I wasn't the type to stay up all night studying before a test. That's not to say I was always
prepared, but I just didn't put that much value on trying to learn a semester's worth of
material in a few hours. I'd do better if I just got some sleep and did the best with what I
My approach to training is not that different. I typically set pretty long planning horizons.
If I have a race I care about in six months, I'll start looking now at what I should be doing
to make little improvements between now and then. I'll start training on similar terrain,
looking over maps, making sure I'm targeting the right distance, etc. When these
adjustments are made well in advance, there's not much need to make big changes to
That said, I think there is some value in "immersion" training. Forcing yourself to deal
with the same patterns over and over in a short period of time helps to reinforce your
responses. This is particularly true when training the mental aspects of a sport, since your
brain isn't likely to suffer an overuse injury.
In this spirit, I'm going to do some heavy map training over the next two weeks. My
plan is to get out on a map every day between now and the
(March 16-18). I'm not sure what my longest streak is for consecutive days on a map, but
I'm sure it's less than 18 days. While such statistics are silly, I am curious to see how my
navigation responds to such repetition. Right now, it's a bit rusty. I don't really mind if
it's still a bit rough at the Pig, but I want it really sharp for Team Trials in May. That
event will be held on glaciated terrain (not my strong suit), so I'll need to be at my best to
turn in a decent performance.
If you just go out for a workout with no specific idea of what the workout is for, you tend
to rack up a lot of junk miles - workouts that are not hard enough to force real
adaptations, but too hard to be valuable as base or recovery.
The same is true for navigation practice. Most of us don't get out on a map often enough
to suffer from this. If you're only running on a map once a week (or less), just about
anything you do during that session will help. However, if you're going to go out on a
map every day for a couple weeks, it helps to have some plan for each workout or you
just end up running a bunch of lame courses at something less than competition speed.
Two or three quality sessions in the woods would be far more beneficial.
So, what's the plan to avoid getting in a rut between now and the Pig? I started by
looking at the areas I could realistically get to given other time commitments. I managed
to find a different map for each day (with the exception of Forest Park, since I'll have to
check the sprint course prior to putting on the event). Then, I looked at what particular
aspect of map running could best be trained using that map. Finally, I arranged the order
of the maps so there was adequate recovery between the harder physical workouts. Here's
what I wound up with:
Very short courses as cruise intervals
Control picking, easy pace
Control picking on flood plain, easy pace
SLOC meet, Red Classic (60-min)
Hilly course after 2-hour trail run
Creve Coeur Lake
Control picking, easy pace
Check sprint course, easy pace
Test Loop (33-min)
Test Loop (20-min)
Long legs, easy pace
Control picking, easy pace
Field/trail legs with controls in thicker woods
Medium legs with good attack points, easy pace
Setting sprint course
Flying Pig, Blue Middle (35-min)
Flying Pig, Blue sprints (2x15-min)
Flying Pig, Blue classic (80-min)
In the next few days, I'll write a bit more about the purpose column and how the
workouts relate to that purpose.
Obviously, a big part of navigation is moving in the right direction. So, it might seem that
any navigation workout is working that skill. That's true to some extent, but when I list
the purpose of a workout as "Direction", I have a more specific goal in mind.
First, let's be clear about what it's not. I am not referring to the skills of taking and
following a sighted bearing. Even if you could move quickly with that level of accuracy,
you'd still probably miss the control because it's a rare map that is accurate to 1 degree.
While I have encountered legs in adventure races that only give you bearing and distance
to the next control, that sort of thing is not really testing navigation. I don't think elite
orienteers are much better at walking a bearing than anybody else.
There are three aspects of direction that are useful for navigation: attack, rough compass,
and initial bearing. All three need to be trained, but when I refer to "Direction" training,
I'm really talking about initial bearing.
Initial bearing refers to how quickly you can get out of a control heading the right way
towards the next. This skill is useful on any course and crucial in sprints (losing 5 seconds
at the start of each leg will cost you 1-2 minutes; that's an eternity in a 12-minute
event). The only way to do it in less time is to have it all figured out
before you get to the control.
Most people speed up when they see the control flag. This is pretty natural. You know
you're not going to make an error once you see the flag, so why not get there as quickly
as possible? There are several reasons, not the least of which is that the "won't make an
error" assumption is false; you might lose sight of the flag, or you might have locked in
on the wrong one. The main reason, though, is that this "safe" period is the time to get
set up for the next leg.
It helps to be systematic. These are the steps that I follow. I might do things a bit
differently in certain circumstances, but I try to drill this to the point of being a habit.
Check the direction that you are coming into the control. This is absolutely crucial. Even
a small correction at the end of a leg can have you approaching the control from 30
degrees off. Larger corrections (or intentionally off-line approaches) can have you
coming in from the backside. If you just base your turn on the angle of the redline
without correcting for your real direction, you could be in for a nasty error.
Orient the map to your approach direction. I can't overstate how important these first two
steps are. You
need to be looking at the next leg from your current vantage point in order to make the
Determine the direction you want to leave the control. This is almost always the direction
of the next control, but it might not be. You need to accept your limitations with respect
to how much you can do in the 10-15 seconds approaching a control. I treat this as a
three-way decision: A) take the red line, B) take some other route that I've already
figured out, C) resign myself to working out the details of the next leg after
In the case of options A and C above, the redline gives the angle leaving the control (in
the case of C, I'm betting that leaving on the redline isn't a terrible thing to do - but if
that's really in doubt I'll stop at the control and figure it out. In the case of B, you don't
have the visual cue of the red line, so you have to be a bit more careful and mentally draw
your exit direction on the map. Don't blow this step off. "Go left" is not a direction. You
need to know the angle of the turn.
Visually find a landmark visible from the control that falls on your exit path. This
landmark does not need to be on the map - you're just looking for a sanity check as you
leave the control. In the woods, I typically identify a specific tree that I'll run towards.
This is important because you may have to turn your body to punch. In doing so, you can
lose track of your direction.
From the map identify a confirming landmark in the first 100m of the next leg. It doesn't have
to be right on your exit direction, but if it's not, know exactly how far off it is.
Now you can safely refold your map and orient it to your next direction because you
won't need to look at it again until you're on the next leg. If you're just a couple
seconds from the control, this step can wait until after you punch.
If using manual punching, make sure the punch card is held so that the clipper can reach
the punch square. On long courses, this may mean you need to flip it over to get at the
I check the control code when I read the clue entering the circle, but if I still have
a second to spare, I'll check it again here.
If the control is on uneven terrain (like the foot of a cliff or a stream), plan exactly where
you will step in and out of the control. You may have to step away from your intended
direction to get out of the control and you need to adjust for that.
Check the control code. Yes. Do this. No matter how sure you are. A mispuch will ruin your whole day.
Punch the control.
Pick up your visual landmark and run towards that.
By the time you get to your visual landmark, your compass needle should have stabilized.
Check it against your re-oriented map to make sure your direction is good.
Make sure you pass by your confirming landmark on the map within the first 100m. If
you're off by even 10-20m, check your compass and adjust. If you're way off, STOP.
Figure out what went wrong before you do something really costly.
That may seem like a lot to keep straight. But the steps are pretty intuitive. If you drill
them, they become automatic. And, if they're automatic, you can do the whole sequence without slowing down (except maybe to punch, but with epunching, you can often keep moving the whole time). I'll share some of my drills soon.
3/4/07 Cuivre River
I had expected that we'd have a pretty light turnout for the
meet at Cuivre River today. Although it's a great park, it's a one of the longer drives and
while the skies were sunny, the temps were a bit chilly and there was plenty of wind.
Happily, there was an excellent turnout.
Courses were set by Rick Armstrong, who I believe is the best course setter in SLOC. He
didn't disappoint. The courses were a blast in two senses of the word: enjoyment and
effort. You definitely needed to come ready to run hard. Click on the map snippet to see
the whole course.
On the long legs to 3 and 4, I took fairly safe handrail routes so I could run fast. I think
that paid off. The control picking loop on the north end of the course was a challenge
with my heart rate spiked from the long legs; I was glad to have an excuse to slow down
for a few minutes. There was very little climb by Missouri standards, but with most of it
packed into the last few legs, it was still a pretty physical course. While I only made one
serious error (turning the wrong way when I hit the stream at 7 set me back a couple
minutes), I started making little 10-15 second misses on the second half of the course. I
think that was just the effort taking the edge off my navigation.
My time was 62:31, which is 8 minutes per K. That's a good solid run for me, even in
the open woods of Cuivre River. David ran (and won) the 6-hour event in Kansas City
yesterday, so his second-place time of 70:45 was pretty impressive. Rob ran a time that
would have made it a 1-2-3 Carol's Team sweep, but he ran the course backwards, so it
was unofficial. In other bizarre performances, Yvonne had the fastest women's time, but
accidentally skipped #10. Ken DeBeer was running behind her at the time and said she went
within a few meters of the control. Yvonne says she just didn't see the circle on the
map as 9-10-11 were all in a line.
3/5/07 Direction drills
On Saturday I wrote that I drill my direction routine to the point where it becomes automatic. I
suppose I implied in that statement that I had already achieved that; that I fly through controls at
full speed always leaving on the right bearing. That would be nice, but it's certainly not true. One of
my goals this year is to get closer to that level.
The point of the post was not that you need to do those exact steps in the order prescribed, but that
you should have a routine that you regularly practice. If you're trying to remember the steps, you'll
probably screw at least one of them up. The great thing about drilling this is that you can do it
anywhere. You don't even need a map for most of the steps - just draw a few circles and north lines
on a piece of blank paper. Run along until you see something that you designate as the "control"
and go into your routine.
I generally use city parks for direction training. The higher feature density makes it easier to set
really short legs (since your just testing the first and last 15 seconds of each leg, there's no reason
to set a leg much longer than a minute). It's easier to run in a straight line in parks, so you can
better assess how close you came on your initial direction. You can run at a faster speed in parks,
so the premium on getting through the steps quickly is increased. Finally, given where I live and
work, it's a lot easier to get to city parks, so I save my precious "woods" training for drills that
require a forest.
If you really want to be efficient with your training, you can combine this training with your fitness
training by running multiple courses as cruise or tempo intervals. I don't recommend trying to run
them at paces faster than that because your brain really starts shutting down once you get close to
VO2max. The map shown here (click for the whole course), is a direction course I ran last week. It
has 14 controls, lots of direction change, and took just over 7 minutes to run. On this day, I ran
three such courses with 4 minutes easy jogging between. That came to 40 controls and 20 minutes
at cruise pace (90%VO2max). Including warm up and warm down, the whole workout took less
than an hour at a park that is on my way home from work anyway. That's a pretty nice training
return on time invested.
3/6/07 Skatin' on dubs
A lot of people ask me how I manage to balance family life with 600 hours a year of
training. Getting in to work by 6AM helps. I can get out in the woods after work and still be home
by dinner. Training rather than eating at lunchtime is another useful tactic. And, every now and
then, I buy Kate something like this:
That ought to get me at least through the spring season without too many complaints.
The truth is that I'm a bit of a
car nut myself. I've always been a fan of smaller, agile cars, but I certainly get the appeal
of 390 lb-ft of torque. I know, it's very un-PC to drive a V8, but at least this one turns
half the cylinders off when you don't need them. The mileage is not much worse than my
WRX Wagon and it's way better than the Grand Cherokee Kate was driving (neither of those
facts are setting the bar particularly high).
And yes, those really are double deuce rims on there. Now all I need are some gold teeth
and I can cruise out to Lake St. Louis and hang with
(Royal Gate Dodge,
who's internet sales guy spared us the usual used-car sales crap) gives
free tire rotation for life on every car they sell. We'll certainly take advantage of that. I've
never bought 22" tires, but I know they ain't cheap.
The funny thing is that we got a loaner minivan for the weekend so they could detail the
car. That would have been my first choice as minivans are by far the most practical
vehicles for outdoor activities (and just about anything else that involves a kid). Yaya
loved it. When David came over Sunday to drive out to Cuivre River with me, he saw it
in our driveway and said, "Cool, you finally got a van." But, I don't want to drive one to
work every day and Kate doesn't want to drive one ever, so we've settled on wagons.
Insanely fast wagons, but family cars nonetheless.
3/7/07 Mental stamina
It's my impression that the bulk of adventure racers put too little emphasis on training the
mental aspects of the game. Everybody recognizes that you have to train your body to
complete a long event. Most competitors have at least an informal idea of a training plan.
Many log their physical training. By its very nature, physical training is easy to grasp:
you have a task to do; you do it. Mental training is a bit harder to quantify.
Even with the obvious mental task of navigation, the physical aspects of getting from one
point to another generally get more attention than the mental process. Listen to
intermediate competitors talk after completing an event. Their conversations will
generally focus on describing what happened: where they went, what they saw along the
way, and whether they had trouble finding the control. Listen in on the elite and you'll
hear them talking about why things happened: factors influencing route choice,
terrain expectations versus reality, and the plan for attacking the control.
While it may be slighted in the area of navigation, in most other disciplines, mental
training is ignored altogether. This is particularly true in the area of mental stamina.
Mental stamina is the ability to stay focused on a task while fatigued. (This is related to
but a bit different from what I'd call "toughness"; the ability to exert effort in adverse
conditions.) Having your body go away is a huge distraction. In the case of severe
problems, it is almost impossible to think about anything other than how badly you feel.
This is a double hit: you're focused on the symptom rather than the solution and the
distraction makes it more likely you'll mess something else up.
You might think that if you just get yourself in good enough shape, you won't have to
worry about that. That might be true if you don't care about your finish position, but if
your body never fails you, you're racing way below your potential. Even if your body
doesn't fail you, you're still going to encounter situations where you have to summon a
lot of concentration late in a race. If you haven't trained that, you'll be sloppy at a time
you need to be sharp, with potentially disastrous (even fatal) results.
If you do enough long races and workouts, you'll develop mental stamina by default.
Like any skill, it can be developed more efficiently by specifically targeting it. The drill I
use is this: pick a day that would ordinarily be an active recovery day. The day after a
long workout is good. It can also be the day after a competition, but be careful that you
aren't pushing yourself to an injury. Drink water, but don't eat anything for several hours
prior to the workout (if you can go all day without eating, so much the better). Run for a
couple hours on trail. You don't have to run hard, you're just trying to get tired enough
that fatigue is a distraction. Now run a navigation course, preferably a control picking
course in very hilly terrain. Again, you don't have to go fast, but you shouldn't walk
either (except for hills that are so steep it's faster to do so). Run direct routes, staying
focused on your direction and map contact.
I should note that this workout is not much fun. Even if you do keep your head in it and
navigate well, it sucks to be bouncing over hills when you're tired and hungry. But, that's
the point. In about 3 hours, you can simulate a 24-hour race going wrong. Learning to nip
it in the bud by focusing on the task at hand can often get you through a bad spell before
things get ugly.
The most valuable lesson from this workout is realizing how far you can go after your
body starts complaining. That's not to say you ignore your body. In a race, you would
adjust your pace and food intake to fix the problem. By not doing that in the workout,
you learn where your safety margin is. That is, just how deep you can go before you are
unable to maintain sufficient focus. Navigation requires focus, but the penalty for
messing it up is merely time loss. In a race, you might be whitewater kayaking or
mountain biking when fatigue sets in. You need to know when you can safely continue
and when you need to stop and recover.
While I think that this workout is very valuable, it's important not to do it too often. For
one thing, you're denying yourself a needed recovery day. Do that too much and you'll
be injured for sure. More importantly, I'll say it again, this workout is really unpleasant.
Doing it too often can kill your attitude. I do it about every other month; less if I'm doing
a lot of long races.
3/8/07 Bouncing back
The "standard" recovery period for a marathon is six weeks (although many coaches
argue for longer). I don't think I'd want to do another road running race sooner than that,
but I don't have any qualms about doing an orienteering meet sooner. Last Sunday's meet
(14 days after the marathon) went well and that was a course that emphasized speed in
Based on that, I'd scheduled some quality workouts this week. Turns out I was being a bit
optimistic. I expected to feel bad at the end of Monday's workout (see yesterday's entry
on Mental Stamina), and wasn't surprised that I was flat for the next two days. That's the
normal recovery time for a tough workout. However, my legs are still shot today. I'm
guessing the marathon has a lot to do with that.
It's tricky to know just how flexible to be with a training schedule. Assuming you've put
some thought into the plan, you don't want to discard it just because it's inconvenient or
unpleasant to follow through. Many times I've found that I'll start a workout not feeling
up to it and wind up doing just fine. Such instances can be quite motivating. But, if
you're too rigid, you can mess yourself up.
This is particularly true when you are still recovering from a race or injury. It's fine to
hope that you'll bounce back quick, but you need to be ready to adjust your plan if that
doesn't happen. Otherwise, you'll just drag the recovery out or end up with a new injury.
I was looking forward to running the Rockwoods Test Loop this week. I like to do that
just before a big meet because it's good to get in the mindset of running legs fast.
However, it's clear that such an effort would be counterproductive. I still have a few days
to get in some hard stuff before the Flying Pig, but I won't be too worried if I'm not up to
3/9/07 Rough navigation
Rough navigation is basically a combination of two skills: large feature recognition and
rough compass. Large feature recognition is easy enough to understand: you look for big
features on the map and run your leg looking for just those features. This allows you to
run faster because you're not trying to read the tiny details on the map or stay perfectly
There's a bit less consensus on rough compass. Everybody agrees on the basic idea: run
fast and look at your compass every now and then to make sure you're still headed in the
right direction. The debate is over how it's used. Some people run nearly exclusively on
rough compass, using only very large features to correct. Others contend that rough
compass should only be used to get you from one feature to the next and map reading
should always be your primary means of navigation. I fall into the latter camp, but
concede that on a USGS map in a relatively flat area, you may have no choice but to rely
primarily on the compass.
Elite navigators prefer to stay in constant contact with the map. Part of this is because
there's no reason for them not to. They are so good at the advanced techniques that they
can employ them and still move just as fast. Back in the reality of my world, rough
navigation is a useful tool for longer legs. I can typically run a long leg about 30
seconds/kilometer faster than a short leg. This is mainly because I spend less time
looking at the map and more time picking a fast line through the forest. Some of it is also
due to the fact that long legs generally offer more route choice so there's more
opportunity to improve on the redline route.
The problem with rough navigation is that you need to turn it back off when you get into
the more technical areas of a leg. To train this, I set courses that have long legs
connecting little control picking sections. I set the long legs so they can be run fast using
rough navigation for the bulk of the leg. At the end of the leg, I force myself to get back
into the mindset of constant contact and try to get through the control picking section
without losing too much speed or making mistakes. Click on the map clip to see my
entire training course for today.
Yes, that is a 2.7 kilometer leg from 10 to 11. And, no, I didn't take the road (it's not a
bad route, but I don't' need to drive all the way to Meremac to train road running).
3/10/07 The death of correspondence
Let me start by saying that today's post is completely off topic. I won't even try to think
up a clever tie-in. Oh wait, here's one: I was listening to the radio on the way back from
this morning's workout when I heard an
interview on NPR with Roger Angell, the stepson of E. B. White who has just
published a bunch of White's letters. OK, not much of a tie-in, but I was dressed in
workout clothes when I got to thinking about all this.
Near the end of the interview, the question that always seems to come up when
discussing collections of letters did, in fact, come up: "How has email changed the way
people correspond." Of course, since this question is always being put to someone who
has spent no small effort editing a collection of letters, the answer is invariably something
to the effect of, "email has killed proper correspondence." To his credit, Angell wasn't as
whiney about it as most.
It's not that I disagree completely. There's no denying that for a significant chunk of the
population, thoughtful letter writing has been replaced with off the cuff exchanges that
would not stand up well to posterity. I don't save my personal emails unless there is a
specific fact that I may want to look up later. Even if I did, I can't imagine anybody other
than the recipient being particularly interested. But, since I hardly ever wrote letters prior
to the popularity of email, the change is of no consequence to a historian. I think the flaw
in the writers' complaint is the assumption that non-writers took letter writing seriously.
Some did, but most people wrote either infrequently or poorly (or both). With email,
people are much more likely to at least write something to stay in touch. And
while wit and pithiness are welcome additions to most communication, the primary goal
has always been just that: communication.
Meanwhile, those who pine for the carefully crafted message are missing the explosive
growth of another form of correspondence: blogging. (Hey! Another tie in.) Granted,
many blogs are crap, but many are quite well written. Unlike personal letters which
always seem a little uncomfortable when made public, a blog is an intentionally open
communication with an unknown audience. Rather than deny future historians the wealth
of correspondence they seem to crave, we've actually made it a lot easier for them to find
it. If anything, the problem will be that there is so much stuff out there, it will be terribly
difficult to make sense of it all.
I'm happy that spring is here and all. We had a really nice weekend and today the temps
hit 70. But, the tics are out already! What's up with that? I haven't got any, but Yaya got
bit by one on Saturday after running around in some tall grass for a while.
3/13/07 The mile
Like just about every other runner I know, I've daydreamed about running a mile in
under four minutes. I have a fleeting idea of this sort of speed as I have run 400m in
under a minute (albeit barely). Of course, the world record is nearly 5 seconds a lap faster
The mile is one of three distances that is so wrapped in mythology that it's hard to
separate the physical achievement from the context. The other two are the 100m
(generally considered "World's Fastest Person", although the average speed for 200m is
slightly faster), and the marathon (OK, I've said enough about that one lately).
It's not really clear why the mile enjoys such status. The 2-mile or 3000m
offer a much better test of aerobic max. Certainly, the
Bannister/Landy/Santee quest to break 4 minutes solidified the mile's status, but it was
already the premier middle distance event when that battle heated up and it continues to
captivate the imagination despite being booted from the Olympics decades ago. (That decision
has to be one of the worst ever made by the IOC - if they wanted metric, why not just go to 1600m
rather than the ugly 3.75-lap 1500 and keep the records meaningful?)
At any rate, the mile is still the distance to quote when talking about base speed.
This month, the fitness center at my work is having a contest for fastest mile on the
treadmill. I ran a 5:19, which I hope will hold up pretty well. Nobody will be able to beat
it by too much, because the treadmills only go up to 12 miles/hour. It's been a
long time since I've run a mile time trial. I'd forgotten how much the third lap hurts.
When doing "track" work on a treadmill, I still find myself visualizing moving
around the track.
I wouldn't count a treadmill time as any kind of record, but I think 5:19 is within a few
seconds of what I'd do outside right now. It's 25 seconds off my PR set in 1983.
That's only losing a second per year, so I'll take it. It was fun to run all out for a short
distance like that.
It's too early to tell what affect all this map training will have on my navigation. It's
pretty clear what it's doing to my feet. I'm down to five toenails, with two of the
survivors looking a bit ragged.
I'm not sure what evolutionary function toenails serve. I would guess they are vestigial
claws that are on the way out (though further natural selection on that trait seems
unlikely). At any rate, human feet seem to work just fine without them. I know that some
trail runners have them permanently removed. That step seems a bit drastic.
Aside from losing toenails at an unprecedented rate, my feet are doing pretty well. I have
no blisters and the callous is tough, but flexible. There's no indication that my shoes
aren't fitting right. I'm not worried about it and it certainly isn't slowing me down any,
but I don't ever recall having this many toenails messed up at the same time.
In what is probably the biggest local upset in the last few years, Mark Geldmeier knocked
off David Frei in the first installment of the Third Thursday Adventure Series. Rudy
Schwarz was right in there, too. The top three were separated by a mere 23 seconds.
That's the great thing about sprints: they're tight.
As expected, turnout was pretty light. We'll start publicizing things properly when we get
a bit more organized. In the mean time, check the
page for an important change in dates and venues as well as the full results from this
3/16/07 Pig hunting
David and I are off to the Flying Pig today. It's my first national level
orienteering meet in over a year and my first Blue (elite) course since 2002.
Should be an eye-opener. I'll probably update Attackpoint over the weekend,
but won't post anything here until Sunday night.
3/18/07 Great Pig
The Flying Pig was a blast. Both David and I had some good results (and some rather
embarrassing misses). Full report is
3/20/07 Seconds count
Overall, I'm pretty pleased with my results from last weekend. That said, there's still a
bigger gap between me and the top of the leader board than I'd like to see. Some of it is
fitness. The fastest North American orienteers run a 10K in the low 30's, and most of the
elite crew is in the 35-38 minute range. I'm on the slow end of that and I don't know that
there's much I'll be able to do about it. At 43, it's not realistic to expect big gains in foot
My navigation could be better. In both the middle and first sprint events, I was sloppy.
However, in the second sprint and the long I was only able to identify small errors adding
up to around 3% of my total time. The best North American navigators are a little better
than that, maybe losing more like 1-2%.
But, if those were the only problems, I'd be in the hunt at most A-meets. An underdog, to
be sure, but someone who could score the occasional win on Blue. However, even
accounting for the fitness and navigation, there are still 20-30 seconds per K that have
mysteriously vanished and that makes the total gap too big to bridge.
I believe this gap comes from what current US Champ Mikell Platt described to me as
"time bleeds." These are little things that you're not even aware of because they only cost
you a second or two. The problem is that they get repeated so often that they add up to
some serious time over the course of an event.
Examples of time bleeds are stopping to look at the map, getting stuck by a vine, tripping
and getting back up, climbing over a log or fence, etc. These things happen to everybody;
the key is how often and how much your running rhythm is affected. To borrow a term
from another sport, the fast orienteers are what auto racers would call "smooth".
I was never particularly good at racing cars, but I did get to the level where I could win
regional amateur events. I went to a few driving schools taught by some very good
drivers. One thing they always stressed was being "smooth". If you just sat in the car with
them as they drove the course, that might not be the first word you would use to describe
the experience, but it's pretty apt. The point is not that the accelerations aren't violent - at
the top levels of the sport they are close to what the human body can endure. Rather, the
key is applying those accelerations in a way that don't upset the suspension of the car.
The best drivers don't go into a turn as fast as they can and then slam on the brakes and
turn the wheel. They set the turn up by applying the brakes firmly while the weight
transfers forward and then rolling off them as they begin to turn in. On exiting the turn,
they apply the gas as they unwind the wheel, keeping the total load on the tires right at
(but not beyond) their maximum grip. Done right, it feels slower than hanging the car out
all the way around the turn, but it's actually faster and you exit the turn with more speed.
In much the same way, the best runners avoid sprinting to one spot and then having to
stop and do something. They anticipate what's coming up, both on the map and on the
ground and adjust sooner so their adjustments are smaller. They pick lines through the
woods that allow them to keep their stride going, even if that means taking a few easy
strides just before getting to an obstacle. Rather than taking one long look at the map (by
long, I mean longer than 1 second), they take multiple short glances so they can keep
moving without running into something.
When I started orienteering, I assumed that to keep up with the best I'd have to run as fast
as them and navigate as well as them. That's true, but I'm starting to comprehend that
there's a third element that combines speed and accuracy into a single unified act. I'm
going to have to think about the best way to train this, because I think it's the main skill
between where I am and where I want to be.
3/21/07 Rock on
I like to use my easy days to work on technique. Yesterday, I decided to work on reading
rock features. This is easier said than done around here because there isn't much to read.
It's not that St. Louis doesn't have rock; we've got lots of it. The problem is that it's
almost all limestone outcrops that tend to follow the contour lines. Reading rock features
around here is really just an extension of reading contour lines.
Compare the two map clips above. The first is from West Tyson Park, which is pretty
typical St. Louis terrain. As you can see, there are both linear and point rock features, but
they're not really telling you anything other than how far up the hillside you are. The
second is from Harriman State Park north of New York City (site of the 1993 World
Orienteering Championships and regarded by some as the best orienteering in North
America). Here, the rocks are the dominant features. You can get through an area like this
just reading the contours, but to find a specific feature, you need to be able to identify
which black mark corresponds to which rock on the ground.
The closest thing we have to complex rock terrain is St. Francois State Park. The rocks
still follow the contours, but they are broken up enough that you can't just treat them as a
single linear feature. To get to a specific rock, you have to match things up.
If the map clip looks a bit different than the other two, that's because it is. The
representation of the rock is a little weird on this map. All three clips are shown at the
same scale, so the symbols should look about the same. The St. Francois map was drawn
by hand and I guess the cartographer thought that it would be more readable using a
thinner pen. There are also some issues with what is represented as an outcrop, a boulder,
and what gets left off altogether. I think I've got it figured out, but I don't know any other
mappers that would use the same standards. Symbol set issues aside, the map is basically
correct. Control picking here at least gets me thinking about paying attention to rock
features and that's a good thing even if the map is a bit odd.
Those who follow my training log on Attack Point may have noticed a little
I'm having with Rudy Schwarz over being negative. It's not that amusing, since Rudy's
not the type to let it degenerate into a flame war. The details aren't terribly important, but
the underlying concept certainly is.
What we are capable of is defined by two things: our current capabilities and our ability
to change those capabilities. Both items have basis in the physical and metaphysical
worlds, but the first is clearly more reality based than the second. We've all heard
apocryphal stories of mothers lifting cars off their children and other such nonsense, but
the laws of nature don't mysteriously vanish just because you're motivated. While a
positive mental attitude may get you closer to your current limits, the big gains are
achieved by moving those limits over time. Physics has something to say about that as
well, but only the truly elite bump up against the real constraints. The rest of us are
limited by what we think we can do and the effort we devote to doing it.
This is not "rah, rah" talk about believing in yourself. If that genre of self-help advice
works for you, great, but I'm talking about a much deeper shift in the way one thinks
about performance. Consider the following four responses to the statement, "I've lost 20
In all four cases, the respondent may have been trying to be positive. In the latter two, a
negative message was built into the response (perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not).
"That's great!" This is a positive and affirming response. If only we were willing to leave
it at that.
"That's great! Keep it up." This is also a positive response because in our vernacular, the
phrase "Keep it up" is implicitly interpreted as encouragement rather than an indication
that there is more work to do.
"That's great! Keep it up and you'll start looking pretty good." Oops, here the respondent
has explicitly resolved the interpretation of "Keep it up" to mean that the job isn't
finished. This is negative.
"That's great! My brother lost 30." Also negative because it contrasts the
accomplishment with something more impressive.
Why does this matter? Well, if the respondent is someone else and you're disciplined
enough to not base your attitude on what other people say, it doesn't. But, these sorts of
conversations go on inside our own heads all the time. How we respond to our own
successes greatly affects our ability to work towards improving upon them.
I remember Michael Eglinski
commenting once on how rare it is to hear an orienteer describe their own race as "great".
They always jump right to the things that could have been done better, saying things like,
"I made a couple mistakes" or "Good, except for one boom." The reality of the sport (and
sports in general) is that mistakes will be made. Great performances include blemishes.
The World Series MVP doesn't get a hit every time they go to bat. The best quarterback
doesn't complete every pass. A win at the Masters includes a few shots from the rough.
Great orienteering doesn't mean that the performance was theoretically optimal; it means
that the athlete properly balanced avoiding and correcting mistakes with exerting effort.
In my case, that comes to 3-5% time lost due to errors. The elite are better than that, but
I'm not. If I run that cleanly, I describe the performance as good.
It's certainly true that improvement also means being brutally honest with yourself. A big
part of an effective training plan is identifying the areas that need the most work.
However, the motivation to put out that work is much more likely to come from seeing
some successes rather than a string of failures. It's important to recognize a bad result and
learn from it. It's at least as important to recognize a good result, say "That's great!" and
leave it at that.
With the influx of orienteers from down under on Attack Point, some Aussie cultural
references have worked their way into discussions. One is HTFU, which basically means
get tough. The real meaning comes from a Chopper video - Harden The F- Up, Australia.
At any rate, toughness does count for something in sports, so it seems reasonable to train
it. I've been running a series of workouts designed to improve my ability to keep my
speed going when I hit pockets of nasty stuff. The idea is not to just blast through, but to
pick a good line and not get knocked off it just because some piece of carnivorous
vegetation gets a hold of you.
The drill is to set a course with legs that go through a field or very open forest. The leg
ends with a control set in some crappy vegetation. I get up to speed running through the
field, pick my approach, and then try to run in and out of the control as fast as possible. I
think it's been effective - I felt like I was getting through the thorny patches in Cincinnati
better than usual last week. I certainly have more than my usual complement of scratches
on my legs and arms right now. This practice may come in handy next weekend at the
Fair Hill meet since that area is a mix of fields and woods. Most of the woods are open but
the boundary between fields and woods is often quite thick.
There aren't too many good places to do this kind of training in St. Louis. The two
obvious choices are Queeny Park and Forest 44. Queeny is more consistently thick while
Forest 44 has a lot more thorns. Lost Valley would be even better if we had an O-map of
it. By the way, locals may be interested to know that the culvert at the end of my route at
Forest 44 (see map clip) is a good way to get across the interstate. You have to duck
down a bit, but you don't have to crawl. It's short and straight, so you don't need a light.
You come out the other side right by the exit of Lone Elk.
3/24/07 On the road again
Today, I'm heading back to Ithaca to visit my family. We'll be there for the week and
then head down to Philadelphia for the DVOA A-meet. A lot of driving, but it should be
fun. At least Kate's new car will make it a bit more comfortable than the Florida trip.
Updates here will likely be a bit sporadic until I get back.