Over Easter weekend, I joined a small crowd of North Americans among throngs of British orienteers (and quite a few elites from throughout Europe) for the JK, one of the largest orienteering events in the UK each year. This year there were 3,300 entrants, racing four times in four different venues. I met up with Sam Saeger, Ross Smith, and Alison Campbell from the US Team. The common theme for all these runners except me is that they either live in Europe or are traveling there for a long period of time - I chose to come on a weekend trip, for some more international race experience in a very competitive field, and a sneak peak at some of the UK terrain before I head to Scotland for the World Champs this August. Probably not the best race approach for this weekend, but a very worthwhile experience from the longer-term view.
Friday (straight off a red-eye) was the sprint race, at Lancaster University. The university had many canopies between connected courtyards, leading to some interesting route choices and potential traps. Even the part of the university with "simple" geometry was tricky thanks to the course setting, which kept the runners bouncing around like ping-pong balls, never with much of a chance to read ahead. I didn't fare too well on the combination of no sleep and a tricky course, making many mistakes, but every race is a learning experience, and I was able to identify some underlying problems in my sprint technique that hopefully I can fix before I race the sprint at WOC.
Saturday was a middle distance race, at Ulpha Park and Barrow Fell. The first thing that clued me in to the fact that this was no North American event was the 2km uphill walk to the arena from parking, on a very muddy, rugged, farm trail. On top of that, we had another 1.6km uphill walk to the start. I no longer have pity for folks complaining about a 400m walk to the start at the next A-meet! The terrain was a mix of "normal" deciduous forest, with moss-covered rocks and next to no groundcover, and completely open Fell. This was cool to orienteer through, because you could see for miles, but the terrain was knobbly and technical, with a fair amount of rock detail, meaning you couldn't just blast away in the right direction. It was a pity that the F21 course only had a few controls up there, I was loving it. Unfortunately my brain hadn't quite turned on, yet, and I had a few disastrous controls, losing something like 12 minutes. Ouch.
The long distance was up next, at Bigland. They had the old map posted in the arena, so I could see that we would get more open Fell running, which was really exciting. The area was totally socked in by fog when I started, which meant that the navigation got extra tricky on top of the fell, but with numerous stone wall crossings, it was hard to get too lost. The stone walls here are a thing of art - I'm used to decrepit New England stone walls that are sometimes indistinguishable from a linear rock pile - these walls are serious business here, needing multi-runged ladders to cross. The map had put a purple crossing point symbol everywhere there was a crossing style, making it easier to find the crossing points. Sometimes the fields were empty, sometimes there was a herd of cows or the occasional sheep, you never really knew until you got there. Always an adventure.
After the fell, the women's course dropped into a very technical rocky hillside. This felt similar to West Point in many regards, including long traverses through unmapped rockfields and gratuitous climbs over cliffs, but it led to some very fun orienteering! I had some company on and off, and was finding that I could run away from these girls on the uphills, but they were better in the technical stuff. With only 1 or 2 long legs, the long had the feel of an extended middle, which is not really my forte. Yet. Nothing like working on those weaknesses! I had been sort of looking forward to stretching it out on some of the long legs, but I guess that's not the style of course setting around here, and one purpose of the trip was to learn to adapt to that.
The final race of the weekend was the JK Trophy Relay, held at Graithwaite, a private estate whose property has a lovely map. After more parking in a muddy field full of sheep, you traipse back toward the arena on a 1.5km muddy logging trail, and the arena was the perfect setup with a hillside for standing on to spectate and multiple visible controls on the opposing hillside in the open forest. Unfortunately, there was a very wet marsh between these two hillsides, and that marsh was the start and finish for the relays. I watched so many kids lose their shoes trying to finish that race, but luckily mine stayed on.
I didn't have a relay, as the only female CSU runner there, but I put up an advertisement on the board at enquiries that I was looking for a team, and it turned out that two junior women on the Irish team were short a runner, so we joined forces in the elite ladies' race, with me on third leg. It was pretty impressive to watch such a big relay go off, and the "mini" relay for the under-14 juniors was pretty adorable too. By the time my runner tagged me, the marsh was an absolute mud bath, and the forest was swarming with runners going in every direction. So much barely controlled chaos, I love it! Thanks to the fantastic visibility in this forest, the navigation was pretty straightfoward, and I made a pretty clean run, except for an error on a control near the end where the obvious thing was to climb a hill and I didn't want to. I survived the mud pit of a run-in with both shoes, and we were the 16th elite women's team, which isn't bad for two juniors and an American!
Overall, this was a really great weekend. The races are so well run, and the courses so well set, that even when I had a crappy race, I had a great time in the terrain. Everyone I met was incredibly open and friendly, adding smiles to an already great weekend. I may not have achieved the WRE goals I had hoped for, but the experience of racing against the best out there can't be substituted, and I feel just that much more ready to face off against them again in Scotland after a summer of good training with CSU!