If you can get the day of work, or not work at all, the Military League army orienteering events are great for the runner. I usually do not too badly in them, and over the years I’ve seen myself creep up the placings. The navigation is usually not too difficult and nowadays, more often than not, I’m pretty happy with my result.
Wednesday’s event at Catterick, was not one of those days.
These are army events, and are put on for the army as training events. Most of them are open to civilians, in possession of a passport and a free day. So well suited to the freelancer, the homeworker, the worker on flexitime, and the retired. It’s a wondrous mix.
I was feeling pretty confident as I checked the blank map at the Start. There’s been a couple of occasions recently in orienteering events where I’ve accidentally strayed into Out of Bounds areas so I tend to check the map legend more closely nowadays. And this map had a clear section for Out of Bounds areas. In urban areas this is worth paying attention to. You don’t want to accidentally run through someone’s garden, or across a sensitive bit of parkland, or munitions, or whatever. And I noted, with interest, that Water was Out of Bounds. Well that might make things interesting.
The first few controls were in the barracks, then we were ejected out of the gate that had taken so much security to get into, and into the surrounding area. The navigation got a bit fiendish now, especially as the water had been marked as out of bounds. Which, to be frank, I thought was pretty pathetic. I’ve seen beefier becks at Hamsterley and that is (rarely) marked as out of bounds. Who’s going to take a long detour round to the nearest footbridge when a brief paddle will do the job much more quickly.
Still, rules is rules. And from a runner’s point of view, there was a certain switch-of-brain-now satisfaction in a long tempo run along, across, and round, then back along again, but even so, it was a long way round. I mean, look at 17 to 18, and 24 to 25, and so help me God, 22 to 23. I mean, look at it again. 22 to 23, and you’re not allowed to to paddle across! My split was almost 11 minutes, when it should’ve been almost 2. I did look hard at the pipeline crossings; they were not marked out of bounds, but I suspected (rightly) than large amounts of barbed wire might be involved, and they might not be a worthwhile route of investigation.
So you might be ahead of me here, and can guess the next bit. I got to download, asked who the planner was, and Phill Batts brightly announced that it was he. I complemented him on the fiendishness of the course, the decision to mark water out of bounds, and dryly (I thought, but let’s be frank, probably closer to waspishly) observed that a lot of runners had taken a non-legal direct line.
Phill looked puzzled, and mildly pointed out that the blue out of bounds area, on the out of bounds bit of the map, was a dark blue, with a border, and the beck, on the map, was light blue, and without a border. So the beck was very much not out of bounds.
Bugger. Given that I’d taken the non-scenic route I was happy not to be last, but annoyed at myself for making such a daft mistake. But as I always tell myself, I’m not going to get on the podium, so however the day unfolds, an orienteering event is always a great bit of training.
The excitement had been building all week and my preparation was spot on. I was in peak condition and ready to go and face the onslaught known as the Harrier League Cross Country. I had even restricted my self to 4 pints of beer whilst at a retirement do on the Friday night. Then as I was waiting to catch the bus home from the black hole known as Durham Bus Station, I got the text. ‘Its Off”.
The question was now what are we going to do as an alternative?
The answer was the October Odyssey Orienteering event held at Dukeshouse Wood at Hexham on Sunday morning. Oh what joy!
I actually quite like orienteering, provided that any course I do allows participants a good opportunity to have a pacey run between control points, similar to our local event at Aykley Heads last year. I don’t mind doing the navigation, but I hate it when it gets too complex as it really ruins my run. Basically, I get really sickened off and quite antisocial, and guess what? I ended up being quite antisocial after this lark.
Firstly we set off from home and myself, Heather, Theresa and Phil and travelled together to Hexham.
The intention was that we would complete the event in teams of 2, Heather & Theresa as Team 1, Phil & I as Team 2. Also, we had to put a time limit on the event, as Phil had booked a post Cross Country Massage for mid afternoon. The fact that there was no cross country to have a massage for was irrelevant, but Phil had to have it.
Both Phil and Theresa are fairly new to the club, and they are both very keen participants in both club runs and running events. They have certainly bought in to the club ethos, and with in their first week got in to buying every piece of clothing that can be bought with the club logo on. Phil in particular is the most purple person I know, and today in the car he was trying out his new club Buff. The problem was he did not really know the best way to wear the buff and so spent the whole journey trying different approaches to meet his preferred style. In fact, does anyone know the best way to wear a buff, without looking like a fool?
Personally I wear a buff around my neck, which I think is fine. Phil tried his on his head, and in various guises looked like a pirate, a Ninja Warrior, or Spock from Star Trek depending whether he had his ears tucked under of over the band he had made with the buff. In the end he was a pirate!
If anyone has any advice on the best way to wear a buff, can you let me know, and I can pass it on to Phil.
Secondly, things started to go wrong when we arrived at the venue. Many participants had prebooked places on the various courses, as this is a very popular event with serious orienteers. Because of the cross country cancellation, we could not pre-book, therefore the only decent run still available when we registered was the Brown Course. This was the longest run at 5.8 miles, with a degree of difficulty of 5 out of 5. The distance does not sound far, but the difficulty of the navigation made this route in to a true expedition of epic proportions.
Next thing was that we had to hire an electronic dibber to record our reaching each of the control points, and we were warned “Don’t what ever you do lose the dibber”
We managed to navigate to the start, which was the easy bit. The hard bit commenced at the start itself. We also gave ourselves a 2-hour time limit so Phil would get back for his massage.
Firstly Team 1 of Heather and Theresa set off, with their map and dibber, followed a minute later by Phil and I as Team 2.
I think it’s safe to say that we both Phil and I wanted to have a good run out, stretch our legs, get out of breath, complete the course, and stuff Heather and Theresa by beating them around the course. The reality would be somewhat different.
Once we were off, we grabbed the map, noted where the first control point was and set off along a path up a small hill. Just over the brow of the hill and about 100m from the start, the difficulties that we would experience became self-evident.
Basically, we were met be the thickest thicket that you have ever seen, made up solely of prickly bushes and brambles. We both headed off in to the bushes and immediately lost each other. It was thick and biting. We decided to split up in order to find the control. Although we could not find the blasted thing, or each other, we met loads of other people aimlessly walking through, under and over bushes, all looking for the same control, and all walking around in different directions. We were all lost together, after only 3 minutes from the start.
Eventually, I found the control, pinged it and shouted across to Phil. I could hardly hear his reply. We regrouped and sought out the second control, which was supposed to be about 20m away. I took a compass bearing from the map and forced my way towards where I thought it should be.
By now, we both realised that our vision of having a good run was gone. We were stuck in navigation and not a running contest. I was starting to get pissed off already and we’d only been out 5 minutes
We came across Team 1 and I politely asked Heather if she had found control 2. At times Heather has the compassion of a water cannon operator, and this was one of those times. You see, she just loves navigating and likes the challenge of finding the controls in the most difficult places. Therefore her stony-faced non-committal response to my polite request was to be expected, as she knew I would hate this type of course, and was rubbing that fact in.
I shouted across to Phil. ‘have you found it?” There was no response. I shouted again, and there was no response. I had lost him already.
I found him hidden under a bush and dragged him out. Eventually, we found the second control. We then needed a machete to work our way to a forest trail to head off to the next control. But because machetes are not approved equipment at orienteering events, we had to crawl on hands and knees and through the bottom of prickly bushes to make some headway. This was getting like hard work.
We then took a series of paths heading off to the next sets of controls, which were fairly easy to navigate. But then we were confronted with a change in vegetation, from prickly thick bushes under a canopy of trees, to thick forests of Rhododendron bushes under a canopy of trees. These were thicker than the thickest thickets experienced earlier, but less prickly.
It was here that tempers were starting to fray a little. Not ours I may add, but an innocent looking old lady who we came across under some bushes, who looked as if butter would not melt in her mouth. What came out of her mouth was not butter, but a series of expletives along the lines of ‘I’m F…ing sick of it! This is ‘F’ ing ridiculous’.
She then stated that she was not going through the ‘F’ ing bushes and was going around them. Considering that we had no choice but to follow our compass bearing to the next control, we set off on hands and knees under the bushes rather than going around. This was getting stupid now, and our progress was hardly running pace and more like baby crawling pace.
The psychology of orienteering certainly brings out the best and worse in people in these circumstances. As members of the ‘Where the hell are we’ tribe, it was noticeable that as a group of people who were having some difficulties with navigation, we all became a collective of stalkers. Aimlessly looking around for the control points, then latching on to someone who looks vaguely as if they know where they were going, only to have that illusion shattered as they were as equally lost as ourselves and were stalking us.
Our next cock up was totally my fault. We moved on to try to find the 7th control, which was hidden in deep jungle. The main problem was that my shoelaces kept undoing owing to being caught on bushes, which meant I had to take my gloves off to lace back up, and so remove my dibber attached on a loop to my finger. It was here that I lost the dibber, and so we couldn’t register our presence at any more control points. Now I was totally p****d off.
I knew we were a little ahead of Team 1, but now we would never be able to record that fact, and were set for a DNF. Total humiliation was now coming our way!
Despite the loss of the dibber, we aimed to continue our expedition and visit the controls in sequence. The next sets of controls were less well hidden than previously and so we were able to do a bit of proper running. Also, when we got to the actual controls, I made a metaphorical ‘bleeping’ sound to simulate the dibber being placed in the control. This action didn’t help us record any points, but made us feel a bit better.
We came across Team 1, who were now behind us in time, but I still gallantly pointed them in the general direction of control No 10, despite their non-verbal communication at a previous control point. We don’t hold grudges, and in any case we were in front of them in the real world, just not in the eyes of the organisers.
After about 1hour and 35 minutes, we found that the next sets of controls were taking us way from the start. Bearing in mind our 2-hour time limit and Phil’s need for a massage, we headed to the finish line.
Phil and I then made our way to the registration point, where I declared the loss of the dibber and a DNF. It was then we found that Phil had ripped the material on his running leggings, clearly whilst negotiating some bushes.
Orienteering can be brutal. It’s not always about having a nice run out, because it can be both frustrating and bloody annoying. In our case we had visited 13 controls out of 30 in 1 hour 45 minutes, covered a distance of 3.2 miles at 28 minute mile pace, lost the dibber for which I paid £20 to the organisers for a replacement, recorded a DNF and Phil had ripped his running leggings at the cost of £40 for a new pair. Finally, we had officially lost to Team 1.
I am pleased to say that Phil made it back in time to have a nice post Cross Country massage. Roll on the sheer joy to be had at the next cross country meeting.
Dougie Nisbet …
“That wasn’t me by the way”
“Just checking. I mean, you do have form.”
Roberta had been chortling along to Ian’s report of the October Odyssey on Sunday. I didn’t know that people still chortled, or even guffawed, but Ian’s report certainly seemed to strike a chord. Roberta once crashed out of some path-side undergrowth at an orienteering event, checked the control id, found out out it wasn’t hers, and with an emphatic FFS, stomped down the path in disgust, pausing only to say Good Morning to a couple of startled dog walkers who were not quite expecting to see what they had just seen.
I’ve had the benefit of reading Ian’s report before deciding to write a few words of my own. I do a lot of orienteering, and as I like to point out, it’s great interval training. Classic Fartlek. And the worse you are, the better the training. I had, for me, a fairly decent run on Sunday. I wasn’t last, and there were a few gaps between last, and me, that I was happy to see. Not a vast number of gaps and I’d always be happy to see them vaster, but it was an ok day.
When I dibbed Control 1, which I thought was indecently tricky for the first control, I thought that I wouldn’t want to have a wobble so early on. Struggling on Control 1 is not a great start and a bad start can set the mood for the day. I still have nightmares about Sand Dunes, so many Sand Dunes. 16 minutes to cover the 100m from the Start to Control 1 in Druridge Bay in 2013 still haunts me.
It was a challenging course and I was happy to get to the end. The navigation and terrain were difficult. I was fairly happy with my route, although I did make some major wobbles here and there. With three controls to go and looking for a straightforward control in a ditch junction, I chanced upon the ditch by standing on a piece of grass that turned out to be a generous expanse of empty space. Winded and bloodied, I followed it to the control. The bleeding was quite impressive and the finish marshall did voice some concern, but brambles do that. It was the three foot drop and loss of breath and dignity that were much more unsettling.
If you ever decide to give orienteering a bash, and you really should, then, as a runner, here’s the only thing you need to know. All colour coded courses from Green and above, are all the same difficulty. Both in navigation and terrain. They’re all the same. Green is shorter, then there’s blue, then there’s brown and sometimes black. They only differ in distance. But in terms of navigational difficulty, they’re all the same.
NATO are one of the orienteering clubs that use Routegadget for post-run analysis. This can be interesting to see how your run has compared to others. It’s a great learning tool and lets you look at the maps and routes for all the courses.
Orienteering isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I hadn’t expected much of a response when I lobbed one of my periodical e-mails onto the list promoting a local event. It just made it all the nicer when first Nigel, Jan and then Shaun and Ros turned up at Cong Burn on a sparkly sunny cold winter’s Wednesday in January. This was an army event so were only three courses on offer and Jan and Nigel were going for the hardest one (Blue) while Shaun was approaching with more caution and opting for the middle course (Light Green). Shaun’s logic being that he didn’t want to end up doing so badly on Blue that he never wanted to do another event again.
I’ve said many times that Orienteering events are surprisingly daunting when you first turn up because they seem a bit complicated and everyone else seems to know what they’re doing. In an army event like today there are also a lot of soldiers with racing vests that often include words like ‘rifles’ and ‘lancers’ somewhere. Which doesn’t help. Even our neighbouring orienteering club Newcastle and Tyneside Orienteers are more often known by their acronym NATO.
Jan was a bit nervous so I suggested just treating it like an interval training session. A bit of fartlek. Which is basically what orienteering is. Speed work where the speed, effort, intensity and duration depends largely on how good you are. The worse you are, the better and longer the workout.
Staggered starts can sometimes make these sociable events surprisingly unsocial. By the time I’d got myself registered, organised and to the start the others had already gone. Shaun had been miffed to discover that you don’t get a look at the map with the course on it until the watch has started. I always advocate sprinting around the first corner, hopefully in the correct direction, in a purposeful manner, then as soon as out of sight of the start, stop and have a proper look. Although nowadays I’m a bit more relaxed and sometimes my starts involve a lot of Not Moving until I’ve had a good at where I’m going and got something approaching a plan.
Conditions were great for orienteering and the ground was crispy and lovely to run on. I’m not ashamed to say I was well chuffed to discover I’d caught Nigel and one of my NN clubmates Bob Cooper around control 6. Mindful of a similar experience with High Cup Nick 10 years ago I didn’t allow myself to get overconfident. Nigel had fluffed up control 3 and lost a lot of time. Orienteering is like that. One bad control and you can haemorrhage time away. When it happens early in a race you have to give yourself a bit of a talking to as it’s easy to lose enthusiasm for the rest of the course.
Nigel, Bob and I were in each other’s radar through to control 8 where things suddenly got interesting:
What would you do? It’s not a long leg, only a couple of hundred metres direct. I’d already forgotten my advice to myself about over-confidence and decided by far the best and quickest way was to drop down to the beck, leap it like a gazelle and a quick lunge north would take me to control 9. I noticed Nigel had decided to stick to the path and take the long way round.
I didn’t see Nigel for the remainder of the course. He remained ahead of me while he gradually got more into the groove and his split times steadily improved. What I did see from my vantage point of knee deep in a disgustingly brown (I hope it was peat) marsh was a slow scrub where Jack Frost had decided not to tread leaving it perfect for energy sapping trudging. Good practice for Allendale I guess.
Although the time lost wasn’t a lot these mistakes tend to dent your confidence and you either compound things by running about in a panic or slow yourself right down and collect your thoughts. Since my legs were wet, cold, and a disturbing shade of brown, and the only things flapping were my shoelaces I decided to notch things back a bit and had a fairly uneventful few controls where I got warmed up again and into the adventure.
Control 13 to 14 brought the next interesting challenge. What would you do?
The temptation is to contour directly along the steep south-east bank or to climb up and run along the road. In my experience with this sort of leg if there’s easy running further away it’s best to take the long-way round. I crossed the bridge and had an easy run along to the bottom of the bank at 14, back across the beck and up to the fence. The fence rather obligingly had a stile and a proper path on the other side so I hopped over and ran alongside the inside where it was easier while looking for the control. It was a good clean leg and I was pleased with myself.
I didn’t notice at the time but the red vertical lines on the map show that this area is clearly out of bounds and I, along with half the army, had taken the inviting path on the OOB side of the fence. In the grand scheme of things it made little difference to my time but I was annoyed at myself for not noticing and had this been a big event and I’d been spotted it would’ve been an automatic DQ. But few people noticed and it’s not as if I’m going to write about it on the internet or anything.
The remainder of the course was reasonably straightforward but the planner had made good use of terrain forcing competitors over a wide variety of challenging terrain and vegetation. I finished and back at download I found Nigel having a cuppa where it soon became apparant Jan and Shaun were still out on the courses.
We walked back out onto the fell and into the sunshine where we could get a commanding view of runners finishing. Like battlefield commanders we surveyed the surroundings and speculated where Jan and Shaun might be. Shaun was first to finish getting doggedly round all the controls. He had been frustrated by his Garmin’s auto-pause feature which interpreted every pause as an opportunity to stop recording so he was a bit unsure how long he’d been out.
Jan kept us guessing but before we got to the ‘should we getting worried’ stage she showed up at the download area. We sent her packing to the Finish which she’d decided to skip, then come back to download. It was largely academic though. Jan had a duff dibber that hadn’t flashed at any of the controls she’d visited. And the controls she had visited had been in an order of her choosing. Of all the tips I thought of offering before the start, visit the controls in order hadn’t been in there. Perhaps I should have though. I had a similar conversation out on the course with Sue and Kerry at the Durham City Night championships in 2015. If your experience of orienteering has all been score events, and no one has told you otherwise, you could be forgiven for thinking that order is optional.
I’m used to being the only Strider at these events so it was lovely afterwards to head down with the Strider platoon to the Tea Barn and investigate the coffee and cakes and indulge in a bit of data analysis. This was an event where there were often varied and quite different route choices between controls. Not necessarily better or worse than each other. But always with consequences.
I would’ve been a rubbish pilot. It’s worth reading about the phenomenon of Spatial Disorientation as I believe it might apply as much to Orienteering as it does to flying.
There I was, at control 7, and control 8 looked like a straightforward compass bearing and a run across the open fell. Off I went with an eye on the needle of my (not cheap) compass. The needle was saying one way, but it didn’t feel right. Surely I should be heading more to the left, towards that bit over there? I drifted more and more to the left, just to be on the safe side, until I came across a dry ditch, which was where the control should be.
The ditch wasn’t particularly dry, in fact it was very wet. Full of water. It happens. A ‘dry ditch’ can be a ‘wet ditch’ if it’s been raining. No control though. I jogged on a bit, and found another dry ditch, that was also full of water. It wasn’t there either. And it wasn’t in the next ditch (wet) or the one after that. And there should be some green blobs too.
I looked at the map. Properly this time. There shouldn’t be any wet ditches here. There should only be a single dry ditch. There was a bit over there on the map, that had loads of wet ditches. But that wasn’t where I was. Or was it?
If I’d trusted the compass I’d have gone straight to the control. But I trusted my intuition instead, which rarely works out. Still, mistakes are made, lessons learned.
I learned that lesson for about another three controls, before making exactly the same error on control 12. Veering gradually but decidedly off to the left, I ended up in a familiar state of bewilderment. Even more bewildered when I realised I was back at control 8 but it looked nothing like control 12 which should be at the foot of something between two thick black lines. With control 8 resolutely refusing to metamorphose into control 12 there was nothing for it but to run in the direction of control 12, which was exactly where it should be.
Roberta had chosen the Orange course and I bumped into her from time to time taking photos of cute sheep and carefully navigating wonky styles. We seemed to share a lot of controls, which in turn shared the same control description: “Crag Foot”. I like a good Crag’s Foot as much as the next man but by the end of 21 controls I think I’d had my fill.
Orienteering events are like any other running event, you have favourites. I like Shaftoe Crags. It’s mostly open and runnable with just enough crinkly rocky bits and steep woody bits to make it interesting. There are lots of long straightforward runnable bits across the fell which is fine if you remember to keep concentrating and trust the compass. A good location for the runner who fancies dabbling with making their running a bit more cunning.
Team Smitchard & Hamill braved the -3°C Boxing Day winds blowing 35 kph to conquer the steps of doom!
It was a windy, cold, horrible and foul day. We parked at the top car park on the Science Site and could hardly stand in the wind. After a while, we got a special gadget to check into the controls which were hidden in Houghall Woods.
There were lots of tricky places where the controls were hidden, with obstacles, slippery mud, hills and steps. I also taught the grown ups a new technique to climb hills, “Climb like a tiger!”.
I was pretty pleased that I managed to run in my wellies alongside Captain Gareth – I think I’ll catch him at parkrun one day!
After a run along the top of the forest, we had to go into a gorge which was very deep. We saw lots of other people, going in different directions, but luckily we had a compass and my Dad is good at reading maps. We had to be back within an hour, or we would get penalties. So, we decided to run up the steps of doom which were very tricky and tiring.
When we got to the top, we had to run fast across the car park towards the finish. Then we queued up to get our scores and Gareth got me some chocolate!
I wasn’t surprised to get no takers for my offer of a lift to Marne Barracks for a bit of orienteering. However, a last minute check of the email and I saw that Paul had decided to accompany me on this drizzly Wednesday for a trip down the A1 to run around an abandoned airfield.
We were somewhere south of Scotch Corner and we’d pretty much solved all of the world’s problems when I noticed the road noise through the roadworks was a bit excessive, and it seemed to be a bit bumpy too. A minute or two of this and I realised that this was just one possible interpretation of the noise and bumps that were hitting our senses. Another interpretation could be that we had a puncture. Yes, the more I thought about it, the more the puncture scenario seemed to fit the evidence, and driving along in a state of denial wasn’t going to change the facts.
We pulled off the A1 and had a look at the tyres. One of them had a flat bit at the bottom and I knew that wasn’t good. I contemplated calling the AA but, despite being ok for time, wondered how long they’d take to attend a scene for two blokes too feeble to change a wheel. I mean, it couldn’t be that difficult, could it? I’m sure I’ve done it before. The first step was finding the spare wheel. We found it, eventually, under the back bit where I always assumed the fuel tank was. Trying to get the wheel out was a different manner. As an IT technician I then did something that pained me greatly, I had a look for the manual. I’d already tried switching the engine off and on again but that hadn’t helped. We got there eventually, except for the small matter of the jack, which we eventually found in a cubby hole in the car that I never knew existed. We were unstoppable now.
A false start where we started trying to jack the car on one of the crunchy bits rather than the proper tough bit, but soon we were cruising. Well, I say we, it was mostly Paul. It had started raining so I spent most of the time standing in the bus shelter taking photos and making encouraging noises.
Back on the road and into Marne Barracks, where passports were shown, disclaimers were signed, and we were driving slowly down the old runway looking for somewhere to park. Speed bumps on a runway, no matter how obviously disused, are an incongruous sight. The last time I orienteered here registration had been at the end of the runway out of a transit van. This time it was inside a nice building, with toilets, drinks, warmth and a costcutter. It seemed a shame to go outside again.
Paul and I were both doing the same course and I went of first with the organisers observing a strict 90 second interval between starters. The first few controls were around the buildings and access roads and navigation was easy, and by the 3rd control I’d already been caught by the guy starting after me, which was pretty depressing. Then out into the woodland and the navigation got a bit more interesting. I bumped into Paul a few times which, given that he started about 6 minutes after me, meant two things. One, he was running a lot faster than me, and two, he must be making a few errors otherwise I’d only have seen him once.
At control 15 our paths crossed again and Paul sped of to the east, which, given that the control was due north, confused me a bit. I headed straight for the control, knowing that there was the small matter of a fence between it and me. Whether it was ‘crossable’ or ‘uncrossable’, I was about to find out. Thankfully it was the former, but Paul had decided to go for the fast long way round. We finished at the same time, which was handy, as Paul’s dibber had failed to work properly, and we could use my time minus the time that he’d started after me to work out his.
Our journey back up the A1 was less eventful than the outward journey and I had fully intended calling it a day until Paul said he was doing a ‘gentle’ ‘slow’ headtorch run that evening. The ‘gentle’ and ‘slow’ bit I liked the sound of. Turned out there was a bit of mis-selling going on there. Perhaps I should’ve offered to help a bit more changing that wheel …
The next army event is at Scarth Wood Moor, Osmotherley on Wednesday 10th Feb. It’s not somewhere I’ve orienteered before but it looks nice. I’ll be going if anyone wants to tag along. Must be good at changing wheels.
We arrived at Rotherham East Premier Inn at half past midnight on Sunday morning, me after finishing a 12 hour shift and Scott after having competed in the Wadsworth Trog with Tom and Paul so straight to bed and lights out by 1am. At 6.30am, the phone alarm tinkled its tune: an expensive five and a half hours’ sleep but so worth it not to have to travel the whole way to the Peak District on the day as registration opened 07.30am. So a little apprehensive, I was ready for my first taste of a mountain marathon…
We arrived at Totley Moor sports club on the edge of the Peak District near Sheffield, now with the promise of good weather despite a gloomy earlier forecast and registered straight away in the Mixed Vet50 class. There was a very thorough kit check that included a compulsory bivvy bag each! (note to self: don’t try to get away with less than all of the compulsory items as we would not have been allowed to start).
We had four hours to gather as many points as possible so route choice was important to try to bag some of the higher scoring control points. We looked at the map together and agreed on the first couple of control points before heading straight up a hill and onto the fells almost immediately. I always need a decent warm up and my legs felt really stiff for the first couple of miles – I thought they were never going to get going.
The intention was for me to learn how to take bearings which can be crucial for yomping across expanses of moorland in the absence of other features. This meant that we tended to take a more direct route whereas some runners appeared to make more use of the paths. It seemed to pay off most of the time for us and was far more interesting.
We got to the first control without any problem, then took a bearing to head towards the next; a trig point that was out of sight. As we got close to where we needed to be, Scott was distracted by a huge cairn that had several runners going to and from it. There was no cairn on the map but we headed for it anyway thinking that it might have been listed incorrectly. However, we knew it wasn’t a trig point and that it was not quite where we expected the control to be. Needless to say there was no control kite there. Another lesson learned: not to blindly follow other runners.
Higher now, we turned around and spotted the trig point on the sky line. Once there, a bearing pointed us in the direction of our third control choice: it was a large tunnel shaft on a low hill with lots of heather and marsh in between, little of which was runnable. It was pretty windy on the tops and pretty cold, and I was having trouble with the heather loosening my laces (Scott quickly showed me a much more secure lace-fastening technique)
By this time we had decided that to speed things up Scott would do the navigating and show me on the map what he was proposing to do. I could then concentrate on running and read the control descriptions that were rather unhelpfully written on the reverse of the map meaning that it had to be unfolded each time.
Next, we were looking for the start of a stream in a very boggy area with really deep, ankle wrenching tussocks. Scott said that he had never experienced anything as bad, and he’s done similar events all over the country. I ended up face first, followed by several minor ankle twists and a fall onto my backside. It took us quite a while to find that lousy 10-point control which was visible only from one direction. Another runner was fairing no better and although Scott managed to get the control unseen, I, in my bright pink jacket, was blazing towards it like a beacon and the runner just followed me, pleased for the advantage.
We managed to find control after control over varied and challenging terrain and even had a moment of glory in finding a control described as a large group of rocks (with a dangerous cliff nearby). We later found out that several runners had been unable to locate it and it was the subject of much discussion back at the finish.
On the homeward stretch, we managed to fit in an extra control with a minor route change and had enough time to ease off a little for the last couple of kilometres. We were prematurely congratulating ourselves when Scott realised that with a one-and-a-half kilometre detour we could have bagged one of only two 40-pointers on the course; that would have brought us up from 10th in our mixed age group to 6th, and we had had time enough to comfortably do it!
I couldn’t believe that four hours could pass so quickly, and it was so much fun. We finished the event off with homemade soup, tea and cakes at the finish…..after it had taken me about ten minutes to undo the new lace solution….maybe just a bit too secure! I am now enthused and am keen to complete the series of four….watch out Lake District; the Watsons are coming!
Ninety-six hours after a bruising encounter with a pedestrian barrier, where the winner by knockout was the barrier, I found myself in a chilly car park on Waldridge Fell near Chester-le-Street together with Joan Hanson, my chauffeuse and fellow competitor. We made a sorry couple: me nursing bruised ribs and Joan what appears to be becoming a somewhat intractable hip flexor problem.
Keen to capitalise on her Hamsterley success, Joan was figuring that at worst she could just walk around a light green course which indeed she could such is the accessible and inclusive nature of orienteering. I would normally have chosen the longest course – brown – hoping that I could keep it all together sufficiently not to embarrass myself. However, problems with the simple act of drawing breath persuaded me to opt for the blue course that was generously – at 6.3 kilometres – almost a whole kilometre shorter.
Today’s event was organised by my own club – Northern Navigators – and is held in one of the few orienteering areas that I am reasonably familiar with, in steep wooded denes and over one of the few remaining areas of lowland heath still to be found in County Durham.
I consider that I’ve done well if I finish a course out of breath because that means I’ve been running hard and have been finding controls consistently. Often it’s more like interval training where I have brief bursts of activity interspersed with minutes of stressful bashing around through bushes until by some fluke I come upon the control. I almost always have at least one ‘nightmare’ though and today’s came at the second control.
Sometimes I just need a little bit of time to ‘get into it’ and it’s difficult to say specifically why I go wrong. There are a great many factors that go to make up a successful orienteer but I seem to be lacking in quite a few. I was a good four minutes longer than the quickest competitor in my class in finding the second control and in orienteering terms that’s a lifetime. However, once I’d found it and moved on it all seemed to start flowing much more easily.
As usual it wasn’t long before I was soaked. I rarely opt to look for a bridge when crossing a watercourse and have no idea whether anyone else does. At one point I found myself up to my knees in the greenest of bogs that looked like it hadn’t been disturbed for a hundred years: I could imagine Jenny Greenteeth, on holiday from her native River Tees, stretching out a bony arm to pull me down to keep her company.
Somewhere along the way I came across Dougie who had opted for the brown course and was studying his map with great intent at the bottom of a steep woodland slope. It was here that I became locked in battle with a chap who was clearly also on the blue course. I definitely had the legs and was even a bit affronted when he rather obviously tried to pull away from me when he could have just waited and let me make a couple of little errors because his accuracy was clearly much better than mine.
But we carried on in that vein, more or less in each others’ footsteps, his slightly more efficient map reading against my physical advantage. As it continued I tried to concentrate harder on the map but it’s not easy to do whilst running through dense woodland and I didn’t see the overhanging branch that nearly put my lights out and left me with a bloody forehead.
The forest is definitely not my favoured terrain and when at last we emerged onto the moor for the last couple of controls I was able to start running with a greater sense of purpose and even set a fastest split for the last control (leaving my erstwhile foe behind). When I got back Joan had already finished and was bemoaning a couple of navigational errors that had let her down, but that’s orienteering – just when you think you’re getting somewhere it has a nasty habit (for me at least) of bringing it all crashing down and forcing you to rebuild whatever it was you think that you had.
These events are however,very friendly, cheap (£5.00) and easy to access. You don’t have to be a member of a club and the courses up to light green are pretty easy to follow along footpaths, walls, fences and stuff. It’s properly adventurous stuff too: you find yourself happily running through terrain that would make a fell race look tame!
After my previous disaster at the Durham night orienteering I can’t say I was overly enthusiastic about this but I was doing my duty and accompanying Joan who has now got the orienteering bug.
Learning from the previous event I did bring my new orienteering glasses so at least in theory I could see/read the map. We duly arrived at Bolam Lake in Northumberland around 15 minutes before the start time and watched fellow orienteers limbering up in the car park. Many of them wearing proper club vests!! and one gentleman in what appeared to be knickerbockers. Joan and I plumped for the same course. I was hoping we’d do different courses so I could save face and not get battered by her superior map reading.
I set off from the start first …well actually I set off once Joan had shown me where the start was on the map 🙂 The course we chose was short green which was one down from the longest. We had 17 checkpoints to find and the course length point to point was only 3.2 km. Checkpoint one was fairly easy although in my haste I did overshoot it checkpoint two had me baffled and feeling like groundhog day!! I wandered round in the woods only to see Joan who had started 2 minutes after me leaving for checkpoint 3. Well at least I knew where 2 was at long last. After my very shaky start I finally got my head in shape and started ticking off checkpoints up to checkpoint 10 which was described as a boulder on the map. After a good old wander in the woods occasionally seeing Joan who was having as much luck as me I decided to go back to checkpoint 9 and take a bearing. It was at this stage that the glasses came into their own as I noticed drainage ditches on the map and spied the very same things off to my right…bingo there was checkpoint 10 beside a small rock not a boulder.
I shouted Joan over coz I’m nice like that and set off for checkpoint 11 which was up a steepish hill. The last few checkpoints came thick and fast and before I knew it I was at the finish getting my readout. I held my breath …phew not disqualified, I’d got all the checkpoints, I was happy with that. Joan came in shortly after me and to my surprise I had beaten her by 43 seconds. Result.
I should thank Paul, really. The forecast for today’s orienteering event was terrible and my ribs were a bit sore from an embarrassing 0mph bicycle falling-over-in-slow-motion mishap from Tuesday, and the cat was lying on my feet and the bed was nice and warm, so no point going to Chopwell and getting cold and wet, was there? Except that I’d promised Paul I’d pick him up at 0930, and the handy thing about offering to give someone a lift is that it means you cannot easily extract yourself from the arrangement with any sort of dignity when your excuse is you’d rather stay at home and drink tea.
The decision of my orienteering club to move the annual boxing day event from Durham back to Chopwell had not met with my approval and I fully expected to turn up and find a deserted swamp with people staying away rather than nip out to try their hand at a bit of orienteering. However a respectable 50 adventurers had turned out in the damp for a stomp around Chopwell so I was pleased to be proved wrong.
Paul and I were so early we sat in the car for a while and drank tea and coffee and watched the world go by until we were almost late and had to dash over and register before the 11AM start. Paul was wearing some pretty pitiful looking Fell Shoes ‘just one more wear’ that looked like they weren’t brought by Santa yesterday. He completed his attire by not wearing a watch. That could be tricky in a score event. This wasn’t for any reason of principle – he’d just forgotten to bring one. I feigned sympathy and pretended to look for a spare while realising that he’d have a very difficult time planning any sort of meaningful route when he didn’t know the time of day. For shame. I might make this two victories in a row!
The 11AM start was that rare thing in an orienteering event, a mass start, which tends to only happen in Score events. Not dissimilar to the start of the Durham Three Peaks. We scattered to all points of the compass and I decided to go for a gentle clockwise sweep of the map picking up as many controls as I could. Route choice was interesting and tricky. All controls had the same value so there were no ‘high-value items’ to be had on the peripheries. Scrabble players would have found it no fun. With each minute late incurring a 10 point penalty, and each control being worth 10 points, the common mistake is to go over time and get a penalty. It’s rare in a score event that getting just one more control is worth the risk of an associated time penalty.
I nabbed 16 controls and got back with 24 seconds to spare, which I thought was pretty dandy. My route choice left a bit to be desired though, spending too much time chasing controls out on the periphery rather than mopping up easy ones close to the Finish. Camilla had struggled with the network of footpaths and the invariable confusion that arises when there are more footpaths on the ground than there are on the map. Judging when a trail is just a temporary trod or a permanent footpath is a difficult call, and it’s not every orienteering map that includes in its legend the rather ominous sounding powerline downhill bike track.
Paul got back with -13 seconds to spare, which cost him 10 points. Pretty good considering he wasn’t wearing a watch, or the correct number of shoes. He’d started wearing two shoes. And he’d finished wearing two shoes. More or less. Mostly less. His right shoe hadn’t held up well, or at all, and was now a shoe of two halves. As Peter Cook might once have said, I had nothing against his right shoe. Unfortunately, neither did Paul. He’d attempted a mid-race pit-stop to change shoes but sadly I’d taken the car-keys into the woods with me rather than leaving them at registration so that was more time lost for Paul. Still, Every cloud. Never one not to see the bright side of another’s misfortune I realised that this meant I got another victory. Two in a row!