Running / Travel

Europe 2014 Part 1: Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and Chocolate Milk!

This summer marks my sixth trip to Europe in the past seven years, and my fifth for international racing. Over the years I’ve gotten better at adjusting to the time change, knowing how much (and how hard) to run the first few days, and what to expect as far as food, transportation and accommodations in various different countries. Although it’s far from home, I usually seem to feel a sense of comfort when I get off the plane in Europe. Fast races, beautiful scenery, and living as close to the simple European lifestyle an athlete can get. The combination of these things always makes it one of the biggest highlights of my year.

I left Montreal two Monday’s ago and after almost missing my connection in Zurich, I made it safely to Brussels. I knew my friend Ross’s flight had gotten in on time only a few minutes before mine, so once I found him in the baggage claim area we headed to catch the train to Leuven. This time I did miss the connection as it was déjà vu from a year ago in Finland where we got to the platform just in time for the train to pull away. Oh well! An extra hour really doesn’t make a difference when you’ve been traveling for half a day already.

20140711-220609-79569214.jpg{ The sun making ripples on the clouds like a rock skipping across water. }

20140708-155458-57298490.jpg{ Watching the Belgium vs. USA World Cup quarter final game the first night in Leuven }

20140708-155458-57298042.jpg{ So. Many. People. }

I had a few days in Leuven before my race on the 5th, and they were spent primarily running, sleeping and cooking (emphasis on the sleeping-trying to get over that jet lag!). I’m fairly certain those three things comprise at least 75% of most of my days, with another 5% being spent stretching or doing self treatment. For me one of the best parts about being over in Europe to race is meeting and interacting with all the other athletes. I met quite a few new people during my short stay in Belgium, and I always love hearing about their running backgrounds and other stories. I think it’s interesting that rarely is there not some type of connection between us. The running community is so big, yet so small, and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much.

20140708-155455-57295426.jpg { Accommodations in Leuven: Bakala Academy. Each room in this sport science centre has the ability to be set to different altitudes. The common areas are set at a generally lower altitude, but still higher than the actual altitude of Leuven. While the group of us staying here didn’t use it, I can see how this could be a great tool for athletes wanting to get the benefits of altitude, without having to travel someplace where other things needed for training may not be as accessible. }

20140712-150845-54525973.jpg{ The door that lead to the hallway with the bedrooms, recovery room, lounge area and kitchen. Each room is named after a different mountain. I was in Mount McKinley – the closest to Canada I could get! 🙂 }

20140708-155455-57295934.jpg{ The whole building was very modern and streamlined. Everything was white, grey or made of concrete, but it surprisingly didn’t feel cold, just very clean. }

My first race was a 1500m in Oordegem, Belgium. The race itself was pretty underwhelming and disappointing. My time just didn’t correlate at all with what I expected I would run and what I know I’m capable of running at my current level of fitness. Mentally I had prepared myself for the different type of energy system I was going to have to use, but there’s only so much mental preparation can do. I’m used to running multiple mile and 800m races indoors that when it came to outdoors my body already knew how to run those fast races. Skipping indoors this year, and then having knee issues that prevented me from running the 1500’s originally on my race schedule meant this was my first 1500m in over 14 months and my first flat race in almost 12 months. Thinking about it in that sense makes it quite a bit less frustrating, and if I could run the race again I would likely run it the exact same way. I felt good until the last lap and think my final time would have been even slower had I gone out more conservatively.

20140708-155457-57297634.jpg { Statues beside the track in Leuven. The track itself was almost a circle – strange, and a bit difficult to figure out splits and pacing on. }

20140708-155459-57299438.jpg{ This gate led to a large residence in the middle of a small forest just outside Leuven. My aunt said this picture reminded her of the story “In a Dark, Dark Room” and I couldn’t agree more. I loved that story when I was little and I don’t really know why, or how I didn’t have nightmares after having it read to me. It’s pretty creepy. }

The day after the race I woke up and did my last run in Leuven before finishing up packing and heading for the airport to start my trip to St. Moritz. Highlights of the flight: 1) Only one hour of total flight time? Yes please! 2) Near the end of the flight the flight attendant walked by with a tray of chocolates wrapped to look like soccer balls. I took one, expecting it to taste like the pastel-coloured, foil wrapped Easter egg chocolates, or the ones made to look like a variety of little tiny sports balls – you know the ones, kind of taste like wax. Well, surprise! This was probably one of the best chocolates I’ve ever had. “Uhmm excuse me sir, could you come back and give me some more of those please?!” (I didn’t actually say that, but I definitely thought about it.) I should have known. I was flying on Swiss Air from Belgium to Switzerland. Bad chocolate is probably not allowed in either of those countries. Lesson learned: don’t ever pass up chocolate on Swiss Air flights. Take three like the guy next to me did.

20140708-155456-57296697.jpg{ How someone made it through security with this bag as a “carry on” is beyond me. }

Once I landed in Zurich I bought my train ticket to St. Moritz and caught the train from the airport to the main train station. After staring at the electronic departure screens, checking the printed departure boards, trying to find some type of machine with a time table that showed the route and transfers I needed to take (apparently those machines don’t exist in Switzerland-only in every other country I’ve ever used train travel) and then going back to staring at the electronic screens, I finally asked someone if they could help me and knew which train I had to take. My ticket said “St. Moritz via Zurich-Vereina O Albula” and none of these words had appeared anywhere. Thanks go out to the extremely nice, random stranger that pulled up the train schedule/routing application on his phone, let me take a picture of it, and pointed me in the right direction. The first train I had to take went to Chur and then I had to transfer from there. How I would have ever figured this out I have no idea. I’d probably still be wandering around the Zurich train station.

20140711-220303-79383686.jpg{ The information I needed }

20140711-223500-81300971.jpg{ The information I had }

I got to the train with plenty of time to spare (for once!) and settled in. I don’t think I stopped smiling from the time the train started moving to when it reached its final stop in St. Moritz three hours later. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to some pretty amazing places in my life thus far, but I think this travel experience might top the list as the most beautiful trip I’ve ever taken, be it by train, car, plane or boat. Starting out from Zurich the train passed beaches and docks filled with people enjoying their Sunday by swimming, sunbathing, and biking or walking along the path that ran between the water and the train. As it rolled a little further out the scenery changed to golden fields and mountain faces lit up by the late afternoon sun. Old stone buildings rose up out of the mountainside, goats grazed, a bull wore a flower crown, and a single chicken seemed very out of place scratching all alone in a field. The higher the train climbed, the more viaducts and tunnels it went through. Every once in a while I would catch a glimpse of the river down below that was so blue that it looked fake. I didn’t want to blink in fear that I would miss something. For much of the trip all I could think of was how much I wished my brother was with me. He loves the mountains more than anyone I know and would be in heaven with all the trails for mountain biking. If only there was enough snow for snowboarding it would be truly perfect.

20140708-155456-57296308.jpg

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20140712-150845-54525284.jpg{ The last half of the train trip (from Thusis, through St. Moritz, and on to Tirano, Italy) is part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. }

20140708-155459-57299840.jpg{ When we got near the stop where this young boy got off, he pulled down the window and leaned out like this, breathing in the fresh air and just taking it all in. That feeling of being so close to your destination but just enjoying those last few moments of anticipation has to be one of the best in the world. I can imagine that feeling is only magnified when you call the Swiss Alps “home”. }

Back in January when I sat down with my coach and laid out a basic racing and training camp schedule the ideal plan was to make the Commonwealth Games team and to go up to St. Moritz for a pre-meet altitude camp. When I didn’t qualify for the team we went back to the drawing board and came up with two options: 1) go to Belgium and run a series of races there. 2) go to Belgium, race once, travel to St. Moritz and get in a decent block of training, then go back down to Belgium to race again. I’ve never been one to race a lot during the season and have always preferred training over racing when the meets aren’t extremely important. Going with option #2 was a pretty easy decision, especially when taking into account the fact that I know my body responds well to altitude training.

20140708-155500-57300304.jpg{ Lake St. Moritz: not a bad little warm up loop. }

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20140711-220305-79385560.jpg{ The trails are a little hilly the first couple of miles, making my easy/recovery runs slightly more difficult than normal, but I’m not complaining. They’re soft, with gorgeous views of meadows, pines, and lakes, and are less than a minute jog from my hotel. I wish I was in base season so I could run on them more. }

I’ve been here for almost a week now and everything is going well. With all the traveling and racing over the past few weeks this Tuesday was my first full workout since a week before nationals. Even though I’ve been running, doing tune ups and racing, I was still a little nervous about it. It was a completely irrational fear, since obviously my body hasn’t forgotten how to run a hard workout, but it was still there nonetheless. Funny how such a short break (and not really even a break at all) can make us second-guess ourselves. The fact that it was cold and rainy throughout the entirety of the session (and literally every second of that whole day, and for much of most days since) made it that much harder, but also that much more satisfying when it was over and had gone well. I’ve since survived (ok, better than survived) another hard workout at altitude, and this morning’s session a couple thousand feet lower in Chiavenna, Italy.

20140712-152358-55438783.jpg{ The crazy switchbacks on the drive down to Italy. }

20140712-152358-55438073.jpg{ I think you’d be hard pressed to find a track with nicer scenic views. Bonus points for the fact that it’s fast! }

20140712-152356-55436160.jpg{ Cold and clear. Mountain rivers are the best type of ice baths. }

20140712-152357-55437022.jpg{ Post workout lunch. My newest food obsession: avocado with salt, pepper, and hemp hearts. }

Last but not least, the “Chocolate Milk” part of this blog post! I’m excited to announce that I am one of the new athlete ambassadors for Powered By Chocolate Milk. I’ve used chocolate milk as a recovery drink since I was in high school and drank it after almost every hard workout in university, so it made perfect sense to me to help spread the word about its use as a recovery aid. You can check out my profile here, along with all of the other current athlete ambassadors. Click here to read about the benefits of chocolate milk, and follow PBCM on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook!

20140711-223511-81311660.jpg{ Belgium’s ability to make delicious chocolate naturally extends to their chocolate milk. }

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