Once in a lifetime: four times in a day

(An article by Paul Street reproduced from Lokation 90.)

I came last in an O-event on Sunday: it was one of my best days of the year.

Mostly you missed it. And so too the majority of the south east. A sunny Sunday in June, an event to attract many of the best orienteers in the country, see them run, join in, a party atmosphere, and yet the chance declined. Watching tennis or motor-racing or some such other TV sport perhaps? No comparison.

It was the SLOW Team O-Sprint; a unique event in the calendar. Teams of three, in two classes, competing in a four round competition. (Everyone runs four times in the one day.) The teams were randomly split into leagues of eight. Have a couple of rounds and then you’ll be matched against teams of similar strength. The venue was Bagshot Heath, which was ideal. A small runnable area of heathland with some hills and plenty of point features. Only drawback was the M3 going through it but the planner, Gordon Parker, coped well.

Simon Errington and Steve Bingham had agreed to keep me company. We were one of five LOK teams. Nikki-PaulV-Catherine, Julie-Ronan-Graham, Keith-SteveH-Alex joined us amongst the mortals, and Simon Bourne and the Mark brothers (Chapman and Hayman) rated in the immortals. Immortals? Read on.

We set off in our random group of 24 runners, having been told that you score your position in the whole 24. The team adds its three scores. Lower is better.

Down a track, through a tunnel under the M3, left along a shale track, up and around. We reached the edge of an open area atop a hill. Facing down into the woods we each got a map face down in front of us. The controller, Chris Robinson, is watching. Simon remarked that the situation was ripe for the first control being behind us off the back of the hill. Mark Hayman comes through, part way round his course, to generally encouraging comments. Now it’s our turn: GO. Everyone looks at their map and Simon almost instantly sees he was right and sets off backwards (he did turn round first). He leads the charge down through knee-deep vegetation. These other guys are fast! I spend a few seconds checking between the pit and the knoll that are the first controls and half a dozen pass me. 2.6km, seventeen minutes, one mistake and a lot of running later I get back to the finish in the assembly area. I am given the token for 16th to hang on the scoreboard. Simon and Steve have already been there; well done them. Points are totalled and we are 5th team of the 8.

Round 2, same teams, different start point; this time the open area where all the paths meet just beyond the tunnel. We cheer on some other runners as they come through, obviously having done a small circuit. Tricky first control causes the field to break up immediately this time. I have a better run and improve one place, 15th. Simon and Steve again ahead. Again 5th team out of 8.

Meanwhile the parallel limited competition, called the handicap, is progressing. Teams must not be above a certain points total, with different points depending on age class. SLOW and MV teams seem to be contesting this, as expected, but the five DFOK teams are evidently having a good time.

The assembly area is alive. Elite guys are reading their heart monitors, less elite guys are reading the Sunday papers and eating sandwiches. Everyone is drinking. Everyone seems very happy to talk to any of the hundred or so others. The scoreboards have clusters of people round them. The organisers frantically check cards and calculate new leagues. From now on they’ll be based on capabilities shown so far, so the races should be more competitive.

Unsurprisingly we find ourselves in the middle league of three. Come our turn again and off we set to another start. Er, what are Paul Hague (current British Relay champion) and Pete Kelly doing here in the same team (Southern Navigators)? Must have had a disqualification in a previous round (or the runners are changing round). Also here are the army team that has beaten us twice, and Nikki/Paul/Catherine. Two teams will be promoted to the top league for the final round, and two relegated. We expect we should be in the middle somewhere.

This time the start is a sloping track. The first control is through woods, contouring. And then a climb back up to the open area of the first start. Urgh. I recall Nikki seemed to be at the top very quickly. Then a descent to control 2 followed by a go down or up decision. I am with a SUOC animal, and we are both climbing out of the control. Nobody else coming high, so either we are wrong or we got different controls. Maybe the random allocation of maps has suited our team, those youngsters Simon and Steve getting the more physical courses. Halfway along and Paul Hague crosses, obviously having already been to 3. Won’t see him again. I get that one, the ground is getting a bit more familiar and the next two come where I expect. Then back to the tunnel, an army runner catches and passes me, two more controls and back to assembly. 8th? Simon is already in, having finished just behind Paul V. Steve quickly follows, and it becomes clear that we may have blundered and got 2nd. Sure enough the Navigators team and ourselves are promoted for the final round.

So about an hour later we set off for the final race, joining the immortals. The LOK elite guys say we should be their domestiques, not to bother punching controls, just carry drinks, lead rivals astray etc. Had one of them discovered he’d forgotten his compass at the start it might have been interesting.

It’s going to be a keenly fought race. The Lads’ main rivals are the top Guildford team of Iain Rochford, Keith Tonkin and Nik Pugh, and the international team of Alistair Landels, Charlie Adams and Bill Edwards. Not much weakness there, and considerable strength in major event wins (all of them) and world champs experience. Three SN teams (including Paul Hague, Simon Beck, Andy Britton, Steve McKinley) and a SLOW team are the rest. SLOW’s slowest runner was Richard Oxlade, who won M35 at our National Event in February (but he’s been injured since). And the planner has kindly stuck a spectator control and a run through assembly half way round.

This time we start in the woods, amongst fallen trees, waist high vegetation and uneven footing. Even though I have done several first legs in the JK and the British this was unreal; this was a once in a lifetime trespass into such an elite gathering. Not even the squad outings can be quite as distinctive. The maps were given out. How long have we got they want to know? Those that want do a little psyching. Some breathing, stretching, adjusting of monitors.

Then it’s off. I make the first control still in the pack (it wasn’t far and I was lucky with the vegetation). The difference is they’ve probably looked at the whole map by now, and are itching to start running properly on some tracks. I’m still with some others at 2, Simon comes in at the same time. I later learn he erred slightly in his choice of route. The leaders have gone. At 3 I get the further control, aim off a shade too much and am thirty yards behind a few others when we get back on a track. They start going. By the spectator control (as I learn later) I am doing 6 mins/km, am a minute and a half off the leaders, and am 24th out of 24. Sarah cheers me with news that Steve is only just ahead. There are a handful in sight as I run through assembly. I am a bit tired. I manage the next two controls accurately, but around the back of the assembly area I miss a pit, and realise I will have to relocate. An error of less than a minute but no way am I retrieving anything after that. It was fun while it lasted. Brilliantly Simon is 15th and Steve 19th, so despite my 24th we end up 7th in the competition (we beat the SLOW team). A marvellous day.

Up at the front the LOK Lads managed to win; very well done them. The International team was second, and Guildford third.

So thanks to SLOW and especially Alan Leakey the organiser. Will it run next year? Sadly it may not because of low the attendance. I hope it does, even if I can’t repeat the pleasure of final place in the final.