Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Billygoat 2015

The Billygoat is a really awesome orienteering race, with a fair amount of history.  I've won it the last two years, at Baldwin Hill and Earl's Trails, and I was looking to repeat the title at Egypt Mills, in the Delaware Water Gap.  This was my ninth Billygoat over the years, and it remains one of my favorite orienteering races. Little touches like the traveling doorstop prize, the control codes initialed with your place from last year, the mass start aspect and the ability to skip a control - all these things combined with the generally camaraderie of the sport combine to make it a special race.  

It's always tempting to take long races like a fast-paced training run, but I'm racing the long distance at Worlds this year, which means pushing the pace I can go for a long race. The Billygoat is likely a smidge longer and hillier than the Scottish Long Final is going to be, but it would still be good practice to take it out with some intensity.  Heading to the first two controls I was just behind the lead pack of guys, which always looks larger than it ends up being because of a heavy influx of West Point cadets, who are traditionally much stronger runners than navigators, and tend to get lost later in the race. Hannah Culberg, one of my US Teammates, was just behind me at 2, so my hope was to catch a faster ride from the guys and she wouldn't also hop the train. Unfortunately, I then made the wrong decision on the "forked" control - you could go to either third control, as shown on the map - and I chose the control that added a bunch of climb and a bunch of unmapped raspberry bushes. Ouch!

The bad #3 combined with a poor execution of my route to 4 set me back 2-3 minutes from Hannah and the pack of men I wanted to be running with.  I knew that things hadn't gone swimmingly, and set out chasing, hard.  There were some lovely open stretches of forest in the area from controls 5-10, and I took advantage of the lack of undergrowth to stretch my legs out and claw back some time.  By the aid station at 13, I got a split that I was about a minute behind, which was helpful information. I was still feeling good, energetic and springy, so I figured I'd better use this energy while I had it, and upped the pace. Around here you can see in the splits where I start pulling back some time from the men, too. Pays to be fit.  

(Click for full map with route choices)

I caught sight of Hannah as she was leaving 14, which was a relief. I figured that she hadn't skipped a control yet (you can skip one, and only one, control at the Billygoat), but I could probably fall in behind her for a bit and catch my breath before attacking again.  My plan was to skip #18, though in retrospect 22 would have been a much better skip.  Anyway, I made contact along the way to 16, and quickly discovered that I really had just been moving faster. We didn't exchange many words, just sort of offered each other support, but both of us had fallen into the pace we were using for the race, and I took the lead and opened a gap. I was on my own again after skipping 18, since she was clearly saving her skip for a later control.

Knowing that she was skipping later kept the pressure on.  I had to keep running like she was ahead of me, even as my legs started to notice the fatigue of the last hour and a half of hard running through terrain.  It was a struggle to keep moving up the hill through thick brush to 22, but I knew even in a long race, things can come down to seconds.  It turns out that Hannah did skip 22, and if she hadn't bungled the approach to 23, we likely would have been neck and neck at the finish.  That would have made things considerably more painful, but as it was, I was in the clear for the run-in, and in the lead.  Yay!

Thanks to Kseniya for the above photos. I was pretty tired by the end, but it felt like a really successful race, and I was psyched with the confidence with which I was attacking controls. My legs felt great, which is a nice change. And now I get to keep that ugly doorstop for one more year!

Thanks to Clem for these photos. 

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 Kjellstr√∂m, 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!