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Blog Archives

10/1/07 October mapness

Inspired by the success of my "March Mapness" program last spring, I'm going to try it again this month. I don't expect to implement this exactly, but here's the plan for getting out on a different map every day in October:

DateMapFocus
1Forest ParkSpeed/Direction
2West TysonHills, also AM intervals on the track
3Cuivre RiverContact
4QueenyTransitions/HTFU
5Lafayette ParkDirection
6Chicago TBDContact
7CAOC SprintsCompetition
8Webster Groves Bike-O; also AM long run into work (18 miles)
9BablerLight green speed
10HawnContact
11Rockwoods RangeNight
12Tilles ParkSpeed/Direction
13Jefferson Barracks Competition (SLOC); also late evening intervals on track
14GreensfelderHills
15Cliff CaveContact
16Tower GroveSpeed/Direction
17EmmenneggerTest Loop (speed)
18Forest 44 Easy day; setting controls for Third Thursday series
19CAOC ModelContact
20Busse WoodsCompetition (CAOC A-meet)
21Country Lane Competition (CAOC A-meet)
22UMSLDirection
23LaumeierDirection
24Meremac Contact; also AM pace dial-in workout
25Weldon SpringNight/Rough (USGS map)
26Lone ElkDirection
27Creve Coeur Cut Fieldwork for new map; also Gumbo Flats 10K race
28St. FrancoisHanging controls for SLOC meet
29Creve Coeur LakeDirection
30WillmoreSpeed/Direction
31CastlewoodDirection

Classic distance orienteering nationals start two days later. Should be a fun month.

10/2/07 Hypoxia

First off, sorry to the Berryman fans who were expecting course analysis (who knew so many of you read this blog?) Maybe tomorrow, but once again I'm short on time tonight.

The reason I'm short on time is that I was out training a skill that I don't think very many folks work on. Maybe I'm the only one that has trouble reading a map when there's no oxygen going to my brain, but I doubt it. Many of my big booms have come just after crossing over a high ridge and dropping down the other side. I discovered this problem a few years ago when I analyzed all my legs with significant time loss and found that nearly a third of them came in this situation.

Since then, I've developed exercises specifically aimed at training map reading when you're out of breath, moving reasonably quickly, and fighting downhill footing. Today's course is typical of such sessions (click the clip for the full course). I run the uphill portions at just below VO2Max and then try to hit the downhill controls as accurately as possible while also recovering. Physically, it's a lot like a cruise interval workout (about 5-6 minutes near threshold and then 4-5 minutes recovery). That alone would make it valuable, but the mental gains are far greater. I rarely screw up this type of leg anymore.

10/3/07 Berryman route choice

Here's a leg from the Berryman that's a fine example of a route choice leg in an adventure race. Such legs aren't nearly common enough, in my opinion. Take your time deciding which route you'd take - this is an adventure race so you have plenty of time to look at the map. Also consider that the leaders did this in the day, but most teams hit it at night.

The northern route is the safest (I haven't drawn it beyond where it picks up the trail; obviously you'd just take the trail north then west to the control). Not only does it rely on roads and trails, but it also avoids the steepest slopes (which often turn out to be uncrossable cliffs in these parts). However, this route is also a lot longer than the other two.

The southern route is the riskiest. If you can get through the space between the slope and the river, it should be fast, but that space might be underwater or it might be thick vegetation, or it might not exist at all (USGS maps are notorious for dropping contour lines in ways that make it look like you can get through an area when it's really a cliff). If you got to the point where the river pinches up against the slope and had to go back, you'd lose a lot of time.

The middle route is just that. Some care needs to be taken in finding a good line down off the first ridge, but other than that, it's pretty safe. The extra climb over the southern route is somewhat offset by the fact that you should be able to make good time along the ridge top.

And the winner is... it depends. I ran the middle and southern route when vetting the course (daytime). You can get through on the southern route, although the vegetation is pretty nasty in spots. The southern route was about 5 minutes faster, which is pretty minimal savings given the risk incurred (done right, this is roughly a 45-minute leg). I would have chosen the middle route and not felt bad when somebody told me I gave away that little time. At night, I think the northern route has some merit. I'd still tend towards the middle route, but I'm pretty comfortable moving through tough terrain at night. If dealing with steep slopes at night is a problem, the northern route avoids that. Plus, the 10-15 extra minutes might well be recovered by the fact that you're following the trail into the control. Taking either of the other two routes at night, it would be fairly easy to cross either the trail or the jeep track approaching the control and not realize it, thereby giving away a bunch of time trying to relocate.

10/4/07 More Berryman routes

My favorite route choice leg from the Berryman course was this one from 22-23. Again, the leaders did it in the day; most did it at night.

Again there are three routes. Only two are drawn in because the route of taking the trail the whole way is already on the map. The southern route has the most immediate appeal, at least during the day. A lot of climb and possibly some nastiness traversing the slope along the river, but far shorter than the other two. I ran this one in just under 45 minutes. The lower trail is overgrown to the point it's not much use, but the woods aren't bad.

I didn't run the trail route, but it's so long and has so much climb that I'd only consider this if the team was really struggling at night. A team can almost always make forward progress on a trail, so if people are getting close to shutting down, this route makes sense. Everybody can eat and hydrate while not fighting vegetation. Another consideration is that from 23, it's a fairly easy leg into the transition to the 20-mile paddle, so you could push a bit on the climbs knowing your legs are getting some rest soon.

The surprising route (at least to me) is the northern loop taking the jeep track to the road and then cutting across the big valley to the control. It seems that this is too much longer for the savings in climb to help out. However, the fact that you can really run all of this (except for the climb up to the control), makes it a very fast route. I did it in 35 minutes without pushing particularly hard. In fact, I found the route easier than the southern route, despite the fact I was running faster just because it was such a nice break from the steep slopes. I thought this route might be marginally faster, but I was surprised by how much. This would be a particularly good route if your team was towing since that's much easier to do on roads than through the woods.

10/6/07 Intentionally bad

Good route choice is often critical in a meet. However, in training, it often pays to pick an off route. The key is to recognize what it is you're trying to train. If you're training route choice, then you want to try to pick the best route. Otherwise, you want to pick the route that best trains the skill you're working on.

Today, I ran at Palos Hills North in Chicago. It's a map I've had reasonably good success on. There are often good around routes where I can use trails to make up for my relative weakness on subtle terrain with thick vegetation. While that's great for meets, I took intentionally bad routes today and forced myself to go straight at controls, even when that route went through some low-speed and low-visibility areas. My "results" would have been very depressing in a meet; my pace was slow even by training standards. That's because it would be very unusual for a meet course to force you through such terrain on leg after leg without providing around options. From a training standpoint, it was a great session, even though the kilometer pace was nothing special.

10/7/07 Hot one

Who would have expected to be battling the heat in Chicago in October? We're not just talking unseasonably warm, here; this was seriously hot weather. Since today's meet was a pair of sprints, it wasn't a big deal, but it was strange to see people completely soaked in sweat after just 15 minutes of fall orienteering. Of course, in the second sprint, people were wet because the fast route to the second control involved swimming. Some people took the water route simply because it was a way to cool down.

Sadly, not everybody was running sprint distance today. The Chicago Marathon had a fatality today and hundreds of runners were treated for heat problems.

10/8/07 1-dimensional

Anytime you are following a linear feature, it's a good practice to pay special attention to what direction you are headed. If you don't you start navigating in 1-dimension. If you turn out to be on the wrong feature (or maybe the right feature, but at a different location along that feature), you could have an awfully hard time relocating when you realize that something isn't right.

Today, I did an early morning run from my cousin's house in Chicago. I wanted to run for around 40-50 minutes, so I just set off looking for a counter-clockwise loop, figuring if I got to 30 minutes as wasn't heading back yet, I'd turn around. At about 20 minutes, I hit Crane Road (turning west from Randall). I didn't know where the road went and had no map, but figured that if it cut through, my loop would be the right length. The sun hadn't come up yet, but both Venus and a rising moon should have given me ample indication when the road turned north. I somehow missed that until I was almost to the northern part of the loop. When I realized what had happened, I knew my run was going to be a lot longer than planned.

I always tell people that without a map I don't navigate any better than anybody else. That sure was true this morning. But, even without the map, if I had been paying more attention to my direction, I would have known the road was not heading west and realized I had to turn around if I didn't want to run a lot further. Oh well, a few extra miles won't hurt any.

10/12/07 Missing the signs

The last few days I've been spending my "internet time" in the evening looking at engine suppliers and used cars rather than writing blog entries. My WRX broke big time driving back from Tuesday's workout at Hawn. The problem has all the symptoms of a bent rod, although such analysis is only a guess without actually opening up the engine. Now I have to figure out how to get some transportation without zeroing out the racing budget.

There is a lesson in all this. As is usually the case with major failures, there was some advance warning. About 10,000 miles ago, the car developed a rattle whenever you'd get off the gas at mid to high rpm's. It didn't sound particularly bad and I figured it was just a valve seal going bad or some other minor malady common to engines that have been driven reasonably hard for 100,000 miles. I figured I'd have it looked at when I had the next major service performed (I almost made it; I was planning that for later this month). Had the problem (assuming that it is a bent rod) been diagnosed and corrected when the rattle first began, I might have got off with "just" an engine rebuild. I'm pretty sure nothing less than an engine swap is required now. By dismissing a symptom as "things that happen with age", I let a serious, but manageable, problem turn into a catastrophe.

I've been trying to be careful not to make the same mistake with my body. There are lots of little aches and pains that I feel all the time. Some are old injuries, others are the result of current activities. These sorts of things used to just go away by themselves, but now they don't. I have to treat them and let them recover or risk turning them into serious injuries.

Three years ago, I thought I had bruised the bottom of my foot. It hurt, but I was able to run on it. It was actually a stress fracture. By continuing to run on it, I turned it into an overt fracture. I sure stopped running right away when that happened! The stress fracture would have healed faster and, more importantly, better. Because the bone was snapped clean through, there was a lot more scar tissue required to mend the break. Even now, it gives me trouble when I have pressure on the foot for more than a few hours. Two surgeons have looked at it and said they could go in and try to fix things, but it's probably best to just accept the fact that the foot is going to hurt on long runs and rides.

If you're doing a lot of training in Adventure Race-type activities, you're going to bang yourself up pretty regularly. It's a bit impractical to get every bump diagnosed. However, I've come to believe that it is pretty important to pay close attention to even the smallest pains and make sure they are not an indication of something more serious.

10/14/07 Don't touch it!

Kate, Yaya, and I went to a picnic this afternoon for all the people in our church with small kids. Olivia was trying her hand at piloting this little scooter type thing down the hosts' driveway and doing a much better job of acquiring speed than controlling it. Inevitably, she wiped out and skinned up her elbow a bit. In her bath tonight she was pleading with me not to touch it (this isn't exactly her debut at this sort of thing so she knows it stings when you wash it). I told her she could do it herself if she really scrubbed, but I'd do it if she couldn't. She tried, but couldn't bring herself to scrub hard, so I did it while she cried, "Don't touch it! Don't touch it!" Fortunately, she's pretty tough and just a minute later was splashing around with her ducks like nothing had happened.

After putting her to bed, I did some night training on the USGS quad around my house. I was scoping out some locations for the Third Thursday event that will end at my house. Most of the running was on trail or field, but midway through I was running on a sidewalk and reading the map when I tripped over an uneven piece of concrete. Even though I wasn't moving all that fast, I managed to remove a surprising amount of skin from both knees. So, I got to scrub out my own wounds as well. Fun stuff.

10/15/07 Rough cut

SLOC put on a local meet at Jefferson Barracks last Saturday. The clip at left is from the last of three loops. The total length was around 9K and the winning time was 85 minutes. That should give you some idea of how thick the woods were. The map isn't quite as misleading as it looks - the woods are generally mapped as light green, but for some reason the green printed very lightly so it looks like they are white. I think I would have mapped just about everything medium green, but I guess Rudy Schwarz (the latest mapper to make updates) has a higher tolerance for nasty vegetation than I do.

It's too bad the vegetation wasn't like what the map indicated. Little sequences like 10-11-12 would have been great fun in fast forest. As it was, the priority was simply to get out of the woods and onto trail or open areas as quickly as possible. That presents some interesting problems as well, but it gets a little old after an hour or so.

This map has been passed down through several volunteer mappers and it's really starting to suffer from "mapping by committee". The little section of woods just north of 1 was so thick it took over a minute to get through just the 50m of it. Meanwhile, the woods really did open up around 12 making the trail route unnecessary. Both areas are mapped as light green. This sort of thing is tolerable in local meets, so I'm not stating it as a complaint. My point is merely that rough maps like this one make it difficult to make good route choices. When a course is designed around route choice decisions, that's a problem.

Sadly, I don't see this map getting much better. It's not a good enough area to justify a full remapping and that's the only thing way to get rid of the inconsistencies. It's a fun little park with some very interesting terrain (particularly the southern fields), but properly mapping thick vegetation is very time consuming. I can't see anybody deciding it will be worth the effort.

10/16/07 Speed in the terrain

Most competitive runners do interval work. Even the ones who don't acknowledge they probably should. In orienteering and adventure race circles, interval work is less common (at least in North America). Some of this is simply time constraints; when you're training five or six different sports, it's tough to get in all the different types of training. However, given the centrality of VO2Max to performance, it seems that intervals make a lot of sense, even if that's the only running you get in.

I think the bigger issue is relevance. The connection between doing fast laps around a synthetic track and trekking through the woods for 12 hours is loose. However, who said you have to run intervals on the track?

It's certainly true that the track provides some very valuable structure to a workout where structure matters. I know exactly what 12x400@83 200R means, both in terms of what I'll be doing (12 laps at 83 seconds with half a lap of easy jogging between each) and what my body will be doing in response (heart rate will accelerate to max in the first 15 seconds and then drop slightly to around 98% for the remainder of each interval; during the recovery it will drop to 70-75%). Unless there's some other factor in play such as a strong wind or heat, I can run this workout very accurately without looking at my watch. That's because I've run so much at interval pace that I know exactly what that level of effort feels like.

And that's the key. Once you have your interval pace dialed in, you no longer need the structure of the track. It's still useful, but you can run your intervals anywhere as long as you are putting out the correct effort. That's when you can start running intervals in the terrain.

Running intervals in the terrain accomplishes several things. First and foremost, it's an interval workout. It's important not to lose site of this. If you can't run the correct effort and recovery, you're better off going back to the track. A major secondary benefit is learning to run fast through the woods. Running fast in the forest requires a much different stride than running fast on the track or running slow through the forest. At first, you'll trip a lot. You may roll your ankle a few times as well. But, your stride will adjust with practice and after a while it will seem just as natural as running fast in the open.

The really big payoff comes when you get comfortable enough with running fast that you can run your intervals while navigating. This is really hard to do. Aside from the fact that it's hard to think about much of anything when you're at VO2Max, the mechanics of staying upright while moving that quickly force you to get information off the map in very short glances. This reinforces a bunch of good habits like thumbing the map, leg simplification, and feature enlargement.

The map at right (click for full map), shows one of my recent interval workouts. The longer legs (800m - I ran them in just over 4:00 each) are the intervals. These legs are different from what I normally set in training in two respects. First, the technical difficulty is more like what would be found on an Orange (intermediate) course. I think that you are more likely to maintain the proper pace if you back off the technical difficulty one rung from your normal competition level (if you can run your competition course cleanly at VO2Max, you might think about moving up to the next level).

The second difference is the presence of the trails. I normally don't set training legs that use trails; I want to maximize my time running through the woods. For speed training, I like having some of the leg on trail so I can get up to speed and then try to maintain that speed when I leave the trail. Also, reading the map while running full speed on the trail is a slightly different skill than reading the map at full speed in the forest, so it's good to practice both.

A variant of this workout that I don't recommend until you are really comfortable with maintaining the right effort is to set all the legs through light green vegetation. All too often, one is tempted to significantly slow or even stop to get around some obstacle when moving through thicker woods. Running intervals in light green forces you to concentrate on driving ahead no matter what's in you path. It takes a lot of discipline and you will bang yourself up a bit, but it will also teach you that you really can get through thick stuff pretty quickly if you commit to it.

10/17/07 Adventure running

Tomorrow is the first of the Third Thursday Adventure Runs. Adventure runs are similar to regular orienteering, but are aimed more at adventure racers than hard core navigation purists. Aside from straight-up navigating, they typically throw in some sections with some special challenges (crawling through a culvert, climbing a rockface, etc.). The navigation runs on the easy side, putting a premium on moving quickly and making good decisions. They are also mass-start affairs, so you get the fun of head-to-head competition.

Thursday's event will be gimmick-free with all the controls on trails. That said, come prepared to read the map. It will be dark, which always makes things tougher, and the trail network at Forest-44 is fairly complex. There will also be opportunities to save time by cutting straight through the woods (although the best all-trail route is a pretty good choice if you're not an expert at night nav).

We're still not doing much in the way of publicizing these things as the plan was to keep these things low key training events for the first year. The plan is to do some real advertising for the 2008 events. I'm hoping that this format catches on and we get some decent sized fields in the future. With any luck, someday we'll have an event as popular as the Raid the Hammer.

NOTE: Most adventure runs, like adventure races, are team affairs. That is not the case with the Third Thursday Series. You're encouraged to run with your teammates if you wish, but the results will be scored as individual entries.

10/18/07 Ready?

It's back to national orienteering competition for me this weekend. I think I'm ready. I'm sure I'd be ready for a big meet on ridge and valley terrain, but Chicago is a bit different. The clip at right is typical. At first blush, it doesn't look that different from St. Louis, but it is.

The biggest difference is the density of the vegetation. Chicago's woods are much greener than St. Louis. The other significant difference is that the contour features are a lot smaller. The result of those two factors is that you generally don't have a big feature that you can spot from 300m away to help you stay in contact when running hard. You have to read smaller stuff that's closer to you. If you do lose contact, relocating can be a problem. I can correct almost any mistake in less than a couple minutes on our terrain, but a 5-minute error in Chicago is distressingly common.

To prepare for this, I've been doing some sessions in some of our greener parks (and intentionally going through the thick stuff rather than around). Last weekend's meet was particularly good prep because JB is not only thick, it's fairly flat as well.

Another thing that makes Chicago tough is that there are many parallel features spaced close enough to make an error, but too far apart to see one from the other. For example, at #4 in the clip, there is a similar reentrant just 50m to the west. Visibility is barely 20m. Thus, if you got just 30m off to the left, you'd spot the reentrant to the west of the control and wouldn't be able to see the right one. Unless you were supremely confident that you were left of the line, you'd probably go over to the one you could see and check it. In light green forest, that would set you back at least a minute, maybe two, which is a pretty steep penalty for being 30m off line.

To prepare for that sort of thing, I've been training a lot of short legs. As I've stated before, short legs force you to stay in constant contact with the map. My strategy for this weekend is to run every leg like a series of short legs by checking off a bunch of intermediate features (and really seeing them, not just hoping I'll see the next if I miss one). Navigating this way is a bit slower than the usual "stoplight" method where you blast the first part of the leg and then get more accurate as you approach the control. However, by running the entire leg in tight contact, the chance of a nasty parallel error is greatly reduced. Given my history on Chicago terrain, error avoidance is my primary concern.

On a different note, the first Adventure Run went great. Check the racing page for details.

10/21/07 Big Blues Weekend

I'm just back from the Big Blues Ramble meet in Chicago. I've got lots to write about, but not much time tonight, so I'll just give the highlights:

  • The fun factor was very high. Well organized, great terrain, interesting courses, and a small, but quality field.
  • My strategy worked well for the middle event on Saturday and I had a solid run. It turned out to be inappropriate for the other two events. My results in the sprint and long were well below what I had hoped - although that was less a function of strategy than execution.
  • The main takeaways are that I need a bit more speed in the terrain and I really need to work on leg planning. Too often I found myself just running in the direction of the control and checking things off as they went by. That's rarely the best approach to a leg.

10/22/07 Point and shoot

Well, let's start with the disaster. The sprint on Saturday afternoon did not go well. I'm not sure what the secret is to sprinting, but I sure haven't figured it out after two years of trying.

Saturday's course (click on clip for full course) had a lot of "point and shoot" legs. In fact, you could argue that all of them were. These are legs where the best strategy is to simply run in the direction of the control and look for the flag. I'd say these are my least favorite type of leg. That's not to say that such legs have no place in an orienteering meet; just that I don't much care for them. I prefer legs where you either have to read the map to navigate into the control or make route decisions (ideally, both).

You'd think with all the direction training I do in parks, I'd be pretty good at point and shoot legs. I'm not. I think it's because I don't recognize them and try to navigate rather than just running the bearing. That got me in trouble on a number legs Saturday. Rather than just running on the needle and pace counting, I kept trying to read all these vague vegetation boundaries (there weren't any contour features, so vegetation was pretty much all you had to go on). All the woods were pretty fast and visibility was good. I kept getting pulled off line looking for the little patches of thick vegetation when I could have just run straight at the control. More work to be done here, for sure.

10/24/07 Hard way

More on Chicago to come, but I've had no time to write lately. One reason for that is that I ran 50K yesterday, which chewed up about 4 hours of the day.

Today, my legs hurt. Well, duh. But I don't mean the usual I've-been-running-a-lot-and-now-I'm-tired hurting. This is the I'm-really-not-wanting-to-walk-down-those-stairs hurting. That doesn't generally happen to me except after competition efforts. I think it's because so much of the run was on concrete. About 20 miles was on concrete. Another 8 miles were on asphalt with the remaining 3 on grass. Concrete has all the shock absorbing qualities of, well, concrete.

I know I need to do a few long runs on hard surfaces to be ready for Boston next spring, but I'm sure seeing the value of doing most of my long runs on trail. The recovery is so much faster when running trails.

10/25/07 Something different

Check out the course at right (click for larger image). Not too interesting. But now change the rules a bit. You're on a bike and you can't leave the pavement (getting off to go up or down stairs is fair game). All of a sudden the course is a lot more challenging.

I "designed" this course in about two minutes before leaving work. I didn't even look at the legs; I just drew some circles on the map and connected them. I didn't look at the map until I got to the start triangle. Then I tried to ride the course reasonably quickly making route choices on the fly (I couldn't go too fast because it was raining, so my brakes weren't working very well).

I knew I didn't want to run hard today and couldn't get into the woods for serious technical practice. By cooking up this course, I was able to get in some tricky map reading and thinking about routes using a park map and keeping my legs fresh. It turned out to be pretty fun and was certainly more valuable than just jogging around the campus running easy legs.

10/26/07 Chicago race report

...is here.

10/30/07 Big finish

We had a great meet at St. Francois on Sunday. Darn near a disaster, though. Usually SLOC meets at St. F pull in about 40 people. We got 80. Fortunately, some of the regulars stepped in to help me.

The format was prologue and chase. David might have thought that he'd have an easy run with me out of the picture, but we had some out of town competition. In the end, David did get it, but it sure was close. You can read the full story on SLOC's Site. I'll post maps tomorrow.

10/31/07 33 Maps in October

The map-a-day plan for October was completely successful. I got out on some sort of map every day, and all but two of the maps were true orienteering maps. Of course, a few of those sessions were fluff, but the bulk of it was solid nav work in the woods, much of it at fairly high speed. Here are the stats:

Days: 31
Days on a map: 31
Total maps: 33
Orienteering maps: 31
Sessions with technical merit: 21
Sessions with near or above threshold effort: 17
Sessions with neither (fluff): 6
Total time navigating: 29 hours 25 minutes
Total controls visited (includes training locations not marked with a flag): 663

I'll actually be keeping the string alive through the weekend as I'm attending US Classic Champs in Washington DC. After that, I definitely need to tend to some domestic priorities that have been neglected.

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