HIGH in the mountains of Kenya’s Rift Valley, Laura Weightman took time out from her winter training to have a glance around.
On her left, a group of British male athletes led by double world and Olympic champion Mo Farah were about to embark on their third run of the day on the red dust tracks that wind around Iten, the small town that doubles as British distance running’s winter base.
To her right, a group of female runners that included Paula Radcliffe, the former world champion who is looking to run one more top-level marathon in an attempt to conquer her injury jinxes once and for all, were limbering up before setting off on a different trail.
And in the middle was Weightman, less decorated than many of her contemporaries, but no less determined to put in the hard yards required to drive her career to the next level.
For five weeks, the Morpeth Harrier closeted herself away in the Kenyan hills, bereft of modern comforts, living in little more than a shack and unable to communicate home for days on end because of the dodgy wireless network.
In her own words, it was “eat, sleep, run”, and as Farah and Radcliffe can attest, that is the schedule that produces champions.
“It’s an incredible experience,” said Weightman, who was born and raised in Alnwick and is coached by former 1,500m world-record holder Steve Cram. “Iten is the most amazing place, almost like a world on its own really.
“It’s up there in the middle of nowhere, but everywhere you look, there are world-class athletes training. And not just British runners either – Kenyans, Americans and people from all over the world.
“It’s crazy to head out on a run and suddenly see Mo Farah jogging past in the opposite direction. It’s an honour just to be around those people because they’ve achieved so much, but they’re still so driven to improve and achieve even more things in the future.
“It’s the third time I’ve spent part of the winter in Kenya, and I’ve always felt it’s worked for me in the past. There’s obviously a physiological benefit from training at altitude and it gives you a great grounding to take into the rest of the season.
“More than that though, it’s just great to be able to shut everything else out and concentrate 100 per cent on your training. The isolation is brilliant, and you don’t really get that at home.”
‘Home’ for Weightman now is Leeds, and having graduated from the city’s Metropolitan Univeristy last summer, this will be the first year where the 22-year-old has been able to focus solely on her athletics.
An Olympic finalist in 2012, where she finished 11th in the 1,500m, last year saw her narrowly miss out on a place in the World Championships final but claim a silver at the European Team Championships at Gateshead.
This season will be a challenging one for Britain’s athletes, with the Commonwealth Games and European Championships occurring within ten days of each other in July and August.
Most competitors are expected to prioritise one or the other, but after opting out of the entire indoor season in an attempt to avoid burn out later in the year, Weightman sees no reason why she should not be able to compete for a medal on two fronts.
“As things stand, I’m planning to do both,” she said. “I don’t normally do any indoor stuff, and I made the decision pretty early that I wouldn’t be doing it again.
“Come the summer, I should be in perfect shape, and while it’s not ideal to be running in two major championships in the space of a week or so, it shouldn’t be impossible.
“I’m lucky that Steve has experience of running in the two championships close together and being very successful, so I’m sure we’ll sit down together and work out a programme that helps me try to do the same.”
Having returned to England last week, Weightman is planning to run in a couple of low-key road races in order to test out her fitness before turning her attention to the track.
She will attend another altitude training camp in the United States at the start of May, and her season proper will begin with the Diamond League meeting in Eugene at the end of that month.
“I like to head over to America to put the finishing touches to my training because I find it helps me get myself sharp,” she said. “And then once the Diamond League begins, you’re up and running really and the season starts to unfold in front of you.
“This is a big year for me. There are two major championships, and I know I need to develop through the season to set me up for what’s to come.
“Once you get to the end of this year, you’re into a world and Olympic cycle that will take you right through to Rio (in 2016).
“At the moment, female middle-distance running in this country is extremely strong. You’ve got some experienced girls who have been there and done it at major championships, and you’ve got a clutch of younger runners like myself who are knocking on the door whenever a championship rolls around.
“That’s great because it drives you on, but it also means you can’t take anything for granted. Just making the British team for a Commonwealths or Europeans is a challenge, and at this stage of the season, you can’t afford to look beyond that.”