Monday, August 29, 2016

WOC 2016: The forest races

The forest races at the World Champs were the two I was really excited about. The Long Distance final in my mind is the true test - the winner of this race is indeed the best orienteer in the world. There is no race I respect more, and no race I would rather excel in. In a lot of ways, the Long tends to play to my strengths - I often make good route choices, I run well over long distances, and I'm tough as nails. Also, my favorite part of this sport is running through the woods, and the Long Distance offers plenty of that. So, I was psyched to run.

The second forest race I'd be running was the relay - the star of the World Championships show! The WOC relay highlights those teams with depth as well as individual talent, and to me there is no higher honor than to be chosen for your country's relay team. Our team of Sam, myself, and Hannah weren't sure who we'd be gunning for, but our main goal was to try and move up from our start position, that reflects last year's result (20th).

Long Distance Final
One of the main differences between the forested terrain in Sweden and the terrain at home is the amount of squish. At home, the ground off-trail is soft in that it has a thin layer of slowly-decaying deciduous leaves on it, and sometimes has some groundcover growing in the dirt. But really, it's pretty firm underfoot. In Sweden, especially along the west coast where it rains a LOT, everything is covered in moss, of varying thicknesses. You've got moss under blueberry bushes, moss under pine forests, moss over the rocks, moss in all the swamps. Every step, your foot sinks, taking all the potential energy that you have from the two-feet-in-the-air part of your running stride and eliminating it into a mossy pile of squish. So attempts at moving quickly almost look like slow motion, with many Scandinavian orienteers adopting a running style with a much lower cadence and longer stride. That takes strength, gained primarily through the hours you put in training through this stuff. You ever run or walk through a bog? That's essentially what we're doing here.
Final control in the long

In training, I was handling the squish relatively well. It's definitely hard work, heavy on the legs, but doable. I thought I knew what to expect when I entered the forest with a number pinned on. I wasn't expecting to win the race, but I believed in myself that with a clean run, I had the fitness and the fortitude to place relatively well.

Right off the bat, the course setter threw a long (~4km) route choice at us. I expected some long legs, and I knew that it was worth it to look wide for faster routes. I also knew, given this terrain, that straighter is not necessarily faster, so if I could connect up little fragments of trails, that would be to my advantage.

Click for larger map.

With only a 1-minute leg to the first control, I needed more time to make a decision. I stood at that first control for probably 45 seconds, clock ticking in my head, trying to figure out the best route to the second. Even spending almost a minute standing there without moving is preferable to choosing wrong and paying for your wrong choice with extra distance and energy expenditure. Ultimately, I chose wrongly, settling on a route that went wide in the wrong places and hugged the line in the wrong places, sending me through logged areas and too many marshes, and finishing with an insecure attackpoint. Even worse than choosing wrongly, I executed my route terribly, losing over 5 minutes on mistakes and hesitations and micro-routes. Before I'd even reached the second control, my legs were toasted. The Australian from 10 minutes behind me caught up as I was splashing my way through a swamp, half swimming, and I tried to match her pace once I'd extricated myself, but nothing happened when I asked my legs for more oomph.

These are the route choices selected by World of O. My route did not follow any of those logical ways. I sort of started with the blue route, then swapped to green, then headed towards red, then made my own damn path through the maximum amount of logged rough open before meeting back up with red and blue.

This is the part of the race I'm pretty upset about. Not about the race, but rather about my reaction when faced with the consequences of a bad decision. This was outside of the realm of my pre-race visualization. I simply hadn't considered that I might not have good legs on the day of the race. Or that I just wouldn't be strong enough to handle the terrain. All the signs had been so good in my lead-up, that when my oomph-bucket ran empty, I was sort of paralyzed. And I gave up. 

I don't mean that I stopped moving - the thought of dropping out briefly flitted across my consciousness, but that's even more shameful - but I let my focus drift, and I wallowed in my misery. I didn't feel like I was racing, I didn't feel like I belonged at that level, and I just didn't want to be out there suffering anymore. It wasn't a long wallow, but it was enough to lose my focus, causing nearly three minutes lost on my way to the third control, and another three minutes on the way to the 4th. My give-a-damn was well busted, and I hadn't brought any duct tape to fix it. 

It's physically painful for me to write about this. I've always prided myself on being so tough, able to handle anything that's thrown at me, that admitting to giving up like this is almost as bad as the feeling while it was happening. I managed to kick myself out of the funk by the 4th control, and ran cleanly to the next few controls, but I was so slow. Even when I took the road route choice to 6, I felt like I was barely managing a jog. I saw some other runners from 6-9, but then made another 2-minute mistake attacking 9. I was mad at myself, which was a good sign, some of the fight was coming back. But then we hit the arena passage, and I stumbled my way past all the people, and I just wanted to curl up in a corner and hide. 

Crawling up a hill out of the arena, I was telling myself that if I was going to be this slow, I HAD to hit all the controls perfectly. I was going through the motions that should spike controls, but I failed to execute properly, and dropped another 5 minutes on my way to #15. When I finally stumbled across the finish line, the most prominent feeling was that of shame. For being so slow. For losing so much unnecessary time in mistakes (17 minutes!). For being the best option the US had had available to put forward on that day, and feeling like I was a really terrible option. For letting down all my supporters and sponsors who believed in me and were waiting to see what I could do. For giving up, and not fighting tooth and nail for every second, despite the challenges. 

As a friend said to me, the beauty of sport is also in the broken dreams. 

The Relay
After a bit of a wallow, I managed to get my shit together and start focusing on the relay. The Long had been a really tough race, even if I'd been feeling good, and I had spent a really long time out there suffering. A short jog on hard surfaces Friday felt fine, but I knew I wasn't at 100% as I warmed up for the relay. To make matters worse, my stomach was mildly upset, possibly from the strange food timing since the race started at 4pm. But whatever happened physically, my plan was to ***ing NAIL the navigation. There are things you can control, and there are things you can't, and I intended to fight for every second, regardless of how my body responded to the effort. Beyond proving to myself that I was capable of doing this, the relay is a team event, and I did not want to let down my teammates.

Sam went out fast, and had a totally solid first leg, coming back in 15th position with a small pack of Estonia, Poland, and Spain. I had been hearing the announcer talking about how the men were losing gobs of time in the low-visibility areas, so my plan was to mostly run my own race, and stay very much in control so as to not make any mistakes. I left the arena with Estonia, and we converged with Spain, Poland, and Austria out in the forest. The first part of the course was really fun, technical and difficult, and though I made a small mistake on the 3rd control (in the green), I was pleased with my navigation. Then we had to go uphill to the 6th control, and I felt like I was moving backwards, I was going so slowly. I had to walk most of the hill. My legs just did not work. It wasn't even a matter of oomph, they just didn't function. 

I chose to go around to the left to get to 7, and then I made an error in execution, losing some 45 seconds. That lost me the back of the pack I'd been trailing, and I struggled physically in the final loop after the arena passage. Ukraine passed me climbing the hill to #10, and Bulgaria got me climbing the hill to #12. I just had nothing to give, even though in my head I was screaming to claw back every second. It was so depressing to be unable to move, but I tried to focus on the action items, finding each control as efficiently as possible. 
Click for full-sized map

I tagged to Hannah in 21st position, and she had a solid run, but with a big mistake on the first control. New Zealand and Canada both snuck by, but she made a pass on Bulgaria, taking us home in 22nd position. Though this is two spots worse than last year, our position last year was inflated by both Russia and Poland disqualifying. It was still not the result we'd hoped for, but it was all we were capable of on the day.
Sam, me, Hannah

The World Championships always has the potential to be a real roller-coaster of emotions. This one certainly was, for me. I am coming away from this competition disappointed, but with my head up, bruised and battered but not completely broken. Failure is the greatest teacher, and success does not build character.

The next competitions are in three weeks - the US Championships followed by the North American Championships. I will be there, head held high, ready to fight. 

Because dammit, I love this sport and where it's taken me.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

WOC Sprint

I sit here in the team cabin, one of the only ones awake right now, listening to rain and the receding peals of thunder on the morning of the long distance final. The weather has been gorgeous so far in Strömstad, a welcome break from the painful heat waves of the east coast US, but it seems that now we're in for a wetter day. The long distance race has been the one I've been most focused on this year, and I don't have the right words to describe what I'm feeling right now, so I'm going to talk about the sprint race from last Saturday.
I arrived in Oslo on Thursday morning, and met up with Hannah, a fellow runner, and Cristina, our team leader who lives in Norway. Cristina is a fantastic team leader - organized, to the point, and a great sense of humor. We couldn't have asked for better. She also comes with the cutest team mascot, her one-year-old son Lukas, who visited us over the weekend. Anyway, Hannah and I did some sprint training in Oslo, and then we three headed down to the Swedish border and Strömstad to meet up with the rest of the team at the Daftö camping resort, which is very much pirate-themed. Unfortunately, this is the end of the pirate season, so some of the pirate-themed amenities are no longer available. One more day of training at the sprint model, and then it was time to go for the sprint qualification races!
For example, this guy is painted on our cabin's wall. Yarrrr!

There are three heats of racers, and the top fifteen runners from each heat advance to the final, held later in the day. So, from the beginning my goal was to advance to the final. To do this, based on past results it looked like I would need a very good, if not perfect, run - generally the 15th place qualifier earned about 1000 world ranking points, and I had a few races in sprints that have been close to that, but only one that exceeded it. So, it would take a good day, but I was definitely a contender. 
Team USA at the technical model, checking out the touch-free punching, the call-up routine, the flavor of the aid station drinks, all sorts of fun stuff.

Checking for the flash on the touch-free EMIT timing chip after punching a control. Two feet off the ground!

As I warmed up, I could tell that I had nailed the physical taper - my legs felt great. This would probably gain me 2-3% in speed, so all I had to hit the navigation. My goal was to run smoothly, focusing entirely on the execution of each leg. For the first 10 controls, I did that to a T, reading ahead 1-2 controls at a time so that I could flow through, but not so much that I'd confuse myself. The course wound its way up through the town, and then with about a quarter of the distance left, it was back down into a garden, and a final climb back up to the arena. 

Unfortunately, my focus wavered, and I missed a small gap in hedges while rounding a building to the 11th control. That was ~8 second mistake, not game-ending but I knew not a good thing. The little bobbles were starting - I had to check a few times on the descent to 12 that I could get through a gap in the houses without hitting any out of bounds areas, and that took time away from reading the final few controls in the tricky little garden. With lots of out of bounds areas, you had to make sure to take the right path, and I was hesitating a lot. I came to a full stop four times in that garden, with a 10-15 second mistake on #15, as I overran it. At 16, I was faced with the final route choice, and I panicked, having not read ahead to this at all. That was a total rookie error, but I chose to go to the south, and to go straight over the hill rather than to zig and zag a little bit and save myself some climbing. That was the wrong route, and cost me another 10 seconds. 

I tried to hold out some hope as I pounded into the finish, but I knew that I'd lost too much time in those final controls. I ended up solidly in the bubble, and on the wrong side of it, by fifteen seconds. Of course pretty much anybody can find fifteen seconds of hesitation or mistake in a race, but it doesn't make it any easier to know your day is over. I headed out for a long wallow-jog in the afternoon, to avoid rubbing any of my disappointment onto other team members. It was not a stellar day, as none of us made it through to the final - we're definitely missing Ali's presence. In the end it was a 955-point race, 18th place, and 15 seconds too slow. 

View of the sprint final arena. I'd obviously rather been seeing this through tunnel-vision as I raced through the arena passage. But the view wasn't bad from the top of the cliffs.

Team USA conquers a large rock. Yarrr!

I was not slated to race again until Thursday, in the long distance. I cheered loudly for my teammates in the sprint relay and the middle distance final, and was brought to tears when Emily Kemp, Canadian runner I used to race against when she was a junior and still living in Ottawa, nearly won the race, landing in fourth place after a riveting battle against the perennial Scandinavian and Russian champions. She has been working so hard over the last few years, moving to France, then Finland, while pursuing this orienteering dream, and has amazing dedication and attitude. Bravo, Emily! There is more of that to come! 

View of the Norwegian town of Halden from Frederiksten, a fortress that we found along the way to one of our trainings at Iddefjordfalle. We're so close to Norway that the southern Norwegian terrain is very relevant. 

Click for full-sized map - orienteering intervals at Iddefjordfalle, trying to become one with the blueberries.

View from the top of Frederiksten

And now it is finally the morning of the Long Distance! My plan is again to focus on the navigation - Take the good micro-routes and choose the right macro-routes, dance across those open rocks and tumble across the cliffs like I have wings on my Inov-8s. Today, there is nothing I would rather be doing, and no place I'd rather be doing it! No matter how I finish in the results, I want to finish knowing that I ran a good race, proud of my effort and my navigation. 

Terrain view

Morningjog view

Team USA women's team! Left to right - Samantha Saeger, Hannah Culberg, Alex Jospe, Kseniya Popova, Hillary Saeger

Team USA played minigolf (pirate-themed minigolf), and there were a lot of instances like this. I think we'd better stick to orienteering.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The final taper

Anyone who knows me knows that I'd much rather be running in the woods than sitting around resting. But, that's the name of the game as you head into the big competitions. Things have been looking good lately, and I've been trying to use my not-training time to work on my head. With clear focus being such an important part of orienteering, anything you can do to summon calm and deliberate moves in the face of adrenaline is important. Enter daily meditation and as much yoga as I can stomach, which has the added benefit of stretching out some really tight muscles.

I had a few good sessions two weekends ago with Ethan Childs, a US Team member who is spending the summer in Boston working with Barb and her Navigation Games program. It's cool stuff, and I'm happy to have another elite orienteer around to push me. We headed up to Pawtuckaway with Barb and Walter, one of her juniors, for a solid day in the woods. After hanging some streamers, it was time for intervals, and it was so much fun to run fast through the woods, head to head with other athletes who are really pushing you. I did beat the boys on at least one interval, but also had a hard blow-up on the fifth interval. I welcomed the big mistake, because if I'm not pushing my navigational boundary, I'm not getting better and honing the edge of my abilities. 

Click for full-size map.

The next exercise we did was a make-a-plan training, exactly what I needed. I find that I am generally quite good at the first 90% of the leg, running confidently to the edge of the control circle, but once there, I haven't made a clear plan for how I am going to find the actual flag. One of the things I was heavily emphasizing this weekend was visualizing myself nailing the control. When I do consciously make a plan to find the control, I am brilliant. When I fail to make a plan, things spiral downhill fast. So, this was a very apt training to do, and quite challenging at times. 

Ethan ended up shadowing me for most of this exercise, which can be very helpful, as I rarely have a coach actually observing my technique in the forest. Click for the full-sized map.

The next day, Ethan and I headed to Townsend. The heat wave finally broke, and we were running in the rain, which was just so welcome. It felt so good to be running and NOT be dying of heat! My coach Boris had designed a long training, with the idea of changing pace from long legs to short legs, and Ethan and I ran together, which helped me practice my focus and my plan-making. There were parts of this exercise where I was brilliant, and there were some sections that were quite a bit less impressive. As my last big training weekend in the forest, this was a very productive one, and boosted my confidence greatly. 

So, final training weekend over, I wrote off July as a very productive month. Every indication is that I am in good shape, recovering well and responding to intensity, and my confidence in my navigation is high. I was in great spirits as I entered a recovery week, starting the taper to WOC. So naturally, life decided to throw me a couple loops. The first could have been a lot worse. I was coaching on Comm. Ave, a location that we deem "safe" and good for beginner rollerskiers. I guess familiarity breeds complacency, because I was descending the hill mid-workout without paying much attention, probably looking behind me and talking at the same time, and I tripped over something, maybe myself, and hit the ground pretty hard. D'oh! I was lucky that the only damage was road rash, on my outer thigh, opposite hipbone, and ankle, but the gravel had gouged some good rips in my thigh.

Could have been a lot worse, but the deeper cuts have taken over a week to close; the whole thing was still oozing three days later. More of an annoyance than a real setback, but it really slows your daily roll when you have to keep changing bandages!

I had to push back my planned Thursday-morning intervals that week, because I didn't trust the bandage to stay on at that point, but was confident enough in my bandaging skills to head out to the woods on Friday morning. Unfortunately, that was apparently the same morning that the lady with unfriendly dogs chose to go walking in the same forest. We met on my first interval, and her little yappie dog ran at me angrily, so I stopped and made threatening noises at it. Undeterred, the thing ran up, and probably because I really didn't think it would actually jump at me, it leapt at me and bit my ankle, before I reacted. Naturally, this was the ankle I had cut two days ago in my rollerskiing incident. I proceeded to kick the little brat about 10 feet, and began ripping into its owner. She was contrite, and managed to get the beast back onto its leash, but I was livid. I don't care if strangers are running or walking, if your dog is going to bite them, you ought to keep it on a leash. 

Let's just say I've been looking both ways a couple times before crossing the street since then. Some bad luck can be avoided! 

Saturday I headed over to Connecticut for my final long intensity work before I leave for Sweden, at the People's Forest trail race. It was hot and muggy and I could feel the work in my legs from the day before, so I didn't set any records. Still good to get in some vertical and some speed over technical trails, but it was a little disappointing to be slow. I still ended up as the second woman, and 13th overall, but I'd been hoping for a bit more oomph at my disposal. Results. That said, running at 78 degrees with a 75 degree dewpoint has never been my forte, and my intervals the day before (after the dog bite incident) were top notch, so I'm considering myself still on the right track! 

From there, it was up to Vermont for the rest of the weekend, amidst the onslaught of all the cousins for "grammy camp". Great to see all those cousins, and to meet the newest addition (I have a niece!), and to hang out in the comparatively cooler environs by the lake. 

Obligatory selfie

Ziplines, rafts, and jumping rocks!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


I have been lying a little low since the trip to Laramie, as I mentioned in the last post. We had a trip to NJ for social/family stuff, and naturally I managed to find a road race around the corner from where we were staying. My dad and I hopped in, even though the last time he ran was the last 5k we did together in May. It was hot, still in the middle of that long heat-wave wracking the east coast, already 85 degrees at 9am when we started.
We look better pre-race

The course was fully paved, and mostly flat, on suburban streets around the East Brunswick NJ. I was touched that we started the race with an optional 22 pushups, to represent the 22 veterans who commit suicide every single day. Tragic, and I really want to think that organizations like the VFW can make a difference. It was a relatively big crowd, 300 runners or so, and some of the women had that skinny runner look. They were all tan. It's the Jersey shore, duh. 

We started out, under the fire engine with the giant American flag, around the fire house and off into the wilds of the NJ suburbs. Things were shady for the first mile, and I tried to stay relaxed, watching little kids, overweight dads, people pushing strollers, and girls with ipods pass me by. I had a relatively big week of training in my legs, and I didn't need to take it out that hot. As I settled into my pace, roughly 6:25min/mi, a lot of them came back to me. I could see two girls pulling away out front, one with very long tan legs, and the other looking like a crossfit fanatic. I tried not to let it bother me. On a hot day, there's not much wiggle room with pacing, and there are a lot of women out there who run a lot faster than me on a flat road.

We exited the shaded streets and hit the sunshine around 1.5 miles. I still felt comfortable, but without any breeze the temperature was starting to be noticeable. The two girls ahead of me looked comfortable, too, but they weren't pulling away. I'd moved ahead of all the ipod-wearers and stroller-pushers by 2 miles, and the girls were closer. I could feel my breath steady and strong, and focused on my arms for a bit. When I brought my attention back to the road, I'd just about closed the gap. I went through the water stop more efficiently (not to drink, but needed to get some cold water over my head!), and when presented with an ever-so-slight downhill I let gravity take me past both of them and out into the sun of a wide road.

The last mile was pretty rough, as expected. Full sunlight, no breeze, and a very slight uphill. I tried to stay steady, and reeled in a couple highschool boys and some middle-aged dudes. Turned the corner and knew I was nearly there, but the heat was affecting me now, and I had goosebumps and the threat of a heat-stomach rebellion. I let myself relax the pace a bit, just a bit, to just finish the damn race without shitting myself, but of course after the fact I'm wishing I hadn't done that. I was in a bit of no-man's land as I came in to the finish, and tried to kick a bit for my mom, who was standing by the finish cheering me on. Finished in an unimpressive 20:15, but at 85 degrees, various race temperature calculators tell me that was a 19:35 effort. Sure! In any event, it was enough to win the race, 19th overall. My dad did well too, taking a minute off his May time. Speedy old fart!

The reason to come to NJ in the first place! Christophe and his puppy Hudson

Hudson is pretty adorable