Friday, June 17, 2016

Boston Sprint Camp

Ed and I had so much fun hosting the Boston Sprint Camp last year that we decided to do it again this year. New year, new parks, so this meant a lot of mapping for Ed. I just sort of watched from the sidelines, not doing any advertising like I should have, and grumbling about having to stay up too late designing courses. Oops. Like last year, we had US Director of Sport Development Erin Schirm here to help with running the camp, and his input was invaluable. Over four days, camp participants were exposed to a wide range of techniques and tactics for how to do your best at orienteering sprints.

Chase Corporate Challenge
But then, I missed the first day of Sprint Camp, because I'm responsible like that. It was the same day as the Chase Corporate Challenge, and my company had a team, and I wanted to run. I guess if people are going to think of you as the runner at work, you occasionally have to do races they can understand. That was a really cool race. I've never done a race before where you are running with thousands of other people, of all shapes, sizes, and abilities (9,475 people!). Seeding the start would totally ruin it. I did push my way as far forwards as I could. It was unbelievable - thousands of people were staging on the Boston Common, trying to make it through the gates onto Charles Street. As I weaved my way forwards through the crowd, most people didn't seem to mind, since most slower runners don't necessarily want to start in front of a faster one. Or maybe they didn't think that somebody would have the gall to try and squeeze past 3000 people before the race even starts! Either way, I got just about even with the start clock before it was time to race.

Even being up by the line, it was six seconds after the gun before I started moving. Luckily it thinned out quickly, and by the time I had made the left turn onto Arlington St I was running as fast as I wanted to. I was still doing a lot of weaving back and forth to get around people, but at least the crush of runners made the wind disappear.

My goal for this race was only to finish in good health - I had no idea what to expect, having never run a race with this many people before and having never done a 3.5-mile race. Talk about a random distance. The last three flat running races I've tried to do this spring have not ended well for me - I got a side cramp in a time trial back in late April, and that stupid cramp has been shadowing me through every hard effort since then. The first time, I had to quit 1000m short, unable to finish the time trial. Two weeks after that, I had actually paid money to enter a race, so even though I had to come to a full stop 500m before the finish, I eventually hobbled across the line. In tears. Two weeks after that, in another 5k, the cramp attacked with 300m to go, and I managed to keep hobbling to the finish mostly upright, but really only because my mom was watching and I didn't want to scare her. So with each race effort, the cramp has held off longer, but it definitely had me worried. Since I've been running cramp-free lately, my hopes were high that maybe I finally kicked it.

I hit the first mile a little slow, 6:43 or something. But my watch was ticking off 4-minute kilometers, so I figured that was just 20 seconds that I'd wasted at the start. We hit the 2-mile mark somewhere after the turn-around at Kenmore, and the crowds were starting to thin out now. It was much nicer to run with other people my speed, though I was still passing 10 for every 1 that passed me. My watch beeped at the 4km mark, and I was nervous - now is about when the cramp starts to make itself known. But stride after stride, I was blissfully pain-free. I cruised past the 5k mark around 20:00, starting to contemplate a kick, but I was feeling a little too flat to make it actually happen. Still no cramp! The crowd was deafening along the final stretch, but I still managed to hear my colleague Terri cheering for me. Eventually I found the finish line, and I guess I finally outran the cramp monster! I ended up 23rd woman.

Sprint Camp
So, Corporate Challenge over and done with, it was time to join Ed back at Sprint Camp. Friday was based in Newton, with the morning a pile of exercises at Skyline Park and the afternoon a partner sprint relay at Nahanton Park. Friday morning was definitely an intense one - we did a micro-o, some hill sprints with map memory, a maze-o, and a regular sprint course. Pizza for lunch, and then a bit of a nap in the park before it was time for the afternoon. I tried to pair people up based on their results from the race they'd all done on Thursday night, but the back of the pack tends to string out a lot more than the front, so that wasn't totally fair. But since everyone's times were recorded individually as well, nobody seemed to mind too much. I was really enjoying the atmosphere at the camp, people seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves.

Saturday was based in Cambridge. It was another pretty intense day of sprint training. We started at Magazine Beach, with a dynamic warmup (above), then some exit direction practice. Erin was on hand to offer advice, and then we were off on a street-o, but with the directional information on the map. You basically had to run pretending you were a car, and couldn't go the wrong way down a one-way street. Pretty fun exercise, because you're solving a puzzle as you're running. (see left for map). The street-o ended at Dana park, a dinky little neighborhood park, where we did some sprint intervals. Super fun, but at this point my legs were starting to feel wrecked. Three hard days in a row! Then back to Magazine Beach, where we ate lunch (from Clover) and I gave a brief goal-setting workshop. 

The evening race was at North Point, and I had set it to have as many tricky traps as I could. Quite a few people got caught, ending up on the wrong side of an uncrossable fence because they hadn't checked their control descriptions, or running across the wrong bridge because they hadn't looked at the full leg. Great to push the comfort zones!
Click here for full-size map.

Sunday was the double-header National Meet, a qualifier and a final sprint, at Franklin Park. I thought the final in particular was a really nice sprint, and so I went and pre-ran the race just to feel it at speed. A lot of people made some big mistakes in this race, I think through a combination of tiredness and laziness - you have to approach each race with a sharp mindset, and if you let yourself get lazy on any of your sprinting habits you'll pay the price. But overall, seemed like every runner got a lot out of the camp, and we're already laying the plans for next year. 
Franklin Park Final. Click here for a bigger map

Results from most of the sprint camp races are here: Results

Monday, June 13, 2016

US Team Trials

Every year, the US Orienteering Team holds a set of trials races to determine who will represent at the World Championships (WOC). These races also determine which events you'll race at WOC, but ultimately you have to perform well at Trials, because there is very little flexibility when it comes to being named to the team. So the pressure can be a little high, at times.

This year, Ed and my friend Becky were organizing the entire Team Trials weekend. It's a bit much for two people to take on, between finding venues, getting permits, setting courses, and making a new map for the sprint race, but they did a stellar job. I knew that I'd be running on some awesome courses with Becky's course setting, and I knew all the details would be taken care of with Ed around. But it was painful watching the effect of the stress on these two, and not being able to do much about it, since I wanted to race at the Trials, so couldn't help out with any of the bits that would affect my knowledge of the courses.

Sprint Race
The first race of the weekend was at Mt. Holyoke College, in western MA. Orienteering sprints are generally 2-3km long, which doesn't exactly qualify them as "sprints" by track and field standards, but I guess compared to a 15km race that's short. I was a little anxious before the sprint, because I really haven't been on many urban maps lately - it's been a lot of forest and grassy parkland, which is fun, but doesn't provide the same potential for "traps" - those complicated route choice options that tempt you to go one way, only to find that you can't get through a building or a passageway. Making the right choices is hard when your legs are stealing all the oxygen from your brain!

I started ok to the first control, but then I totally blew it on the 2nd. (map). I was taking too long reading the map, and ran past the building I was supposed to use as my attackpoint without seeing it, and popped out into a large circular road. I saw this, and completely panicked. I could see that road on the map, but could not for the life of me figure out where I was relative to it. I ran like a headless chicken back to the little pond, then back to the road, completely unable to figure out what was going on. What a lesson about what panic will do to my ability to function logically! Luckily, I found the control, but that was a 20-second mistake, which is pretty bad in a 13-minute race.

I was still flustered from 2, and made a poor route decision to 3, unable to see the left-hand shorter route. Luckily, I pulled myself back together after that, and started hunting down the girls ahead of me. In the words of one of my teammates, "you were MOTORING!" Of course, the faster you run, the harder it is to think, and I outran my thinking ability by control 15. I lost 10 seconds on the 16th control, and then a whopping 30 seconds on the 17th control. All things considered, this was a nearly disastrous sprint, only salvaged by the result - I managed to sneak into 3rd place among the Team Trialers. Yikes, I have some work to do in that discipline.

Long Distance
I spent the night in a lovely old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere (I think all of western CT might be the middle of nowhere), with a pile of other orienteering friends, and we woke to a hot and muggy day at Pond Mountain. I really want to run the long distance at WOC, so I was probably putting unnecessary pressure on myself for this race. Running like I had something to prove, but it turned out that pace wasn't sustainable in this weather.

(Click map fragment for full map)

My plan for the race was to nail the navigation. I knew Becky would set a tricky course, so my mental cues were "control, attackpoint, route." Expand the control circle in my visualization, have a solid attackpoint that I can run confidently to, and choose a good route to get there. Foolproof!

I had the advantage of being the last starter, of the eight women trying out for the Team. This meant that if I saw anyone in the forest, it meant that I had caught up to them, and that's always a relief. With a 3-minute start interval, it was unlikely I'd see too many runners, but you never know what is going to happen in a long distance race. At the start, I saw that the first control would be hard - a diagonally downhill approach to the bottom of a cliff. Hindsight tells me that I should have chosen a different route, to give me a better attackpoint, but at the time I thought I was doing it right. Unfortunately, I lost contact with the map, and spent two minutes wandering on the rocky hillside trying to put two and two together. Eventually I figured it out, running into Hilary, who had started 6 minutes before me. Well, I guess she had even more trouble than me. Time to put that behind me, and focus on the next leg!

Hilary and I were loosely together for the next four controls; usually taking slightly different routes but arriving at the same time. Hilary is a much stronger runner than me (she is an Olympic-caliber rower!), but my navigation is a little better. I knew that we were both going faster because we were together, with Hilary pushing the pace and me nailing the navigation when she'd slow down. It's the luck of the draw, I suppose, that I had caught a faster runner who had made an early mistake.

We ran into and past Alison around control 3, and then it wasn't until control 7 that I saw another runner. I was alone at this point, having lost some time at 5 being a doofus, but I could still catch glimpses of Hilary's back, and could tell I was closing back down. I crushed the downhill to 8, making contact with Hilary again and catching up to Cristina, from 12 minutes up. I knew I was having a good run at this point, so knew I had to keep the focus for the final push. At this point, I knew I was in either 2nd or 3rd place, depending on how Kseniya was running.

We had some serious climbing in the final parts of the course, and I could feel the humidity lying on my lungs like a sponge. I splashed through a stream climbing to 11, throwing the water over my head and down my back, trying desperately to cool myself. It wasn't really working, so I had to back off the pace a little on the long slog up to 12, but I was pleased that Hilary wasn't pulling away; despite clearly being a better climber she was moving more hesitantly. The final loop of technical controls was hard, but my approach was to be careful and deliberate, and with the exception of 16 I was spiking them.

At the finish, I was pleased to see I had landed in 2nd place for the day. I had dropped nearly 7 minutes in mistakes (yikes), but it was enough, and I felt strong despite the heat and humidity, with no cramping. It was definitely a relief to be in a very good position to make the team heading into the final race.

Middle Distance
I took my recovery very seriously on Saturday. First stop: ice cream. Next stop: swimming hole. Next stop: dinner with a bunch of friends! In all seriousness, though, being in a good spot mentally is very important for this sport. I spent a while going over my Long Distance race with my coach, and we agreed that a large part of why I lost so much time was that I wasn't being nearly as deliberate as I thought I had been on my approach to each control - I didn't have a good picture in my head of the circle, and that led to extra hesitation and the occasional wander. So, the goal for today's Middle Distance was to keep the pace low enough that I could really visualize the controls before I arrived. Middle Distances are tricky beasts, technical and detailed, so I needed to be 100% clean!

(Click for full-sized map)

Things started out a little shakier than I'd hoped, with a small bobble on both of the first two controls. But I kept my head in it, and things started to click. I could see some girls ahead of me on the climb to 5; Cristina, Evalin, and Hilary were all within reach! Unfortunately, I made a totally idiotic choice to go to 6, through the green blob of mountain laurel, and this cost me nearly 2 minutes. I was on my hands and knees crawling through that shit, berating myself out loud for being a dummy and yelling "EXECUTE!" every few moments, to keep it focused and together. Argh.

I kept it together, though, visualizing the circle, picking good attackpoints, and pushing the pace juuuuust enough, and I caught back up to Cristina at 9, Evalin at 10, and Alison and Hilary on my way to 11. I could feel the effects of the last two days of hard racing; my legs were toast as I slogged up the hill to #13, and my oxygen-deprived brain made a stupid 35s error in the circle. But I managed to spike the final controls, and finished the race feeling good about it. All told, I was in the bronze medal position, with ~3min of error, and I was only 4 minutes behind Sam, 40s behind Kseniya, who is somewhat of a middle specialist.

The Team Trials scoring list is based on the points garnered from each race, which are based on the time behind the winner. I had a 3rd, 2nd, and 3rd placing, and this was consistent enough to name me a clear 2nd place behind Sam. The top two spots on the list got an automatic berth to the World Champs, and I've been selected to run all the races that I wanted to - Long Distance, Relay, and Sprint! The final women's WOC Team:

Sprint: Alex, Hilary, Hannah
Sprint relay: Hilary, Sam
Middle: Sam, Kseniya
Long: Sam, Alex
Relay: Sam, Alex, Hannah
Final scoring list, with the men's team shown too: here
WOC 2016 website

This will be my sixth time representing the US at the World Championships (plus five times for ski orienteering!), and the excitement feels as fresh as the first time. I have a lot of work to do before August, but I have confidence in my abilities, and I am hoping to meet my high expectations for myself. Here goes!

Running up stairs is great. Trying to run down stairs is beyond awkward.

Coach Boris and his beagle Barney pre-ran some courses. Barney is more of a short-distance critter, but appeared to survive the courses.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The 38th Annual Billygoat

The Billygoat is one of my favorite orienteering races. Mass start, goofy rules, low-key event that people all take way too seriously - it's awesome. This was one of the first events I did as I came back to orienteering after a hiatus to race only on skis, and the camaraderie, goofiness, and fundamentally hard-core-ness hooked me. But after years of running in the event (and winning it the last three years!), Ed and I decided it was time to host it. Wearing our NEOC hats, we set the course in Townsend State Park, recently mapped for a national meet. I enjoyed setting these courses - parts of Townsend are utterly glorious, mature oak forest with long sightlines and knobbly contour features, just enough rock to interest you without being so overwhelming as to slow you down. But then there is the dark side of Townsend - the parts of the forest infested with mountain laurel. This is a very pretty plant to look at, but it's the bane of anyone trying to run through the woods, as its gnarled woody stems don't provide any way to pass through. At least it is easily mapped and thus easily avoided.
With only one course to worry about, I had the chance to design a kick-ass goat skull logo. It was only fitting that the skull rest on a wreath of laurels... 

The day dawned with a 90% chance of rain, but thanks to statistics, we ended up with barely a drizzle, and even a little sunshine for awards! I couldn't have asked for anything better. I had designed the courses such that we had a very long walk to the start, but I figured it was better to have people march out to the good terrain off the clock. Only a little bit of grumbling ensued. Isabel Bryant, speedy CSU junior, had volunteered to help carry all the clothing back from the start, and it was quite a load, as everyone had brought rain jackets and things. Turns out, 100 rain jackets actually take up a lot of space. 

I decided to run the Pygmy Goat, the short version of the Billygoat, after I got everyone started. I wanted to see some of the race from on-course, and this was an excellent way to do it. I got a chance to cheer on some of the folks who are normally further back than my group of runners, and I got a chance to cheer for the lead pack of runners on the Billygoat, as they looped through the Pygmy Goat course. Ed was manning the results, and did his usual superb job. 

2nd place, Will Enger, flew out here from Seattle just for the race!

Teammate Ian Smith, appeared to have found some mud...

Women's winner Hilary Saeger. It was a close race between the first two ladies, with Hilary just catching Kseniya on the long trail run portion to the finish.

Kseniya, second place for the women

Pizza was a good idea. When we ran out, I ordered more for the later finishers, and that was also a good idea. Ari came back from the dead to run the race, and he apparently survived, with no ill effects that we can tell.

I was so psyched that the sun could come out long enough to dry things out, and give folks a chance to do what orienteers do best - analyze the course to death. It was agreed that the leg from 15-16 had the sexiest terrain out there. It warms a race director's heart when people truly appreciate the course you've set. Makes the whole thing worth it. This race had all my favorite parts of directing orienteering events, and none of the parts I don't like.

More map analysis.

World Famous Sharon Crawford coming in hot, and earning yet another Billygoat teeshirt. Sharon has got to be the most competitive septuagenarian I know. I can only hope that I am running and skiing as strongly  as Sharon when I'm that age!

This was a fantastic race to direct, and I couldn't have done it without Ed. As usual, he takes my outlined ideas, barely cogent, and transforms them into something functional and beautiful. I suppose that's the role of an engineer. Will I host another Billygoat? Hopefully other people will take on the task for the next few years, but considering that this event embodies everything I love about this sport, I won't rule it out.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

West Point National Meet

Maybe some day, West Point will go really well for me. I had high hopes, feeling like I had a handle on work and life stress, but apparently my body hadn't quite caught up to where my mind thought it ought to be, and rebelled in the form of super tight calves. I used to think that the whole mind-body connection was just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but the old me was wrong. Anyway, it was a gorgeous day, not too hot and not too cold, and we were running in Deep Hollow, which has very nice forests.

Middle Distance
This was, overall, a satisfactory race. Unfortunately, I was unsatisfied, because I didn't want satisfactory. I wanted a good race! I went through all my pre-race routines with a good attitude, only a small niggle of worry about my calves, which were still sore from Wednesday's workout.

Click for full-sized map

The race started with an uphill, and I quickly discovered that the sore calves were actually a problem. In an example of some of the worst behavior they've exhibited in many months, they totally locked up on that first climb, aching and exploding and generally just limiting my ability to run. Arrrgh! Palpable frustration.

 As we all know, if one thing hurts, the best option at that point is to make something else hurt worse, to take your mind off the pain. So naturally, running up this stupid hill, I stepped on one side of a flat rock. It was a wiggly flat rock, and the other side flipped up just as I was swinging my foot through. Rock-foot collision, and I think the rock won out. I was left gasping for breath and wondering if I had broken my foot. Thankfully, after a moment I could wiggle my toes, so the only real casualty was a ripped shoe and broken shoelace. Carry on, kid, enough histrionics.

Now my foot hurt enough that I didn't notice my calves as much. Success? It didn't mean I could run any faster up the hills, and after making three 20-second errors on the first three controls, I'd blown the navigation, too. I made another mistake on the way to 7, when my internal compass got really confused, and disagreed by 90 degrees or so with my physical compass. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to stop and figure it out. Could have been a worse race, but certainly not what I was hoping for, and when I saw the M-20 runners finishing 10 minutes faster than me, I started feeling pretty bad about my performance.

Sprint race
That afternoon was a sprint race. In hindsight, I should not have raced, because my foot really hurt, with a big old lump and an ugly bruise already. But I got my [ripped] shoes laced up, so I figured maybe I could get some redemption for the morning's race. I gave my calves a longer warmup, and a pretty good massage, but they were just as bad. Grumble.

I was just slow, through the race, but then to add to my frustration with being slow, I took control 20 out of order. You have to go in order, in this sport, and when I realized I'd gone from 19 to 21, and had to back track to 20 and then REDO 21, I nearly cried. Race over. I plodded through the remainder of the course, upset at myself and my body and my inability to pull together a good race when I wanted to.

We had a very nice dinner at Kseniya's house, and I figured we'd get to bed early and be all well rested for Sunday's long distance race. Unfortunately, my bruised foot decided to make itself known (maybe the afternoon's ibuprofen had worn off), and I woke up around 2am with my foot throbbing painfully. I was out of drugs, and my foot hurt too much to move it, or bear any weight, or touch the bed. I sat on the floor, massaging my foot with an ice cube, surrounded by a growing puddle of cold water and my own despondency. This weekend had not started out how I wanted.

Long Distance race
Luckily, 2am is usually the worst time of day for all emotions. I slept a few hours, waking up to discover that I could indeed walk. May as well race!

My calves felt better than Saturday, and I was excited to test myself against the physicality of this course. I'd been to Turkey Mountain before, and it didn't go too well. Here's a chance for redemption!

I merrily trotted off toward the first control, enjoying the sunshine and the open visibility and the beautiful hills and rocks and things, but I made a massive parallel error. After maybe 5 minutes of headless wandering, I realized that I was definitively NOT where I thought I was. At this point, the thing to do is to go to a big obvious feature and relocate. I ended up pretty much running all the way back to the start before finding myself. Ok, try this again. This time, I found the first control. Well, THAT wasn't how I meant to start this race, either!

I tried to bring some effort to the rest of the course, telling myself that everyone makes mistakes, and maybe I can make up for those 12 minutes lost if I just nail the rest of it. But, the fight had drained out of me, and maybe it was my subconscious speaking up about the fact that I didn't really want to be racing, but I could no longer find it in me to push hard. I gave in. Walked every step of the climb up to the 5th control, and figured that actually, I felt pretty good moving at an easy distance pace, so I just stayed at that pace, enjoying my ability to run through the woods and find controls. I love finding controls! It's what makes orienteering so much fun! This attitude powered me through the rest of my run, but I finished way down in the results list. I decided not to look. It was easier than dealing with the fact that I'd blown it, three races in a row.

It sounds rough, but really, I had an excellent time last weekend. You can't let a bad race ruin a perfectly fine day, so I didn't. Not one to brood, I really enjoyed hanging out with all the wacky people in the orienteering community last weekend, and the gorgeous summer weather certainly didn't hurt. Thanks to West Point for hosting yet another national meet! Maybe some day, I'll learn to race well here.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Troll Cup

Last weekend was the first domestic orienteering race of the season for me - the Troll Cup, hosted by local club NEOC. The races were down in Foxboro, which meant typical coastal Massachusetts terrain - thick vegetation and interesting rock features. I really haven't gotten a chance to race much, and given a slow come-back from Achilles tendinitis I didn't feel like I was in the shape I wanted, but I was really psyched to put on a bib and stand on a start line!

The format was three races, and the times from all three races were combined to determine the weekend's winner. Saturday featured two middle-distance races, and Sunday was a "classic" distance race. The Saturday races were technical, lots of controls and a detailed area of the map, while Sunday was a little bit faster terrain. NEOC ordered up some amazing weather, warm and sunny but not TOO warm, and it was overall a fantastic weekend to spend running in the forest.

Hunting for a control, having come over the hill not quite how I'd expected. Thanks to Dave Yee for the photos!

Click the map above to see my route.

The race started pretty well for me. My goal was to move carefully and nail the navigation, and with the exception of about 20 seconds that I dropped in a directionally-challenged moment on the way to 16, and about 40 seconds of hesitations over the course of the race, I had a very good run. It was enough to beat nearly all the men on my course (just 2 seconds back from Andis), but third for the women, behind a visiting Ukranian and my US Teammate Hannah. But, I was pretty close in time, so with two more races, I thought maybe I'd have a shot at making back the time!

The second race of the day showed me how not in shape I am. Not only did I struggle to go fast, but my physical fatigue bled into my ability to navigate smoothly, and I made many more little mistakes and hesitations, which add up dangerously fast. This time, many more of the men beat me (I'm racing the M-40 and M-20 classes, so not the elite men), and I was again 30 seconds behind Hannah. Luckily, Polina, the Ukranian, made some bigger mistakes, so I beat her soundly. 

Classic Distance
So after two races, I was sitting solidly in second place, 58 seconds behind Hannah. I typically perform better than her in the longer races, but she's in good shape right now, and has many more races under her belt already this winter. Nothing was guaranteed. I got ready to run aggressively, happy to discover that my legs felt pretty fresh this morning. Let's get after it!

Click the map to zoom in and see my route

I unfortunately took the attitude of getting after it a bit too much to heart, and ran out of my comfort zone and into my mistake zone. No increase in speed will make up for mistakes, and I made some 7 minutes of mistakes. Not my finest showing. I was essentially even with Hannah at control 11, but then dribbled away time on some poor exit directions and other execution errors in the next few controls, finishing about a minute behind, instead of a minute ahead. I'm disappointed, because obviously I hate losing, but it's great to search for your limits, find them and surpass them, even if it means you sometimes come crashing down. I'd rather try and fail than play it safe. Polina beat us both again, but luckily not by enough to edge me out of second place, so I hung on to that silver medal.


Next weekend is the West Point National Meet, so hopefully I can redeem myself, and refine my ability to find that racing edge without blasting past it!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Stromstadmedeln and Kvillebyns klassiska

In an act of extravagant first-world privilege, I went to Sweden last weekend. Tickets were cheap, but that doesn't offset an airplane injecting carbon dioxide exactly where it is least needed. Blinders on, pass the buck to the next generation and the populations least able to deal with the effects of climate change. 

Um, I meant to talk about racing, not first-world privilege and the associated guilt. 

The US will pick our World Orienteering Championships (WOC) team in June for this summer's competition in Sweden, but I decided to take the gamble that I will probably get selected, and get started on my terrain-specific preparation. While orienteering maps all follow the International Specifications for Orienteering Mapping (ISOM) standards, the terrain being depicted by these standard symbols looks and feels different depending on where you are in the world. When a map or terrain feels familiar, like the maps around Boston, it is very easy to find controls. Comfortable. I subconsciously adjust my routes and my path through the forest based on past experiences and intuition.

But when I go somewhere else to orienteer, there is an adjustment period, at the physical, mental, and emotional level. Traveling to a country ahead of time, especially if it is adjacent to the competition arenas, is incredibly valuable. Emotionally, I have the time to figure out how the heck I am supposed to get from point A to point B, and I mean in a car, people. The stress of traveling in a new country is legit, and will actually take away from the energy you need to race. I now have a very good idea of where the speed cameras are between Gothenburg and Stromstad... I also have an understanding of what sort of food I can get in the grocery stores. Details matter. Did you know Sweden claims the highest volume of candy consumed in all of Europe? 

The IOF has embargoed the actual forests we'll be using for the races, but, there are maps adjacent to these areas, and all over, really, since this is Sweden. The border guards not only know WHAT orienteering is, but likely volunteered at the race you just left. The big teams spend weeks in training camps for the year prior to WOC, and most people from the smaller teams who are good at the sport have found some excuse to move to the right country to prepare. Part of me gets all upset that I'm trying (and failing) to compete against professional athletes, or athletes taking 8 years to finish an undergrad degree, and part of me thanks my lucky stars I can balance a meaningful career while pursuing my athletic dreams on the side.

So anyway, I wanted to go to Sweden to prepare for WOC. Time for a double whammy and get in some race starts against a deeper field than I usually see at home. We've got some really talented runners in the US, but we're so spread out that we never run against each other. Racing in Sweden, every weakness is exposed. I sort of crashed the OK Linné training camp, courtesy of Ross and Sam, and shared a cabin with US teammates Brendan and Cristina. It was great to see all my favorite expats, play some 7 Wonders, and have a place to actually cook dinner.

I enjoyed the morning commute to a different city than my usual beat. I landed at Gatwick at 8am on Friday, spent the day visiting family, and then back to the airport in the evening to complete the journey. 

I didn't have any big results goals for these races. You have to know your limitations before you can rise above them, and operating on five hours of sleep the day after a redeye transatlantic flight in terrain you've never seen before is a pretty hefty set of limitations. Luckily, Ross and Brendan and I (and one of the OK Linné girls, Cat) did a short morning exercise on the Tveteskogen map, and that helped me get my head into orienteering-mode, and my legs into running-over-mossy-ground mode. My plan for the race was to take it steady, one control at a time and practice some of the habits I've been working on over the winter. Ignore the physical side of things, because if I think too much about how tired I am, that's just unproductive.

Click the map to see full-size map and route.

I started out pretty rough. A miss in the circle at the first control, and then I totally mis-read the contours on the way to 2, expecting the cliff to be on the near side of a hill that was still going up, as opposed to the far side of that hill, descending to a valley. That was a costly one, and between those two first controls I'd already given myself a 4-minute penalty. D'oh! I took about 5 seconds at control #2 to regroup, refocusing on the process goals. Things improved mightily from there, and I steadily moved through the course, sucking wind like a champ on the climbs trying to ignore my leaden legs, and keeping my head up to spot the important features as I gallumphed back down. The course was very physical, not much flat, and much of the climbing was up or down very steep hillsides with a smattering of cliffs. 

I made a few more headless-chicken type mistakes, but felt like by the end of the race I was understanding what techniques were working well for me and which ones weren't. It was definitely a learning experience, and I was psyched to finish 12th, even with close to 6 minutes of errors. 

We headed out to another map on our way back to the cabins, to absorb more of the forest, and though I didn't have much energy left in my legs, the navigation came much more smoothly. The terrain here is so interesting and varied, it is a landscape I could really come to appreciate. 

Kvillebyns Klassiska
The next day was a long distance race, 9.6km straight-line. I expected that we would have a chance to practice execution on some of the route choice legs, and I was right. The major factor causing the choice were the long parallel lines of cliffs, thanks to the glaciation of the area. There were some gaps mapped between the cliffs, but it was hard sometimes to differentiate between a cliff and a not-cliff, because it was all steep, and often bare rock. Or moss-covered rock, and sometimes the moss would help with traction, and sometimes it would tear off and take you with it. It has also been a wet enough spring that the marshes were very slow, since each step would sink you in to some unknown depth; could be just the top of your shoe, could be your entire leg, and no good way to tell which it would be. The swamp monsters were hungry, on Sunday.

Click the map to see full-size map and route.

Luckily, I expected all the natural hazards. The point of me being here was to learn the fastest way to deal with them! It seems that course setters in Europe are much more willing to thrash the elite classes than course setters in the US. Maybe American course setters are [justifiably] afraid of getting sued. 

This one started a little rough, too. I was nearly late to my start, some combination of not having my shit together and not knowing where to go. Then I took two maps by mistake, and wasn't sure if I could just drop one, so ran back and dumped it back in the bin. Totally pro. The start triangle was at the top of a hill, and I could feel the four hours of training from yesterday, the short nights of sleep and redeye flight treatment, flooding my legs early. First control was a long leg, and it looked intimidating. Somewhere along the way, I found a surprise bog, and spent about a minute attempting to extract myself from there. The swamp monster had my foot and wouldn't let go! Eventually I got myself to the far side of the map and the first control, just to miss 20 seconds in the circle. As I said, not a great start. 

Improvement from there, as one might hope. The run felt pretty steady to me, but not fast. It was a combination of physical fatigue and navigational hesitation that kept me from really striding out, even on the [non-cliff] downhills, which is usually my forté. We had one very sketchy cliff-climb, on the way to #6, where I had to employ the map-in-mouth method of orienteering, to use both hands to rock climb. Just don't look down. But I was really enjoying myself running across the open hilltops, just cruising and loving this sport. 

Then came the cliffs on the way to #7. I am fairly positive I was at what was mapped as an opening between cliffs, but, it looked pretty cliffy to me. Things always look worse coming down than going up. I could hear the waterfall on one side, and I could see the treetops at my current elevation, which meant I only had to fall the length of one tree if things went badly. Hmm. One tree is actually kind of far from the ground. I was standing on top of a pile of very large, moss-covered boulders, with an uncrossable cliff above me and these boulders below me, and I knew that the boulders were big enough that once I dropped down to the top of the next boulder, there would be no returning. I couldn't tell from up here if I would be stuck on top of another cliff, or if there would be more boulders for me to use to "safely" descend. I'm not scared of heights, but I am a fully-functioning adult who is aware that actions have consequences, and I didn't really want to have the consequence of a broken leg on an inaccessible ledge with very little chance of being found. 

That was a somewhat dramatic build-up to say that I think my route choice cost me 2-3 minutes, and I got to the bottom just fine.

With a little more trail running for controls 8-13, I picked up the pace a bit, but it was too little too late, and I was also starting to make some fatigue-related mistakes. I finished the race feeling pretty whipped, but not totally dead, which maybe speaks to my general resilience. That is some tough terrain out there, and I definitely learned a lot by putting on a bib and trying to execute routes at speed. 

This is an extract from the Tvesteskogen map, where we trained before the Stromstadmedeln. Beautiful open hills, great visibility. Click for the full map.

Extract from the final training I did, on part of the World Cup middle distance race from last June. This was super fun. I'd just had a good cup of strong Swedish coffee, had a few hours after the race, and it was nice to have something in the forest at the controls, since they'd left up the wooden stands from the World Cup. I also found plenty of elephant trails from the runners then, which aids in both runnability and confidence, and boosted my enjoyment of the session immensely. 

The compound for this weekend, and August too if I make the team, is made up of adorable little cabins at the end of a fjord. Apparently that iconic red is the color it is thanks to the copper mines in northern Sweden. It's patriotic to use the paint from there, so you see lots and lots of rusty red houses, giving a splash of color to the otherwise bleak landscape. Maybe there will be more colors in the summer, but early April was cold and unforgiving with a constant mist.

This area of Sweden is beautiful. Rugged, misty, remote, and when you run through the forest it feels like the stuff of fairytales, and not necessarily the good ones. More like the Brothers Grimm version. Trolls waiting behind every rock and witches hiding in the thicker forests.

This sign either accurately depicts what happens if the ferry isn't there, or how I felt after all that running in my jet-lagged state. They needed a sign like this at several places in the long distance race!

All told, this was a great little trip. I learned a lot, trained a lot, and got to see some great friends. Now we'll see if I can practice what I think I need in my familiar forests, and carry this positive training momentum up through the team trials!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Eastern Highschool Championships

Each season usually wraps up with a championship race for the juniors, whether it is Junior Nationals, U16 Championships, or Eastern Highschool Champs. The U16 and EHS champs are where the states are pitted against each other, and CSU makes up a large portion of the Massachusetts Team. I love coaching these events, because it is always fun to watch my skiers really throw down when it matters.

Last year I coached the U16 trip, and this year it was EHS. We were up at Rikert Nordic, which harvested snow masterfully through this bleak season, and despite the weather stay above freezing for the entire week before, we managed to have our four races. If it hadn't dropped below freezing on Friday night I think we might have been SOL, but they worked some serious magic defying mother nature last weekend.

Conditions were seriously treacherous each day, for varying reasons. There were the deep ruts in the slush, grabbing your skis and sending you sideways into the woods. There was the icy mass start on a downhill into a 180-degree corner with 110 skiers. There was glare ice on the uphills, glare ice on the downhill corners, and glare ice in the tag zone of the relay. We had one broken thumb, two broken skis, a slew of broken poles, a sprained wrist and a lot of bruises from some pile-ups in the mass start. We had skiers fall off the trail into the mud, bounce back up and keep skiing without skipping a beat. We had crashes in the tag zone. It was a weekend about rising above the challenges and reaching past your limits, and I saw some seriously impressive performances. Of course not all my skiers were happy with their races, but you could tell who had kept training through the last month of crappy training conditions, and who had given up. The Mass team showed their mettle, and I was impressed.

Matt and Oliver slogging through the ankle-deep slush and mud.

My job as head coach this weekend was really easy. We had a large coaching staff, and the parent wax team for in the trenches. I mostly stood around and leaned on my poles. Got a chance to watch all the races, talk to each kid before and after the races, and even go on a couple course tours! What a treat. It's easy to run a large team like this when they're so good at what they do.

The view from the "team" side of the team photo.

That definitely marks the end of a painful ski season. We were struggling pretty hard to keep doing this sport all winter, and it is actually a huge weight off my shoulders now that I no longer have to worry about what we'll be doing for practice. Ironically, it snowed 4" on Sunday night in Boston...

Here's to the spring racing season!