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Kalmer soaks up the benefits of altitude training in Ethiopia
- Updated: February 4, 2015
By Mark Etheridge
Multi-talented South African athlete and two-time Olympian Rene Kalmer has broadened her already extensive training horizons with an extended Ethiopian trip.
She spent three weeks at the renowned Yaya Village along with British distance athlete Julia Bleasdale, who has been doing the Ethiopian experience since 2006 already.
Bleasdale finished seventh in the 5000/10000m events at the London Olympics three years ago and Kalmer reckons she was the ideal mentor and mate.
‘I couldn’t have asked for a better expert to chaperone me on my first running adventure at 2700 metres above sea level. Julia is one of the most adventurous and interesting runners I have met on my running journey. She gets very excited about contours on google maps and the new dirt routes waiting to be explored.
‘The Yaya Village was my home for three weeks. Master Chef fans will be familiar with the Yaya village as one of the episodes was filmed at Yaya, where the contestant met the great Haile Gebrselassie. Their task was to cook injera, the national dish of Ethiopia. Injera is an iron rich flatbread made from teff flour (almost like a spongy pancake), served with different stew-like dishes. The top runners also believe that eating kifto, raw marinated beef, will make you a champion, something I’ll definitely remember that on my next trip to Ethiopia.’
Talking abut the benefits of altitude training, Kalmer elaborated: ‘The air is thinner because of the low oxygen content in the air and that causes a shortness in breath. The ideal is to train at altitude for at least four-six weeks. The body is then forced to form more red blood cells that delivers oxygen in the blood. The formation of haemoglobin, the oxygen binding part of red blood cells, also increases. This result is that a runner can now deliver more oxygen to working muscles and remove waste products, like lactic acid more effectively. When returning to lower altitude or sea level a runner can perform at a much higher level than before. Unfortunately the gain only lasts between two and four weeks.’
And Kalmer, who is no stranger to the strains of exercise, admitted that even she was shocked by the experience. ‘The secret is not to train too hard too soon! The first three days we took it really easy adapting to the high altitude. It’s quite a shock on your system to suddenly run 5min 30sec per kilometre whilst it feels like running sub-4min. It feels like your lungs want to climb out of your chest. I felt the altitude the most when running uphill and my arms and upper body would just go lame.
‘Julia kept reminding me that “alltitude is my friend” and that I had to embrace the feeling and accept the kilometre splits that were even as slow as 7min/km going uphill. I used the first few days exploring my new playground of endless trails and grass fields, identifying landmarks like pylons and the satellite field to co-ordinate myself. I must confess the first week my eyes were just glued to Julia’s “Mountain Heidi’s” footsteps in order not to take a plunge on the trails. It was a great adjustment for me to do most of my training on trails and grass fields dodging donkeys, compared to running mostly on tar roads in SA.’
After a week of adjustment and acclimatisation it was onwards and upwards for the SA/UK duo as they joined one of the established Ethiopian training groups.
‘We went to iSebata, where 90 runners met at 6am for the Saturday session. We were very nervous not knowing what to expect or knowing what was on the menu training-wise that day. All the runners were very friendly welcoming the two “forengi’s” in their warm up routine. We were more than 30 girls attending the session and the coach divided us into three groups.
‘I was more than happy to be in the slowest group of the three. The session for the day was 3km, 4km, 3km, 4km and a 3km. I averaged 3:25min/km in this session and had to give it my all to keep up with the “slow” group. This was a real eye-opener for me!’
There was also time for taking in the countryside while not trotting around at breakneck pace. ‘Every run in Ethiopia was a great adventure for me, like taking a taxi for the equivalent of R2.70 to explore Entoto, where we climbed (some parts literally) from 2700m to 3100m on a long run with the breathless views (not just because of the lack of oxygen) over Addis Ababa and Sululta.’
And it was the country’s youth that really captured Kalmer’s heart. ‘What I will treasure most about training in Ethiopia is all the kids we encountered on our runs. Some walking as far as six kilometres to school and back. It’s so special to hear their laughter echoing through the valleys and I can’t help but think that is what childhood is really about, growing up careless in nature.’
And, as travel so frequently does, Kalmer was an appreciative soul on her return.
‘I’m grateful for the joy that Ethiopia brought back to my running and I learned to appreciate the small things again… like opening a tap with clean running water.
Ameseghinallehu (thank you in amharic) Ethiopia for the humbling experience! Looking forward to seeing you soon.’