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US orienteering;navigation Champs - Day 1

Last weekend was the 2009 US Orienteering Champs, hosted only a few hours away by our friends in the Badger Club. All the events were held on a relatively new set of maps (one just finished this summer) in the Northern Kettle Moraine area with evocative names like Cat's Meow, Cat's Agenda, and Hep Cat. The map below speaks for itself!


Day 1 Red course - 2009 US Champs. Click to enlarge.

Mostly open, white woods and a tremendous amount of contour detail made it some of the most challenging terrain I've ever run on. Read on to find out how I did...

I had to work a full day on Friday, and didn't arrive at the hotel until after 10 PM. But I found Todd, Jerritt, Tom and Andrei standing in the parking lot of the Baymont Inn playing a game involving a goofy-shaped superball and some kind of points system. I jumped in on a quick game before heading upstairs to settle in for the early start in the morning. Most of the others had had a chance to run on the model map (Hep Cat) and get a quick introduction to the type of terrain and the style of mapping, but I was much too late. Instead, I arranged to get up early and run for about a half hour the following morning, using Todd's map. The experience was well worth it, as I got some time in similar terrain and a first-hand look at the way that small depressions and rises were simplified into the "cup depression" and "knoll" symbols. Kevin had mapped smaller features this way so as not to overly complicate the map, since the contours were at a 3 meter interval and already quite close together. I ran about 10 of the controls on the model map and then headed a couple miles over to the start area.

Saturday was slated as the single day for the championship race, so I had registered to run my (new) age class the first day, and ran up to Blue on Sunday to get more time in the terrain. But this day I had an 11:50 AM start, the very last start slot, and was scheduled to work the start line. So I met up with Todd and Jerritt, who were already there, and Ioana, who was in charge of the whole start procedure. Ian was out prerunning the Green course and showed up shortly thereafter. Both of us have participated in quite a few A-meets over the years (not to mention our US Champs at Telemark) and knew exactly how to set up the start crew and assign jobs. I claimed the actual start line along with Mike, and by 10 AM we were smoothly starting to send people into the woods.


We even made a start triangle.

Around 11:30 I turned over the start job to another volunteer and jogged around to warm up - then when 11:50 rolled around, go! My precise route is posted on Valerie's RouteGadget page.

I started out by running out to the road and then carefully following the contours across to the large depression, around its south edge and up the shoulder of the adjacent hill. The steep slope was slippery with wet leaves and deadfall, and I immediately noted that I should try to avoid sidehills in these conditions. As I came over the small hill to the NW of #1, I tripped and my compass (baseplate style) flew out of my hand to who-knows-where. That produced a bout of cussing and a quick scan of the ground, but it was long gone - the six-inch deep carpet of yellow and red maple leaves totally obscured anything that hit the ground, and I had no idea which section of leaves to search. So I stood up, looked down at the map, looked up at the terrain, and realized that I had to HTFU and just navigate without a compass. And yes, it was cloudy out.


Not by choice!

After continuing over the hill to spike #1, I looked at the leg to #2 and tried to simplify the map as much as possible. I knew I could stay oriented by means of the elongations in both the hills and the depressions, but it would take a little more mental effort. I slowly jogged down into the west end of the first long depression, then crossed the trail on the other side and checked off the small depression left and hill right. Confidence mounting, I continued to check off features and made a conscious effort to envision features before I got to them - the best way I can describe it is mentally overlaying a conceptual simplification of the map (from reading it) onto the terrain around (from looking at it). When I say conceptual, I don't mean it wasn't an overlay like you might expect to see on Google Maps or something. It was more like a generic visualization of hills and depressions in their relative locations: left near, left farther, right near, right farther, right angles left, right angles right, in my path, ahead of my path, with a visual association related neither to the map, or the physical terrain. Another way to describe it might be that I divided my sense of space into different zones of attention, and predicted what should be appearing in each zone. That slowed me down a bit, but allowed me to tell if I veered in one direction or the other.

That approach was vindicated as I hit the large depression north of #2, and I relaxed a bit as I speeded up around its west edge and came back to the left to go straight up its south-pointing reentrant. On the way to #3, I veered too far south and climbed up to the ridge to follow it into the control. But, by now I was gaining confidence in navigating without the compass, only by the contours and secondarily, the vegetation boundaries, which were quite well mapped.

I stayed conservative on the way to #4, following the ridge directly past #9 (which I made a point of spotting), and then north down the spur hopping from hilltop to hilltop (without actually climbing them). I slowed down quite a bit crossing some of the depressions as I turned a little left, and used the position of the large hill on the right (with a visible X feature - a hunter's hideout) to get to roughly the right spot. But I hesitated a bit when I got there. I actually stood still comparing the terrain, sure I was in the right place, but not seeing #4 on a small hilltop. Then I moved about 5 meters forward and voila! the control popped out from behind a tree about 30 meters away. Visibility was good in these woods, but still you can never just stand still.

The route to #5 was right over two obvious hills, and quick although I was slighly off inside the circle. Then I took the ridge north to the trail, which had good fast running thanks to an animal path, and came around the east side of two depressions to spike #6 from the SE. #7 was another quick leg, around the north end of the first hill and the south end of the second. So far things were going well, but...

I had intended to run southwest and catch the dark green ridge between the two depressions, skirting the worst of the vegetation if necessary. None of the green was really very bad on this map. But instead, I started to have problems matching features up to the map. It wasn't until I looked ahead and saw a clearing in the tree cover that I realized I chose the wrong way around the first depression and ended up going more west than southwest. Still, that was OK - not a huge error, so I continued forward to the edge of the clearing, thrashed through a thick stand of young trees and shrubs, and then headed due south along the boundary, down into the depression and up the other side into #8. The subsequent splits analysis shows this was a 2-minute error, the larger of only two I made on the entire course when compared against the entire field.

Now, right after a bobble, I had the longest leg of the course to conquer. So what do you do before you conquer? You divide. I ran south and contoured around the large hill, then pushed it south to hit the trail without bothering to read the terrain. I came out near the big depression on the south side, and headed east to the trail bend where I turned south onto the ridge and headed for the middle of my 4-5 leg. I hoped to come right back along the same route I had taken from 3-4, and recogniz some of the same features, albeit from a reversed point of view. To that end, I went around the north and west sides of the deep depression south of the 4-5 line, and then continued south across some of the depressions I had encountered previously on the way to #4. This plan was quite a success, and I recognized a couple of small hills coming the other way and also the view I had earlier of #9.

10-11-12 was a thankful change of pace, much easier than the previous controls due to the obvious ridges. Then I faced the last challenging leg of the course. With the experience I had so far, I felt good about just following the features WNW and using the big hill about two-thirds of the way along as a catching feature. That plan worked well, and I climbed up over the northern portion of the hill and dropped into the multiple depressions on the other side. I slowed down a bit and went too far south checking the individual hollows, but spotted the control from about 40 meters out and ran straight to it. The next leg was actually pretty challenging as well, but going steeply up to the curved hill and following it around to approach the control from the north did the trick. #15 took me back near #1, but I went over to the north side of the depression and climbed up to find the control in the upper part of a projecting reentrant. Then it was out to the road as quickly as possible and onto the trail.


Ian, Peter and Mike at the finish. Credit: Susie Madden.

I was pretty happy with the results - the splits analysis on Attackpoint shows a mere 3 minutes of errors, and considering the mental effort required to navigate solely with the map on this kind of terrain, it was a great result. My overall time was 69:32, good enough for first place in my age category and third place among all Red course runners. Sergey Velichko and Joe Sackett, both in M40+, ran six minutes and three minutes faster than me, respectively.

Even though I wasn't eligible for the championship since my USOF membership is lapsed, I was still satisfied. Nevertheless, my age class wasn't very deep, and there's not a lot of accomplishment in being crowned "US Champion" just for showing up. The sparse number of competitors is one of the downsides of this sport in the US - if I had been competing in Europe, or Scandinavia, I know I would have experienced firsthand a Homer Simpson quote (paraphrased):

No matter how good you are at something, there's about a million people who are better at it.

But, being happy with your own efforts is all you can really ask, right?