FINDING NEW ROUTINES
A recap of the World Orienteering Championships, Scotland
Elite athletes are constantly asked to focus on routines in the lead up to competitions. These include when to arrive, how much to train, when to sleep, what to eat, how to execute your race strategies and what to do for recovery. However, I have come to learn that routines cannot and should not dictate how you approach orienteering races. This year’s World Orienteering Championships once again reiterated that for me.
This was my seventh World Championships and I felt somewhat like Nanny Hanny of the team. Through previous years I had established a routine of approximately a 2-3 week preparation in the relevant terrain. During this phase I would base in the country I would be competing in and switch from physical preparation to striving for a comprehensive understanding of the regions forests and how these are represented on the maps.
Due to the tight schedule of coaching and racing, this year I only had 3 days in Scotland. When the races began rolling around I could feel the doubt creeping in, ‘was this long enough?’
The significance of routines
Given I only visited two Scottish forest maps and one local sprint map in the lead up to this championships, I knew that I could not approach the races in the same way. Normally I have felt relatively confident in the competition’s terrains and try to attack the courses both physically and technically. With understanding of the terrain comes a readiness to take more risks. That is, understanding a terrain can help de-risk the more risky racing decisions. Examples of such decisions are selecting a faster but more difficult route choice or starting the race with more speed.
New routines require new racing strategies
The limited technical preparation for Scotland left me feeling shaky. The few days prior to the races starting rolled around in a frenzy of visiting maps, washing clothes, shopping for food, preparing meals, team meetings and then collapsing into bed at the end of the day. This does sound exhausting doesn’t it? Despite best intentions, there was little time for reviewing old maps and studying potential courses. I did my best but I never felt it was enough.
Then suddenly the races were on me and I found myself standing on the start line of the Sprint Qualification. The race was shaky. Decisions were rushed, an alleyway missed. A few lapses of concentration but I found the finish.
Driving home from the event the lights went off, ‘What had just happened?’… Then they came back on again. In a moment of revelation I realized that my racing routines had to change. I was not as well prepared as I usually am. The focus on physical routines had to switch. I turned off the attack button and hit the caution one instead. My new approach of arriving just in time to race required a new routine for racing.
Sprinting with caution
I stole a glance at the back of my hand. Only minutes earlier I had written two words - cautious underdog. These words symbolized my new strategy and cautious was at the foundation of my new routine.
I picked up my map with reservations. How tough would this course be? The qualification and sprint relay had been filled with surprises. New fences and barricades; unexpected spectator passages and hidden fence crossings. The traps had been numerous and I had fallen for quite a few already.
So I started slow. I didn’t race to the start triangle nor attack the first control. I paused frequently to check my directions and ensure that no traps had been set. The atmosphere was amazing and spectators seemed to appreciate the novelty of Australians racing in their hometown. But their cheers were also distractions so I took the next couple of controls equally safe, aiming for the larger features and avoiding the narrow, twisting and more intricate alleyways. I used multiple features as attack points and avoided running at a speed that made reading the map difficult.
Before long it felt like I had survived the first section of buildings and I found myself reading ahead towards some areas of the course that spanned parks and small lakes. I changed gear and lifted my speed by a notch as linear features had become more abundant.
Through this section I was solely focused on taking time to plan my route choices and executing a perfect exit from the controls. Once I was heading in the right direction I lifted the speed, but never to a point where I felt out of control. I was determined not to let my alarm bells ring. But on reentering the buildings I was reminded of the dangers and cut my speed back to cruise mode.
Again I looked for the safe lines. Where there were none, I just trotted my way through the narrow spaces, ensuring that at every intersection I knew what direction I was taking next. I felt safe, calm and like an underdog. I saw spectators but they no longer took any of my concentration.
Leaping over a fence I refolded my map and was surprised to see that the entire remainder of the course was now in flat parkland. It felt somewhat reminiscent of the last part of the 2006 Sprint Final in Denmark. I knew what I had to do. Stay strong and use the excellent visibility to pick straight lines. Exit directions became my focus. I found that once I exited cleanly from the control and looked up, I could almost see the next control in front of me. Here I began to feel like I was finally tapping into some of my fitness and speed.
New routines require
Crossing the line I had absolutely no idea of how I had gone. But in my heart I knew that was the best I could have done and it was the most magical feeling. Only later did I find out that I had achieved a podium finish and fifth position.
Driving home from this event I knew I had found my new routine and one that suited a limited preparation in the terrain. Whilst not ideal to arrive so soon before the competition started, it was suddenly ok to not know everything about the terrain so long as I recognized that my old routines needed to be put aside. My new routine of cautiousness and calmness felt appropriate and with every race I ran with this new understanding.
I am sure this is why the week unfolded in the way it did. The transition from sprint racing to the forest was hard and my first race in the middle distance started shakily. But you learn from mistakes and each day I tried to execute my routines with 5% more perfection. I’d say to myself, ‘just 5% better today Han… just 5%’. On the finish line it often felt like 20%.
Recovery routines change too
The recovery from this World Championships will be new and different too. The immense focus and concentration has taken a different toll on my body. My head feels like someone has blown into my ears and filled it up with air. The body feels lethargic and dragging my suitcase through the airport concourse is enough training for the day.
Over the last 8 days I have completed 6 races. I put more focus into how I raced each of these events than ever before. The new approach of 100% concentration from start to finish resulted in a body that holistically feels exhausted. And given that this is the same amount of races I have done in the past 5 months I shouldn’t be surprised.
Therefore, I am setting no expectations on how long it will take me to recover. If I bounce back in a couple of day’s time then great. But if it takes a week or two then I am content with that. After all, it is critical to recover optimally so that the mind, body and spirit all have a chance to become even stronger for next time… whatever that will be. As always, lessons will be learnt.
The Scottish experience
I have amazing memories of Scotland. I loved the landscape and the beautiful people. Amidst lochs and tales of the Lochness Monster, you can live like a princess. In the eyes of the locals, from orienteering volunteers to the petrol pump man, my name is ‘Love’ (sounded more like Luv). Furthermore, up there in the far north there was an overall sense of tranquility and remoteness. The week was busy and I didn’t get a chance to experience much of the Scottish traditions. I never ventured beyond laughing at the Aussie’s wariness of their deep-fried haggis, driving the small laneways to events, and my first experience of wearing a midgie head-net.
Despite my advancing age and being the Nana on the Australian Team, this year I feel like I opened new doors. I learnt that flexible routines and recognizing weak links in your preparation could become your greatest strengths. Whilst I am proud of running for Australia and the results I achieved, I am more proud of how I got there. I am now excited to share this revelation with others so they too can enjoy that amazing feeling that comes with the perfect run. After all, as runners and orienteers, isn’t that what we all strive for?