Controlling The World Cup Sprint Races

My normal experience with controlling is that the planner has a first go at the courses. There is then a reasonably short discussion between planner and controller, and the planner comes up with a second set of courses that are pretty close to the final thing. With these two events it didn’t work like that, for many reasons. Planner Andy Jones and I probably went through at least five iterations of course shape to determine start, finish, spectator controls and course flow, before even more detailed reviews of exact courses. Read on to see just some of the problems we had to overcome.

University of Surrey

Orienteer at Guildford Many of you will have gone through Guildford on the A3 and noticed the somewhat unattractive Cathedral (at least to me, who went to school in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral and thus is used to better things). But some of you now know that Guildford Cathedral overlooks one of the most complex sprint orienteering areas yet found in this country. It was clear very early on that this was going to be an interesting area. The mapper returned from the first survey visit to say the map was so detailed that it would probably be unreadable at 1:5,000, and recommended we move to 1:4,000. This was just the first of many problems that required extensive debate to get to a final answer that everybody was happy with.

The course shape took a little time to settle down. The start and finish were effectively fixed, and the statue was an obvious last control. Early drafts of the courses had a long leg to the spectator control, but this had to be removed since it introduced a route choice that involved runners going back through the finish and start, which was obviously not a good idea.

Later drafts sorted this out, but had the Men running up the staircase near the finish and the Women running down it. I suggested we tried to get them all going the same way since when we had all six courses being run at once by the public this was a potential cause of trouble. This was one of the very few cases where the 5-O courses affected the World Cup courses, but I don’t think the World Cup courses suffered as a result.

One big problem was finding a road crossing that we were happy was safe enough. We didn’t expect much traffic, but even so the main road was busy enough to cause concern. We were particularly worried about people running out of the narrow passageways between buildings and straight across a road with no warning to traffic that they were coming. Putting a control by the roadside got around this. We essentially ended up with two controls that were just there to force runners to cross where we wanted them to, but they were cunningly disguised so it didn’t really feel like that.

Early courses had several controls around the lake, but Andy then spotted the two large scale ‘which way round the lake’ route choice legs that fitted perfectly with the chosen road crossings. These examples do raise a philosophical question. If you have a ‘right or left’ route choice such as this, should the two options be equal, should one be marginally better than the other, or should one be much better than the other? We settled for ‘one slightly shorter than the other’, but the difference may well be less than the overall distortion in the mapping. How do you make this fair?

Test running the courses showed the huge variation in technical difficulty and required technique between the parkland and the built-up areas. I would have preferred to finish through the complicated buildings rather than with an all-out sprint around the lake, but this simply didn’t fit in with the other constraints. The last control therefore looked like a simple road crossing and all-out sprint across the grass to the statue. The alternative of going back up the metal staircase and into the finish from the south was not only longer, but involved running up the metal staircase that everyone had already been up once and thus knew involved two tight turns that would slow them down. Even so at least one woman decided to go for this route choice, and had a hard time convincing the finish team to let her run backwards through the finish so she could punch the last control. Having said that the statue had been gradually migrating south on various versions of the map as we kept adding further map corrections.

After much discussion we decided to stop worrying about dog legs. When you have an area as complicated as this the route choice often came down to decisions about how to get around buildings. Two such legs in a row was a potential dog leg no matter what you did about it. The philosophy was to try to make them read the map as much as possible.

My initial reaction on seeing the legs out to the south of the cathedral and back was that they seemed a bit pointless. I test ran the courses and changed my mind, since they provided a good change in speed from the buildings. Andy was keen to show runners the cathedral, but was wary of having too many controls because of vandalism in that area. I have since talked to the control marshal who says that several runners managed to visit the wrong control south of the cathedral, even though they were both trivial.

We had great difficulty deciding on course length. Various people tried test running, but even then it was difficult to relate this to World elite speeds in this sort of terrain. We knew the courses were probably marginally longer than we wanted, but the last-minute changes had forced that to some extent. As it was the men were fine and the women were marginally too long. This was at least partially because people were making more mistakes than we expected.

Battersea Park

Heather Monro at Battersea We knew all along that Battersea would be a totally different type of race. There is very little scope for technical difficulty, so we set out for fast racing with maximum spectator appeal. What difficulty there was came through the use of lots of controls, variations in leg length, going in and out of every bit of wood we could find, and changing direction at every opportunity.

I think we should patent Andy’s ‘sprint triangle’ concept, with three controls very close together in a triangle forcing very quick changes of direction and the need for even faster map reading. We certainly caught some of the women out in the A Final.

Andy was keen to take runners through some of the ornamental lakes. I was less certain (safety concerns, possible damage to the lake bottom). Come the day and the three lakes were empty anyway, and we ended up having to tape them off. The spoilsport Controller also ruled out Andy’s favourite control site on a dog statue. This was of course because it introduced a dog leg. But I did insist that everybody went to the Pagoda and along the Thames.

We had long debates about how to deal with the public, and just how many people would be in the park on the day. The grassy area north of the lake is used for organised children’s football training at weekends, but we guessed that we’d be OK on a Bank Holiday Monday and that we wouldn’t end up running through the middle of a game. The formal garden west of the lakes would have been great to use, but in the end we decided it would simply be too busy to race through. On a visit to finalise the stadium layout we were somewhat horrified to spot a road-train of in-line skaters on the road outside the stadium. This was travelling at some speed, but being probably 30 to 40 metres long still took some time to pass. This would clearly have caused trouble if a runner was trying to cross the road as it passed. We had marshals stationed at the exit from the stadium, but I’m glad we didn’t find out what they could have done if a problem arose.

The stadium controls were mainly inspired by David May, who was keen to allow spectators to see a complete leg being run. We asked the IOF to relax the 60m rule for controls on similar features, but they decided not to. This meant we had to drop the initial plan of having two boulder controls, in two separate groups, since we couldn’t get them far enough apart in the centre of the running track. This did save Mike Murray, the artificial boulder maker-in-chief, a fair bit of effort since we made do with eight wooden boulders instead of the twelve we originally needed. We did consider a group of statues and a group of boulders, or even a model of Battersea Power Station, but in the end had to settle for the hammer cage as one control, and then a leg into the ‘boulder field’. A surprising number of runners managed to run to the wrong boulder first.

For those who weren’t there, there were seven World Cup controls visible from inside the stadium, along with another four or five controls that were for the Surrey 5-O only. All World Cup controls were carefully placed to ensure they could be seen from the stadium. The final World Cup courses were heavily influenced by what could be drawn on the map around the stadium in an intelligible fashion. We needed to keep controls at least 30 metres apart, and I didn’t want the lines to cross too often. There are more ‘sprint triangle’ options here on the ridge to the east of the stadium which would have made a better course, but which simply got too complicated. We did seriously consider a map exchange to get round this problem, as well as building a fence crossing, but the fence is two metres high.

The two events were a huge amount of effort. The original thinking of keeping one planner and controller for the two events to maintain consistency was definitely a good idea, but neither Andy or I appreciated quite how much effort would be involved to get everything just as we wanted it. So was it all worth it? I have to say it was. The feedback from both events was very positive, from the World Cup winners right down to 5-O runners who also had a chance to have a go. We managed to show that sprint orienteering can be interesting and entertaining, and the whole World Cup turned out to be a huge success, thanks to enormous effort from a large number of people