Tuesday, April 14, 2015

JK 2015: The good, the bad and the ugly

Given that this trip was largely made for WOC preparation, I've done a good bit of analysis since returning home. I figured I'd share some of it. If you're not an orienteering nerd, you may want to skip this post.
Thanks to Wendy Carlyle for the photo!

As I suppose you might expect, hopping off a red-eye flight and trying to race a few hours later isn't exactly what I would prescribe my athletes as a recipe for success. It was a challenge to figure out which mistakes I made because I was mentally fatigued, and which mistakes were because I was doing something fundamentally wrong with my orienteering technique, but this identification of mistakes under pressure was exactly why I came to England for a long weekend in the first place.  Since you're obviously here because you want to improve your orienteering technique, too, here's a chance to learn from my mistakes!

The good
We'll start with the relay, because things were getting better and better for me through the weekend, culminating in a relay with only 2min dropped in error.

As you can see from the track above, in general the line is a steady green, and goes straight from one purple circle to the next. This means that I was running continuously, even though it wasn't fast I was moving with confidence in the right direction. I was definitely helped by having such beautifully open forest to run though - there was quite literally NO underbrush, except for some logging slash up by 7 and 8.  Learning to run faster when I get the opportunity, such as here, is a skill I need to practice before Scotland. Unfortunately, it's not an easy skill to practice at home in New England, because our forests are thick, slow, rocky underfoot, and filled with knee-high blueberry.  Ticks,  mosquitoes and lost boyscouts, oh my.

Alas, while the opportunity to move a little faster did present itself during the relay, I didn't have the oomph left in my legs to take advantage of it. The splits from my forking tell the story, simply not fast enough. My calves, still pretty unused to this whole soft-surface running ordeal after a winter of pavement and ice, were in full-on rebellion by this point, really limiting every other system that I use to run fast.

Anyway, the point here is analyzing the mistakes, not my slowness - two bad ones. The first was on 11 (control 120), when I was looking for a little one-contour hill to mark my reentrant, and I settled upon a three-contour monster instead. I didn't change direction when I should have, and I think that was partially fatigue, because it's hard to change direction. But, it's also something I've noticed before - when my brain goes into "find the hill!" mode, it looks for the biggest one, and if the hill in question is only a single contour, that's not very big.

The second bad mistake was on 16 (136) - I was coming over the hill from 15, and it was just so much easier to run along the flat part than to climb the hill that I didn't climb the hill. That was lazy, and cost me a minute, as I nearly made it to 17 before kicking myself back into gear and going up the damn hill. I'll write both these mistakes off to fatigue, and hopefully by Scotland both my calves and my general ability to run in terrain will both be better off, eliminating this sort of mistake. So, the race still counts as good.  I had solid attackpoints for nearly all the controls, generally went in the right direction, and knew my exit direction.

Long distance
There were also some good legs in my long distance race. Overall, the theme of the race was just that I am moving too slowly in terrain, but I was also taking it a little slower after the disaster of the middle, (more on that later), stopping at each control to scrutinize the map and the route I was about to take.  You can see the whole map (with route - click to turn on/off the route choices) here, but I'll focus on a few legs.  Leg 10 was the first real long leg with route choices, and I felt I chose pretty well.  I spent a while standing at 9, maybe 15-20 seconds, just double checking that I wasn't about to do something stupid, but ultimately, the low route to the left looked like it would be fastest, and with the least amount of climb.

I had an Edinburgh runner with me for most of the leg - I caught up to her on the downhill trail to the little field in the first third of the route, and then we were fairly similarly matched for the flattish/downill parts of the leg, though I was climbing faster.  It was pretty good side-hilling through the steep cliffs near the end, and the attack from under the cliffs was solid.  Go me! In the splits, I was 54th overall, but that particular leg was 34th, which is a lot closer to where I would like to be. 

Middle distance
Here's another leg that went totally acceptably - 17-18 on the middle. It was another route choice leg, where I think I chose correctly, climbing early in the leg and then busting along a flatter slope. The climb was slow and painful, but once I was moving on flat ground, I felt good, and used the broad reentrant as an attackpoint, keeping my head up looking for the dark green uphill from me.  This leg was a shining 37th on my 80th-place run, which again, is closer to where I want to be. Hampered by both climbing speed and terrain speed, but I can work on both of those in the next few months, at least I had the confidence to run closer to my limit!

The bad
Long distance
Despite one or two good legs on the long, the race did not go particularly well. I was 50% behind the leader, and while a lot of that is due to mistakes, more of it was just due to moving too slowly. That's really far back, nearly in the embarrassing range.  It wasn't that I couldn't go faster - my average heart rate was in level 2, which is a cruising pace, with the max still solidly below threshold - I just need to learn to trust myself and let loose a bit more. The race was structured more like a long Middle distance race rather than the sort of long distance I'm accustomed to, with navigation that mostly centers around choosing good routes rather than the fine-scale stuff, but that's no excuse.  Partly, I had a rusty orienteering brain, but mostly I just didn't trust myself to speed up.  Time to get moving, kiddo!

As for the actual mistakes, they fell into two categories. The first was on the early controls, where I hadn't adjusted to the smaller scale yet. Long races are generally 1:15,000 scale, rather than the 1:10,000 scale we mostly run on in the US. The solution to this is probably just to vocally remind myself of the scale as I start running, as well as doing a warmup on the 1:15 model area. The model area had been filled with angry-looking cattle, so I skipped that part of my warmup at the JK; hopefully Scotland will have moved the angry cows to a different field!

The second type of mistake that I made was attacking the control without any sort of attackpoint.  Barging blindly into technical terrain is not a technique that has ever worked for me, and not surprisingly, it didn't work here, either. Controls 18 and 20 added up to about 5 minutes of error, mostly because I didn't know where I was when I got to the control circle. 18 I let myself drift uphill, partially because I was too short, and partially because I was just losing focus, but that took a while to relocate. 20 I just didn't have a plan, or any sort of logical attack, and I paid for it. These are problems that I think I can fix by doing a bit more training that focuses on attackpoints, making sure to always have a plan, and then execute it well.

Middle distance

Most of this race falls into the "ugly" category, but there were a few mistakes that were simply in the bad category.  I'll throw the 10-30s mistake on each of 1-6 into the "bad" category, and these all had a similar theme - I was not paying any attention to my direction. 2 was the only good control there, and that's because I'd been there on my way to 1. So, more compass training on tap, for sure. That thing servers a purpose, apparently! 

Controls 16 and 17 were similarly bad - no attention to direction meant I made a parallel error on each, mistaking one hill for another hill. If I had paid attention to the direction at the start of the leg, I would have been going toward the right features, and less likely to make that mistake. Lesson learned!

The Ugly
Middle Distance
Things went from bad to worse on 8 - this is a tricky little area, that I really out to have given more respect to. I knew it would be tricky heading in, and I told myself "SLOW DOWN!". Unfortunately, I didn't slow down, maybe I'd just rolled into the pace I was going and didn't want to break it, maybe I just didn't scream at myself loudly enough. Either way, it led to a 5 minute mistake, which is unacceptable. I couldn't come up with a good plan, so went with the "I'll just go straight and pick things off" approach, which never works for me. I ended up way too low on the slope, bouncing off the wall, and having to climb 7 contours back up to the control. That's 35 meters of bonus hill.  Idiot!  I think the solution in this case would have been to come to a complete stop at 7 when I realized I didn't have a plan. Scrutinizing the map reveals a relatively safe route along the stone wall heading north, then dropping down the nose and looking for the hill with the western cliff. Even though this requires a little climb in the beginning, it's worth it to make the approach safe.  And if I'd absolutely not wanted to climb extra, the other option is to aim for the cliff-lined nose halfway along the route, paying attention to my direction, and then keeping my head up for the cliff-hill combo.

Control 9 wasn't very pretty either, but I think in that case I just let myself drop too low, so just another case of needing to slow down. I hesitated for far too long along that leg, and I bet that stopping once to figure things out would have eliminated all the rest of the hesitations.

The sprint
There isn't much I can say about the sprint that is good. You can click the map below to make it bigger, and turn on/off route choices. Ultimately, I was running like a chicken without a head, trying to make up in speed what I didn't have in navigation, and I didn't have the speed, either.  It didn't help that I had brought the wrong shoes, trying to pack light, and left the X-Talons at home - the grassy bits were a total mudpit, and I was sliding around every corner.

The first section of the sprint should have been easy. Straight-forward legs in a rectilinear area, I should be good at this stuff! I think what happened is that I tried to read ahead too much, and should have just been focusing on the leg at hand. The worst mistake was on 4, where I just wasn't looking around at all; totally overshot my path and relocated off the parking lot!

The bobbles and overrunning continued, a sure sign that I was way outrunning my brain. I overshot 5, 10, and 11, and then the course transitioned to a more interesting part of the map, and I totally blew it - twice. I didn't read the route to 13 carefully enough, and lost 45 seconds running into a dead-end courtyard.  That probably comes from being flustered from the first part of the race feeling so bobbly; I was trying to make up for that by running faster, but I wasn't reading the map any faster.  Hence ending up in a dead-end courtyard.

I managed to not mess up the longer legs to 14 and 15, and I had actually read ahead enough on 16 to know that the fence at the end of the stairs was passable, but I saw the size of the thing and chickened out; ran around instead.  I thought maybe I was getting my feet back under me, but then I got caught again on my way to 18, nearly missing a small passageway on the more direct route - I would have missed it completely if there hadn't been another girl heading into it just then. Lucky, and still dropped another 10-15 seconds.

In retrospect, I chose the wrong route to 20, but that was nothing compared to my earlier mistakes.  I finished the course with acceptable three legs, but I knew just how bad that had been before I even downloaded.  Lots of work left to do before the sprint qualifier in Scotland, most of it revolving around running slower to go faster.  If you're staring at the map, you aren't looking at where you have to go, so limit the number of times you have to stare at the map!

I could keep writing, but I think those are the big take-homes from the weekend. The physical base may be there, but the navigation is currently my lowest-hanging fruit, and I intend to pick and eat that fruit this summer!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The JK International Festival of Orienteering

I did another one of those crazy things like last year and went to Europe for a long weekend of World Ranking Event races.  This year it was a big competition in the UK; sources have convinced me that this terrain is remotely relevant to the terrain I'll find in Scotland, for the World Orienteering Championships this August, and that fact combined with the opportunity to race in a 4,000-person orienteering race in a beautiful area of England I'd never been to before sold me pretty quickly.  The JK is four races over Easter weekend, and Easter appears to be a big deal in England. Flight prices either of the adjacent weekends would have been $200 cheaper, and nearly every accommodation in the Lakes District was booked solid.  It was worth it. Super thanks to my sponsors for helping to make this trip happen!

From the website, "JK" stands for Jan Kjellström, a Swedish orienteer who was instrumental in developing orienteering in both the UK and North America.  This is a festival of orienteering named after him, with thousands of runners, and it was super cool to attend such a well-run event. He's the same guy for whom the JK Relay at the North American Championships is named after.  I guess he got around in the 60s!

I spent most of the weekend with Ross, Sam, and some Canadians, all of whom have been living in Europe.  Kudos to Will for doing all the driving; those roads are narrow, lined with high stone walls, and everyone is driving on the wrong side. Eep. The landscape in the Lakes District is stunning, though, and the roads are just part of the charm. Not only are there inviting hills in every direction, it was lambing season, so everywhere I went there were baby lambs wobbling about.  So cute! We saw one wrapped in a plastic bag, and Ross figured it was just pre-packaged for shipping.  Maybe that wasn't the actual reason for the plastic bag, but it seems plausible.

The racing didn't go super hot for me. I'd hoped to both gain valuable race experience (check), and improve my WRE score, so that I could get a better start spot at WOC. Alas, my brain hasn't quite shaken off the winter rust yet, and despite feeling a little better (physically) than I did last weekend, I made too many mistakes in the navigation to feel really good about the races. It speaks to the quality of the courses that I still finished each day thinking about how much fun I'd had out there. Each day got a little better, a little more confident and a little less sloppy, and by the final day I'd finally put together a race I was somewhat proud of, though I certainly no longer had much oomph in my legs.

After the last race, I didn't have to be anywhere until Tuesday morning, and there were some very inviting little mountains just across the lake, so I convinced Will (my ride to the airport) that we'd be happier sitting in Easter traffic if we scampered up Old Man Conniston first. It was totally worth it, though we weren't setting any speed records on the ascent. Beautiful views and all these open ridges running off in a few directions that my feet were just itching to follow.  Not unlike the White Mountains, but a bit lower and a lot more runnable.  I may have to find a Fell race or something to run after WOC this summer... this place is unbelievable, you can just go run anywhere, in any direction! The Lakes District is high on my list of places to come back to at some point in my life with more time.

Proving that orienteers are indeed one large extended adopted family, I stayed Monday night with the Gregorys, members of the Manchester District Orienteering Club, who fed me, gave me a bed, and a ride to the airport. Many small world moments, as it turns out they were among some of the founding members of the Bay Area Orienteering Club (in San Francisco) back in the 70s, and knew of Becky through her mother's photography.  I'm back home now with a warm fuzzy feeling of how wonderful people can be.

I'm also left with a much better idea of what skills I'll be honing this summer before I return for the World Champs. Motivation is high, and I can't wait to get to work!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

2015 US Orienteering Championships

The US Orienteering Championships for sprint, middle, and long distance races happened last weekend down in Morehead, Kentucky. The good part here is that I've never been to Kentucky, so I got a chance to explore a new state a little bit. The less-good part is that the 2015 US Champs were a mere 5 months after the 2014 US Champs, and still during ski season for those of us who have ski seasons. But, timing aside, this was a great event by Orienteering Cincinnati; with all new maps, friendly people, and interesting courses.  The terrain was cool, lots of cliffs and caves and stone arches; unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the courses didn't really make much use of the rock formations. There was also plenty of greenbriar, which was definitely a good reason to be running this early, since it's the only green thing around, letting you more easily avoid it.

The US Orienteering Team Executive Steering Committee (ESC) also decided to use this weekend as the selection races for the 2015 World Championships, in Inverness, Scotland this August.  I happen to very badly want to run the long distance race at the world champs, so I knew I had to perform reasonably well this weekend to win that spot. Given the lack of access to dry forest all winter, I'd be relying on deliberate and consistent navigation, and hope that my legs could take the abuse of three days of off-trail running. Every step of every run this winter has been on pavement, which doesn't do much to train your calf stabilizer muscles. At least I had CSU indoor track program to get the legs moving quickly!

This is one of the awesome natural bridges, that we ran right over during the middle distance race! I didn't notice it at the time, or at least I didn't notice that it was a bridge, but I'm glad I went back there after the race to look around.

More cool slot-canyon-esque rocks I found on the model event.

Sprint race
The weekend started on Friday, with the sprint race. I flew in to Cincinnati, which gave me a chance to briefly visit with Virginia and Kristen, catch a quick breakfast and a big hug, and then it was on to Kentucky, through some beautiful ruggedly remote country.  It was chilly, in fact, it started to snow, more proof that the snow has just been following me around the country, but after my warmup I was feeling warm enough that I decided to race in a singlet, with gloves. Turns out, this was a really terrible idea.

Between my sports bra being tight around my ribs (yay for my lats appearing, a month too late!), my heart rate strap under the sports bra strap, and the lack of an extra layer, I got one of the worst breathing cramps I have ever experienced. It was really a shame, because my legs felt great; light and loose and eating up the hills, but once that breathing cramp hit, I could barely stagger along. This being the US Champs, I wasn't willing to stop and walk it off, though I did manage to pull the heart rate strap down around my belly, which helped a bit. So, I sort of staggered through the final 3/4 of the race, struggling to breathe, struggling to open my stride, and just really feeling miserable. It hurt! A day later, I had a bruise over my ribs and the muscles over my ribs were incredibly sore. I apparently did Bad Things.

Anyway, I got a little lucky, and some other people made some mistakes, and my stagger-jog was fast enough to still snag the bronze. I wasn't expecting that! Given that my legs had felt good and springy, I was psyched to overcome the chest cramp and have a better race on day 2.

Map, with route.

Long distance
I was a little worried that I couldn't shake the feeling of the diaphragm cramp on my morning jog, especially when I tried to pick up the pace, but I figured a little ibuprofen and a lot of concentration on the map would take care of that niggle, and I'd be good to go. I got in a good warmup, checking out the model event area and trying to get a feel for the mapper's style, and then it was go-time!

Alas, another day of making preventable mistakes, and not because of the orienteering - I picked up the wrong map at the start. The courses were rather overly complicatedly named, so I'd been super careful to always look for "F21" rather than "red", but evidently I wasn't careful enough. I held my map up for the guy to check, as is standard, asking "F21?", and he said "yup, red". This being the typical course that the elite women run, I didn't think to ask for clarification. The control code lined up for 1, and when they didn't match at 2, I checked on the map where the descriptions were printed, and saw that 3 was the same code again, so figured it was a misprint on the separate descriptions I was wearing on my wrist. At 3, I realized that no, it's not a misprint, I'm running the wrong course.

I sort of panicked then. The implications of running the wrong course, at the US Champs and US Team selection race, in the race that you want to run at WOC, are that you're not racing against the people you need to race against to be named to the team or to win any medals, and even if they let you start again, you can be disqualified for having already been in the embargoed terrain. This is Bad. This is why you hold up your map for someone to check that it's the right one before you run off with it.

I decided that I may as well go back to the start and see if I could start again on the right map. I sobbed the whole way back - this was the race that I had wanted to go out and crush, and leave no doubt in the selectors' minds that I was the right pick for the race, and now I might not even get the chance. I haven't been this upset in many years, maybe not since team selection in 2011. I got back, and the starter let me take my correct map and start over, asking me not to tell anyone because some people might be upset. Ya don't say.  My tear-stained face and screaming might have given that one away?!?

I set off (again), determined to prove that this sort of setback wasn't going to affect my result.  God I was just ripshit livid. I know it's my fault, and I know I should probably have been disqualified, but it just seemed so unfair, like the whole world was trying to conspire against me. Unfortunately, the anger faded on the way to the second control, and what was left was a giant well of self-pity and sniveling. Instead of finding the extra gear to fight, I was exhausted and empty, struggling to stay focused, and I made about ten minutes of error over the 95 minute race, finishing completely and utterly physically and emotionally drained.  Well, not completely - I threw a fit that I'm not very proud of on the finish line, so clearly I hadn't used enough energy out on course.

Despite all that, I'd run decently well, finishing 6th, and not that far behind the girls I was vying for the team with.  Still in it. Kseniya helped emphasize that point by walking over, punching me in the shoulder (hard!), and emphatically telling me to NOT GIVE UP. I don't give up, as a matter of principle, but that helped.

Middle distance
Well, two down, one to go, and in the team scoring list, I was tied for third with Kseniya and Tori.  They will definitely take three from the ranking list, maybe four, but to guarantee your spot, you really want to be in third.  No pressure.

Middle distance courses tend to be technical in the navigation - often many controls, with many direction changes and complicated terrain. OCIN did a wonderful job setting a course that met those requirements, but the hills were brutal. Despite a leg massage the night before, my calves were in a bad state, reeling from the abuse of the first day of off-trail running. I couldn't really move my feet independently, and my calves locked up pretty early in the race, feeling like they were exploding. It was frustrating to feel so physically limited, feeling like I had a lot more capacity that I just couldn't access, but I did what you should do in that situation and tried to have laser-sharp focus on the navigation. If I'm going to lose two minutes over 4.2km because I can't run up hills, I darn well don't want to lose any more time because I was stupid, too.

Things probably went as well as you can expect for your first technical training of the season. I was not 100% clean like I'd hoped, losing 30 seconds twice, and three minutes once.  D'oh! I worked hard for those minutes, just to throw them away - therein lies the challenge, frustration, and reward of orienteering.  My time ended up good enough for the bronze medal again, and, importantly, third on the ranking list!


My races, despite feeling like I was bouncing around with no idea what I was doing, were enough to earn me a start spot in the sprint and the long distance races at WOC. I am so psyched. This was not an easy weekend for me, either physically or emotionally, and I am super relieved that it worked out with a happy ending!


I like this series of photos from OCIN, the organizers: 1. Huff and puff your way up the hill, using the excuse of "reading the map" to walk instead of run. 2. Look a little desperate; is this hill ever going to end? 3. Lie on the ground and attempt to suck some oxygen back down. 4. Make it onto the US WOC team!

Myself, Kseniya, and Alison upon being called up for the US WOC Team. The first time Kseniya will have represented the US at Worlds, and the "home" terrain for Alison, who is studying in Edinburgh.  

The rest of the team!  Back row, left to right: Wyatt Riley (2nd alternate), Will Enger (1st alternate), Giacomo Barbone, Eric Bone, Ken Jr Walker, Greg Ahlswede, Ethan Childs. Front row, left to right: Ali Crocker, Kseniya Popova, Tori Borish, Alex Jospe, Alison Campbell. Not pictured - Sam Saeger (inserted by petition and earned an individual spot by winning the North American Champs long) and Sandra Lauenstein (inserted by petition, and earned an individual spot by winning the North American Champs middle).

Friday, March 27, 2015

Fox Chaser orienteering race

It may still be ski season, (as evidenced by my ski team racing at the Eastern Highschool Championships last weekend), but I forsook the fun thing to do in the snow and chose to go orienteering instead, down in Philadelphia, at the DVOA Fox Chaser event.  The snow followed me down, with six inches waiting for me at the Philly airport by the time I got there, but luckily travel wasn't too badly affected, and I found the people I needed to and got myself ready to go run... in the snow. The Delaware Valley Orienteering Association did a fantastic job with the meet, as I expected, though I would have preferred if they could have had slightly closer communication with their local weather gods.  I'd hoped to go south and run on some soft ground, for the first time all winter. Well, it was soft, anyway.

The first day was somewhat unremarkable.  Having not been on an orienteering map since November, my goal was to just read the map a lot, and see which processes still came naturally versus those that needed more thought.  The snow was nice in that it simplified the navigation, both in terms of slowing down my running and in providing a low-pass filter over all the noise that's normally obscuring the shape of the land.  The vegetation in Ridley Creek State Park appeared to be mostly thorny, which meant that much of the route choices would be about ways to avoid bashing through the thicker parts of the forest.

Out of the start I found myself flowing nicely, and the map made sense to me. Sweet! I was having a little trouble believing what my compass was telling me, but luckily reading the terrain kept me heading in the right direction.  Controls kept popping up ahead of me where I expected them, and this was pretty fun.  The snow made for tough running, though, and I felt like I was totally gassed. For the amount of effort I was putting out, I really wasn't making very good forward progress, and I knew this was largely due to all of my winter training miles being on pavement or ice.  Damn.

We had a couple legs traversing the northern section of the map where I kept popping out to the same wide trail of slippery death, and every time I hit the trail I was reminded how freakin' tired I was. Not how you want to feel the weekend before a race that actually matters. By the time I'd finally heaved my wheezing carcass up the slope to the finish field, I couldn't even manage to up the pace for the finish. Looking at splits, attackpoint thinks I made a 6-second error running to the finish! That's not good... Luckily, this was because I had run so hard everywhere else in the course, and not just that I'm in terrible shape, because I ended up besting my teammate Kseniya by nearly two minutes, and was fourth among the men, beating some who I haven't before.  At least all that effort paid off, but I was worried about the fatigue I'd carry into day 2. 

Sweet sunglasses. Thanks to the meet sponsor Brandywine something-or-other for my new look.

I was hanging out with Boris and his new dog, Barney, for most of the weekend. I miss having a beagle in my life, and this was a good dose of beagle for me!

At least we had some sunshine! Otherwise, I'm not sure I would have survived the cold. Funny how expecting to be warm ruins your ability to survive being cold. This winter has not done good things to my metabolism.  Anyway, Sunday was more of the same - another "classic" event, still in the snow, still with the thorny terrain.  And another interesting and fun course, though it would have been even more fun at full non-snowy speed.

As soon as I started running, I could tell that I didn't have the oomph I wanted.  I tried to find the steady hard pace I'd tapped into yesterday, but my navigation was shakier, and I was letting other people on other courses mess with my concentration.  I dropped over two minutes in mistakes, and despite having a pretty good final 10 minutes, compared to Kseniya, in the end it didn't matter, because I went to the men's control 2, not my control 2.  This is a pretty crucial part of this game - go to all the controls, in order, and the fastest person to do that trick wins the race.  I had checked the control code, but clearly I then forgot it, because I thought that the code I saw at the men's control 2 was my code.  I was pretty frustrated by this, because it's one thing to lose a race because your competitors were faster; it's a totally different situation to take yourself out of the race.  Kseniya would have beaten me fair and square on day 2, but in the woulda-shoulda-coulda world, I would have taken the overall title by something like 30 seconds. Except, we don't live in the woulda-shoulda-coulda world. 

I'm trying not to let the mispunch rattle me too much - get the mistakes out of the way this weekend, because next weekend is the US Champs (yes, a mere five months after the 2014 US Champs), and the US Team selection races for the 2015 World Orienteering Championships.  I'm not feeling very ready, but not much I can do other than keep my attitude positive, and come into the weekend nice and rested.  

I spent most of the winter running on surfaces like this. Not uneven forest floor! Thanks to Julie's husband for showing up to the track and taking photos of the CSU runners.  It's the second winter in a row I've run these workouts, and the second winter in a row where I'm so incredibly grateful that I did run track, because with all the snow it's pretty much the only way to get going fast.  

I found a beagle! Can I keep him? 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

J2 championships

Last weekend I was the head coach for the Massachusetts Team at the J2 Championships. This is a race for kids in the under-16 age group, that they have to qualify for. Each state can bring up to 22 boys and 22 girls, and while traditionally the New England states are the participants (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Mass), the past couple years we've also had New York, "Midwest" (WI and MN), and occasional overseas visitors.  This competition is an important one in developing the pipeline of successful young ski racers, and I think it's one of the best things out there in terms of getting a kid to fall in love with the sport.  

This year, the champs were up in Fort Kent, Maine. That's about as far north as you can go before you hit eastern Canada, so we rented a coach bus, and all piled aboard.  I'm pretty sure that hanging out on the bus is what cements those kids' friendships for life, and there was a lot of positive energy for our long drive.  My coaching staff was pretty awesome, and I felt like we worked really well as a team, keeping everything organized and taking good care of the athletes' needs.  For many, this was the first big trip away from home, and as it also was a season wrap-up, there were some nerves.  That's sort of the gist of racing - the idea is to beat people, all of them if you can.

Smiling young faces. The team hailed from all over Massachusetts, with the largest contingents coming from Mt. Greylock and CSU.  We also managed to qualify every CSU skier to either the J2 Champs or the Eastern Highschool Champs trip (EHS is this weekend), so that's pretty darn awesome.  

The one photo of racing that I took - my skier James coming up a hill in wave 2. The race is started in waves, one skier from each state in each wave, so you always have a group of 4 or 5 to race with. You still have to have the fastest time to win the race, but your position relative to the rest of your wave gives you an idea of how you're doing, and also makes things more interesting as you race.

Proper sunny winter day! Great weather for spectating.

I didn't realize rooms could GET this messy. Put four J2 girls in a room and that's what you get, I guess...

Ed and Ken chose this weekend to come up north and scout out ski orienteering venues. They've settled on Presque Isle (much closer to civilization), but came to visit Fort Kent on relay day.

Team Mass! If you want to read more about the races, you can check out the CSU blog.

Leaving the County, it was snowing, a decent amount. Our bus wasn't quite equipped to deal with those conditions, and it repeatedly got stuck, ultimately taking four hours to get to Presque Isle (still in the County).  At that point we got stuck in a mall parking lot, and spent a few hours entertaining ourselves (or, in the coaches' case, frantically trying to figure out what our options were and what to do), before the snow thankfully stopped and the plows got out to clear the roads.  We got back on the road and had a verrrry slow trip back to Massachusetts, reaching Boxboro at 4:15am. I managed to get work done on my computer until about midnight, then watched the road slide by, unable to sleep, and I rolled in the door at 5:30, tried and failed to take a half hour nap, and figured I may as well just head to work. It's been years since my last all-nighter, and I'm definitely too old for this shit now.  Three days later I'm starting to feel normal again.

But the trip was well worth the travel, and I was super proud of all my skiers, CSU and non-CSU alike. It's always fun to get to know a new team, and I was really impressed with all of them for their professional attitude toward the racing. Not a given with a group this age.

Now on to the next three weeks of crazy...

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tuesday Night Fights

The Tuesday Night race series just wrapped up with the final "real" race last night. There will be a fun race before our party next week, and then I'm sure we'll keep racing until the snow runs out. So, maybe mid-June. But the points races are done, and I had my work cut out for me last night to fend off Maddy from taking the overall win.  If I'd properly studied the points ahead of time I might have discovered that I still could have won with a 2nd place last night, but I didn't know that at the time, so we were fighting tooth and nail. Usually my approach is to just win from the front, but I had pretty low energy and low motivation, so ended up in a game of cat and mouse with a pack of skiers.  The conditions were a little rough around the edges, with 25mph wind and blowing snow, but luckily we're used to winter at this point. The wind meant that drafting would definitely play a role, tonight, so my plan going in was to do the least amount of work possible, and then win the sprint. Just like Northug.

We started out slower this week, but Terry and Greg skied away from me on the flats - they're my usual group this year, but I couldn't summon enough give-a-damns to put out the effort required to keep up. I figured I'd fade back to the next pack, but unfortunately the next person to go by was Maddy, and she was chasing Terry and Greg. This presented a dilemma, but thankfully Morgan solved it by coming around and chasing down Maddy, and I was able to hang in his draft. The blowing snow made it really hard to see where people were planting their poles, and for whatever reason I was having a lot of trouble matching my rhythm to that of the bigger guys. I'll blame my slow skis - they were still waxed for the week before, when it was 25 degrees colder.  Thankfully things slowed down a bit coming off the flats, and Mark jumped into the lead to attack the hills on the zigzags, pulling us back up to Maddy by the top of the second hill. Ok, race back on. I was not-so-secretly very glad that she hadn't been able to close the gap up to Terry and Greg.

Into the second lap, Mark kept pulling, and I was starting to warm up enough to feel like this was quite sustainable, for a race. I made an investigatory attack on the hills, and determined that the third hill was definitely where this fight was going down next lap. Then I faded backward, ceding the lead to Bob, biding my time. Maddy threw in a small attack on the flats, but Mark covered, and coming back into the hills, she tried again. Mark covered again, and I moved in closer behind Maddy, since the worst thing that could happen now would be to let one of the guys between us and then have to pass two people in the finish.  She attacked again on the second hill, but I was able to cover, saving energy. I could hear her breathing, which was a good sign, since my legs had finally woken up - these high volume weeks it takes me a while to really tap into my high-end aerobic capacity, but it's there, and I was finally ready.  So when Maddy attacked again on the last hill, this was it. Mark was covering, pulling even on the left, and I was boxed out behind, nowhere to go. Luckily, I read it correctly that Mark was moving up as Maddy was fading, and I jumped in behind Mark, just as the hill started to crest. A good short sprint and I was clear of the pack, and I knew I had to keep the gas on now, because if they got too close they'd be able to slingshot around on the downhill. The slow snow helped, and I finished still clear of the pack, and most importantly, ahead of Maddy.

Our snow pile has been growing. Currently taller than I am. I say "snow pile" like there's just one.. ha!

The skiing on the Charles River has been fantastic. The photo above is taken from Western Ave bridge on my run-commute; those are Ed's tracks from the night before. Once-in-a-lifetime conditions, not just for ice thickness, but also for skiability of the wind crust. Wonderful skating!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

World ski orienteering championships

Warning - this is a long one. I meant to update more frequently while in Norway, but the internet was bad enough that I'm just posting the whole shebang all at once!

I'm skiing!! In Norway!!

I just got back from Norway, wrapping up a week of racing at the World Ski Orienteering Championships (Ski WOC). This is my fifth time racing at this event, which happens every other year, so I'm starting to feel like I maybe have a handle on what's going on. Coming from North America means coming from a serious disadvantage, since we don't have the track system or the numbers of races that they have in Europe.  The main difference between NA and Euro ski-o is the lack of little narrow-trail mazes at home. Even if we're racing at a ski area that is willing to groom some extra trails with us, the trees are too close together to put in a ton of trails. And it's a lot of work to put in all the extra little trails, which you aren't going to do for an event that only attracts 50-100 people.

These little narrow-trail mazes are challenging in two different ways. Physically, they give you very little wiggle room for your skiing, with tight corners and nowhere to bail if you aren't 100% perfect with your line. Uphills are difficult because the trails are narrow and we're on racing skate skis. Downhills are difficult because the trails are narrow and we're on racing skate skis. There's no room to mess up, no room to check your speed, and often pretty sketchy and rutted conditions, because they can only groom a narrow trail with a snowmobile. Lots of broken equipment in ski orienteering.

Navigationally, the narrow-trail mazes are a thing of terrifying wonder - you have a decision every few seconds, and if you lose contact with the map, you very quickly get lost.  They can make crazy mazes with narrow trails because wide trails give you more time to react to changes, and where's the fun in that? So the challenge becomes staying on your feet, while reading the map, while trying to ski fast. It's a bit overwhelming, and totally freaking awesome.  Needless to say, the more time you spend skiing in narrow-trail mazes, the more comfortable and confident you become. Needless to say, most of us Americans only get to experience these mazes when we go to Europe, which is rarely more often than once a winter.  Basically, I knew that as this was my first ski-o trip to Europe of the winter, I was setting myself up for failure.  Well, moderated expectations are the key to happiness, so moderate my expectations I did.

(What's happening here is that I'm checking my touch-free EMIT card to make sure it is flashing, proof that I punched the control. The touch-free system is great!)

Sprint Relay
The first race of the week was a mixed-gender sprint relay, and I was chosen to race for the women, tagging to Adrian Owens, the candidate for the men. We each skied three laps, tagging off in between.  I got to scramble, which is always fun. It seemed like a clean start, no tangles, and I very quickly headed off into the woods to navigate my way through the first maze. I made some goofs, this being my first time racing a "real" ski-o in two years, but I kept seeing the same women flitting in and out of the trees, so I knew I was holding my own.  Despite the mistakes, I tagged to Adrian in 10th place, with a good pack of skiers and a little over a minute out of the lead. Solid.  Unfortunately, he made a big mistake, visiting his control 7 before control 2, and there isn't room for an eight-minute error in a race with an eight-minute winning time.  We reeled in a few more teams, but definitely had had higher hopes than 15th of 19 teams.
Results. Click the map below to view the course.

Here's a quick photo of some of the gear required for this silly sport. The compass I wear around my arm, and don't really use unless I'm lost, and need to double check that a trail is going in the right direction, or if I'm making a long shortcut down a hill and want to make sure I'm going the right way.  The red thing is the touch-free EMIT tag - that is both the punching and the timing system.  You have to get it 50cm away from the controls, and if it registers, it will keep flashing, so that you know you got it.  This is a major improvement over needing to physically punch the control.  Finally, I like to have a watch, both so I know what time it is and don't miss my start, and to track heartrate and whatnot for post-race analysis.

Sprint Race
With the first race out of the way, it was time for the sprint, and I was excited to visit the same terrain again and this time try not to screw up as much. Of course, if your process goal is to not screw up, you think about not screwing up, and that causes you to screw up.  I struggled to get into the map, and blew something like five minutes between controls 2 and 3. In a race that should be finished in 14 minutes. No good. I was flustered and unsure of myself the rest of the race, never finding the flow I needed, and after watching a Finnish girl break both her skis in a ditch, I was even more flustered. This led to a finish in 30th place, and I was pretty upset.  The results were confirming what I feared, that I wasn't prepared to compete here, and that I didn't belong.  Well, tomorrow is another day and another race. Time to turn it around.

The bright noontime sun. Weather conditions were fantastic for most of the week, with temperature hovering around zero degrees centigrade. Fast and fun!

Long Distance
I went into the long with the word "EXECUTE!" first and foremost in my brain. No more headless chicken skiing - I was going to make a plan for each control, and follow it, come hell or high water. The start was at the base of an alpine area, but it was a small alpine area, which was good, considering one route choice took me over the top. Things had been foggy overnight, but the sun came up and burned off the fog, leaving ice crystals all over the trees and a glorious view from the top. Definitely one of those "I LOVE SKIING!!" sorts of days.

Out of the start, I took things cautiously in the first maze, and then really started to find my groove. I was going a little slower than I should have on some of the wide trails, a fact I realized after the race, but given my plan to nail the navigation, I was ok with sacrificing some time on the skiing.  A very fast Finnish skier, Marjut Turunen (ranked 14th in the world), was starting 6 minutes behind me, so I was expecting to see her, but she didn't appear until I was well on my way home, around control 10 of 18. I hopped in behind her to catch a ride, and was pleased to find that her skiing speed was not any faster than mine - clearly, she does what she does with superior navigation, as demonstrated over the final technical maze sections, where I lost another minute to her. I managed to hold it together, though, making a very clean race and finishing in 18th.  It was a relief to have a result that felt like it matched the effort - no big mistakes, and a moderated effort - it left me definitely wanting more. Wanting a race that felt like a race, rather than a cautious interval.

Results - first time I've popped a top 20!

Click to view larger.

We used this church as a landmark driving up to Budor every day. Very pretty, and very Norwegian-looking.

Yep, this happens. I took a pretty big tumble approaching control 10 in the long distance, and I think that weakened the ski, so went I hit a bump skiing my cooldown, that was it. Better to break a ski in the cooldown than in a race, where it costs precious seconds.

We had a much-needed rest day after the long distance. Doing three races in a row takes some of the oomph out of you, and I was very happy to go for an easy cruise ski in Sjusjøen with some of the team. The sun had given way to very solid fog, but that was also cool, in it's own way. The humidity chilled me to the bone, but after a waffle and hot chocolate in the warming hut, I was good to go.

Skiing into nothingness.

One of the warming huts along the way. Thatched roofs and everything.

I found a control!

Cristina, aka Master Captain Awesome (a throwback to her air force days), was our team leader for the week. This was fantastic, as she took care of all the coach stuff and seriously reduced the stress load for the athletes.  Not only is she a great leader, she's fun to be around, so that definitely helped. And, she has some pretty great frosted tips after skiing in a cloud for an hour.

We also paid a visit to the Madshus factory on our way back to Hamar from Lillehammer.  I was a kid in a candy store. Super thanks to Madshus for giving us a tour on zero notice at the end of the day.

The giant ski carousel. We weren't allowed to take any close-up photos, but overviews were fine.

Middle Distance
The final individual race was the middle distance, clocking in at approximately 10km skiable distance for the women. This one was a mass start, with three separate loops and a map change between each loop. This is one way the organizers can separate the pack, by having this "forking" mechanism to keep people from just following each other.  It also keeps the race near the arena, for good spectating.

After my 18th in the long, I had allowed my expectations to rise a little.  I was really itching for that top 15 that I've been chasing all these years, but thankfully I knew enough to focus on the process goals. Today's goals were to ski fast on the big trails, but always have a good plan for the narrow mazes. I had a good start, but unfortunately contributed somewhat to a pile-up in the start - a Norwegian fell in front of me, and I tried to go around, but she was taking up a lot of space, so I skied over her. Oops. Happens.

Things were fast and furious, and I felt very good about how I was able to actually read the map and make sense of the junctions.  I did, however, make two pretty bad mistakes, both times skiing past a junction of big trails when I should have turned. D'oh! That was frustrating, and put me behind two Czech skiers that I'd been in front of before that, but not making mistakes is part of the game, so I can't complain. I finished the race in a sprint against a Lithuanian gal, (which I won), and finally felt like I'd actually stressed my physical capabilities. Yay for ski racing! That was a really fun course, props to the course setter for the middle.


Click to view larger. The multiple placements for the different controls show the different forking options, for each map.


With the middle distance over, and two top-20s under my belt, I had high hopes for the first leg of the relay. The order was me, Anna, and Stina, and we had our eye on Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Estonia as the "reach" teams to beat. I was hoping that I could have a good first leg, putting enough distance between our team and theirs that we had a buffer. Unfortunately, that didn't quite pan out.

I started out by nearly missing the start of the race. Somehow, I counted backwards wrong, and thought I had 20 minutes when I really had 10. Luckily, I got myself into the start pen and all the various gear strapped onto me in time, but instead of the 15 seconds to look at the map before the gun, I had maybe 2. Well, no problem, I've got this, but that flustered start set the tone for the race, and I made multiple small mistakes and bobbles.  By the halfway point, Estonia had dropped me, and I was in a pack with Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, and Lithuania.  I managed to ski the final loop well, partly due to very fast skis, and managed to gain a small gap over the other girls. That was good enough to tag off in 8th place, but I really would have liked to have come in with the 5-6th place pack. If wishes were horses...

Anna went out, and skied a solid leg, losing a spot to Bulgaria and Lithuania, but unfortunately she also missed a control, one of those tricky three-in-a-row situations, and she just never saw the middle one. This sort of thing happens, but it's always a bummer. Stina didn't know that Anna had mispunched when she went out, and skied admirably, but unfortunately, it didn't matter. Going to all the controls matters, but at least we weren't the only ones - Norway and Finland both mispunched in the men's race, on the same control as Anna.


In the end, I call that a very successful World Championships. Obviously I would love to be contending for a medal, but without making some serious sacrifices in my life, that I'm not willing to make, that's just unrealistic. Don't get me wrong, I am totally satisfied with my results. Thank you to each and every one who has helped me to get where I am today. It may be an individual sport, but you don't succeed when you tackle it on your own.

The organizers created a very good event, and the sunshine and beautiful scenery helped to make me think that Norway is pretty much heaven when it comes to ski vacations. I can see myself coming back here, for more skiing and ski orienteering!