World Orienteering Championships 2014, Italy: A lesson in performance arousal
No, this is not a piece about schmoozy Italian men or Romeo and Juliet, but rather a summary of the harsh lessons of orienteering racing at the international senior level. I am writing this blog following the conclusion of six races in eight days. During this period, I have raced 38km through the streets of Venice or the hills of the Dolomites, and clocked up a total mileage on my Suunto Ambit of 125km. And whilst each of my results in isolation appeared strong enough, together they tell a story. The story of optimising your performance arousal.
The week opened with the sprint races around the islands of Burano and Venice. A photographers dream... a nervous orienteer's nightmare. Prior to a World Championships, each terrain or map area is embargoed. No athlete or their support crew are allowed to visit the area for 4 years prior to the World Championships. However, unlike the good old days where we 'ran blind', technological advances have created opportunities for orienteers to study the competition areas using Google Earth, Street View, Running Wild and other softwares. Even my Australian colleagues schemed, plotted and studied until right before the race, reminding me of that dreaded university cramming that I joyously left behind long ago.
I am not saying that these preparations are in vain. If one can control their nerves and help create a positive energy for the races then a huge congratulations for all the hard work. However, for me, this extra study lead to over-arousal. Nervous nights, waking weary, scattered thoughts and the jitters in quarantines meant that by the time I disembarked the boats for the sprint races, I was teetering on the lip of the bucket of nerves. Whilst this energy was exhilarating, out on the qualification course my actions felt mechanical, I struggled to absorb the information on the map, and I skittered around the course. Not an ideal start to my WOC campaign. This fitful start continued into the final where I felt tired from using up so much anxious energy. Under a hot sun, my thoughts and legs had to work hard to finish 24th. Not a bad result but the means to the end was disappointing.
My second race was a mixed sprint relay held in the town of Trento in the middle of the Dolomites. A new race to the WOC competitions, it was one which Australia had targetted. A team affair, once again I was also part of the plotting and scheming. I am sure my over-anxious state in the previous days had eliminated some of my nervous energy but I still rested fitfully in the hours into the evening race. An amazingly emotional pep-talk from our coach Tom & starting in the middle of a huge thunderstorm amongst the world's best orienteers saw a return of partial jitters. Once again, whilst my run was solid, I felt on the edge and often out of control. I also felt like my training could not escape from me leaving a lot of my running power trapped inside my body. Finishing 10th overall as a team we were delighted but individually, I knew I had more to give.
Thankfully I recognised how my nerves affected my mind and legs . Rather than stress myself further with more study and plotting, I decided to take the relaxed approach into my pet event, the Long Distance Race. I spent hours reading teenage novels on my IPad, enjoying Italian chocolate, and heading out on carefree walk-jogs. By race day, I was more calm although still somewhat stressed by my lack of apparent form when training in this hugely technical terrain.
After experiencing a pre-start with no toilet for the nervous starters and a 1.5km seriously uphill run to the start, I finally entered the forest. Amongst the dampness and relative stormy darkness I somehow found mental clarity and my running form. The remaining nerves subsided and despite a poor route choice judgment mid-course, I finished a strong 13th place. Not quite the result that I was aiming for but a step in the right direction.
Knowing that calmness appeared the easiest way towards optimal performance I was taking a relaxed approach to the few days leading into our relay. After a quick look at the terrain I was planning to spend two relaxing days spectating the technical middle distance race, catching up with the Aussie supporters and eating gelati. However, a last minute call-up following the illness of one of my teammates left me re-tying my sodden shoes and lining up in the Middle Distance race. I have a history of struggling with the navigation in this discipline which is renowned for being most technical. So here I was, standing on a World Championships start line having done no preparation for the race. I had one option - head out to have fun and run as close to the limits of my navigation. Nerves didn't even have a chance to kick in.
Out on the slippery slopes of these alpine meadows I experienced cows & brumbies on steroids, total piece of mind and mental acuity in the middle of yet another mountain thunderstorm. Yes, I still made some small errors but even when doing so, I felt sharp and able to adapt. My legs felt powerful despite many kilometres raced and thoughts of results never entered my mind. I ran with power, purpose and pure joy. Bliss. 15th was my reward in a red hot women's' field. I experienced similar calmness and exhilaration in our relay the following day.
So what is the lesson in all this? The weather in the Dolomites is diabolical at times and the cows there are certainly on steroids? Maybe. No, the true lesson in all of this is that if you wish to maximise your performance then begin to tune into your emotional and mental state leading into races. Optimal performance arousal varies for everyone. Some people need to pep themselves up and feel nervous to pull together their perfect run. Others need to feel overly calm to the point of sleepy. For me, I just need to be relaxed and having fun. Hours stressing over food, sleep, maps, Google Earth, course profiles and Street View will only detract from my true potential on race day. Nerves leave my legs heavy and my mind foggy.
In summary, the World Orienteering Championships have been a valuable progression in my elite athletics career. I have had to learn to be adaptable under intriguing race setups in Venice, tolerant of the temperamental weather in the mountains, capable of dealing with altitude in the races, and find a way of enjoying the feeling of 'the hangries' when dinner is not served until 8:00pm after a day of racing. I have tuned into my emotions and found my optimal racing state and when all has been completed, found pride in my results that do not quite reflect what I believe to be my true potential. Maybe next year?
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