The last weeks have marked somewhat of a come back to international orienteering in which I have competed in my third World Orienteering Championships (WOC). After running in 2014 and 2015, during which I was living in Sweden, I have had a period of absence from the world champs. There were many reasons for this but largely centred on a touch of burnout from orienteering after a prolonged 2015 season and a desire to advance other aspects of my life. In this period I have been very fortunate to join an incredible Auckland based engineering consultancy, Tonkin + Taylor, through which I have met many talented and motivated people and made some great new friends. I have been able to transition my undergraduate mechanical engineering degree into the start of a geotechnical engineering career and in March this year, I submitted my Master’s thesis in civil engineering, specialising in geotechnical earthquake engineering. So for the most part, the orienteering has been on the back burner, but I have still managed a moderate amount of training and tried my best to compete at local competitions. After the National Championships earlier this year and with the Master’s completed I made the decision to have another crack at WOC. The objectives of this WOC project focused on seeing how an NZ based campaign compared to others I have done; in terms of the experience, the feelings, and the performances.
The championships this year were held in Latvia for the first time ever, with the forest races being located in Sigulda, a small town north-east of Riga. I had never been to Latvia before, so I was also quite keen to see a new country and experience some eastern European culture again.
As mentioned above, work and studies have taken priority over the past while but I have still managed an ok level of training. At the National Championships, I think I found myself in good form after a pretty solid summer of training which included a really nice trip up north for New Years. However, as winter set in and a few of the projects I was working with started to consume much of my time and energy, I found that my training dipped. Despite this, I remained fairly confident that I would not lose a great deal through this period of reduced training. In hindsight, I think it did take its toll as I was training too little for too long and missed some of the key interval and longer sessions. I am not saying that I would have changed the build-up prior to leaving New Zealand, especially given my priorities and motivation, but I think this was one of the reasons I lacked any real physical edge at WOC this year.
I had set my plan for the weeks before WOC quite some time ago and it included a week training camp in Latvia to acclimatise and familiarise myself with the terrain, followed by a week in Sweden with mum to find some good feelings by meeting up with friends, running in some really beautiful forests, and distracting my thoughts from WOC for a short time. This was then to be followed by a few days back in Latvia with NZ team before the races started for me on the 7th of August. These weeks went perfectly to plan (not quite the same for Gene) and I really enjoyed all the different experiences. From driving a legit Audi down the back roads of Sigulda to an exquisite dinner with the Ridefelt family after a pure orienteering session in Lunsen, I arrived back to Latvia feeling fresh and primed both mentally and physically.
The few days before I started racing, we witnessed orienteering history with Tim Robertson taking a silver medal in the sprint, narrowly missing gold by 1.1 seconds. This result is a reflection of a talented athlete who has matured into one of the best and most consistent sprint orienteers in the world. We knew, as did Tim, that he had the capability to achieve a great result, but to handle all the pressures and conquer the demanding sprint course, is a testament to his ability to handle the big situations. For me, I found it rather emotional and perhaps raised my own expectations which contributed to what transpired in the middle distance. The days before also included the sprint relay which I spectated and the model event for the middle. I enjoyed the model and felt comfortable in the terrain, which boded well for the race itself.
Performing at the highest level is about mastering the pressures; from within, from others, and from the event.
The middle distance race was a lesson in how things can go horribly wrong in a race and emptied my confidence after I made the biggest mistake in an important orienteering race to date. Reflecting upon the day I have identified a number of factors which led to the implosion of my target race for the year. This included:
- Getting too worked up about the race and letting the internal pressure get to me;
- Not racing since June and having to go through all the nuances of preparing for a big race during the day of the race;
- Not warming up enough before starting and hence feeling a touch on the lethargic side;
- Starting way too fast, sprinting out of the start blocks and never gaining control of my orienteering; and most critically
- My compass breaking at some point during the course without me realising, losing the ability to maintain a good bearing.
I think the last point happened very early on as my parallel mistake to the third largely happened due to an off bearing out of the second control. I pride myself on my ability to run straight, so this must have been the reason why the shit hit the fan. After this, my race was over and I struggled on a number of the subsequent controls without my compass. A hard pill to swallow and a race to forget but at the same time a valuable lesson. I have always maintained that we learn more from our failures than we do our successes.
With the middle race knocking my confidence I had to find the strength to put it behind me and re-focus for the relay with Tim and Gene. On paper, this is a very strong team, but the past few years have seen some disappointing relay performances. This was not the case this year, with Tim having a solid first leg undone only in part by one small mistake and a route choice error. I started in 17th position but with some teams close enough to hunt down. Leaving the start triangle we had a very easy first control, but I struggled to make sense of the buildings and lakes and the thoughts came flooding back from the middle distance. I stopped and made sure I figured out where I was and then went to the first control. After this, I found a good flow and ran a stable race which brought back some of the confidence I had lost. The speed was not great compared to the top guys, but that can be largely explained by the training over the last months. Even if I am in my best shape, the top guys are still ~3 minutes faster than me in a middle/relay length course, a margin I would like to bring down in the future. Gene then, in his first race and still recovering from his sickness had a good run to close the relay out in 17th position. A tidy result for a young men’s NZ relay team.
The WOC long is the toughest orienteering course of the year and this year was no exception. I wanted to avenge my middle distance performance with a good run in my second and final individual race for WOC 2018. The last two WOC long distances I have run, 2014 and 2015, were incredibly tough and a mental battle. I think I am becoming more accustomed to the challenges of the long distance and with a number of tough long trail races that I have done (Goat, ROF etc.) I felt mentally more prepared for the race this year than I have in the past. I made sure I had a good warm up and was excited to see that body felt pretty fresh. Before I started, I remember feeling very excited and truly wanting to race the long distance, a much nicer position to be in than I have previously.
With such a long race, I could write an entire essay on how the race evolved. Of course, there were mistakes, most significantly to the first control, but generally I was satisfied with the race. I became fairly tired after the spectator run-through and then took a couple conservative, slower route choices which cost me some time. But when finished, I was mostly happy and an improvement on previous years. If I want to do better in this distance, and both the middle and relay, then I need to obtain a higher physical capacity. But I was pleased to end WOC on a more positive note.
Given my physical shape and the priorities over the past years I have decided that my come back WOC was a success. The middle was a painful reminder of the nature of sport, that even with great preparations we can fall victim to failing equipment and letting the emotions impede our performance. It was awesome to catch-up up with old friends and also to see some of them climb the ranks to the highest positions; Tim in the sprint and Eskil in all the races he ran but most noteworthy the gold in the middle distance.
The motivation right now is quite high, and initial thoughts are that I will go for WOC next year in Norway, the first in a long time that it will just be the forest disciplines. In what shape or form the approach will be I am still not certain. I will spend the next month having a break, beginning with some weeks on a beach in Croatia and in the Slovenian mountains afterwhich heading back to New Zealand, then I will begin thinking about how best to approach WOC next year. Without doubt I will need to pursue a higher physical capacity and tweak the preparations slightly so that I am more able to deal with the stresses of competing at the world champs. I think this can be achieved with more racing in the build-up to WOC. But whatever happens from now, I walk away from this year’s WOC with some great memories and experience.
Thanks to the awesome NZ team, especially Malcolm for his immaculate management skills, T+T (work) for allowing me to have an extended period of leave (and for providing such a great working environment), my family for their support, notably my mum who made the trip to Europe by herself this year to help the team and spectate the races, NWOC for being the best club in NZ, and to many others who have provided insight and support throughout my orienteering career so far.