Thursday 3 September 2015

WOC Sprint-preparations 2015 (and 2016?)

Like last year I will tell you about how the Danish Team prepared for the WOC-sprints. I want to be open about it, because I hope it will be important inputs to make sprint-orienteering even better and more fair in the future.

But first some words about sprint in general.

I really like to do sprint-orienteering. It offers some challenges you can't get in traditional forest-orienteering. People who say that "sprint is not real orienteering" are somehow right, it's just very different orienteering...
In "real" forest-orienteering you have to make a plan for each leg (including routechoice (macro and micro) and simplification) based on experiences of the terrain of what is the fastest and easiest (from map to terrain). But often you go quite straight, and the difference from the best to the second-best, is the skill to understand the terrain when you run through it, adapt and maybe be flexible in your micro-routechoice (from terrain to map). Because often you change your micro-routechoice during the leg, when you realize that the runability and visibility were better somewhere else than planned. WOC-longdistance this year is a good example. You didn't know exactly how the terrain would be like, and had to adjust your origanal plans many times during the race. White and yellow on the map in Glen Affric had quite different runability on different parts of the map and compared to white and yellow in different parts of Darnaway. The kings of forest-orienteering (Guergiou and Hubmann) are masters to understand and adapt to all kinds of terrains, and that's one reason why they are amongst the best everytime. 
In sprint-orienteering (urban areas) the biggest challenge is to be able to see the fastest routechoice (often the shortest). It's not that easy as it sounds, and it takes quite much of practise to be able quickly to see the shortest and fastest routechoice every time. The fact that it's a matter of few seconds if you win or is 10th, demands very fast decisions. Complex and varied routechoice-legs on a sprint, really test your skills in fast map-reading and taking fast, but right, decisions. I guess that's why sprints are often held in urban areas, because it's easier to make many complex routechoice-legs here. Of course the execution of the leg is also important, but urban areas are often very similar, so it's much easier to do the execution than forest-orienteering, because the terrain seldom differs much from what you expected looking at the map.
As I see it, these two different "way's" of orienteering is the biggest difference of sprint- and forest-orienteering (including the surroundings). And I really like both of them!!    
The "problems" sprint-orienteering are facing right now, is the fact that technology and weird rules are taking away the original challenges of sprint-orienteering. Because the skill of picking the right routechoice is decisive, the advantage of knowing the area (the map) and possible routechoices, is quite big. If you don't have an old map, the internet often makes it quite easy to make your own, without even being there (like Venice last year). That is surely taking away some of the technical challenges.
But when you allow access to the embargoed area (like this year), first of all you make it very easy to make an accurate map and to prepare for all possible routechoice-legs. But the biggest difference is, that suddenly it's not unknown terrain at all, and the challenge of execution your routechoice in high speed is removed, because you can do it with your eyes closed.

As an example I will tell about the Danish Teams preparation before the WOC-sprint-relay 2015.      

Since the organizers this year made it legal to "tourist" around in the sprint-embargoes of Nairn and Forres, we knew that the advantages from the massive preparations last year wouldn't be as big this year. We had the first "tour" in Nairn and Forres on our trainingcamp in September last year, to get the first impressions of what to expect and train for. My first priority this year was the Sprint-relay, and since no map existed of Nairn, I started to make the map of the town in January (after the practical part of my master thesis).
I could do most of it from the internet like last year, with google streetview etc. The difficult part this year was the size of the embagoed area, being quite big (approx. as the background map I used - see below), and too time-demanding to map. So I had to take a guess and I started maping the "Fishertown", as I thought it to be most suitable for a sprint-relay. Luckily my guess was right... After that I mapped the town-center, and in the end I mapped the park-areas.

I was almost done in the end of March, and when we had our trainingcamp in the beginning of April, I spend 4 hours, walking/driving around EVERY road/alley/private backyard/garden etc, to check if it would be possible to go through. Some passages/gardens were very private, and I had to take guess if the organizers could possibly use it. As you can see from my map below, my guesses were not far from...

All winter and spring we have met once a week having competitions about drawing the best routes fastest on different sprints, like we did last year. Also on the existing map of Forres, and on early editions of my Nairn-map. After bulletin 3 was published in the end of May, with information about arena-locations and course-details, we started making possible courses to each other. Since the main-road from Inverness-Aberdeen was going straight through the town with a lot of traffic and no over- or underpassing, we excluded that the course would go south of the road. That narrowed the possible area down quite much... The course below, was a suggestion to a WOC-sprint-relay-course I made in the beginning of July, on our 3 week training-camp in Scotland 

And this was what the real map and course looked like. See some similarities? I didn't map the contours and the vegetation in the sanddunes, as I didn't expect it to make a difference to the routechoices.

On our 3 week trainingcamp in July, we made courses to each other, and went to the towns afterwards several times, walking around and discussing routechoices in the real conditions.  The area of the first part of the course (Fishertown) was quite straightforward. The tactic was to look for artificial fences, new passages (not many possiblities) and keep the map-contact at all time, because it would be easy to loose map-contact in the small streets. We discussed a lot if they would use the sanddunes, because it would be very difficult to map the vegetation  fairly there. We went one last time to the sanddunes-area after the model-event, because the modelevent and information from Team Leaders Meeting told us that we would go there. The tactic was to keep it simple and know exactly where you entered the sanddunes, coming from the town. After the arena-passage we entered an area with few streets, but with possibilities to open some passages through private backyards/gardens. I knew that my map most likely wouldn't be accurate here, and we had to be very careful in our mapreading here. The organizers had done a good job opening up some gates in private fences, making good routechoice-legs, but we were aware of that (Switzerland and Sweden made mistakes here on the last leg, loosing the medals...) In the park areas in the end we knew that it would be quite simple technically and very physical.
We discussed a lot if they would put up artificial fences, but actually we didn't expect them to do it, because it would maybe be a bit chaotic in a mass-start. Still we agreed that the incoming runner should shout "fence" to the outgoing runner, if they had put up fences. That was a good idea, at least I was very aware of extra black lines on the map, and avoided mistakes.  

All in all we were very well prepared, and knew more or less every possible challenge we could face, already before the race. The challenge was to spend enough time to take the right routechoice, and the execution I could do without looking at the map. I know that other nations made a map as well and spend many hours walking around in the town, but I guess it wasn't as much as the Danes. Of course we were all very well prepared physically, and with general sprint-technical and mental skills. But the specific preparations in Nairn gave a lot of self-confidence, and surely was one important reason for our success.  

A even better example of a sprint with no real challenges (other than running fast) was the Sprint-final:

I have already told my opinion of the terrain and courses of WOC Sprint-final, but I can tell you how we prepared for it. An old map of Forres already existed, but we (mostly Andreas Boesen, since he was only running the individual sprint) updated the old one with new passages etc. Here is a suggestion to a WOC Sprint-final course I made in July on our map. Note the two artificial fences closing the main street on two places. Quite easy to make a more interesting sprint....

I spend many hours in Forres as well, because I knew that knowing the small town would be very important, if I wanted to have a chance for a medal. The area was very small so we were walking up and down the streets/alleys/backyards/parks many times. Before the race I could walk down the main-street in my head and visualising every small passage and where it would lead. I had some key-words and pictures in my head for the most important passages like "Coop", "Clydesdale Bank", "tackle shop" etc. Unknown terrain and challenges? Yeah right...
But I would be a idiot if I hadn't done it, because the others are most likely doing the same?
I remember a discussion about the course with the Swedish medal-boys after the race. We could discuss routechoices without even having the map. Tue: "To first control, which passage did you take? Søren: "I wanted to take the passage with the wooden fence", but missed it and took the stairs instead". Jerker: "I took the passage at the wooden fence". Jonas: "I went through the passage at Coop". Tue: "Yeah, I also took the Coop-passage"...
At least the Swedes were well prepared, but I guess that most other WOC-sprinters reading this, know exactly which passages we're talking about here??
It was also quite funny that almost every time we were in Forres walking around, me met some of the French runners. I don't know if it was just a coincidence or if they just were so amazed by the big tourist-attractions in Forres, that they just had to spend every possible minute there?? :)


So is this kind of sprint-orienteering what we want? I'm pretty sure that I speak for all runners when I say NO! None of us runners want a course with no real technical challenges. Sprint-orienteering has the ability to be an very intense, different and cool way of orienteering, but as it is right now, the rules about open embargoes are taking away all the technical challenges. It's kind of a joke...
You can't blame the runners and coaches, because they are a naturally doing everything they can, inside the rules, to be as good as possible. But do I like to walk around in small Scottish town hour after hour remembering every little corner? NO... I would rather spend more hours training or resting, but I don't really have a choice...
I can't find any reasonable explanation why Forres and Nairn wasn't full embargoed. Is it more fair to allow access, because maybe some runners or coaches have visited the areas earlier, and then it's not fair for those who haven't? Maybe it's more fair, but you have the same problem with the forest-disciplines, when you use areas which have been mapped earlier. Of some runners have been there orienteering earlier, but you don't open the embargoes because of that. Why are sprint-areas any different? And don't tell me that some potential WOC-runners/coaches live/study in Nairn or Forres and that's why it was open. That's a part of the game you won't get around.
The best option is to choose sprint-areas which are not mapped before (and haven't much Google streetview). If you can't find suitable sprint-areas like that (like in Strömstad?), then make sure that you make the preparations as difficult for the runners as possible by closing the embargo fully, and make very challenging courses. If you can't do that (like in Strömstad?), then put up some artificial fences or forbidden areas, to keep the technical challenges high. Look to Finland where they have managed to make very tricky sprint-courses in very boring towns... (Sometimes a bit too much in my opinion, like the World Cup in Imatra).
Another solution (besides full embargo) is to embargo a lot of potential sprint-areas (a bit like they have done in Estonia at WOC 2017). Even though it's possible to make maps (or update old ones), it will be a lot more difficult to prepare for the runners.      

WOC 2016

The sprint-embargo in Strömstad has been open like Forres and Nairn, allowing everyone to walk around as much as they want. It seems like we're facing another preparation consisting of many hours walking in Strömstad and sitting in front of the computer updating and enlarge the existing map. And most likely we will also be facing another easy WOC-sprint/sprint-relay with no technical challenges, because we know it all before the race.
But bulletin 2 was recently published, and I don't know if the organizers have actually been listening to the runners or just thinking themselves, but now the sprint-embargo will be closed from Nov 1, and until WOC (Except 3 hours the day before the first race)
We can discuss forever if this is a fair solution, because it might be an advantage for the runners living close by, and unfair to the smaller nations/runners who haven't planned a trainingcamp before Nov 1.
Everyone agree that it would have been better to close it from the very beginning, but I don't think it's more fair to keep it open, because the runners living close by (which this time are the big rich federations) would probably still be better prepared than the others if is was open all time. That's just how it is, living and training close to the WOC-areas will always be an advantage (or having money and time to go on many training camps). That's no different from the forest-disciplins.

For me, the fact that the WOC-organizers and the IOF-controller is doing something actively to put back the technical challenges in the WOC-sprint, is much more important. Hopefully this is also a sign that the courses next year will be great and WOC-worthy again, and that coming organizers of WOC and other international events, will give us back the type of challenging sprint-orienteering we want and love.

Over and out!  


Anonymous said...

I fully agree!

Anonymous said...

Good article. I would question the "legitimacy" of the Danish preparations in relation to the objectives of having a "fair" race. Surely the race actually becomes unfair when some runners are completely unable to do the same sort of preparations. Eg. smaller countries who have no chance of visiting Nairn or Forres prior to WOC.
So yes I agree with Tue - lets go for full embargoes to create a more even and fair playing field.
Or here is a novel idea. Lets have sprint races outside Europe on "new" maps in places that cant be easily visited :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting article - but your faith in the IOF "doing something actively to put back the technical challenges in the WOC-sprint" is rather ironic given what happened in Forres. Here and in your previous blog you criticise the WOC sprint final course - and many would agree with you - but what you don't seem to understand is that the local planners wanted to make it more technical but were repreatedly overruled by the IOF, who wanted the courses and control placements to be as simple as possible, and insisted on the arena passage which produced the easy final section in the park.

andreu said...

Very interesting toughts and very interesting preparations. All of that is true, and I have the same feeling. It is not the same challenge when you know every corner of the map. But, in addition, there are not the same possibilities for every country and this is an advantage to the biggest federations.
I only know my case: Spanish team walked on Forres for 35min in total. It looks like Belgium team didn't walk that much neither. And still quite good results (5th and 7th).

I don't know really what to think about it, but it looks like IOF doesn't have a clear way to go on. They want more countries on the top, but making rules just for the best? but changing the sport?

Freefall said...

As Assistant Event Director I was involved from the very beginning on the choice of areas. Interesting to note that at one stage we had outline permission to close the A96 through Nairn and would have used part of the High Street and car parks. One thing that did of course give away the game was the fact we had to advise about road closures in advance - this included notices in newspapers and actual road signs. I would be interested to hear from you and other teams as to how closely you guessed the locations for the Middle, Relay and Long races as well? With the Scottish 6 Days sharing areas it was perhaps harder to keep everything secret, though all signed a confidentiality agreement. Nearly every photograph that appeared in advance on the website or the Bulletins was chosen carefully so as not to give away too many details. My email is if you want to reply direct (map sections would be interesting)

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