Returning to the Junior World Orienteering Championships as a coach was a fascinating experience. The pre-camp training sessions, long days in the starting quarantines and grappling with appropriate words of encouragement for my athletes post-race were some of the challenges. I can confidently say that the two-week Bulgarian experience increased my coaching knowledge and skills. However, added to this came a huge personal revelation that highlighted the difference between youth and adulthood.
Bulgaria: Bed bugs & blooms
Bulgaria is a new travel destination but with extensive racing experiences in neighbouring countries I was forewarned of its challenges. Small things like excessive supplies of cabbage the night before a race and temperamental water supplies could be among the simple trials. Easy to overlook were the stray dogs ruling the streets, horse & carts, bed bugs and dozens of Russian-built Cruella Deville-inspired hotels crumbling post-communism.
On arrival in Borovets, the alpine ski resort one-hour north of the capital Sofia, 2900m peaks overawed this excitable mountain goat. No amount of stray dogs or scary looking gondolas would bar my path. After a short bug-infested sleep I slipped onto the shady spruce-shrouded trails and began the large 1600m ascent towards the skyline. After an hour of climbing (and just a little stress about how late I might be for breakfast) I was rewarded with blooming alpine meadows and literally hundreds of butterflies. I have later heard that this is a hot destination for butterfly ‘twitchers’. Never fear, exhilaration ensured I was back for breakfast on time and my coaching responsibilities took over.
Pre-competition: Lessons on adulthood
The pre-JWOC camp rushed past in a blur of control flags out, control flags in. We trained alongside the New Zealand team and enjoyed the usual happy trans-Tasman banter. The athletes performed exceptionally in the eroded gullies of the middle distance maps and heavily vegetated long distance terrain. On many occasions they put me back in my box when I was misplaced and they were still perfectly in control. If it gave them additional confidence then I was only too happy to be lost!
Just prior to the commencement of the races we held a birthday party for one of our New Zealand athletes. She had turned twenty, the same age I was when I won the Junior World Long Distance and shortly after the Senior World Title in the Sprint Distance. These achievements are still bounced around and I have never really stopped to consider the circumstances under which they were achieved. Watching this athlete blow out her birthday candles and receive presents of Bulgarian pool floaties highlighted just how different 20 and 28 years of age is. I couldn’t help but realize that at some point we all transition from childhood to adulthood and begin to accept responsibility for all of our actions and words. I can now honestly say that at the age of twenty I was still a child. At twenty-eight I am an adult and now I am ready for that role. At what age the switch occurred I cannot say but I am eager to fulfill big shoes again.
JWOC – a little more than golden
I loved my role as coach of the Junior World Orienteering Team in Bulgaria. Aside from being outside all day every day, the most rewarding aspect of the job was watching athletes rise to the challenge of international competition. Under difficult conditions from the weather gods and Bulgarian Way, our athletes performed exceptionally. A huge highlight was observing our senior men and women walk away at the end of the week with heads held high. They had learnt from their younger years and applied the teachings to their 2014 races. Well-deserved results are the most rewarding! Our best Australian results were five top-20 finishes and if we take a little credit for our kiwi friends, a gold medal and two more podium places.
Conclusion – back to the real winter
In the involved process of preparing for my own World Senior Championships in the Dolomite mountains and ensuring our junior athletes were ready to perform, I had spent little time thinking about what it would actually feel like to return to JWOC and on the other side of the crowd barriers. Despite some strong emotional moments as I grappled with a changing of the ages, I loved every part of coaching at the international level. Without fail, returning home to negative temperatures is the rude awakening you never want. But warming me from the inside are fond memories of all that was achieved in the last six weeks and dreams of bigger things to come… I may have my ‘athlete’ shoes and ‘coaching’ hat on as I say this!
No, this is not a piece about schmoozy Italian men or Romeo and Juliet, but rather a summary of the harsh lessons of orienteering racing at the international senior level. I am writing this blog following the conclusion of six races in eight days. During this period, I have raced 38km through the streets of Venice or the hills of the Dolomites, and clocked up a total mileage on my Suunto Ambit of 125km. And whilst each of my results in isolation appeared strong enough, together they tell a story. The story of optimising your performance arousal.
The week opened with the sprint races around the islands of Burano and Venice. A photographers dream... a nervous orienteer's nightmare. Prior to a World Championships, each terrain or map area is embargoed. No athlete or their support crew are allowed to visit the area for 4 years prior to the World Championships. However, unlike the good old days where we 'ran blind', technological advances have created opportunities for orienteers to study the competition areas using Google Earth, Street View, Running Wild and other softwares. Even my Australian colleagues schemed, plotted and studied until right before the race, reminding me of that dreaded university cramming that I joyously left behind long ago.
I am not saying that these preparations are in vain. If one can control their nerves and help create a positive energy for the races then a huge congratulations for all the hard work. However, for me, this extra study lead to over-arousal. Nervous nights, waking weary, scattered thoughts and the jitters in quarantines meant that by the time I disembarked the boats for the sprint races, I was teetering on the lip of the bucket of nerves. Whilst this energy was exhilarating, out on the qualification course my actions felt mechanical, I struggled to absorb the information on the map, and I skittered around the course. Not an ideal start to my WOC campaign. This fitful start continued into the final where I felt tired from using up so much anxious energy. Under a hot sun, my thoughts and legs had to work hard to finish 24th. Not a bad result but the means to the end was disappointing.
My second race was a mixed sprint relay held in the town of Trento in the middle of the Dolomites. A new race to the WOC competitions, it was one which Australia had targetted. A team affair, once again I was also part of the plotting and scheming. I am sure my over-anxious state in the previous days had eliminated some of my nervous energy but I still rested fitfully in the hours into the evening race. An amazingly emotional pep-talk from our coach Tom & starting in the middle of a huge thunderstorm amongst the world's best orienteers saw a return of partial jitters. Once again, whilst my run was solid, I felt on the edge and often out of control. I also felt like my training could not escape from me leaving a lot of my running power trapped inside my body. Finishing 10th overall as a team we were delighted but individually, I knew I had more to give.
Thankfully I recognised how my nerves affected my mind and legs . Rather than stress myself further with more study and plotting, I decided to take the relaxed approach into my pet event, the Long Distance Race. I spent hours reading teenage novels on my IPad, enjoying Italian chocolate, and heading out on carefree walk-jogs. By race day, I was more calm although still somewhat stressed by my lack of apparent form when training in this hugely technical terrain.
After experiencing a pre-start with no toilet for the nervous starters and a 1.5km seriously uphill run to the start, I finally entered the forest. Amongst the dampness and relative stormy darkness I somehow found mental clarity and my running form. The remaining nerves subsided and despite a poor route choice judgment mid-course, I finished a strong 13th place. Not quite the result that I was aiming for but a step in the right direction.
Knowing that calmness appeared the easiest way towards optimal performance I was taking a relaxed approach to the few days leading into our relay. After a quick look at the terrain I was planning to spend two relaxing days spectating the technical middle distance race, catching up with the Aussie supporters and eating gelati. However, a last minute call-up following the illness of one of my teammates left me re-tying my sodden shoes and lining up in the Middle Distance race. I have a history of struggling with the navigation in this discipline which is renowned for being most technical. So here I was, standing on a World Championships start line having done no preparation for the race. I had one option - head out to have fun and run as close to the limits of my navigation. Nerves didn't even have a chance to kick in.
Out on the slippery slopes of these alpine meadows I experienced cows & brumbies on steroids, total piece of mind and mental acuity in the middle of yet another mountain thunderstorm. Yes, I still made some small errors but even when doing so, I felt sharp and able to adapt. My legs felt powerful despite many kilometres raced and thoughts of results never entered my mind. I ran with power, purpose and pure joy. Bliss. 15th was my reward in a red hot women's' field. I experienced similar calmness and exhilaration in our relay the following day.
So what is the lesson in all this? The weather in the Dolomites is diabolical at times and the cows there are certainly on steroids? Maybe. No, the true lesson in all of this is that if you wish to maximise your performance then begin to tune into your emotional and mental state leading into races. Optimal performance arousal varies for everyone. Some people need to pep themselves up and feel nervous to pull together their perfect run. Others need to feel overly calm to the point of sleepy. For me, I just need to be relaxed and having fun. Hours stressing over food, sleep, maps, Google Earth, course profiles and Street View will only detract from my true potential on race day. Nerves leave my legs heavy and my mind foggy.
In summary, the World Orienteering Championships have been a valuable progression in my elite athletics career. I have had to learn to be adaptable under intriguing race setups in Venice, tolerant of the temperamental weather in the mountains, capable of dealing with altitude in the races, and find a way of enjoying the feeling of 'the hangries' when dinner is not served until 8:00pm after a day of racing. I have tuned into my emotions and found my optimal racing state and when all has been completed, found pride in my results that do not quite reflect what I believe to be my true potential. Maybe next year?
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