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!