Monday, December 31, 2007

2008 Goals

Because there is nothing like declaring a goal in public to make it hard to cop out, here are my 2008 running goals:

1. Continue to enjoy running with my friends.
2. Run injury-free, stay healthy.

Assuming those primary goals are met...
3. Complete the Umstead 100 mile endurance race in April.
4. Break the 10-hour mark in the John F. Kennedy 50 mile race in November.
5. Break 23 minutes in a 5K race.
6. Break 4 hours in a marathon.
7. Equal or exceed 2007 total annual mileage (1800+)
8. Get my weight under 200 lbs (for first time since college - would help for 4, 5, and 6 above).
9. Put in a few more volunteer hours on White Clay Creek State Park trails than I did in 2007.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Orienteering with "The Angels"

(scroll to to end of post to skip my verbiage and see the results)

Back in November, TrailDawg list member John Spillane was kind enough to point out an upcoming event that trail runners like ourselves might enjoy -- the Valley Forge "O-Marathon".

No, not an Oprah Marathon.

An orienteering marathon! So, you may wonder, what in the heck is orienteering? And where can I buy really snazzy outfits like the one this orienteering athlete is wearing?

Well, one question at a time, kids.

"What in the heck is orienteering?" Wikipedia* (*a free online encyclopedia written principally by adult males who live in their mothers' basements) defines orienteering as "a running sport involving navigation with a map and compass." Of course, if you don't like that definition, feel free to go online on Wikipedia and change it (Fox News allegedly changes Wikipedia articles they don't like every week). The guys from the basement continue: "The competition is a timed race in which individual participants use a special purpose map and a magnetic compass to navigate through diverse terrain (often wooded) and visit, in sequence, control points that are indicated on the map." As one can imagine, doing orienteering well requires 1) serious running abilities, 2) excellent map-reading skills, and 3) intelligence. I'd say they've got the average trail runner I know soundly beat on at least two out of three of those categories.

Orienteering athletes make quick and complex decisions, while running at top speed, on how to pick the best course through tough, variable terrain while reading large, complicated maps and accurately orienting their compasses. In contrast, trail runners typically run around in the woods like idiots, hoping that one of our pals put out enough flags for us to follow the right trails. Despite the my clear inferiority in running, map reading, AND intelligence relative to the average orienteer (an inferiority trifecta!), the lure of an off-road marathon-length event was too much.

The O-Marathon was organized by the Delaware Valley Orienteering Association (DVOA) and held Saturday, December 15 in and around Valley Forge National Historical Park. TrailDawgs Angus, Margie, Laurie, Brigitte, and I planned to try our luck. The weather forecast was looking kind of rough a few days ahead of the meet -- it called for snow, sleet, rain, with temperatures hovering around the freezing point.

On Saturday morning, things looked better than expected. It was cold (around freezing) and a bit overcast in the morning when I drove up, but no precipitation, and a new forecast that called for little chance of anything wet until the evening -- excellent running conditions. The meet start was at Washington's Headquarters, an easy drive of less than an hour from Newark. I arrived around 45 minutes before the start time, checked in, got my control card and hieroglyphic sheet (a bunch of nearly indecipherable symbols called a "clue sheet"). The organizers were nice enough to trust me with the loan of an e-punch and orienteering compass. Margie, Laurie, and Brigitte arrived soon after me, but Angus emailed that he was sick and unable to make it (clearly a very hardcore virus).

A few minutes before 9:00 am, about sixty competitors were assembled at the starting line, with a row of large plastic-encased maps carefully arranged on the ground in front of us. The meet had a stated 4:00 pm cut-off time for the finish, so seven hours to do a marathon distance -- no problem for your average TrailDawg, right? With the signal from the starter, everyone scrambled to pick up their maps and headed off uphill to the east. The TrailDawgs were almost immediately left in the dust of the real orienteering wizards. I don't think we orienteered the first control -- it was more like "follow those orienteering dudes!" as I tried to figure which of the five maps we were currently running on. We hit the first of the 50 control points for the day pretty easily -- right at the tree made conspicuous by the crowd of people carrying big maps. We each stuck our e-punches (a small finger band with a chip-bearing pointer) into the e-control (a little plastic box with a hole in it), waited for a beep indicating our presence had been recorded, and then it was off across hill and dale, maps flapping in the breeze, in search of the next control.

We ran southeastward across a field and found control 2, cleverly disguised as number 52. This is where intelligence comes in handy. It seems that most good orienteers have had training in ancient languages and are able to quickly interpret the mix of numbers and pharaonic pictograms on the sheet of hieroglyphics (again, "clue sheet" for the o-clueless). The clue sheet had a number 2, followed by a number 52 -- a-ha! -- that's why the 52 -- the "control code" for the second point. The numbers are followed by a series of small pictographs -- for this control, two similar to trees and then a circle with a dot on the left side.

Now, I may not have studied Ancient Egyptian, but I do have "the internets" at home, so the night before was able to refresh my memory on o-symbology and even print some cheat sheets. The first symbol indicates the kind of feature we should look for - in this case, a tree. The second symbol was a fluffier looking tree, providing details of the features appearance -- it would be a deciduous tree. The next symbol, a circle with a dot on the left side, indicates the position of the control relative to the reference feature -- in this case, telling us it is on the west side of the tree. Orienteering controls are usually marked by a hanging "control box" with a four-sided small flag, half-red/orange and half-white on the diagonal (like the sportily-dressed guy above has found) -- but, on this course, some were to be marked with small surveyors flags. Well, as it turned out, control point 2 (aka control code 52 - confused yet?) was right where it should have been on this west side of the tree. But, unlike the e-control at the first stop, this was an "old school" control like I remembered orienteering in college, a small hand punch with pins that stamp a distinctive pattern only found at that control. Margie was nice enough to stamp all of our tickets in the correct box, the first of many she would stamp this day, and we were off again.

The controls for this meet were spread out widely across Valley Forge park and environs, some requiring long cross-country runs (like from control 4 to 5), up to two miles, and others placed closer together (as little as a few hundred yards) or scattered around suburban business parks and neighborhoods. Most were fairly straight-forward navigational challenges, on the low to intermediate end of orienteering difficulty, placed near trails or fairly obvious geographic features.

There is a wealth of info on an orienteering map. They are highly, almost exquisitely, detailed, with patterns and symbols showing the location of various vegetation types, water bodies and wet areas, different kinds of roads and pathways, and man-made structures like buildings, all laid out on a topographic base map. This is well beyond the detail on a standard US Geological Survey topographic map and requires an awful lot of work by the map makers for these meet areas.

As Team TrailDawg worked its way past the few controls, we got into a nice rhythm. I tended to take the lead on route-finding, assessing the topography on the map and suggesting the best way to the next control. Margie would double-check me, looking for routes that might make it easier to stay on course. Laurie and Brigitte would follow along, making sure that what we came up with made sense. And, it worked! We marched our way from control 3 to 4, hitting the controls easily, and then a long stretch through fields toward control 5. We were generally mid- to back-of-the-pack, so definitely running at a social pace. At one point, somebody cracked that we were kind of a trail running version of Charlie's Angels, three glamorous, fit women and one guy making their way from one dangerous situation after another (although I'm afraid I was more a Bosley [TV version] than a Charlie in this scene). Our social director Margie struck up conversations with just about anyone we passed or who passed us (including the very nice meet co-organizer/national o-team athlete Angelica Riley). Many of the competitors were friendly and would greet us or even chat as we went along. We leap-frogged a father-son team at some controls, and were impressed that a 12-year-old would take on this half-marathon distance so enthusiastically. However, some of these folks were really very serious and focused on their tasks -- all in all, I'd say that our circle of trail running friends is a bit more friendly and chilled-out.

Anyhow, back to the course... Control 5 was on a new map, an area just to the south, and this control turned out to be one of the few we had to search for, taking a couple of minutes of hunting. Controls 6 through 18 took us south under the Pennsylvania Turnpike and into a patchwork of housing subdivisions, corporate office parks, little wooded thickets, and fields. Some of the controls used the e-punch system -- I had the band for my e-punch on my middle finger, so I'd "give it the finger" when we reached one of these. However, most of them had the old-school pin-punches, which we would eventually curse in the later part of the race. Good orienteers carry their control card in an easily-accessed clear plastic sleeve on one forearm and their clue sheet in in a clear sleeve on the other forearm. However, we're trail runners, not orienteers. We had our control cards stuffed in pockets, so at each stop we lost time fishing for the our cards in the mass of crumpled papers. Margie being the organizer she is, kindly took on the task of punching our cards at each control, even volunteering to punch cards for our competitors -- so many that, by the end of the meet, she seemed well on her way to a case of carpal tunnel syndrome (could she have been clever enough to punch the wrong box for our opponents? ha!).

Back north under the turnpike (and onto another new map) returned us to parkland and hills for the last leg of the half-marathon portion. A good example of orienteering decision making came up at control 22. A quick look at the map showed a nearly straight-line route from there to the next control, about a mile and a half up and over a good sized hill (350 ft climb) on a narrow path. However, as we scouted for the path, a friend of the meet co-organizer pointed us to a different riverside path as the best route. It was a good thing this made us take an extra look, because this less direct route did not add on too much distance (maybe 10%) but cut out nearly all of the climbing and kept us on a nice wide path -- so was certainly the fastest way for us.

After knocking off two more controls, we arrived back at the start, which was the half-marathon finish and the end of the line for Brigitte (I think she was 2nd place woman in the half marathon). At 3:27 into the race, I was a little worried about the time, with a holiday party to make in the evening, and was also a little tired, so I considered stopping, too. But, Margie and Laurie are encouraging types, so with their persuasion and a little food, I decided to stick to the plan and do the second half.

We saw a lot less of other competitors in the second half. Actually, thinking about it, I can only recall running into one and seeing another in the distance. The route took us north from the start along the Schuylkill River, across the river on a bridge (east onto yet another map), back south along the river, and through adjacent woods and small fields. In the flatter stretches of this part, the speedier Laurie and Margie would gradually pull away from me, but I would eventually catch back up as we searched for controls.

The next part of the course was in a suburban area to the north (and another map) around Perkiomen Creek, taking us behind The Dump (furniture store, not landfill) and through a park (where we ran through a flock of honking, pooping, pissed-off geese), before reaching a staffed aid station/check point (control 37) where we just barely made the 2:15 pm cutoff. Wow, almost a DNF for slowness, which would have been a first for us all! We were determined to make the finish without being disqualified, so we picked up the pace a bit. As we moved along, I plotted my new goal, a personal first -- DFL -- how many times in my life could I be Dead-Freaking Last?

We made our way through some hilly riverside woodlands (where careful navigation was required) and into an apartment complex, where one control was cleverly placed in the corner nook of a building by utility boxes. Soon after was another somewhat tricky control, hiding behind an old rusty oil drum -- I think the course-setters were applying a slightly higher difficulty level in this later part. After scrambling across the steep muddy slope under dual bridges for US 422 along Perkiomen Creek, we ran about a mile of bike path along US 422, unprotected from the breeze as clouds moved in and temperatures began to drop. This was followed by another two and a half miles of woods running on mostly dirt paths, with a few points of tricky navigation (and our only argument about where to go). It started to look like we were at risk of missing the cut-off time.

We quicky climbed up from the river bank to the US 422 bridge bike path, crossed over to the south bank, and headed west on what we knew was the home stretch. Margie said she could "smell the barn" and we tried to push the pace as we headed westward to each of the remaining controls, but soon it was clear we'd be at least 10 minutes past the cut-off. We had no idea how strict they'd be on cut-offs and were worrying aloud about whether we'd be DQed. Thinking some comic relief might help at this point, when we hit the 47th control, an e-punch type, at 4:01 pm, I pretended it didn't work... "ah hell, they turned them off at seven hours!" I yelled as I turned to my teammates. Their brief confused/disappointed expressions -- priceless -- before I told them, "Just kidding!"

Trying for further motivation to keep us pushing our pace, I kept conjuring scenes for Margie and Laurie that we could expect from officials at the finish if we missed the cutoff... "You trail runners are too slow for orienteering!"... "You are disqualified, and are not welcome back!"... "No times for you!" Somehow, though I was having to push to keep up with them, I don't think it helped our pace, because it eventually became even clearer that we'd be 20 minutes late (plus, they probably don't want to run with me anymore).

The penultimate control, number 49, was at the same spot as the first control of the day. We missed it on our first try (took one path too far east), but Laurie quickly and skillfully figured out where we needed to go -- she has this orienteering thing down pat! A meet volunteer was waiting for us by this control, looking for the stragglers. We did our e-punches and headed for the finish, happy we had done this enjoyable race and hoping our post-7-hour times would still count. As we approached the last control, I asked if I could have the honors of last place. We finished in 7:21 and change, with me being the last TrailDawg to punch-in. There was still some hot food available, so I bought a big cup of excellent chicken noodle soup and chatted with the volunteers and officials. Orienteering meets that use e-punches have a neat computer system for getting times from the e-punches, and no sooner had I finished my first spoonful of soup did I have a printout with my times for each control -- very cool!

The only uncool thing, found out the next day: I did not get my coveted DFL finish. Gosh! In fact, the meet organizers turned out to be even kinder and more merciful than we had expected and allowed five people to finish after us, the last at around 8 hours.**

**[post-script: when I wrote this, I forgot that there was an earlier start time at 7 am -- so I now am thinking the finishers with slower times than us did the early start. So, I may have been the last finisher, after all!]

Oh, and back to the second question at the start of this entry -- "where can I buy really snazzy outfits like the one this orienteering athlete is wearing?" Sorry, I don't have access to these fashion secrets -- my kids think I look ridiculous enough in my running tights.

FINAL RESULTS for those known to be on the Trail Dawgs list

Half Marathon (29 starters)
15 John Spillane 3:27:00
16 Brigitte Sheehan 3:27:57

Marathon (35 starters)
25 Laurie Reinhart 7:21:41
26 Margie Hughes 7:21:43
27 Peter McLaughlin 7:21:44

A few notes on orienteering...