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.
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!