet but now also cold, muddy and in dire need of a warm shower. All of that is readily obtainable back at camp, and after dinner it's time for an intriguing session from a local physiotherapist about the Functional Movement Screen.

So glad I wasn't chosen to attempt this stuff
The FMS looks at a runner's ability to perform certain movements, identifies limitations and asymmetries, and can be used to predict the risk of injury. Taso and Phil gamely step up and it's apparent rather quickly that one of them is potentially treading (running?) on thin ice. Uh oh! All this makes me very thankful I've had so few brushes with injury in the years since my Big One, and although it's fascinating it's also time for bed - a welcome idea in the face of a tiring day and the 5:30am wake-up call ahead.

Total running for the day: approximately 17 miles (27km)

DAY TWO: Sunday

There's a knock on the door at 5:30am and Vlad appears, hustling people into cars and we all (well, most of us) head out to some random location where a big hill awaits. I take one look at the gradient sloping away from me and decide, NOPE. There's a tempo workout on the books for this afternoon and a "recovery" run later in the morning - my ageing bones (not to mention muscles) aren't going to appreciate 2 tough workouts hard on the heels of yesterday's hills of death. So Sebastian - who has already done 8 training sessions this week as part of his Ironman prep - and I head off together for a 40 minute easy run whilst the sadists and masochists head down the hill to do their stuff. We run and chat our way down to the beautiful Merewether beach, along and up the next headland, then turn and retrace our steps.

The view as we turn around - yes, we have to go back up that hill in the distance. All the way up.

Wow, this hill didn't seem so big when we were jogging down it. Finally we make it back to the cars but no-one is around. Seb is going back to help prepare breakfast so I jog onward, 5 minutes up the road and then back, but there is still no sign of the hill runners. Another 5 minute out-and-back in the other direction; nope, still nobody around. I figure I might as well keep going, but when I return for a 3rd time, the parking area is empty. Whoops! At least I have my phone - at worst I can google maps my way back to camp, and by my calculations I've only run about 10 miles so far, so it won't kill me if I have to run the whole way. Although I have absolutely no idea which direction to take....

This, on the other hand, would probably have finished me off.

I decide to head down towards the beach, and thankfully after about 2 minutes I spot Vlad driving back towards me. He pulls over and Josh very valiantly gives up his seat so that I can hop in. Back at camp we devour our breakfast with relish and then the biggest decision is, do we shower now, or later after the second run....or remain stinky the WHOLE day until the final tempo is over? I elect to shower now and probably later as well; out of the sun the temperature is still chilly and a nice shower is the perfect way to thaw out.

To top off a morning that has already seen a great run, a warm shower and a yummy breakfast, what could be left to do? A visit to a running store, of course! We head up the hill to Pure Performance Sports - who have generously sponsored the camp in the form of a nice discount for all campers to use - and it's runner nirvana, honestly. I've been thinking of trying out some new Mizuno shoes (the Wave Sayonara) so it's a really easy sell for the bloke who comes over to help me: I tell him what shoe I want, in which colour and size, he goes to get them and I buy them. Simple!

Mmmm, shoes.

The late morning recovery run takes place on a nearby disused railway line that has been turned into a wonderful sealed path beloved by runners and cyclists alike - the Fernleigh track - where my rapid cadence and way-too-fast recovery pace means I can easily keep up with the speedsters (Vlad, Alex, Neil, Kasey, Ben and Phil); this will NOT be the case later in the afternoon. We run and chat and make our way up to the oval where we will be running tempo intervals later in the day. It's kind of muddy - Vlad is muttering and sizing up the gravel path around the outside of the oval - but none of us is paying much attention really as we amble along at a comfortable, conversational pace. Although I *am* trying not to get too much mud on my new Mizunos.

Recovery option: Le Tour de Verandah!
(shirtless blokes a bonus extra)

Back at camp it's time for lunch - everyone is starving - and then some quality laying-around time in anticipation of a quality workout later on. After a very informative talk on shoes I actually crawl into the sleeping bag Polly has kindly lent me and have almost decided that I'm never coming back out again, when Vlad's whistle sounds and it's time to saddle up for the afternoon session. We drive up to the entrance to the Fernleigh track, the A team warm up by running the 3km or so to the oval, there's a bit of standing around and then PEEP - it's on!

The session is 3 x 7 minutes at half-marathon pace - or at least effort - quickly we discover that the mud and gravel and soggy grass are very difficult to run normal pace on! Once again I'm at the rear end of the A group, and I'm pleased to find that I can make it roughly 3.25 laps around each time without really seeming to lose much ground on the later repeats. Sebastian, Vlad, Josh and Ben are scattered around the place yelling encouragement and random numbers (usually time left) at people; much of it doesn't make sense to me because the B and C groups have started at a different time and are sometimes running shorter reps. So I just keep running until I see Phil and Ben (who are the A guys closest to me, the others being lost in a blur of mud and motion) slow down, then I stop. It's surprisingly a lot of fun, and the doubts I had on the warm-up about the sanity of this workout are quickly dispersed.

The A team run our final tempo interval back on the Fernleigh track, and it's hilarious: Neil and Alex take off like their shorts are on fire, which makes the rest of us forget the fatigue in our legs and just GO! I manage to keep myself together enough to pass a couple of the guys who initially streak ahead of me (and that's more satisfying than it should be, heh heh) but have no hope in hell of catching the others: I find out later that Neil ran 2:58 pace for the first 1km of the final interval. That's 4:46 min/mile. Did I mention he was 2nd overall at Boston to Big Sur this year? Or that he followed that up with a 2:42 at the Vancouver marathon a week later? They breed 'em tough in the far north of Scotland, let me tell you.

Feeding the hungry hordes at lunch day 2
Back at camp we're all a mess of mud and post-run endorphins, and I can't quite believe I've completed my first TRIPLE running day. After another very pleasant shower it's time for dinner and then entertainment - local running enthusiast Andrew Dodd has come to talk to us about the recent history of running in Australia and to generally amuse us for the evening.

He puts us through a series of group exercises including one where we all have to line up in order of who has raced the longest distance (it turns out a fair few have run ultramarathons, and Ben makes us all laugh when he remembers he's actually run a 56km ultra rather than the 6K he thought was his longest race - obviously his brain has just repressed that traumatic memory), and another according to how far away from here we have raced.

I'm standing in the group of "New York/Boston" until I do a Ben and realise suddenly that Edinburgh, Scotland is a fair bit further away than Boston! I race to the head of the queue but there's someone who has been even further north. Thankfully it's time to sit down again and we all listen intently to stories about running and runners for the next hour or so - by 9:30pm many are flaking out on the spot and we have a 5:30am start tomorrow, so again it's time for bed.

Total running for the day: approximately 23 miles (37km)


Long run day is here! I get off to an interesting start by somehow neglecting to set any kind of alarm, and sit bold upright at 5:37am to the realisation that I have MISSED THE GROUP!! I guess I assumed I'd just wake up or that I'd hear Vlad's knock or something - a quick inspection tells me that everyone else in the room (Kasey, Polly and Liz) is still snoozing and that apparently I was the only one scheduled to leave at 5:30am. BUGGER!

I throw on my running clothes in the pitch dark and dash out the door, wondering wildly if I can find my way to the start of the Fernleigh track via that crazy trail where we ran on the first morning (although I will almost certainly break both my ankles in the process, considering how dark it is), or if I should go up the (VERY steep) road that leads to camp --- and I bump straight into Taso, who has also been left behind. Thankfully Aron up and he offers to drive us to the start, so we set off on the long run only 10-15 minutes behind the other early groups.

RunCampers L to R: Phil, Elizabeth, Kasey, Liz, Josh (coach)
Aron, Emma, Tytana and Greg (newly-weds on their "runnymoon"!) and Polly

The Fernleigh track is 15km in total, and we've started about 1.5km from the Adamstown end of it. I'm supposed to be running 30km total today; I run a couple of km with Taso but I'm freezing (in the mad rush to get dressed I completely underestimated how cold it is outside) so I speed up quite a bit in order to warm up in the process.

I've settled into a comfortable pace around 4:40 min/km (7:30 min/mile) and am almost all the way to the Redhead station - a very cool part of the track where you actually run right through an old railway platform - when I finally see another group of RunCampers coming back towards me, and it's the speed demons themselves:

Neil, Alex, Vlad......and me, totally in their dust.
Over the course of the next hour I see most of the others from camp at various stages of their run, and when I get back to the starting point I have to decide whether or not to go run the other part to complete 30km in total. At first it's touch and go, but I really really want to run through the tunnel that we saw on our first run at camp, so I head across the road and run onward. And there it is!

Isn't that so cool?

Fairly soon after I emerge from the other side my enthusiasm for running much further is waning - I'm not in official marathon training just now, so there's no compelling reason to complete the whole distance - and I turn back. With about half a mile to go I am caught by the speedy trio on their return leg - I have plenty of energy left to speed up and stay with them, thank goodness, so we finish the LR together in style. 27km or so for me; for the first time I've been tracking myself using MapMyRun, but my phone has just run out of battery and I'm surprisingly Zen about not knowing my exact pace or distance run. The camp has been good for me in this regard!

Back at camp it's surreal to think we still have one session left. I literally NEVER exercise again on the same day as a long run, and I've actually already told Benita that I don't want to do the sand running session that's on the schedule (and she agrees!), but predictably I get sucked in and pretty soon we are heading down to the beach.

"They will probably be able to get to the top of that dune without supplemental oxygen....I think....." 

I know now why I've pretty much never done any running on sand: I'm an utter wimp. Add hills to the torture of slogging through soft sand and it's the perfect double-whammy - I really can't believe I'm doing this. At first Vlad has us running on/off fartlek intervals around a loop that is part hard sand (with the occasional shoe-drenching from rogue waves) and part soft. Actually it's mostly soft sand, with twigs and rocks thrown in here and there; some people have their shoes off but I'd rather keep mine on than step on something sharp. Pretty soon they are FULL of sand, and it's hard enough running on the darn stuff, this is making it worse.

And just when I'd like to stop, it's time for sand hill repeats. EIGHT of them!! I stupidly and stubbornly start with the A team - this means I have 2 hills to run up rather than 1 - but for the second set of 4 I finally concede defeat and move myself to the group that is starting a little closer to the turning point. It's a totally different kind of workout but somehow we all make it to the end -- and so ends the running part of RunCamp, with an impromptu salt water ice bath and half a beach in my shoes.

Total running for the day: approximately 18 miles (29km)

Summing it all up

There's not much to say about the rest of the morning - we eat lunch, clean up, say our farewells and head off home. The weather has been just about perfect, in sharp contrast to Sydney where it has pretty much poured rain all weekend. A few times during the weekend I did wonder about the wisdom of packing so much of both quantity and quality in to 3 days of running, but I've come through it unscathed and actually feeling pretty great. I've never been one to push the limits much (other than in terms of overall mileage) so these hill repeats and sand torture sessions are entirely new to me; and now I know that I can do them and not fall in a heap. That's a great thing to know!

Overall, I couldn't have enjoyed the weekend any more than I did - it was ridiculously fun to meet a group of similarly running-obsessed people and for me, a mostly solitary runner, it was a fantastic change to run in a group and be challenged to keep up with them. I'm in awe of the concept of RunLab and the dedication, commitment and expertise that Vlad and his wife Cheryl have put into making the weekend such a success for everyone. I'd recommend them to anyone looking to get into running, change up their training, regain their running mojo, or just have a lot of fun with other runners. And next time you see an ad for a running camp - sign up on the spot!

The end of the line!
at back: Ben, Chris, Sebastian (coach), Mariana, Nicole, Cheryl, Helen
at front: Neil, Blair, Brent.
As a result of the weekend at RunCamp I have now started doing regular hill sessions in my own training program, and it will be very interesting to see how this affects my running in the next few months - as always I will report back!


  1. This is some very hard-core, very crazy, very exhausting stuff. You continue to impress!

  2. Wow - great weekend and great video! Makes me want to do it - sort of. I take two weeks to run that mileage. I'd be good at the quality laying-around time though ;) Excellent idea to joing the group, see others' strengths and weaknesses, how they run, zen out about Garmin paces. Good stuff.

  3. Sounds like you had a great time. I think hill sprints are wonderful, really: it's like weightlifting but without the utter boredom. I also have a pair of Mizuno Wave Sayonaras and look forward to hear what you think - I've only run in them a little, but their predecessor the Elixir is one of my favorite shoes.

  4. Sounds like you had a great time. I think hill sprints are wonderful, really: it's like weightlifting but without the utter boredom. I also have a pair of Mizuno Wave Sayonaras and look forward to hear what you think - I've only run in them a little, but their predecessor the Elixir is one of my favorite shoes.