World Masters’ Orienteering Championships, Portugal

by Tony Thornley AIRE

It was all an accident, really. We’d not planned to go to WMOC. I’d never been to one having assumed they were too hard and too competitive. But I was asked if I would be the IOF Adviser for the WMOC in Switzerland in 2010, and was told (rightly) that I needed to experience one if I was to do the job properly. And IOF would like me to be a jury member. So I was committed.

I started serious training. I’d never orienteered in Portugal, so I checked out some maps: sand dunes. I followed a specially tailored training plan, borrowed from the Neil Stevens book of competitive croquet for novices. This recommended a series of long runs – about 20 minutes a week so as not to damage the knees - plus a few relevant events. I quickly sought out the Danefield WEI and the Knaresborough street event. And I practised my map reading by losing my glasses on Brown Clee.

Arriving at WMOC the first thing that strikes you is its size. Over 3500 competitors – mostly Scandinavian, with about 350 in my class, M60. “Masters” range from several former World Champions to recreational orienteers, and from the super-fit 35s to the (not always) frail and fragile 90s. Day 1 was the sprint (a bit of a contradiction in terms for most veterans) qualifier in the regional capital, Leiria. Five heats in M60 meant that I had to finish in the top 16 in my heat – out of 70 – to make the “A” final the next day. No pressure there then. The terrain is urban jungle with a bit of ornamental park at the end. To my surprise, it has some similarities with Knaresborough. Apart from a silly mistake through missing an underpass I have a reasonable run and finish 7th in my heat. Others are not so lucky. Eddie Harwood mistakes the local police station for a covered through route and nearly gets arrested; Ian Cooper finishes up in an underground car park.

The next day’s sprint final is quite different. The finish is in the main square of a small seaside resort. The streets around the centre are quite old, with some small alleyways, and they back on to sand dunes on one side and forest on the other. As in a WOC, start times depend on your qualification place, so I start about half an hour before the winners from the day before. These include Mike Hampton, who won my heat. My first few controls are in contoury but runnable forest – see map. I have four controls in the first 250 metres so have to think fast. Although a bit hesitant, I hit them all, including a longer leg across some lower visibility scrub to control 5. Then come two controls in greener forest and two out on the open dunes. Much to my surprise, I hit them all, losing only a few seconds in getting fractionally low at the 8th control. And I’m running quite well (not my forte) as the day is unusually cool. From the dunes to the narrow streets I tell myself that I’ve done the hard stuff, but to keep concentrating as I’m getting into serious oxygen debt. I try to plan the route out of the control as well as in to keep my rhythm going. Nearly knock a camera crew over and then it’s a straight run to the finish.

Absolutely knackered but elated! First completely (well almost) clean run for many years – albeit for only 14m 49s of orienteering. I’m optimistic that I may make my ultimate target – the top 20. To my surprise, I’ve done better than that. I’m in the lead, and stay there for about 20 minutes until three tail end runners, including Peter Gorvett (2nd), beat me. I finish up 9 seconds from 3rd, but I’m delighted to have run beyond my fitness level in such quality competition. GB did well in the sprint, with James Crawford (GO) winning M50, Liz Godfree (DVO) W60 and Elizabeth Brown (SO) W90.

After a day’s rest spent visiting some of Portugal’s magnificent monasteries and churches there are two days of qualification for the long distance. These are harder. Longer courses, hot weather and medium difficulty dune forest present a real challenge, although most of the terrain is pretty runnable. I have an early start for the first race and do quite well, with only a silly mistake right at the end spoiling a good run. The second race is harder, with more complex dunes and a late start leading to concentration lapses. Even so, I make the top 16 comfortably, finishing 9th in my heat. Ten of the other GB M60s also make the “A” final – a good performance.

The banquet follows the second qualifier. It is held in a beautiful nearby monastery which is a World Heritage Site. I have some experience of orienteering banquets from attending several WOCs. They are best described as free for alls - with food if you’re lucky. In Japan in 2005, the elite athletes cleaned off the entire food mountain before the officials could get near it. In the Ukraine last year, the British team were told not to touch the food as it had sat out on the tables in 30+C heat all afternoon. The WMOC08 banquet starts with a typical scrum for the buffet, with the servers behind the tables aghast at the competitiveness of 70 year olds for food. However it soon becomes clear that there is plenty, and veterans are, on the whole, more polite than starving 21 year olds.

Suitably refreshed by the banquet and a rest day, I tackle the long distance final. This is obviously going to be tougher than the qualification. The courses are championship length, the dunes are more complex and the visibility in some areas is quite low: a true test of orienteering ability. Also, it’s hot – mid 20s in the forest, but feels hotter. I resolve to go slowly, eliminate the mistakes of the 2nd qualifier and take on lots of water. The first few controls go quite well, if slowly and I catch Tom Lillicrap who started 10 minutes ahead of me. This breaks my concentration (despite being aware of the risk) and I lose a couple of minutes at a depression in a green area even though I try to walk into it from a good attack point.

Then things improve. Better routes through quite complex dunes, and a bit of luck when I find the 8th control despite not being quite sure of my position. I know I’m plodding, but I can go no faster without over-heating (lessons here in acclimatisation – Peter G has spent quite a lot of preparation time in Portugal – Danefield WEI is not quite the same). Near the end there’s a spectator control above the finish, and a nasty loop which I mess up a bit as I am knackered. Finish exhausted in 65 minutes, knowing I’ve had a reasonable run given my current fitness level, but that I’ll be a long way behind the best. Again surprised – I’m 6th when I finish, but gradually move down to 17th as faster runners come in. Peter is 2nd in 55 minutes – a super run – and Mike Pearson, a final year M60 is 4th – outstanding. I couldn’t have got near their times on the day, but even so I’m pleased.

And what of the jury? No misplaced controls, but several people fail to register controls on their dibbers. They get disqualified with no come back. One Russian M70 doesn’t punch at the finish, only doing so 14 minutes later when he checks his splits. He still makes the “A” final! Most difficult of all, the potential winner of M50 has not dibbed at one of his controls and has used the backup punch instead. He says there was a queue of people to use the SI box and he couldn’t wait (only vets form an orderly queue in these circumstances). He gets disqualified but, after a long debate, the jury reinstate him.

If you’re thinking of going to WMOC, don’t be put off by thinking it’ll be beyond you. There’s courses to suit everyone, a friendly competitive atmosphere and you can set your own targets. Jo was delighted to finish in the top half of W60C in the long distance, and her course was very good. Other AIRE representatives this year were Nick Jones (M50) and Robert Ker (M65). Next year’s WMOC is around Sydney in October. If you can’t make that, I’ll try to get the controls in the right place in the Jura in August 2010.