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3/1/06 Making weight

Just barely, but the scale said 190.4 this morning, that's 190 to the nearest integer. With today starting my Lenten sugar fast, that should come down pretty quick. I think a lot of adventure racers don't take weight very seriously. That's not to say that we're a bunch of fatties - just that we don't obsess about it the way many other endurance athletes do.

I first started taking weight seriously in 1984. Despite a lot of running and cycling, I carried some extra weight through High School. I weighed over 200 pounds my senior year which made knocking over opposing hockey players pretty easy, but didn't do me any favors on climbs. Since most junior cycling races are short, I still did OK. After three years of mediocre results in the longer senior races, I decided to work on getting my weight down.

At 180 pounds, I won my first hilly road race. At 175, I was upgraded to category 2. At 172, I won my first 1/2/Pro race. Wondering how far the trend could continue, I pushed it all the way down to 168, but was warned by coaches at the Olympic Training Center that I was overdoing it and would get sick (which is exactly what happened). I went back to 172 (roughly 3% body fat) until I retired from cycling in 1993. (Failure to adjust my diet upon retirement resulted in a whopping increase to 235 in less than a year!)

It's true that being completely ripped is probably a liability in a 24-hour race. You need to have a little fat because you can't possibly eat 12,000 calories during the race. I think ideal for a male racer is in the 7-10% range. That's considerably higher than what would be optimal for a runner or cyclist. The optimal range for women appears to be a bit wider, but the best are still pretty lean.

In my 20's, keeping my body fat low was easy. My normal training (which was a lot) combined with the fact that I had no money to eat out kept my weight where I wanted it. Now in my 40's, I have to work at it. Peter Gagarin believes that much of his recent success is due to getting his weight where it should be. If he can be at competition weight at age 61, I don't think the rest of us have much excuse.

On a completely unrelated note, today is Carol's Birthday. She would be 41 if she was still with us.

3/2/06 Security blanket

I'm getting out of my depth, but that's never stopped me from rambling on before. If any psychologists read this page, feel free to weigh in.

A few nights ago, Kate and I were driving back home with Ya Ya at about her bedtime. Normally, we give her her blanket when she's tired and riding in the car, but this was just a ten-minute drive, so we didn't bother. She cried horribly most of the way home.

There's nothing unusual about a two year old being attached to a physical object. The attachment is usually strongest when they are tired or stressed (which is pretty much the same thing at that age). I imagine (and this is where I'm just making stuff up) that this served an evolutionary purpose. Children that wandered off into the woods and just fell asleep might not live until morning. Children that cried because they didn't have their familiar object were rescued.

What interests me is that this attachment stays with us throughout our lives and seems to manifest itself in stressful situations. Any cop will tell you that they feel "naked" without their gun, even though it's very rare to actually use it. If I ride my bike five feet without putting on a helmet, all sorts of subconscious alarms go off.

Competition is stressful. It's also where our conscious minds are likely to be distracted from disaster because there is so much to think about. What I'm wondering is if it's possible to train the subconscious response that signals the problem prior to something bad actually happening.

Sometimes I'll be running a leg and it just doesn't feel right. My "security blanket" of map contact is missing. It may be something that I've conciously identified ("this doesn't look like I expected" or "I should have hit that stream by now") but more often the feeling is just something in my subconcious telling me that the leg is about to go very badly. I'd say that on the occasions that I feel that and don't have any conscious supporting evidence (that is, the conscious and subconscious are at odds), the subconscious is right about 2/3's the time. At night it's probably more like 50-50 which may reflect the fact that we are predisposed to equate dark with danger.

So, can this response be trained to where it's right nearly all the time? If so, that would be quite useful. Every night I read Ya Ya the same book, give her the same blanket, turn out the light, and sing her the same song. She's gone to sleep at night around 800 times and those specific steps have been taken on probably 750 of those occasions. No matter how worked up she is, those four things put her to sleep in minutes. If I change it even a little bit (like starting to sing before turning out the light), she calls me on it.

I imagine there are a similar (albeit much more complex) set of circumstances that need to be present to run a good leg. Some of these can be identified consciously, but there are many special cases. What are the conditions when loose contact is OK? Writing an algorithm to answer that question would be hard. The power of the subconscious is that it's very good at processing complex relationships. It doesn't use algorithms; it just matches patterns.

Our subconscious brains are really powerful neural nets and pattern matching is what neural networks are good at (OK, I'm getting back on solid footing now). To program a neural net to make decisions you need to do three things: 1) expose the net to lots of patterns, 2) evaluate the result of the decision, and 3) mutate the net and repeat until you converge on good solutions. There's no logic to it, it really is just trial and error. The reason it works so well is that, contrary to popular belief, your brain is millions (or billions or even trillions depending on the nature of the problem) of times faster than the fastest computer. It takes some serious horsepower to crunch through all the possibilities. Algorithms are for slow machines like man-made computers. Try doing long division in your head if you want to get an idea of how bad neural nets are at algorithms.

(Aside that may be humorous only to me: Darwinian selection is actually a highly "intelligent" process in that it basically works like a giant neural net. Much more intelligent than somebody sitting down and trying to work out all the details in advance. I wonder what the Fundamentalists would think if we renamed evolution Really Intelligent Design).

OK, back on topic. How do we map those three steps to navigation? The first step is obvious - get into the woods as much as possible. Everybody knows this. The second step is also fairly obvious, although some care needs to be taken. If you run a leg badly but stumble on the control anyway, that's not a good result. On the other hand, if you did everything right but the control was in the wrong place, well, that's not your fault.

The third step is what I'm most interested in. Part of the "magic" of the subconscious is that it does this pretty much on its own. But, like all cognitive processes, I'm sure there are things that can help it along. Perhaps intentionally trying different routes, speeds, and techniques helps push the mind away from "locally optimal solutions," that is, methods that work given the way you run, but limit your maximum potential. There's more to think about here, but I've run out of lunch hour. Maybe I'll come back to this one again.

3/3/06 All dressed up and nowhere to go

Granted, it's base period, but my fitness is pretty good right now. Prior to my heel injury my navigation was quite sharp and I expect it's still OK. I really feel like doing a race.

Unfortunately, that hasn't worked out lately. It's not for lack of opportunities - there have been good meets the last two weekends and another one tomorrow. I missed the A-meets in Georgia and Florida (I really wish I'd been to the latter - all reports are that it was quite good) because of work commitments. This weekend, I had expected team with David to defend last year's win in Kansas City's long event, maybe without the puking this time. They switched from night format to day, making it impossible for me to make the start time tomorrow.

I suppose I should be channeling this frustration into some decent training, but really it's just bumming me out a bit.

3/5/06 Fast times at Hawn State Park

Yesterday, I test ran the Blue course for Team Trials at Hawn. At 10.7K, I was pretty sure it was short. Turns out it's really short. I ran it in 82 minutes without even pushing that terribly hard. I expect that the US Team Members would run it in something like an hour. Obviously, we need to add at least 2-3K to the course. Hawn's a big park, so that won't be a problem.

I think a lot of course setters have it stuck in their heads that 10K is a blue course. There is this odd resistance among them to setting longer distance courses. The course setter for Hawn knows that even David and I can run sub-7:00/K there. Do the math - David and I are both rated around 80 points, so a 100-point runner should be in the 5:30-5:45 range. That's 14K for a Blue course. And, technically, the distance is supposed to be IOF Long, not US Classic, so 16K wouldn't be out of order.

At the recent meet in Florida, they actually took forest speed into account and had the Blue runners going 16K. Winning times came out right where they should have. I'd sure like to see more course setters taking winning times seriously like that. I've run "Blue" courses at A-meets where the winning time was under 50 minutes. There's nothing wrong with setting a short course, but if you're going to call it "Classic" distance, get it right.

Anyway, fear not, Team Trials hopefuls. We'll get the extra distance tacked on.

3/6/06 Subliminal orienteering

Returning to the topic of training the subconscious...

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell explores why the subconscious often makes better decisions than the conscious. More importantly to this discussion, he indicates the situations when the subconscious decision is likely to be wrong and when it is almost certainly right.

The decisions are most often wrong when the factors biasing the decision are either stereotypes (as opposed to actual experience) or so strange that we can't apply stereotypes at all. In other words, for our subconscious mind to work, it needs to have some pre-established framework, but this framework needs to be based on real experience, not some societal perception of reality.

So far, so good: the advice to get into the woods as much as possible is still looking pretty sound.

How about the case where intuition is almost always correct? This is the realm of the "expert". That is, a person so steeped in the matter that they arrive at proper conclusions without even being conscious of the thought process that got them there.

I'm a rather average chess player (in fact, I had the median rating for the entire country one year), but I know enough Chess Masters to have some sense of their thinking. When they speak of a "blunder", they are referring to a move that has an outright and demonstrable refutation. Even Grandmasters occasionally make blunders during a game, but anybody who knows the rules can be shown why it was a bad move. They also speak of moves as being "incorrect". Such moves seem perfectly plausible to amateurs such as myself, but Masters just "know" that such a move doesn't work in that situation. The defeat might come in any number of forms 40 moves later, but they know it's coming.

This level of expertise can only be gained by studying the moves of others. This can't be overstated. A person simply does not live long enough to figure all this stuff out on their own. You have to find a way to acquire the experience of other experts.

Most orienteers and adventure racers do this to some extent. We like comparing routes and stories after meets. We compare split times to get an idea of what worked. We troll the web to find maps of far away places with routes from the world's elite. Again, it appears that the conventional wisdom is right on target.

But, here comes the kicker. There's another situation where the subconscious makes horribly bad decisions: elevated heart rate! Well, crap, that's pretty much a constant state of affairs in a race. So, how to get around this predicament? Well, I think I know but I'm out of time, so I'll have to write about that tomorrow.

3/7/06 Ka-boom!

I know you're all burning to read my final thoughts on the subconscious, but I thought I'd do a very un-bloggy thing and fact check a couple points. So, maybe tomorrow.

Meanwhile you can amuse yourself by looking at what happens when you don't listen to all the little warnings that are going off in your head.

How did I get here? This is from the Flying Pig last year. My compass needle was stuck so I kept running to the right. I knew something was strange when I hit the reentrant south of #6. When I got to the next reentrant with the trail, I knew where I was, but rather than accepting that something had to be terribly wrong to be 200m off the line, I just kept running and turned a 2-minute error into an 8-minute one.

Where'd this road come from? The Pig in 1999 was host to one of my most bizarre mistakes. I'm not sure why I started turning left, but I had already veered 90 degrees off by the time I realized that something was wrong. A quick glance at the needle showed I was off by 90 degrees, but rather than stopping to figure out where I was, I "corrected" and kept running. Problem was, I thought I was off to the right so I corrected by turning another 90 degrees left. When I hit the road it probably took me a good five minutes to figure out what had happened. The total error was close to 15.

How to blow a lead. At the Michigan A-meet in 2002, I went into day 2 with a five-minute lead. When I boomed the third control, I knew that the right thing to do was to head west and relocate off the side of the ridge. Hoping against hope that I might just luck into the control and save my lead, I spent about 10 minutes running around randomly until finally giving in and going over to the ridge. From the ridge, it took about 90 seconds to hit the control, so if I'd done that right away, it would have been about a five-minute mistake and I'd still be in the game. As it was, I gave away 15 minutes and any hope of winning.

When running rough compass, it's a good idea to actually check your compass. At the Chicago A-meet in 1998, I got to control 7 and thought, "just hit the road and relocate." I had missed the approach so my direction into the control was a off. I sprinted out of the control without checking the compass and, although things didn't seem quite right, continued to push until I hit the road (which, of course, looked nothing like the road I was expecting to hit.) By blasting to "save" 30 seconds, I gave away 7 minutes.

Worst leg ever. There are several legitimate candidates for this honor, but I think this one gets it. At US 24-hour champs in Washington in 2002, I paired with Gary Thompson. Both assuming that the other person was staying in contact with the map, we blew right by the main stream junction. When we realized we were way too far south, we tried just turning east and heading straight up the hill, but we couldn't get the features to line up. We were so turned around we ended up taking a safety bearing and heading all the way back to the road. (This is USGS 1:24, so that's a full kilometer on safety bearing. My note indicates we lost an hour and a half, but I think that counts the fact that we skipped the previous control. At any rate, it was bad. The only mitigating factor is that it was at night, but really, this should be an easy leg under any circumstances. The crazy thing is that we didn't get too worked up about it. We took a short break to change socks and put it behind us. We continued on at a slower pace being more careful until sunrise and then hammered the final four hours for all we were worth. We ended up getting second in the open division. Just goes to show that when it comes to endurance stuff, perseverance carries the day.

I put these out for their amusement value. I don't think there's much to be gained by dwelling on mistakes of this magnitude. It's much more productive to look at things done right. I'm especially interested in legs that very nearly went wrong, but were saved. Maybe I'll dig out a few of those in the coming days.

3/8/06 Run like a dog

And now, for the final installment in Eric's possibly bogus exploration of using the subconscious for navigating. Where we are so far:

  • We have subconscious triggers that signal alarm based on conditions the conscious mind may overlook.
  • Those triggers can be trained by repeated exposures to patterns and comparing outcomes with what acknowledged experts do in similar situations.
  • Those triggers become less reliable in situations of stress and elevated heart rate.

You can take issue with any one of those, but I'm going to accept them as premises for now. The last one appears to conflict with what started this series: that the triggers become more manifest in stressful situations. It doesn't. The fact that a trigger is more likely to be tripped doesn't make it more (or less) reliable.

Dave Grossman has studied this problem to understand why people make bad decisions in life and death situations (in particular looking at police and battlefield killings). He found that at heart rates between 115 and 145, senses and decision making were enhanced. But above 145, the opposite is true. By 175, the forebrain essentially shuts down and all decisions are handled by the midbrain. In panic situations, our minds throw out nuance and revert to some very basic rules of survival. Basically, the part of the brain that differentiates humans from dogs does not operate under stress.

Sounds like bad news, but if you've ever been to an obedience trial, you know that dogs can do some pretty complex things remarkably well. The key is that it's all rehearsed. Grossman notes that many people dial 411 instead of 911 in an emergency. That's because they are reverting to rehearsed behavior. People dial 411 all the time, but often have never dialed 911 until an emergency occurs. In short, you don't want to be doing something unrehearsed when your heart rate is eleveated.

Running through the terrain is sufficiently complicated that certain aspects of it will always be novel, no matter how much training you do. I believe the key is to reduce the amount of inforation used so you are more likely dealing with something you've seen before.

But wait a minute, wasn't the whole point that the subconscious is better at dealing with really complicated relationships? Absolutely. The relationships are still complex, but we're trying to cut down on the inputs. Elite orienteers have a technique for doing this and it's called "map simplification". This refers to picking out key features that you use to navigate and filtering out just about everything else. You can find examples of map simplification on the websites of many of the top orienteers. One from my own experience is here.

Just limiting the information isn't enough. After all, novices overlook 90% of what's on the map and that doesn't exactly turn them into WOC contenters. What's important is that the information has to be structured into some sort of plan. It's new information that needs to be controlled. By having a definite plan for each leg, new information is minimized. The subconscious uses this plan to retrieve patterns of terrain that are already stored in memory. While the leg is being run, sensory input is matched against these abstract patterns and the subconscious can signal discrepancies. Meanwhile, your conscious thoughts should be focused on things such as reading the map, checking off features, making micro-route choices (choices that are too detailed to be made from the map), and coming up with plans for the what's next.

The question of how far to plan ahead is the subject of some debate. I'd say I plan ahead 200-400m as a matter of course and on long legs try to look over the whole leg before getting started just in case there's a good route that's way off the red line. Most of the elite folks I talk with look at least that far ahead, but many believe (as I do) that you can only retain a few minutes worth of detail accurately, so there's no point to planning way out there.

So far we're coming back to standard techniques that all the top folks employ. That shouldn't come as a shock; if they didn't work, the elites wouldn't use them. While I've touched on ways to enable the subconscious signals of doom, I haven't yet answered the question of how to train such a mechanism. The truth is, I don't really know, but I think a few things are worth exploring:

  • Trying different things in training and getting some objective feedback (e.g, "this way was 20 seconds faster" rather than the subjective "that seemed to work OK") helps tune the decision process.
  • "Armchair orienteering", that is looking over maps and routes in a quiet and reflective setting probably helps quite a bit in developing the "expert"-level database of experience.
  • Focusing on the conditions that were present on good legs has at least as much merit as examining what went wrong on bad ones. I don't think many orienteers spend enough time thinking about the legs they do well. I'm pretty sure that the set of circumstances that dictate a good leg is shorter and less complex than the set of circumstances that dictate a bad one. Also, recall that the basic trigger we're trying to train is negative logic - that is, it fires when something is missing. You need to teach your subconscious what that something is.
  • Don't try to figure it out. The whole point of this is that the subconscious works better than logic. Just cram as much information in there as possible and let the world's most powerful computer go to work on it.
Finally, recognize that this trigger may help signal problems, but it won't solve them. For that, you've got to get your forebrain back into the game. That means getting your breathing and heart rate under control. It's natural to run faster when you're trying to correct a mistake to try to make up the time lost. But in doing so, you're just a dog running around in the woods and it might be many minutes before you turn back into a person.

3/9/06 Boring? Hardly!

Tero complained that his training yesterday was boring. It didn't look at all that way to me. Rather than his usual running though the woods, he did an urban course. Everybody's got their own preferences, but that course looks like a great challenge to me. Sure, anybody could get through it, but running it well is non-trivial. It would make a great section in an adventure race. It took him about 2 hours.

3/11/06 6500 a week

I was perusing the latest issue of Esquire which arrived two days ago and came across this comment in the Ask Dr. Oz column: "When you pass 6500 calories per week [due to working out], the inflammation exceeds you ability to bounce back." Ok, anybody getting their exercise advice from Esquire probably should take it easy, but where on earth does this BS come from? Professional athletes burn 2-3 times that much in workouts each week. Granted, some of them run into trouble with inflammation, but a lot of them don't. It's a rare week I'm not over 6500 and I hardly ever need to take anti-inflamitories.

I think the problem is that most people who simply "work out" do pretty much the same intensity every day. I'd expect to run into some serious overuse problems if you did that with strenuous workouts exceeding an hour. This underscores the need for active rest, which I wrote briefly about in my January entries on training. You have hard days where you may either burn a lot of calories or burn a moderate amount at a very high rate. Either case requires recovery, but that doesn't mean taking a day off. In fact, your body recovers much quicker if you throw in an easy workout.

3/12/06 Bigfoot

I've heard that your feet keep getting bigger as you get older. That appears to be the case with me. My road cycling shoe for my right foot is snug, to say the least. At the end of yesterday's ride, it was hurting my foot. I noticed this a bit last summer, too, so it's not just a case of temporary inflammation.

Seems a shame to get rid of an otherwise fine pair of cycling shoes. I was looking at some shoes at Big Shark last week and they sure aren't cheap. I don't know why I'm averse to paying $200-300 for a good pair of cycling shoes. They're still cheaper than nice dress shoes. They last 10 times as long as running shoes, so it's a good deal over time.

I may forgo the carbon sole and get something less expensive (my current shoes don't have a carbon sole and they work fine - except for being too tight). Those carbon shoes sure were light, though. And it's rotating weight, which is the place to spend if you care about weight.

3/13/06 Service interval

Yesterday, I changed the oil in my car. Servicing the top of a WRX engine is a nightmare because of all the ducting for the turbo, but changing the oil is remarkably easy. Much easier than any other small car I've worked on. Still, I don't change it as often as recommended.

For many years car companies pushed back on extending their service intervals because their dealers make so much money on routine maintenance. Finally, in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence and mounting pressure from leasing agencies (who perform their own service, but are bound by contract to follow the recommended schedule), auto makers acknowledged that changing the oil every 3000 miles is just silly and bumped it up to 7500. I use synthetic oil and a premium filter and don't feel bad about waiting until 10,000. I've never had a mechanic blame a problem with my car on lack of oil changes - even my Integra, which spent a fair bit of time above 7000 RPM's on the race track. I'm pretty sure you could go 15,000 between changes using good oil and filters, but I'll let somebody else carry out that experiment.

The standard "service interval" on humans has also come under fire in recent years. ALL empirical evidence indicates that the annual physical is a complete waste of time and money. As with the auto makers, the AMA is pushing back, citing "improved patient relationships". Well, if the relationships are so improved, how come the patients aren't any healthier? There's just no data to support the practice of a healthy adult visiting the doctor.

I bring this up because I've noticed that many athletes hardly ever go to the doctor (except ER visits after an injury). I'm wondering if this is because they are healthy enough not to, or because being so fit gives them a false sense of security. I don't have the answer, but I'm leaning towards the first explanation. Regular training, particularly intense training, gives you a pretty good sense of what's going on inside your body. I think athletes are better than most at self-appraisal.

The danger in this is that there are some problems that don't manifest themselves until it is pretty late in the game. Cholesterol levels would be one example. Even exceptionally fit people can have high levels. You don't really want to wait until you have a heart attack to find out that you've got a problem. It seems that screening for things like that every five years or so (anybody doing outdoor stuff should go that often to get a tetanus shot, anyway) is probably worth it.

3/14/06 Team Trials update

I've posted some very preliminary course notes for US Team Trials on the meet page.

3/15/06 Sprint mapping

I've made several maps of city parks, but the UMSL map for Team Trials is the first true sprint map I've done. While the mapping is in many respects easier than forest mapping (the vast majority of the features can be seen from the air, so the base map is pretty complete), the cartography takes forever.

Not only is the detail much higher, but many of the things that get generalized on regular maps need to be shown to scale. Getting all the little edge lines aligned is a pain. The clip to the right is less than 100m across. As you can see, there are a lot of features in a very small area. And that's not even the most complicated portion of the map (don't want to give away the best control locations!)

Normally, once the fieldwork is done, the final cartography takes 3-4 hours per square kilometer. This entire map is just a bit over that and it's taken over 20 hours to draw.

3/16/06 Support equipment

Spending money on race equipment is simply a fact of life in Adventure Racing. Most AR folks don't mind as the toys are fun to play with. Support equipment is a little less rewarding. I have Park's top of the line truing stand. It works great and I've had it for 25 years. Even though it's obviously been money well spent, I don't get the excitement from it that I get from my carbon fiber canoe paddle, which was roughly the same price.

An oft-neglected area of support equipment is your bed. Training doesn't actually make you stronger; it wears you down. The strengthening happens while you're resting in response to the training. Having a decent bed makes a difference. Even in college, when I was so broke I just put the mattress on the floor, it was a really good mattress.

I'm probably a little more sensitive to this than most because I have a bad back. It's rather long for my height and there's a touch of scoliosis. As long as I am rigorous about doing my core exercises every night and sleep on a decent surface, I don't have any problems. I neglect these two things at my own peril.

When Kate got pregnant, we were already considering replacing our 10-year-old mattress. We ended up getting the deluxe Sleep Number bed that lets you not only adjust the firmness, but also can elevate your head and/or feet like a hospital bed. This was a big help for Kate during pregnancy because it helped keep the swelling down in her feet.

I've also benefited from it. If I have a head cold, sleeping with my head elevated keeps me from getting stuffed up. I seem to have recovered quicker from colds since we got the bed. When my back is acting up, sleeping on my back with my feet slightly elevated helps.

Yesterday, I strained my back just a bit doing squats. I'm not sure what I did wrong; I wasn't using all that much weight. Anyway, I feel much better today. I still sometimes think about what I could have bought with the extra money we spent on that bed, but on days like today, I'm just happy that I'm healthy enough to use the stuff I've got. Quickly recovering from setbacks is at least as valuable to race results as having the latest gear.

3/18/06 Mapping is not a crime!

I've been stopped by police for strange things before, but yesterday was the first time I got busted for making a map. Actually, the cop was cool about it. He was following up on a call about some guy walking around the UMSL Metro Link station taking notes. After a brief conversation, he went off on his way.

It's a pretty sad state of affairs when a guy walking around public transportation with a clipboard is perceived as a potential terrorist. I mean, who would blow up the Link, anyway � it's not like a lot of people ride the thing.

3/19/06 Rookie mistake

So Anna, Rick, and I doing some sprint training yesterday. The idea is that everybody sets a course and then runs the other two courses like a race. I figure I'll be all professional about it and put the course on OCAD. I lay it out and OCAD says that the course is 2.3K - perfect I'm thinking.

I get there and start putting out controls and it seems like it's taking forever to get the course set. 40 minutes to set a 2K course! Granted, a couple of the control locations weren't quite like what the map had, so I had to make sure I was in the right spot, but 20 minutes per K?

I give the map to Rick and he immediately asks, what the scale is. 1:5000 naturally, this is a sprint. "I don't think so." I check and sure enough, it's 1:7500. I had the scale set wrong on OCAD.. That makes the course 3.5K which is way too long. It's easy to fix by cutting out some controls but, duh, what planet was my brain on?

Checking the scale is one of the first things you should always do. Even if the course notes have told you in advance what the scale is, it only takes a couple seconds to verify. While forgetting to do this as a competitor is forgivable, forgetting to do it as a course setter is really boneheaded.

3/20/06 Don't fight the map

Russian-turned-American orienteer Vladimir Gusiatnikov, who's opinions are often inflammatory but also usually correct, once stated something to the effect that there is no bad terrain, just bad course setters who misuse the terrain. That's clearly overstating things. The greenbrier-infested woods that we hacked our way through all night long in the inaugural American Bushwacking Club 24-hour event a few years back was bad terrain. However, I understand his point: you can set a good course almost anywhere, but you have to take what the terrain is giving you.

I bring this up because Rudy Schwarz noted in his AttackPoint log today that he was trying to set some legs at Laumeier that forced you to run through the woods. That sounds like a great idea until you actually try it.

Click for full map
As you can see from the map clip to the right, Laumeier has a very dense trail network and lot's of thick woods (the light green doesn't show up well - what you can see is medium). Just about any leg over 100 meters long will be run faster on trails. So the only way to keep people in the woods is to set very short legs through woods of varying shades of green. Setting short legs in thick woods adds a lot of luck to the course.

On a short leg, even a small time loss is significant. There's no way the map can give you enough information to know the best route. You have to make your micro choices as you see the vegetation. If you decide to go left of one particularly nasty clump and then find that you're trapped over there and lose 15 seconds pushing through to the control, that matters. That one decision that had to be made without sufficient information has increased your leg time by as much as 20%. On longer legs, this sort of thing tends to wash out, but on short legs, it doesn't.

Parks like Laumeier are excellent venues for sprint-style courses: short legs at high speed with lots of direction change and route choice. Since you're running full speed, keeping up with the map reading is tough - even though the navigation is objectively simple. Trying to shoehorn traditional legs into such tiny chunks of thick forest yields a course that is either dull or frustrating (or both).

3/22/06 Representation

One of the challenges of mapping is determining how to represent unusual items. The cop-out is to invent new symbols, but I resist that. First off, it violates the principle that orienteering maps should be universal. If you have a new symbol, that needs to be defined on the map legend using a written language that not everybody will be able to read. The standard symbols are well defined in just about every major language.

Secondly (and more importantly, since English is read by anybody that would be using one of my maps), when running at full speed, you don't want to have to be losing your place on the map to read something in the legend.

Most importantly is the fact that a new symbol disturbs the pattern recognition that competitors spend so much time training. You can't recognize a pattern you've never seen before.

So, with that in mind, I set about trying to represent a set of bleachers on the UMSL sprint map. (Note: these will not be used for Team Trials, so I'm not giving anything away with this discussion.) Underneath the bleachers is a small building used for selling concessions. You can run behind the building under the bleachers, but you can only get under the bleachers from the sides or back (unless you wanted to crawl).

I first thought to represent this using the "impassable building" symbol on the side you can't enter, even though the bleachers are mapped as a "canopy". You can't really see it from the web file, but the outline is a bit darker on the front (left) side of the bleachers.

The standard is to use the "uncrossable wall" symbol on the side that you can't enter as in the image to the left. The question is: which is more important, the fact that it's uncrossable or the fact that it's a wall. Normally, the noun takes precedence over the adjective, but I'm not sure that's true here. A runner should be able to recognize the structure when they see it, but their route choice (typically made prior to seeing the feature) is influenced only by the fact that they have to run around to get to the control.

Having looked at both for a while, I think I like the second version better.

3/23/06 Carollers

As many readers of this site already know, during Carol's illness, she was attended by a large group of friends known as the Carollers. While this was a genuine reflection of love and support for Carol, it was not spontaneous. The group was organized by Julia Bonney, Greg Bostwick, and Sally Lockwood. The February issue of Hopsicare News has a cover story on what went into putting the group together. It's a good read for anybody who has a loved one with a terminal illness.

3/24/06 The Pig

The Flying Pig is one of my favorite meets. The field quality is usually very good, with many of the top Canadians joining the fray. The Cincinnati terrain is brutal - steep and thick - but that's actually good for me. I'm still not sure if I'll make it this year.

I had expected to have to work that weekend, but now I'm told that won't be necessary. Unfortunately, I relinquished my spot on the St. Louis relay team. I don't think it's worth the trip without the relay. I may wrangle my way onto another team. The team won't be eligible for US Champs, because everybody has to be a member of the same club, but it would still be fun to run.

3/27/06 Goin' long

I'm starting to push up my training volume. This is my favorite part of the training cycle. Going for increasingly long distances has always been fun for me.

One thing to be careful of is overuse injuries. Increasing distance dramatically also increases your chance of injury dramatically. This is especially true for me since my heel injury is still not completely gone. The rule of thumb is not to increase more than 10% per week. I think that's pretty conservative. If you have a good base from the previous year, you can probably up distance a bit faster than that. The idea is certainly right, though and it's always better to err on the side of caution - particularly if you're moving up to training volumes you've never done before.

Not counting mapping (which certainly has training value, but doesn't take much of a toll on your body), I was 6-8 hours a week in January and February. This month, I've been moving that to 9-12. Next month I'll get to 12-16 which I'll hold through the summer.

3/28/06 If the shoe fits

I really like my VJ Falcon orienteering shoes. They're light, reasonably durable, and have excellent grip. That's true of most O-shoes, but these ones have the added benefit of being comfortable. Normally I'm in agony at the end of the 3-hour race, but I had not pain in either the SLOC 3-hour or the Possum Trot with them.

So, it was with real disappointment that I learned that my bursitis is a rather common condition among wearers of VJ shoes. I feared I'd have to switch to another brand. I wanted to at least try to see if there was anything I could do to solve the problem.

I have very wide feet. I was born with flat feet, but I wore corrective shoes until I was seven and now have something resembling an arch. The resulting shape is a very wide forefoot. Most shoes crush the front of my foot.

It's not too bad in road running shoes, as I can just go a little big all around and put up with the heel being a tad loose. Off-road, that's a recipe for disaster, so I usually just have to put up with my toes getting crunched. I realized that the reason I like the VJ's so much is that this isn't the case. The forefoot is quite roomy while the heel is snug.

The problem is that I usually wear very thin socks and lace the shoes a bit loose. This resulted in the heel sliding around a bit. Since the heel fits pretty close, that rubbing was putting a lot of pressure on the bursit sac at the Achilles attachment point. Today, I tried wearing thicker socks and lacing the shoes very tightly. I could still feel the heel injury, but no worse than two days ago when I wore my trail shoes. Today's workout was at Forest-44 which is a good deal steeper and I was running the uphills faster since I was doing intervals.

I'm glad I've figured this out because it's really rare for me to find a good fitting shoe. (People think I'm old school wearing a Vitesse for Adventure Racing when Montrail has newer models � but it's the one that fits so I'm sticking with it).

3/29/06 Complex vegetation

Something we don't see too much of in Missouri is complex vegetation. Most of our woods are either mature forest with high visibility or really dense young woods. S-F, site of the Team Trials short course is an exception. Check out the detail in this 100m square section.

Fortunately, most of the map is not like that, or the fieldwork would have taken all year. Still, it will be fun to have a few controls where people have to read more than contours.

3/30/06 LSD

I'm not a big fan of Long Steady Distance (LSD) training. I know runners swear by it, and that makes sense because it fits the steady-state effort that runners shoot for. Most of my races involve large fluctuations in effort. Cycling is the most extreme case of this, as attacking and defending often require deep anaerobic efforts within the context of a much longer race. Orienteering and Adventure Racing also have their share because the terrain is so varied. You try to keep the pace even, but sometimes it's just not possible.

It's not that I don't do any long, steady efforts. I'll get in a run of marathon length or longer about once a month and I keep such efforts pretty even. All my other endurance training includes significant pace variation, typically in the form of uphill efforts.

Last night I did a workout I'd been planning for a while, but wasn't sure where I could fit it in. When the Pig went off the schedule, I had a slot for it. I rode for an hour and a half to get my body into endurance mode. Then I did a tempo run over to the gym at just below threshold. That was followed by some heavy lifting with the legs. It was all I could do to stagger home from that, but by the time I got home, my legs were already starting to feel better. I then rode the trainer for another hour and a half.

I think the advantage of a workout like this is twofold. First, it shoehorns two types of training into a single recovery period. Both endurance and anaerobic capacity require recovery time for the skeletal muscles. Might as well do them together.

More importantly is what it does for your head. I was having a hard time walking a straight line out the door of the gym but, after 20 minutes of running, I felt better, not worse. The second session on the bike was actually a pretty good effort. It's one thing to believe that your body recovers from intense efforts and can go on. It's another thing to know it because you've done it. That's confidence that can pay off in a tough race.

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