Monday, 9 June 2008

Of Hill and Marsh

GEN's David Healy recently spent a week training in Sweden. This is a kind of training diary ...

"I decided to take a week’s training in Stockholm at the beginning of April with the aim of focusing entirely on orienteering technique. This is a report on my time eating hill and sucking marsh

To navigate, simplify routes, go straight, use the marshes and the hills to make your way and when you get close to the control slow down and start reading all the little details that can bring you into the circle and onto the flag. The hard part is getting used to knowing which details to read, which details to block out; and then in practice reading and blocking out the detail itself. That plan will get you quite far in Sweden.

I had already gotten to grips with the demands of Stockholm orienteering when I lived in the city in 2002/03 but after that I got injured and had not orienteered much over the next three years. What my training camp this April was to achieve for me was my re-introduction to the land, the maps and the ability to navigate at a fast tempo – Stockholm is a FAST terrain which demands that you run at speed and taunts you with immensely intricate terrain.

What I hope to gain from this camp is selection on my Stockholm club’s first team in the Tiomila ten man relay in 3 weeks time, held in south Stockholm terrain. For this there are some test races. I ran one such race during this camp on the 2nd day.

Day 1 – Vasteras, 100 km east of Stockholm, this was my Ryanair destination so I decided to take in a local middle distance event – this being a Saturday. The only goal was to go like a snail and make good plans for each leg. This wasn’t a very hard race but it was good to get a course in hand in preparation for tomorrow’s relay race south of Stockholm. I run for a club called Jarla IF OK. As the race today was short I drew down a few training controls after and went straight back out for an hour more. Too often I show up to race in Sweden the day before, and without having any training I go out and run a poor race. This time I wanted a day before to get to grips with the map and the land.

Day 2 – Masenstafettan, translates into “The Masen relay”. This is a small relay, about the size of the JK event. It is good practice for teams to prepare for Tiomila and for coaches to pick teams. This year I want to make my clubs first team and the strategy for me is to show safe, secure results. Accordingly, the goal today was good route planning, strong concentration on the map and not taking risky choices . I’ve been told by some people, and it’s common knowledge in Sweden, that over there you should never cross the line in between the control more than once. Because in this flattish terrain when you start doing that you’re adding distance to the leg. You take a route choice; left, or right, or straight on – you pick one and run it hard. They’re probably all just as quick either way. It’s not about route choice; it’s about seconds lost due to not following the fine details.

In this map sample from the race you can see my route from 6-7 veers off a bit to the right, I wanted to ‘see’ the marshes directly north from 6 and take a direction off them heading towards the massive marsh that sits close to number 7. From there I came up onto the hill (my attack point) and hugged the marsh running SE to NW alongside it – I read a lot of detail into the circle from here and spiked the control.

In this clip of the control 6-7 I use the colour red for highlighting marshes and purple for contour forms like hills. Excuse the sloppy drawing!

This is pretty much the only detail I visualised in my plan. So it goes: hill hill marsh marsh hill and then the attack point which is a hill – while hugging side of hill with the marsh and reading detail to the left I made my way to the hill that sits 10-20 metres east of the control feature (a marsh). This is a prime example of a safe and secure route, however if I’d raced for myself I would have taken a bearing towards the massive marsh and gone straight towards the control picking up the two marshes on the hill rise. (A point to note, can you see the knolls on the left side of 6-7? Imagine if we chose a route that followed all 30 or so of them – it would take forever, it would be giving myself 30 extra controls to find so it’s always useful to simplify as much as you can when possible so that you can run fast in between legs. Save all those minor details for when it’s needed – to spike the control.)

Day 3 – Ava Norra. Racing over, I now descend on Stockholm where I stayed with a friend and trained pure technique without the distractions of races. I aimed to train individual skills on their own with an intent on putting them together later in the camp.

Ava Norra is south of Stockholm and you need a car to get to it, which I had a friend for – this map sample is a little bendy from my scanner. This map was used in the Swedish team test races for world champs 2004. South Stockholm terrain is like mashed potatoes; you stick your fork in around and all over the mash a hundred times. Splash some water over it and you’ve got this amazing intricate marshy mess! Well, how do you navigate in such insane terrain? My first training was control picking at very slow speed with no compass – the aim is to hit controls about 100 meters apart and just read every single detail you can possibly read in between the leg. I use the contours to orientate the map. It’s not easy but totally possible with practice, especially when you keep a running speed on par with a walk! That’s as slow as I’m talking about. I like this training as my very first training in Scandinavian terrain as it connects me fully with the ground and fully with the map. In any sport it helps to practice skills very slowly and then increase the speed. Also, when I did this training back in 2003 I did it for 3 hours doing about 100 controls or more and in the end my concentration was at its max and my UNDERSTANDING of the Swedish nature was finally clear. From that point I knew what determines the smallest marsh, the smallest knoll, the smallest waver in a contour, the smallest stones, all features in all sizes. In understanding these symbols on the map and their relation with the ground I was now able to predict with imagery in my head what the ground ahead of me will look like from reading the map. My training in Ava Norra was quite successful. With a tiny little rare error here and there I did some good slow control picking. There were no flags of course. I almost had to change my slow training plan for a sprint when I met two elk, but they wanted to run away from me so I was alright. But not for long, they ran in the direction of my next few controls. Caution David...

In the evening I did a second training session which was 1.5 km from where I was staying on Lidingo island. This time I wanted to stretch my legs out and also practice my compass technique. My aim was to go directly towards the control circle and pace the distance. To my surprise I spiked 18 out of 19 controls. For creating the course as you can see in the map sample I blocked out the area in between the controls to assure myself I would only look for the detail in the circle. And so the corridor I drew was very slim when leaving the circle for the next control as I could use this to confirm if I had hit my control or in fact hit a similar feature.

When you take a bearing you don’t want to read all the small detail, just the big thing you’re aiming for. I never take bearings for more than 300/350 metres as the precision will begin to fail from there. Accordingly in the training, legs were 100-300 metres. I haven’t worked on my compass technique since I was maybe 17, so it was quite refreshing. I’ll need to keep training this as my speed in setting the needle and then looking up to the horizon is quite slow. I had to work fast here also as the light was almost fading. I’m going to use compass bearings a whole lot more than I normally do now. Great weather all week. Better than Ireland funnily enough, and no snow!

Someone gave me the map to use (map sample above) and it already had controls. I thought I might run that course or use the map again and I decided to draw my course onto the plastic bag and seal it tight at the end so it wouldn’t move. It worked perfectly. Try this!

Day 4 - something fast was needed as I couldn’t run at slow speeds all week. So just for today I decided to run some orienteering intervals. This is a training that requires 100% maximum concentration on the map. You have a start triangle and draw 3-4 legs with an overall distance of something like 500-1000 metres. In the sample (to the right) I ran the sloppy course, there was in fact a pre set course already on the map so I had to draw over it and make sure I didn’t get distracted.

Again it’s incredibly hard to do this training with no flags, but, I chose features that I knew would be unique enough that I would know I was right when I got there, but also that I needed to find them firstly with good navigation. I did about 3 intervals really well, running 5 mins each one with a 2 minute rest in between. Each interval took longer than I thought. I didn’t miss anything on the first 3 but when I started the fourth I must have taken a wrong direction as I got lost for about 5-10minutes at which point I didn’t want to start increasing my heart rate again back up to interval speed, I decided 15 minutes hard running was satisfactory so I returned to my bag hidden at the start point, put on a warm jumper and walked 2 km back to the train station and embarked on my 80 minute ride home

In the evening I was lent a car, this time from the guy I was staying with, so that I could go to my club training. My club trains technique, like a lot of Swedish clubs, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Tonight’s training was simply a course with 3 loops, a mass start and as usual flags set in the forest. Trainings are more interesting than this but I figure that since it was the beginning of the season for them they weren’t focusing on their technique training just yet. It was getting dark so I managed two loops. Plus I got tired from this mornings training. I had to tell myself to slow down and take it slow or else two fast trainings will hurt me or at least tire me for the rest of the week. But it’s hard to hold yourself back when you’re running against some hot shot juniors in the club. This was a nice little area I orienteered on, I was planning ahead well and I took some bearings now and then. There was no real goal but to concentrate on the map and not lose focus. I sat back and enjoyed being able to choose good routes, navigate with precision and spike nearly all the controls. That’s a really good feeling. This next map segment is one of the loops I ran. In my routes I would ignore paths and overhead pylons in favour of choosing a more challenging route, it’s good training. But only for training, In a race I’d choose the fastest and simplest route choice – I wonder if I train like this too much will I run a race choosing these tougher routes? That would be a bad mistake to make – I need to pay attention to this closer to some bigger races.

It was a beautiful evening with the sun burning a dark orange and I was flying along over some foreign land. I didn’t miss much time anywhere on the course and I was always comfortably planned ahead. I felt my technique was coming along already; I would make sure I had a good plan and if I didn’t I would continue to scan the leg until I did. Once this plan was in place and memorised in my head I could then do the easy part, follow the route and pay attention to not veering off. When I set goals to focus I meant that I follow my plan and always be looking ahead towards what the next feature or checkpoint will be. Fatigue and loss of concentration on the map are the main demons to ward off – but I have a mental cue that helps me when I feel my focus is slipping. I literally tell myself to focus out loud, and I’ve done it so many times that it’s a built in fully functional component in my brain that I switch on and do it. But it has being practiced in training to make sure that when you say it you do it. You also need to be aware at what point in a race you’re going to lose focus. By analysing my races and looking at where I’ve made mistakes I can tell when I’m losing focus which usually means I refocus myself before I make a mistake.

Day 5 – Paradiset – about 60-70km south of the city. Great name, great terrain. One of the craziest terrains and maps I’ve been on in Stockholm. I ran this at a slow jog. My sole training goal was practicing making a plan ahead to the control after the one I’m on. Reading fast and making the best plan is the hard part. I want to make this plan when I leave a control, or at least as early on in the leg as I can. If I failed to make a plan while coming upon my control I can always take a quick glance at the direction I’ll leave in and when leaving the flag I make a plan while I trot in that direction. Anyway, this training went well. A few bad controls at the beginning but when I got warmed up (and I’m not talking about my legs) I was having a good training session. One big part of my technique this year is to read my description first and then look at the map and visualise the control feature and the detail in the circle before I even look at the leg. Then I look for an attack point that is best suited to the feature and then lastly I choose the route in the form of check points. In the past when choosing attack points I found it difficult but I would go through maps with courses I made up and while sitting down in my front room I would try and analyse which attack point is best – then the more and more I orienteered, the faster I would see the attack point while on the run. This was good, about 90 minutes of this.

Day 6 – Today’s training was a map I was given from a previous club’s training. It had 34 controls in a short distance so I figured I would not concentrate on leg planning, but orienteer by compass bearings today. Unlike the first training where I didn’t read any detail until the circle, in this training I would take a bearing to the control or attack point and read any detail I wanted to read.

A lot of the detail I read on the route would be to confirm my direction was correct, such as reading a distinct cliff face or hill or marsh or unique array of boulders. This was my only training today. I got stuck in rush hour traffic and missed my club’s training in the evening. But still I had good training so far this week and I think at this stage I felt I had no problem with the terrain. So I hit a 7-Eleven, bought some sweets and went back on home. Too many sweets for my own good, it must be noted.

Day 7 – The final day’s training. The morning I went in a car with 3 others and we ran into the forest about 2 km to the start flag. This was a great looking forest. Crunchy green flaky moss on the hills and mini heather. What paradise!

But the marshes this day were the wettest all week. The goal today was to put together all I’ve being training this week and see how I progressed. I ran the loop below at a little below race pace, and again another loop at race pace whereby everything was clicking. It was a good training and I left feeling I’d accomplished a full understanding again of the demands of Stockholm orienteering. I didn’t orienteer much at high speeds, so that’s the next objective with the training campI’ll do 8 days up to Tiomila, but I still think it was money well spent to come to this technical area and start real slow working upwards.

Second training – nothing was left to be done but one last forest to master, the forest I lived on for a year – 15 km long and 8 km wide. I took a bus to the part where it’s most difficult with the aim of a 30 minute training session before I went home and left for the airplane. I created a little course and ran it extremely close to perfection. I saw a few deer and just enjoyed this intense forest that at one stage in my life was the most difficult map to train on but now was something I could orienteer on and feel comfortable in.

No compass again as it was good to practise reading contours. And I wouldn’t use the paths as it would be cheating, just for this training - that is since I paid money to fly here and train technique. So afterwards I left the city and embarked towards my second sleep in a week on the floor in Stansted airport with a sense of real accomplishment. Although I ran fast only 2-3 times I learnt the terrain and maps all over again and it definitely helps to instil some confidence when running races in Finland and Norway this summer for me. The Tiomila is in Stockholm terrain and so the season for me begins with this one. I’ll take 8 days training beforehand to practise increasing the speed and run a relay called Stigtomtakavlen which is the final selection for the Tiomila team."

(Editor's note: David's article came with illustrations of the maps he mentions but I haven't yet managed to import them into this version ...)

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