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Just Another Winter Day

The first orienteering event of 2010 this afternoon. It was our usual winter format - a mass start, 90-minute score-O - which meant that everybody would get back at about the same time, and there wouldn't be any late finishers holding up control retrieval on these short winter days. The morning started out a bit raw, in the teens with a southwest breeze.


Map of January 10, 2010 Lake Elmo course - Click to enlarge.

As usual, much much more behind the link.

After warming up a bit by running through the snowbanks near the parking lot, I figured I would be faster (relatively speaking) without wearing snowshoes. And there was some possibility for trail running on packed snow, so big slabs on my feet would have been significantly worse there. As we lined up at the remote start up the road from the warming hut, I saw that most people had come to the same decision.

The start was several hundred meters to the north of the finish, at the road intersection. Many of the roads were closed down and unplowed, and we figured we'd have to get a sense for what was runnable and what wasn't on the course. Justin and Ian quickly laid out the ground rules, and as Justin said "GO", Stephen R, Tom, and I apparently decided to go counterclockwise and led a group towards #2. There was a snowshoe track following the unplowed road into the camp area, and I followed it for a ways before cutting off into the deep snow right through the now indistinguishable southern camp loop. Gearjunkie beat me into the control, and went east around the big hill - probably a better route - while Tom and I climbed up and over the saddle on the ski trail. Then it was a long slog through buckthorn to #22. Stephen was wearing a bright orange jacket, and we could see him up ahead, but he missed the control wide south, and we all punched at about the same time. I had fallen to the back, but was happy to let the others break trail.

We busted out to the ski trail, which was well packed for winter hiking, and around to #20 on the pier in Lake Elmo, but as I arrived I realized my punch card was missing. I hadn't had time to rig it up with a string, so I suppose I was asking for it. So I just punched my map, and then headed back to #22 scanning the ground. No luck. It must have blown away with the moderate SW breeze. By now I had gotten over being pissed off at the mistake, so I headed up to #21 on the hilltop and watched Ian come down the opposite direction, on snowshoes. Then I followed a set of tracks NW to the trail and jogged/ran up to #19, which was one of the "yellow" level controls. Likewise with #18.

Coming out of 18, I had a decision to make - what was I going to do about the widely scattered controls 15, 24, and 23 in the middle of the arc I had so far been following? Go there now, or come back to them later? I looked at my watch - 22 minutes in with 68 to go. I decided to go for the outer ring, sweep down and be sure to pick up the two dense clusters west of the road before deciding. So I struck west off the trail towards #17, again following a set of tracks, then two - it must be Tom and Stephen. I didn't much worry about their lead and passed the shelter and playground, through the line of trees and picked up a good snowshoe trail along the southern edge of the dark green. I stopped right at the correct place, looked down, and there it was. There turned out to be a good deer trail going west in the woods on the south side of the lake, so I used that to get out to the park road. I found out later that Peter and Clark had crossed the lake and gotten swamped in hip-deep snow, so I was glad that I had been smart about following already-broken paths, even if they weren't direct routes.

#16 was a gimme in the wide open, leafless terrain, and I ran back to the road to go pick up #15 on an easy leg and strategize a little bit. I figured that the approach to the first cluster of four would be easier from 15 than from 16, and that proved to be true since the southern lot was plowed, and the equestrian camp loop only had about 4 inches of snow. Then I intentionally headed north to the fence and sure enough, picked up a deer trail along the fence line leading straight towards #10. Now I'd figured out the secret of this course - don't play Superman and thrash through deep snow. A lesson many, many others centuries before me had learned, I'm sure.

I said hi to Stephen as he came down the hill from #10, and powered up to the top, then followed a well trampled trail back through 9, 8, and 7. I had passed the "halfway" point, where I was now benefiting from the runners who went clockwise at the start. I ran up to Gerry Bauer at #7, who was the lone skier at this event, thanked him for his tracks, and then continued south along the windbreak towards the second cluster. I had already decided to rule out the four controls (one is cut off on the map) in the far west, since they appeared to be a long ways out with some sketchy open area running. In some of the prairies, the snow was drifted mid-thigh, and that would have been a killer.

The east side of the windbreak had another nice deer trail that brought me to the ski trail, then I headed south and a little west to #5 through one of the deeper snow sections. But the trip to #4 was easier because of the cover, and #6 was eased up a bit because of the trail and a convenient snowshoe track. I saw Tom at #4, coming east to west, and found out later he had gone for some of the westernmost controls and gotten mired in the evil prairie drifts. #6 was another one right off the packed road, and I looked at my watch to find just under a half hour left. Not bad!

As I jogged out to the park road, I figured I had enough time to sweep the inner loop of controls I had set aside earlier. So I took the road to #25, and stayed on it, right at the T, until the trail crossing. The trail was packed for hiking, so I was able to jog down to #24 in short order. At this point I had 19 controls, two more planned, and was wondering whether I should have gone for one of the western controls. But it was too late for that now. On the east side of the treeline heading south from #24, there was a great packed snowshoe track, so I used that to take direct line to #23, instead of going back on the trail and cutting across the (plowed) parking lot, which would have been my plan otherwise. To my surprise, there were packed tracks going all the way south to the road, and #23 was easily visible and accessible from there. By making this inner sweep near the end of the race, I had managed to benefit from the other runners once again.

From 23, I just got back out to the road as quickly as possible and ran it back to the finish. As I turned the corner to go south, I saw Peter and Clark about 150 meters ahead of me, and Stephen R just getting onto the road about 75 meters up. It was nice since they kept me running, but all three of them are good enough athletes that I wasn't able to overtake them. We all gathered #1 on the way in, and ran the road all the way back to the finish about 5 minutes before the cutoff time.

I had recovered well despite my early mistake of dropping the punch card (and the 3-minute delay it caused), and ended up with 21 of 25 controls. I just snaked the MMAR guys, who got 20 controls, and just got snaked by Stephen, who had 21 as well, and thus beat me on time. Now our primary concern was Tom - he was running strong today, and we figured he had actually gone for more than 21. Which was true - but the deep snowy prairies (evil, remember) had slowed him down so much that he came in a couple minutes late with 22 controls - still a good placement, but not what he'd been hoping for.

All in all, it was a physically and mentally challenging course, many thanks to Biz and Mo for setting it! Plus, I'm stoked by the quality of competition we've got - Minnesota orienteering is truly turning into an "Any Given Sunday" kind of experience.