Whitby urban orienteering

After Saturday’s 30 miles around the Durham Dales a manic urban orienteering event around Whitby on the Sunday seemed like an attractive antidote. I’ve never been to Whitby before and what better way to find out about the place than by running excitedly through the streets and parks. We registered and I chose the longest course with some nice long running stretches while Roberta decided to stick with a shorter course.

Urban orienteering favours the quick thinker; the navigation is usually quite straightforward but you need to make a lot of decisions very quickly. It was, for example, a long way from Control 6 to Control 7. What was the best way? You could easily spend 30-60 seconds pondering all the permutations, come up with an absolutely wizard plan, fiendishly efficient and fast, but that 30 seconds could have been used just running optimistically in the general direction of the control. Sometimes the hare does beat the tortoise.

I do ok in urban orienteering but I need time to read the map, check my location and plan my route. And think. And I do it a few seconds slower than most orienteers, which over 30 controls, soon adds up.

Photo Credit: Wendy Carlyle

The sun was out and Whitby was busy. But there was plenty of space and it was easy to get round people. It wasn’t quite as easy to parry the questions that many ask when a sweaty runner sprints passed waving a map in the air. Roberta kept bumping into the same dog-walker who seemed to want regular updates. Almost every walker also insists on ‘helping’ with some advice; “there’s one of them things just along there!”. One bloke helpfully told me that he thought I was lying about fifth. Fifth in what, I have absolutely no idea! But fifth would be nice.

There was a nice bit of variety in my course, through streets, paths, parks and an interesting stretch along the seafront. I got around briskly enough without any major errors, apart from going straight from 11 to 13 without bothering with the extra hassle of going to 12. In an urban event such as this with lots of controls it’s surprisingly easy to get out of synch and miss a control.

Roberta finishing.

The event finished back at the school where we started in a nice flat grassy area. With the car parked just a few yards away I was able to sit on the grass and have a coffee while waiting for Roberta. Unlike a conventional running race where a lot of people finish around the same time an orienteering race has people starting and finishing at all sorts of times and apart from the occasional appearance of a brightly coloured runner you’d not know that you were at the Finish line of an orienteering competition. A nice way to round off a weekend’s racing.

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Keldy and Cawthorne Banks

It’s quite a long way to Cawthorne Banks and you need to drive through a lot of gorgeous North York Moors to get there (well you don’t, but we did) but it was worth the trip. We registered for the courses we fancied then a long trek to the Start which was perched classily beside Elleron Lake. Roberta toddled off on the Orange course, and I started at the same time on Green.

Control 7 to 8 – taking the scenic route

The first four controls were easy. It was all running and easy navigation and I was soon out of breath from the hard running. Things toughened up a bit after that and the controls became more challenging. Then came control 8. Getting a bit over-confident I crashed through the undergrowth in the general direction of control 8. Soon realising that I hadn’t really thought this through, and the reluctance of the control to simply present itself in my path, I started looking for a catching feature – an obvious feature somewhere after the control that would allow me to relocate – that is, work out where the hell I was. Relocating is what you do when you’ve gone a bit astray and you’re desperately looking for nice feature, like a fence or a road or a building that will make things clear where you are. Time ticked on and my minor error was becoming a major error. Was I relocating, or was I lost? There were no obvious catching features and I was, quite literally, just stumbling around in a wood. I stumbled down to the stream and picked a direction. Eventually a footbridge, a road, and oh good grief, I’m there?! Really?? Does this warrant multiple exclamation marks?? Yes!!!

I often ponder over the fickleness of this sport – being both fascinated and horrified by how a simple mistake can pretty much blow your race apart. Sure enough, 26 minutes to find a control that should have taken 5, and my position at the bottom of the results pretty much guaranteed. Well you live and learn. Or other people seem to, anyway.

Impressive split for control 8
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Northern Championships Festival of Orienteering – LOC Urban Race

max height 1.8m

After yesterday’s event in misty woodland, today found us sitting in Kendal Town Hall waiting for our start time. This was Street Orienteering; like normal orienteering, but you play it in the street. I’m not sure what I think about Urban Orienteering; it’s fast and furious and allows you to run like a lunatic around the streets of Kendal.

lovely registration

We had a bit of time to spare, having parked in the local multi-storey, (maximum height 1.8m) and I had time to reconsider my footwear. For this orienteering weekend I’d packed my Walshes and Sportivas. Both good choices for the fell and trail. Not so brilliant for a street warrior. But hang on, this was Kendal, wasn’t this Pete Bland HQ? I jogged down the road from our rather posh registration in the town hall, into the shop, and said, “I need to walk out the door in road shoes, size 8.5, and my Start Time is in 20 minutes”. With that all sorted, we had plenty time still in hand to wander to the Start and feel twitchy. There’s something about a big event that gives an extra tingle of excitement to procedings; the 4-minute call-up, the briefing, and the 4-beep (beep, beep, beep, BEEEEP!) countdown (that always gives me bizarre flashbacks to riding the Kilo on the velodrome).

Roberta finishing

Yep, so urban orienteering. I’m not a fan. It’s fun to do once in a while, but you have to think so much, and so quickly. I was seeking a bit of redemption for yesterday’s poor performance so I did hammer it, but I have a tendency to stop and try to explain to small children in the street who ask me what I’m doing, and I suspect neither they or I get much out of the interchange.

Three days of orienteering; different locations, different competitions, moods, results and emotions, and a fair bit of unfinished business.

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Northern Championships Festival of Orienteering, Gummer’s How & Blakeholme

After a long, long, slow drive up a forest track, we parked at the side of a tree. We had been warned though. So we’d allowed lots of time. And so as we trudged through the drizzle towards the Start of the Walk to the Start, we had plenty of opportunity to take chirpy selfies. Truth be told, we were both a bit jittery about this foray into the big time. Competing in a national event at a national level.

Rookies

Whatever that meant. I couldn’t give Roberta much advice as it was all new to me too. The comforting colour-coded courses were gone, and I was competing in my class of M50L (Course ‘3’). Whatever that was.

A parkrun of walking later, we arrived at the Assembly area. Roberta glanced longingly at the portable loos but there simply wasn’t time. We had a further 400m to go before we got to the Start itself. A couple of minutes to spare before Call-Up. T-4 minutes and you’re called forward. T-3 you can pick up control descriptions. T-2 you can look at a blank map, and then, T-15 seconds you can pick up your map, but not look at it, and then … well I’m not sure about the next bit. I do know that I picked up the wrong map. I mean, a W is just an M upside down isn’t it? And if there happens to be a W50L course … I asked the lady next to me what was going on? Are you on a punching start? She asked. I didn’t know. I know what that means now, but not then. So I just said yes, (wrong), and, well the details are unimportant. Realising that I had the wrong map, I hunted around the bins for M50L and eventually picked up my map. But by this time my ship had already sailed, and the official assumed I was in the next wave, and was picking up my map early. On the ball for procedure – not so hot on the facial recognition algorithm. I explained, he demurred, and off I went, a few seconds late. Looking for the Starting punch. Except it didn’t exist, because it wasn’t a ‘punching start’. Ahhhhhhhh…..

Anyway, off we go. Keep the hied. Keep calm. Don’t panic. A tricky course, an error here and there, but nothing disastrous. Nothing that couldn’t be salvaged. Recovered. Looking good, steady as we go …

Control 9

And so on to Control 9 (out of 22). A boulder (West Side). Didn’t look too difficult. Jog down the path until it jinks to the left, then contour round to the right, hitting the marshy bit in about 100m, and it should be, right, there. Nope. Ok, loads of people around. Lots of smaller boulders, check, nope. Ok, pan out, look for features, relocate. Ditch found, on map? Hmmm, bush, boulders, scrub, marsh. It doesn’t fit. Ok, relocate. Up to the wall. Find crag, compass bearing, pacing, down the marsh, but there’s no marsh. Something’s not right. What the hell is wrong with this picture? Orienteers in the distance have found a control. That couldn’t be it. It’s in the wrong place. Run over. It’s not. Time was haemorrhaging away.

Ok, deep breath. Back to the path I attacked from. Path junction crosses stream. But no path junction crossing any stream here on map. Lots of other orienteers confidently attacking from here, to controls unknown. What did they know that I didn’t? What were they seeing that I was missing?

A massive wave of despondency overwhelmed me. I was not wearing a watch or GPS but I knew I’d easily lost 20-30 minutes hunting for this control. I walked back up the path. And I keep right on walking. All the way back to the Finish.

Northern Championships Festival of Orienteering, Gummer’s How and Blakeholme

Had I known quite how unexpectedly wretched I would have felt about this decision I would not have given up. Although I’m prone to succumb to occasional self-indulgent angst-ridden post-race analysis I’m usually pretty philosophical about bombing out. Not this time though. This was a bit different. I’ve looked at this control so many times that this section of the map is burned on my memory. I can see several ways in which I could have relocated and attacked again. This was a survivable crash. It was recoverable and I had the skills to do so. Sure I would’ve ended up with a dismal time, but I wouldn’t have felt as dejected as a DNF. You live and learn.

Northern Championships Festival of Orienteering, Summerhouse Knott

Orienteering is a phenomenally diverse sport; in terrain, location and difficulty. And an orienteering competition can be daunting, although behind the apparent complexity is an incredibly simple concept. It’s this: You get a map with a course on it, and you run round the course as quickly as you can. There are usually lots of courses to chose from. From dead-easy, to dead-hard. So the best way, and certainly the most fun way to have a go, is to compete. This begs the question, as often it does, What’s the easiest course you can enter at an orienteering competition?

It’s the string course. Most competitions have a super-easy course called the String course. Day One of the Northern Championships Festival of Orienteering had a string course. How does it work? Well, how long is a piece of string? You follow the string round the course, and you can see your route on the map. The courses get progressively more difficult through a series of colour groups until you get to black. So you stick a pin on a colour that suits you, and have a go.

I was having a go at Brown, and soon found myself walking off for Control One. I say walking as I resisted the temptation to dash off with more enthusiasm than sense. It was a good course, lots of woodland and I always like that. But a bit short. I spent a lot of time forcing myself to navigate and keep map contact. I got frustrated and longed for a decent bit of uncomplicated running, but it wasn’t that sort of course. These were ‘Middle Distance’ races and a cool head was needed otherwise you might easily end up enthusiastically running a long distance in the wrong direction.

This was my first experience at competing at this level and it was good fun. Although frustrated at the my slow progress I forced myself to keep concentrating and resist the temptation to dash about. Not exactly a podium position but sufficiently distant from the back-marker to give me some satisfaction and hope. I wondered what tomorrow would bring …

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British Army Orienteering League: Hardwick Country Park

Some time ago, after an orienteering event, Colin and I were comparing notes and he remarked that his navigation had been fine, so the only way he could have improved was by running faster. That, in a nutshell, is what makes orienteering such a complex interesting beast. If you’re a fast runner and a good navigator, that’s the ideal combination.

Tools of the trade

Today I joined the army, as I often do, for the Military League North. These are great training events and well worth bunking off work for. I’ve orienteered at Hardwick Hall before and it’s a good location, split between woodland, paths, then an unexpected dash through the tunnel onto the open pasture. I’ve also parkrunned and muddy mayhemmed here so have seen it from many angles, pipes, fires and swamps. Today I was orienteering. I set off from the unmanned Start and looked at the map. 29 controls. That’s quite a lot of controls. After finding the first three controls with ease I realised that the navigation was not going to be difficult, it was the running at high speed between controls that was going to be the test.

Some courses favour the navigator, and some the runner, and most are somewhere in between. Today was a runner’s course. I put the foot to the metal and hammered it from control to control, experiencing frequent flashbacks as I recognised various abandoned obstacles from the Muddy Mayhem. My navigation was pretty good until the final control, which happened to be where it was meant to be, rather than where I wanted it to be, and a bit of time lost there, not much, perhaps 30 to 60 seconds, and then finished.

I took my printout and glanced at it without any real interest, expecting the usual “You are currently last out of everyone who’s run today so far”. But hang on, what the deuce! “You are # 4 of 9 so far”. This was a nice surprise! Later when the official results were posted on the website I noticed that my mistake on the final control had lost me a place, possibly two. Yup, the splits show that I lost 45 seconds to the person in front of me, on that one control. I love the fragility of the gains and losses from control to control. But I’m not worried. I’ve finally got a mid-field position in an orienteering competition, and there’s my name respectably positioned amongst all the Captains, Majors, Corporals and Sergeants. It’s quite a nice feeling.

There’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ orienteering course, but this one definitely suited the runner. Good surfaces and straightforward navigation. It’s worth keeping an eye on the MLN website for upcoming events as they are always interesting (and cheap) and, quite importantly, open to civilians. It’s certainly more interesting and a lot more fun than going into the office.

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Brun Valley forest park orienteering event

We looked with interest at the methane pipes protruding from the ground and snaking along the grass amongst the sheep. Apparently we were not to touch them. Fine by me. This was reclaimed land; a wood planted on top of an old dump; something that always fascinated me when I studied arboriculture. Take some bad land, chuck some top-soil on top, plant some trees, and voila – nature reserve. Except that underneath all the greenery the old waste is still farting gently and rumbling ominously. Lancashire Council now burn it to generate electricity.

Roberta started her Orange course at the same time I started my Brown. We squeezed through a metal gate into the wood as if we were passing through some Narnian archway and then went our separate ways. My course was pretty interesting, especially at the fourth control where a congregation of orienteers were noting how interesting it was that the control they were looking for didn’t actually seem to be there. Once we’d all agreed that we were all in the right place, and it was reality that was actually on the blink, we carried on.

All courses had to cross the river, some more than others. Trouble was, the bridges didn’t match the crossing points, so a marshall was on hand with a big stick and a ladder just in case you needed help. Having forded many a river in many a fell race I wasn’t worried but it was a nice touch all the same. I hadn’t got off to a great start so I was contenting myself with running steadily round and taking the time to think about my navigation rather than just hurtling in all the wrong directions. It was turning out to be a really interesting trip out and I crunched through the bluebells and beercans and talked to sunbathing cats as I meandered my way round the course.

It was on the last few controls that I had one of my sadly rare cunning plans. Control 26 was on my side of the river, but it was in a bunch of rocks close to the water. These sort of controls can be notoriously difficult to spot. And there was no path this side. Perhaps if I crossed the river to the path on the other side, but no, that would only lead to trouble and feet wetting. But cross I did and ran effortlessly along the good path noting that I was gaining on a couple or runners who had passed me earlier but were now making slow progess on the pathless side. When I spotted the boulder field and instantly saw the control as it was obvious from my side of the river, I really felt as if I’d arrived in smugsville. Back across the river and now only a few seconds behind runners who had previously been minutes ahead. I wish I had more moments like this.

After the remote majesty of yesterday’s Hallin Fell today’s venue was in complete contrast. Grimy and urban but not without its own beauty and still a great place to run.

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Hallin Fell orienteering event

One of the nice things about orienteering is that it can take you to places that you wouldn’t usually go, and one of the nice things about the Border Liners orienteering club is that they run regular “come and try it” events. So yesterday found me and Roberta driving down a long cul-de-sac on the east side of Ullswater to Hallin Fell. We thought we knew the Lakes quite well but we didn’t know this bit. Around a hairpin, up a hill, and into the sun. We drove off the road and about 6 feet up Hallin Fell itself before the car decided that was enough of that and stopped. We were parked.

We registered and I asked to do the ‘green’ course – the longest one available that day. That was fine, it’s just that they had no green course maps left. This is not unheard of when an event proves popular and there have been only so many course maps printed, and in these situations you just wait until the next green gadgie finishes and you nick their second hand map. We headed for the Start which was a bit of a climb up the fell itself. The Start was about as informal as it gets. There was no one there. When you were ready to go you just dibbed your doodah into the doubrey and doddled off. Roberta strode away on the Orange course, me on the Green.

It had turned out into a fantastic sunny day and this had to be one of the more dramatic locations I’ve orienteered in. Hallin Fell is set above Ullswater with views right down the lake, and despite not being particularly high it has a real sense of drama. Despite never threatening the podium I still tend to hammer it as best I can round an orienteering course but today I did pause for a few seconds just to stop and stare. It really was quite a place.

I did ok, as I often do, until I made mistakes. Two biggies today. The rock beside the path on the bend that I thought I was at, was remarkably similar to another rock beside another path on another bend that I should have been at. So when I pounced on my control, it wasn’t mine at all. It was someone else’s. Jings, I said (I’m paraphrasing), and soon realised my mistake. A few minutes lost, and a few more some time later when I decided that a cairn that I passed was too small to be marked on the map and that my cairn was the big one ahead. It wasn’t.

Hallin Fell – Apr 2014

On a short course like this there isn’t much opportunity to recover time from errors such as those, and I may have actually got a half-decent position if I hadn’t messed up. Roberta found the navigation ok but wished she hadn’t left her Leki’s in the car as the steep slopes were a bit tricksy. We left this gorgeous tiny corner of England to head for Southport, and to check our schedule for tomorrow’s trip to Burnley.

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CLOK New Year Relays

I sat in the hotel bar in Peebles drinking my Broughton Ale and reminiscing about the Two Breweries Hill race. But that was a long way away, the immediate question was what to do on Sunday? There were lots of choices: Stockton 5K, Old Monks 6, Clay Bank East, and something interesting involving bicycles and maps at Hamsterley. Hmmm, four options, all good. What’s a man to do? Just at that moment there was a humorous bleep from my trouser pocket so I fished out my phone and checked my email.

Interesting. So now there was an option 5. The Northern Navigators were short of a cook/runner for a team orienteering event and was I interested? Well, I wasn’t so sure I was with all the other options available. But then I read it again and noticed the bit about it being fancy dress and it immediately became a no-brainer. Well that was settled then – any excuse to wear a wig.

Does my bum look big in this?

It was a fine but cold morning at Cowpen Bewley. A one hour team score orienteering event was a new one to me, as was the interesting bit about a transition in the middle. That sounded a bit duathlony. I registered and asked how it all worked but was advised that it would all be explained when we started, so on past experience I reckon I’d probably work it all out by the time I finished. I knew where I was with wigs though, and handed out my spare wigs to my bemused team-mates.

A mass start in an orienteering event is always a bit of a hoot and not dissimilar to the start of our own Durham 3 peaks race. Runners sprint of in all directions and you can’t help wondering if they know something you don’t. My team had agreed to rendezvous at the transition point after 35 minutes and have a go at the other map. They were already waiting for me when I got there exactly on 35 minutes, and we grabbed our second map and headed out again. Score events are stressful beasts as you try and weigh up grabbing extra controls and points against the penalty points you get if you happen to be late at the finish. It does, however, lend itself to a neat race. You’ve got an hour to get as many controls as you can. So the race is pretty much done and dusted an hour and a few minutes after it starts.

I was miffed but unsurprised (my standard response) at the results. We’d been beaten by two other Northern Navigators teams. I thought we were the ‘B’ team – but alas, the Cooks with Colds had been beaten by the Northern Navvies. Not even a few extra points for fancy dress could get us out of fifth place.

It was a good event and despite fancy dress being encouraged there was clearly a good mixture of abilities and tactics and a strong competitive spirit. It was also an hour of hard running interspersed by occasional moments of stationary bafflement. Or rest periods as I prefer to call them. There were 15 teams in total and not a splash in purple to be seen. Not surprising with so many other good events also on today, but perhaps it’s an option for next year. It’s a good event for a runner. All orienteering events are.

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Newbridge Park Orienteering Event

I was torn between various parkruns and fell races but in the end it was the promise of a quirky orienteering event at Pickering that got my attention. And diesel. Pickering is a bit of a trek on a damp New Year’s day and we arrived in town having not found the event where we expected it to be. Not a promising start. But we found something far more useful, nice public toilets that were open at 11AM on the 1st January. And next door was a co-op, also open. Things were looking up.

No paths!

Before long we found the event itself and investigated the options. Roberta opted for one of the Beginner Courses but I had my eye on something that called itself the SUPERSTARS course. It’s a normal orienteering course, but printed on a map where, just for a laugh, they’ve removed all the paths. Handy things paths.

There was, as is typical at orienteering events, a huge variety of competitors, from large families going round in loose groups as well as the usual super-keenos. I started at the same time as Roberta but our different courses immediately took us of in different directions. It took me a while to get the hang of it – a map without paths is a strange thing. It’s strange to be running along a fast path that the map claims doesn’t exist, and just sort of hoping that the path will be going your way. I bumped into Roberta about half-way round and we briefly compared our pathed and pathless maps. By the time I got to the last few controls I was beginning to get the hang of a life without paths and quite liking it.

Pickering Railway Station

No sooner had we finished than the rain well and truly started and I felt sorry for the organisers who would soon have to go out and collect all the controls. We headed back into Pickering and investigated the railway station. That was also open, trains were running, and joy of joys, the tea room was open. Now I’m not normally one to get excited about chips but we both had the most amazing Ham Eggs and Chips that I’ve ever had. A quick look at the trains and them time to head home. A long way to travel for a 2.2km race but worth it for the chips alone.

Egg and Chips
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