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.

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