If you can get the day of work, or not work at all, the Military League army orienteering events are great for the runner. I usually do not too badly in them, and over the years I’ve seen myself creep up the placings. The navigation is usually not too difficult and nowadays, more often than not, I’m pretty happy with my result.
Wednesday’s event at Catterick, was not one of those days.
These are army events, and are put on for the army as training events. Most of them are open to civilians, in possession of a passport and a free day. So well suited to the freelancer, the homeworker, the worker on flexitime, and the retired. It’s a wondrous mix.
I was feeling pretty confident as I checked the blank map at the Start. There’s been a couple of occasions recently in orienteering events where I’ve accidentally strayed into Out of Bounds areas so I tend to check the map legend more closely nowadays. And this map had a clear section for Out of Bounds areas. In urban areas this is worth paying attention to. You don’t want to accidentally run through someone’s garden, or across a sensitive bit of parkland, or munitions, or whatever. And I noted, with interest, that Water was Out of Bounds. Well that might make things interesting.
The first few controls were in the barracks, then we were ejected out of the gate that had taken so much security to get into, and into the surrounding area. The navigation got a bit fiendish now, especially as the water had been marked as out of bounds. Which, to be frank, I thought was pretty pathetic. I’ve seen beefier becks at Hamsterley and that is (rarely) marked as out of bounds. Who’s going to take a long detour round to the nearest footbridge when a brief paddle will do the job much more quickly.
Still, rules is rules. And from a runner’s point of view, there was a certain switch-of-brain-now satisfaction in a long tempo run along, across, and round, then back along again, but even so, it was a long way round. I mean, look at 17 to 18, and 24 to 25, and so help me God, 22 to 23. I mean, look at it again. 22 to 23, and you’re not allowed to to paddle across! My split was almost 11 minutes, when it should’ve been almost 2. I did look hard at the pipeline crossings; they were not marked out of bounds, but I suspected (rightly) than large amounts of barbed wire might be involved, and they might not be a worthwhile route of investigation.
So you might be ahead of me here, and can guess the next bit. I got to download, asked who the planner was, and Phill Batts brightly announced that it was he. I complemented him on the fiendishness of the course, the decision to mark water out of bounds, and dryly (I thought, but let’s be frank, probably closer to waspishly) observed that a lot of runners had taken a non-legal direct line.
Phill looked puzzled, and mildly pointed out that the blue out of bounds area, on the out of bounds bit of the map, was a dark blue, with a border, and the beck, on the map, was light blue, and without a border. So the beck was very much not out of bounds.
Bugger. Given that I’d taken the non-scenic route I was happy not to be last, but annoyed at myself for making such a daft mistake. But as I always tell myself, I’m not going to get on the podium, so however the day unfolds, an orienteering event is always a great bit of training.
“That wasn’t me by the way” “Just checking. I mean, you do have form.”
Roberta had been chortling along to Ian’s report of the October Odyssey on Sunday. I didn’t know that people still chortled, or even guffawed, but Ian’s report certainly seemed to strike a chord. Roberta once crashed out of some path-side undergrowth at an orienteering event, checked the control id, found out out it wasn’t hers, and with an emphatic FFS, stomped down the path in disgust, pausing only to say Good Morning to a couple of startled dog walkers who were not quite expecting to see what they had just seen.
I’ve had the benefit of reading Ian’s report before deciding to write a few words of my own. I do a lot of orienteering, and as I like to point out, it’s great interval training. Classic Fartlek. And the worse you are, the better the training. I had, for me, a fairly decent run on Sunday. I wasn’t last, and there were a few gaps between last, and me, that I was happy to see. Not a vast number of gaps and I’d always be happy to see them vaster, but it was an ok day.
When I dibbed Control 1, which I thought was indecently tricky for the first control, I thought that I wouldn’t want to have a wobble so early on. Struggling on Control 1 is not a great start and a bad start can set the mood for the day. I still have nightmares about Sand Dunes, so many Sand Dunes. 16 minutes to cover the 100m from the Start to Control 1 in Druridge Bay in 2013 still haunts me.
It was a challenging course and I was happy to get to the end. The navigation and terrain were difficult. I was fairly happy with my route, although I did make some major wobbles here and there. With three controls to go and looking for a straightforward control in a ditch junction, I chanced upon the ditch by standing on a piece of grass that turned out to be a generous expanse of empty space. Winded and bloodied, I followed it to the control. The bleeding was quite impressive and the finish marshall did voice some concern, but brambles do that. It was the three foot drop and loss of breath and dignity that were much more unsettling.
If you ever decide to give orienteering a bash, and you really should, then, as a runner, here’s the only thing you need to know. All colour coded courses from Green and above, are the same difficulty. Both in navigation and terrain. They’re all the same. Green is shorter, then there’s blue, then there’s brown and sometimes black. They only differ in distance. But in terms of navigational difficulty, they’re all the same.
NATO are one of the orienteering clubs that use Routegadget for post-run analysis. This can be interesting to see how your run has compared to others. It’s a great learning tool and lets you look at the maps and routes for all the courses.
Orienteering isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I hadn’t expected much of a response when I lobbed one of my periodical e-mails onto the list promoting a local event. It just made it all the nicer when first Nigel, Jan and then Shaun and Ros turned up at Cong Burn on a sparkly sunny cold winter’s Wednesday in January. This was an army event so were only three courses on offer and Jan and Nigel were going for the hardest one (Blue) while Shaun was approaching with more caution and opting for the middle course (Light Green). Shaun’s logic being that he didn’t want to end up doing so badly on Blue that he never wanted to do another event again.
I’ve said many times that Orienteering events are surprisingly daunting when you first turn up because they seem a bit complicated and everyone else seems to know what they’re doing. In an army event like today there are also a lot of soldiers with racing vests that often include words like ‘rifles’ and ‘lancers’ somewhere. Which doesn’t help. Even our neighbouring orienteering club Newcastle and Tyneside Orienteers are more often known by their acronym NATO.
Jan was a bit nervous so I suggested just treating it like an interval training session. A bit of fartlek. Which is basically what orienteering is. Speed work where the speed, effort, intensity and duration depends largely on how good you are. The worse you are, the better and longer the workout.
Staggered starts can sometimes make these sociable events surprisingly unsocial. By the time I’d got myself registered, organised and to the start the others had already gone. Shaun had been miffed to discover that you don’t get a look at the map with the course on it until the watch has started. I always advocate sprinting around the first corner, hopefully in the correct direction, in a purposeful manner, then as soon as out of sight of the start, stop and have a proper look. Although nowadays I’m a bit more relaxed and sometimes my starts involve a lot of Not Moving until I’ve had a good at where I’m going and got something approaching a plan.
Conditions were great for orienteering and the ground was crispy and lovely to run on. I’m not ashamed to say I was well chuffed to discover I’d caught Nigel and one of my NN clubmates Bob Cooper around control 6. Mindful of a similar experience with High Cup Nick 10 years ago I didn’t allow myself to get overconfident. Nigel had fluffed up control 3 and lost a lot of time. Orienteering is like that. One bad control and you can haemorrhage time away. When it happens early in a race you have to give yourself a bit of a talking to as it’s easy to lose enthusiasm for the rest of the course.
Nigel, Bob and I were in each other’s radar through to control 8 where things suddenly got interesting:
What would you do? It’s not a long leg, only a couple of hundred metres direct. I’d already forgotten my advice to myself about over-confidence and decided by far the best and quickest way was to drop down to the beck, leap it like a gazelle and a quick lunge north would take me to control 9. I noticed Nigel had decided to stick to the path and take the long way round.
I didn’t see Nigel for the remainder of the course. He remained ahead of me while he gradually got more into the groove and his split times steadily improved. What I did see from my vantage point of knee deep in a disgustingly brown (I hope it was peat) marsh was a slow scrub where Jack Frost had decided not to tread leaving it perfect for energy sapping trudging. Good practice for Allendale I guess.
Although the time lost wasn’t a lot these mistakes tend to dent your confidence and you either compound things by running about in a panic or slow yourself right down and collect your thoughts. Since my legs were wet, cold, and a disturbing shade of brown, and the only things flapping were my shoelaces I decided to notch things back a bit and had a fairly uneventful few controls where I got warmed up again and into the adventure.
Control 13 to 14 brought the next interesting challenge. What would you do?
The temptation is to contour directly along the steep south-east bank or to climb up and run along the road. In my experience with this sort of leg if there’s easy running further away it’s best to take the long-way round. I crossed the bridge and had an easy run along to the bottom of the bank at 14, back across the beck and up to the fence. The fence rather obligingly had a stile and a proper path on the other side so I hopped over and ran alongside the inside where it was easier while looking for the control. It was a good clean leg and I was pleased with myself.
I didn’t notice at the time but the red vertical lines on the map show that this area is clearly out of bounds and I, along with half the army, had taken the inviting path on the OOB side of the fence. In the grand scheme of things it made little difference to my time but I was annoyed at myself for not noticing and had this been a big event and I’d been spotted it would’ve been an automatic DQ. But few people noticed and it’s not as if I’m going to write about it on the internet or anything.
The remainder of the course was reasonably straightforward but the planner had made good use of terrain forcing competitors over a wide variety of challenging terrain and vegetation. I finished and back at download I found Nigel having a cuppa where it soon became apparant Jan and Shaun were still out on the courses.
We walked back out onto the fell and into the sunshine where we could get a commanding view of runners finishing. Like battlefield commanders we surveyed the surroundings and speculated where Jan and Shaun might be. Shaun was first to finish getting doggedly round all the controls. He had been frustrated by his Garmin’s auto-pause feature which interpreted every pause as an opportunity to stop recording so he was a bit unsure how long he’d been out.
Jan kept us guessing but before we got to the ‘should we getting worried’ stage she showed up at the download area. We sent her packing to the Finish which she’d decided to skip, then come back to download. It was largely academic though. Jan had a duff dibber that hadn’t flashed at any of the controls she’d visited. And the controls she had visited had been in an order of her choosing. Of all the tips I thought of offering before the start, visit the controls in order hadn’t been in there. Perhaps I should have though. I had a similar conversation out on the course with Sue and Kerry at the Durham City Night championships in 2015. If your experience of orienteering has all been score events, and no one has told you otherwise, you could be forgiven for thinking that order is optional.
I’m used to being the only Strider at these events so it was lovely afterwards to head down with the Strider platoon to the Tea Barn and investigate the coffee and cakes and indulge in a bit of data analysis. This was an event where there were often varied and quite different route choices between controls. Not necessarily better or worse than each other. But always with consequences.
I would’ve been a rubbish pilot. It’s worth reading about the phenomenon of Spatial Disorientation as I believe it might apply as much to Orienteering as it does to flying.
There I was, at control 7, and control 8 looked like a straightforward compass bearing and a run across the open fell. Off I went with an eye on the needle of my (not cheap) compass. The needle was saying one way, but it didn’t feel right. Surely I should be heading more to the left, towards that bit over there? I drifted more and more to the left, just to be on the safe side, until I came across a dry ditch, which was where the control should be.
The ditch wasn’t particularly dry, in fact it was very wet. Full of water. It happens. A ‘dry ditch’ can be a ‘wet ditch’ if it’s been raining. No control though. I jogged on a bit, and found another dry ditch, that was also full of water. It wasn’t there either. And it wasn’t in the next ditch (wet) or the one after that. And there should be some green blobs too.
I looked at the map. Properly this time. There shouldn’t be any wet ditches here. There should only be a single dry ditch. There was a bit over there on the map, that had loads of wet ditches. But that wasn’t where I was. Or was it?
If I’d trusted the compass I’d have gone straight to the control. But I trusted my intuition instead, which rarely works out. Still, mistakes are made, lessons learned.
I learned that lesson for about another three controls, before making exactly the same error on control 12. Veering gradually but decidedly off to the left, I ended up in a familiar state of bewilderment. Even more bewildered when I realised I was back at control 8 but it looked nothing like control 12 which should be at the foot of something between two thick black lines. With control 8 resolutely refusing to metamorphose into control 12 there was nothing for it but to run in the direction of control 12, which was exactly where it should be.
Roberta had chosen the Orange course and I bumped into her from time to time taking photos of cute sheep and carefully navigating wonky styles. We seemed to share a lot of controls, which in turn shared the same control description: “Crag Foot”. I like a good Crag’s Foot as much as the next man but by the end of 21 controls I think I’d had my fill.
Orienteering events are like any other running event, you have favourites. I like Shaftoe Crags. It’s mostly open and runnable with just enough crinkly rocky bits and steep woody bits to make it interesting. There are lots of long straightforward runnable bits across the fell which is fine if you remember to keep concentrating and trust the compass. A good location for the runner who fancies dabbling with making their running a bit more cunning.