Sierra Nevada - a painful rite of passage...

I’m coming to the end of an afternoon off and I find myself sitting up high on a rocky outcrop watching the sun fall out of the sky. It’s an amazing view from up here, a snowcapped peak to my left and a vast mountainous landscape shrouded in pink mist to my right and all around. The sun is sinking lower every second and the pink orange colours of the sunset are growing more and more vivid in front of me; this really is a very good view.

I’ve been here in Sierra Nevada for two weeks, and today is the first time I’ve stepped out of the training facility to take myself away from everything we are doing down there. If I cast my eyes down the hill I see this huge silver box that has been our home for the last 13 days. The smell of the place is deeply embedded in my nostrils and it’s dust has filled my lungs. It’s damn good to get out and breathe this fresh, thin mountain air. 


View from a cave on the way up to my viewpoint

View from a cave on the way up to my viewpoint

It’s difficult to appreciate this place when you’re stuck indoors but at moment’s like this I can sit back and reflect on everything that’s been happening. We come here every year, this must be my 10th year and it’s possibly my last. I’ll let you know right now, that despite this view, I won’t miss this place, for even the name now evokes the smell, atmosphere and constant nauseous feeling you get on this training camp.


For every hardship we go through (and I must stress here, I’m fully aware the word ‘hardship’ is relative, and is something I choose to go through. I know there are people going through true hardships in the world) there are huge positives and benefits. The training is brutal, every session is a strain on the physical and mental being and stresses us to our limits. I can’t and won’t bother trying to explain the battles each one of us goes through every time we step on the ergo numerous times a day. To add to this we lift weights more than once a day and each one of us takes the opportunity to push it, strain those fibres and dig deep inside ourselves to maximise each lift. These two disciplines, when combined, for many hours a day take us to a breaking point, but that’s not all. At altitude it’s difficult to sleep. I don’t know the science behind it, but when you’re in a room,trying to sleep, two foot away from your room mate’s face who’s nose is perpetually blocked due to the atmosphere, and he’s tossing and turning desperately trying to sleep too, the science is that you can’t. Sleep deprived, physically and mentally strained and exhausted, there’s a big challenge right there, but there’s something else. The food here is terrible, I’d go as far to say it’s appalling, which is strange for a training centre designed for world class athletes. To put it bluntly the kitchen staff just don’t care and/or can’t cook so we are probably under nourished too. This adds to the fatigue, stress and tension in this place and makes everything we do difficult.

The sweat room, this is where medals are won...

The sweat room, this is where medals are won...

But I like to see it as great training. If I can do all this on not enough calories, I may loose a few kilos here and there but I know I’m getting tougher and if I’m still performing, which I make sure I do, then I can certainly perform in top conditions which I know I’ll get at a World Championships or Olympics. Here the focus is on the mental as much as the physical training and in some strange way, I love it. I can’t wait to leave, but I’m loving what I’m doing. I hate the feeling in my body, but I love what it’s doing to my mind. I hate this place, but I love that we come here. When I leave for the last time, I won’t miss it, but I will miss this challenge and the strengths and confidence it brings me. Sir Matthew Pinsent said to me just the other day in a conversation on Twitter:

‘Rite of passage that place. Decades of medals won up there’ 

and he’s absolutely right. Jurgen Grobler has been bringing his teams up here since 1997 and the number of world and Olympic medals that can partly be attributed to the training done up here are too numerous to count. 

So now the sun has fallen behind the mountain peak in front of me, my fingers are working at half speed from the cold. I need to clamber down from this rock before it’s too dark to see and get back to the dining room to gorge myself on burnt rice, unknown meat stew and soup that we think is actually dishwater. The challenge continues…

Alex Gregory2 Comments