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The bane of every poker player is variance. You can be playing well and yet your Aces can still lose to the 7 and 8 of clubs. Or you can guess correctly that your opponent is losing, only for them to get the card they need on the river.
So it is with orienteering. You can have prepared perfectly only for it to turn out that the course setter or mapper has a completely different worldview from your own. Or you can be running really well and get 199 out of 200 things right, and still lose thanks to a moment’s loss of concentration. (Meanwhile your foe got 20 things wrong but got away with all of them.)
Relay races are gaffled so that people can’t just follow each other round. By the end of the race, each team will’ve done each gaffle the same number of times, to make it fair (ish), but sometimes you know that if you’d had the other gaffle your run would’ve been better (or worse). Today, Britain, Norway, Sweden and the Czech Republic all mispunched at the same pair of gaffled controls: 52 and 67, out on the far part of the course (The top A and B on the map). Each runner might’ve been okay if only they’d had the other control on their map.
But poker is also about psychology. You bet £10 with your pair of nines, hoping that you’ve judged the moment when your opponent, holding jacks, doesn’t want to take the risk.
Perhaps what we saw in that Colombian jungle this morning was an example of what Poirot called the Psychological Moment. 52 and 67 aren’t easy to mix up, in ordinary circumstances. In a stressful competitive situation like a gold-medal sprint relay, where you’re pushing yourself to the limit, the planner has (accidentally?) been very crafty by putting the two controls on similar features along on the same ditch, on the part of the course where you’re beginning to think about the route home.
At the point shown on the map, Scott Fraser has just run past his own control and is about to punch the wrong one. Around him are three other teams that won’t finish the race. Denmark, who appear to be eighth, go on to win the Silver medal half an hour later.
So four expert orienteers were defeated by psychology and variance. But they’ll fight back another day.
After Friday’s sprint there was a Q&A on the World Games O Chat when Annika Billstam, Andrey Khramov and Alison Crocker answered a few of my (and other people’s!) questions…
AK: It was cloudy today, and hot, but not extremely hot, so it was OK. I think everyone suffers in hot weather, but I maybe a bit less than many.
AC: For me, the weather was not so much of a problem today. We have similar temperatures and humidity in the US, so I’m pretty used to it, maybe it even helped compared to others!
AB: The weather was hot today, around 30 degrees. I never thought about the heat during my race and it was not a problem for me. I think it was harder for the men who got more sunshine. Heat can be a problem for some athletes.
AK: The course was extremely easy. I made zero mistakes! But towards the end I became tired.
AC: The course was technically easy, but hard physically. You could run very hard in the urban sections, but then had to think a bit more back in the park, I think it was possible to make mistakes there. I had a technically solid run, if a few hesitations, especially in the first three controls. But I had the strength to run fast today, and that was important! One thing you had to be sure about in the urban section was to find all the ways to cut through the open yellow areas to save distance. So initially two routes might look similar, but if one allows you to cut more, that will be the faster way. I do look at old maps, especially sprint maps before sprint maps a lot, but not specifically evaluating route length, that might be a good idea to do more of!
AK: Today it was important to find the right trees. When you run fast you see a lot of trees, and you need to know which ones are “distinct”, and on the map. Also it was important to not make small mistakes of 3-5 seconds. Today I tried to look for the open areas next to the blocks of buildings – there you can take shortcuts. Other than that the route was as fast regardless which way you took round the rectangular blocks of buildings.
AB: The course was easy but I think the coursesetter did the best he could with the area. The challenging parts were to get the controls in the park in a good flow and be in advance in your orienteering the whole way.
On the development of O…
AB: Well, I think things will happen for sure. I hope that the long distance will stay intact, but I guess we will try some more different ways to find the perfect format for sprint. Maybe some new distances will show up as well. I think that we will have one Sprint-WOC and one “Forest”-WOC in the future.
AC: I think it’s important to keep orienteering orienteering, but so far things that the IOF are doing to make it more TV friendly haven’t taken it too far. Sprinting is fun, and having more of it at WOC will change things, but the middle and long races are still there. And the GPS is great just all around, it makes it much more fun both for TV and computer spectators. Training camps in Europe for young orienteers from other countries is a great idea, but probably cost will get in the way. If more can be organized locally, it might even be more helpful!
And does Annika get to take the Pink Cat back to Sweden?
AB: I would love to!!!! But I don’t think so. I got the pretty mascot of the games though : )
Probably the best thing that can be said about the Rio Pance Park, where today’s World Games middle-distance final was held, is that it was a brand new area. I suppose it wasn’t much worse (or better) than the area where the 2009 middle-distance and relays were held in Taiwan, but it must still come as a shock to the talented orienteers assembled for the race. The closest UK equivalent I can think of is Rosliston – I must dig the map out.
Because of all the Green, the race was really a double-length sprint race, and to be fair to the planner an attempt was made to help the runners “get into” the terrain: controls 1 and 2 gave them an opportunity to suss it out, and #3 was a short leg where they could dip their toe in the Green. For the few controls where it looked like it might be worth venturing into the jungle, it won’t be possible till later to analyse how good or bad it was to risk the direct option rather than go round on the paths. Murray Strain, who had another good run today, tells me that “some of the Green had a special type of Colombian man-eating bramble through it,” so I hope he was wearing suitable protection!
What can you say about Matthias Kyburz? Massive champion yesterday, he annihilated the field again, blasting the 6.3 km in 34 minutes. Trailing in his wake, the battle for the other medals was very tight: Daniel Hubmann pipping Vilius Aleliunas and Thrane Hansen. Aleliunas gained a surprise medal for Lithuania by overtaking Hansen in the last minute of the race, partly by electing to run through the river rather than across the bridge to the Finish. (We could just about see the runners splashing through the river but the camerawork wasn’t as good today as yesterday, and it was a shame there wasn’t a TV control somewhere out in the forest.)
In the women’s race Cat Taylor ran well, finishing 9th, but Tessa never recovered from an early encounter with the aforementioned carnivorous Green. Minna Kauppi won, proving that a one-person team can be a strong team, and Tove collected yet another Silver medal. The Relay tomorrow is in the same park so now everyone knows what to expect… I wonder what surprises the planner might have in store?
I enjoyed watching the orienteering at the 2009 World Games in Taiwan and, quel horreur, 4 years have sped by in the blink of an eye and here we are again; well, it’s the World Games again, but this time they’re in Colombia. The whole event is very badly publicised, which is a shame, since I would’ve thought any TV company would’ve jumped at the chance to use it as a cheap follow-up to the Olympics, but there are some good competitions on view, including the orienteering.
Orienteering at the World Games is slightly easier than normal orienteering, but it still makes for a good competition, especially as most of the world’s best are in town for the races. Today was the Sprint, which considering the hot, humid conditions was a little on the long side at around 4 km, but was well planned and tightly contested.
A few thoughts about today’s race:
1. Considering their lack of experience with O, the local TV people did a good job and I think Paul Pacqué has done a great job with the mapping.
2. Matthias Kyburz’s 14:30 for 4.25 km (straight-line distance) was impressive.
3. Kiril Nikolov lost the bronze medal on the run-in. ON THE RUN-IN.
4. Li Qiaoping got lost on the way to the first control and then had the fastest split to the second control… (See screencap)
5. It was sweet watching the less experienced orienteers stop to look at their map at the Start – but all credit to them for putting in good performances.
6. The British team had good runs but it wasn’t their day – it especially wasn’t Cat Taylor’s day, when she started running round the loop in the wrong direction… Best of the quartet was Murray Strain, whose 6th place was one of the best performances of his career.
7. There are lessons to be learned even from running around such an “easy” area. For example, it’s worth analysing which were the best ways of zigzagging through the streets, since the seconds lost here were vital. And there’s the question of whether you got the pace right. It’s hard to believe that Scott Fraser went off too quickly, but he did seem to flag at the end.
There is live chat during the O events.
On Saturday I got home in time to watch the start of the women’s relay at the World Championships. Britain has a good women’s squad and there was a good chance we could outdo our (in my opinion) #8 ranking: Cat is suddenly one of the world’s top orienteers, and Hollie and Claire are not far behind. What’s more, they (H & C) had run in the same terrain the day before so knew what to expect.
It was a great race, even watching it in Finnish! Cat pushed her way to the front right at the beginning, but then we didn’t see her on the tracking till suddenly there she was, in the lead! The camera was broken at the TV control but the info came through that she was in 2nd as the long leg loomed. Finally, after 23 minutes, a TV control with a camera that worked, and who’s coming through the trees? Cat! A 10 seconds lead. I love the suspense in orienteering – in other sports you always know who’s where, but we have the joy of watching live TV pictures of trees moving imperceptibly in the slight breeze, for many seconds, sometimes minutes! anticipating a runner or two coming into view for five seconds or so, and the strange mystique of their name (or their country’s name) and deficit appearing on the screen before we’re left alone with the trees again.
Cat was overtaken by Venla Niemi, the Finnish sprint medallist, but only just, and Cat handed over to Hollie just a few seconds behind. Now Hollie was running well too. Still in the leading pack, still attracting the interest of the commentators. She fell a minute or two behind, partly because of the gaffling, and Norway got a minute or so lead, partly because of the gaffling.
During Hollie’s run the Yle presenter interviewed Cat – what a lovely person! and the commentators picked up on the fact that she talked about the team not screwing up. 😮
Something I need to say before I forget is that this was some of the greenest white forest I’ve ever seen! Every TV control seemed to be in the middle of a jungle, with runners ducking and twisting to get through, and squinting at their maps in the gloom. And this fact is probably connected to the tragic denouement of this story. Hollie handed over to Claire in 5th place, just 23 seconds off Bronze. And then the race, which had already begun to get a bit surreal at the 7th control for the 2nd leg runners, went weird. (I seem to remember similar surreal endings to a couple of other women’s relays.) Denmark made a big mistake, and then Sweden made a big mistake, and for a few joyous seconds Britain, I mean Claire, was up into 3rd! She seemed to have punched the 2nd control, and the commentators thought so too, but what’s this? She’s turned back! She missed it, by about 10 metres. 😦 And then she missed it again. :-(( And by the time she got it, the Russians and Czechs had caught up with her and she was back in 6th or 7th. Crazy. After that shocker, Claire went to pieces a bit, and I don’t blame her. But she held it together enough to come home in 8th place, 9 seconds ahead of Ukraine, securing the British women’s place in the premier league.
At this point I must give a small boo (and a big cheer) to British Orienteering. The big cheer is for being part of a national orienteering team that consistently produces world-class orienteers from a country with a small base and grotty forests. The small boo is for the news release on the website about the relays. After a thorough description of events, it finishes with this terse paragraph:
“Hollie handed over in 5th place and Claire Ward, running last leg, brought the team home in 8th.”
There’s such a thing as damning with faint praise, but that’s damning with no praise at all, and unfair on Claire who, if she’d been 10 metres to the north, might now be a national hero.
The first rule of orienteering is “Know where you are.” Orienteering is a sport of finding places quickly, but the finding places is the most important part. This morning it was the qualification races for the Middle-distance competition at the World Championships, and the terrain was very tough. And a lot of the competititors, especially among the women, had a hard time. Watch the GPS tracks to see what I mean.
I sympathise and empathise with their plight – wanting to make a good start on a 300-metre leg in an important race, but you have to adapt your tactics in such complex and physically demanding terrain, and know what to do if you realise you don’t know where you are. Something it’s easy to forget, for example, is that the first control is only about 120 metres from the road. Tone Wigemyr found herself at parallel features 50 metres south of the control, and, not knowing where she was, she ran north to the road. After relocating, she quickly found the control and saved her race. Contrast this with the 15-20 runners who ended up slowly (or not-so-slowly, adopting the so-called headless-chicken mode) progressing from one cliff to the next, examining each one for some magical feature that might reveal it on the map.
Like I say, I empathise with the runners who got lost this morning, but as you watch the GPS tracks you can see some examples of very bad orienteering. Partly this can be excused by the tension of a big race, but some of the runners probably shouldn’t have been there. I’m sure I’m not exaggerating if I say that there are 10,000 Finnish orienteers who are better than the competitors who were representing some of the countries today. Orienteering does need to be a world sport, but the top countries need to organise masterclasses for some of the new orienteering nations, rather than inviting them once a year to get lost at the World Championships.
Just after I put up the introductory post, I had the pleasure of watching Scott Fraser claim silver in the men’s sprint. He had a clean run in an event where every second counts, and I’m sure he was surprised and happy to watch all four men who started after him come in behind his time.
British medals at world championships are something to be savoured. The big O countries are probably Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Russia, Switzerland, Czech Republic and France. Britain is in the second division, so to speak, and it’s great to break in to the premier league. Congratulations to the team and to British Orienteering for maintaining the international competitiveness of the sport at such a high level in this country. (Compare orienteering, with several British athletes in the world’s top 200, with tennis, where – on the men’s side – we have a Wimbledon champion and almost nothing else.)
And we have a new star: Catherine Taylor had a brilliant run in the Long-distance heats and came a fine 10th in the final.
Some WOC blogposts:
p.s. Although younger runners continue to come through, this WOC has been notable so far for the resurgence of the oldies. Thierry Gueorgiou is 34, Simone Niggli is 35 and Jani Lakanen is 36. Impressive!
Sprint races are fun, but are they fair? This is the perennial question. (Of course you can ask whether forest races are fair either, but that’s another topic…) In any sprint event (and I include urban events here) there will be many route-choice legs, and part of the challenge is to assess, asap, which way to go. Often it comes down to a straight choice: left or right? Sometimes you should be able to notice that the difference is negligible, sometimes you’re best to “go with the flow”, and sometimes you have to work out that a combination of uncrossable features or greater climb will make one route a better choice.
On course 2 at Ludlow on Sunday, it was a mistake to go over rather than round to control 15, and it saved time to notice that control 12 was at the top of the ramp. On legs 4 and 5 the difference between routes appears to have been negligible, so it would’ve been a mistake to take too long to decide.
These things appear reasonably clear given time to reflect (although there’s still the problem of traffic), so they’re a reasonable challenge of the orienteer’s ability to think on their feet. But sometimes I feel it’s impossible to make a rational decision unless you knew the area beforehand. Usually this applies to areas where there’s a mixture of terrain. A street is, by and large, a street, but when the map shows a field or open forest, how fast will it actually be? A good example is the third leg from today’s NORT women’s race in Oslo. The southern route is much more direct but there is a longer forest section and a much more concentrated ascent. Tessa Hill (TH) left control 2 just before Ida Bobach (IB), but 2’20” later, as Ida is punching at #3, Tess is still over 20 seconds away fom the control. Is it possible for the runner to look at their map and discern this?
Bought some new shoes and had an enjoyable run around Sherwood Forest last weekend. The event was a bit inconventional in that the map featured a lot of dead oak trees and several of them were used as control sites. I made three quite bad mistakes while dead-tree hunting and finished in an unimpressive time of 79:02 for my 7.5 km. Luckily I was still able to beat my old mucker Barry McGowan by 4 seconds by dint of taking a full 11 seconds out of him on the run-in. The fact that a lot of major events have a special prize for the fastest run-in (often won by HOC’s own Dan Hartmann), plus a couple of sad experiences when I’ve dropped a place because of dawdling at the end of my course, have recently focused my mind on picking my feet up on what is, after all, the easiest leg of any course.
And I had the advantage last week that I punched the last control at the same moment as an OD whippersnapper in whose wake I could race the last few yards.
Although we had identical results, Barry and me had very different races. I made bad mistakes at #3 and #6 – running past the control and then struggling to get back into the circle – leaving Barry 4 minutes ahead of me. Luckily for me he took 6 minutes more than me on the long leg (#12) – I took the safe option, going round to the east, through the Start – putting me back ahead, but then I made a 2-minute mistake at #14, evening us up again. I was going to play safe to #14, going round the paths, but I changed my mind and got confused in the mix of trees, open and grot around the control.