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  • About VJ
  • August 04, 2023 9 min read

    Orienteering is a land navigation sport primarily done by foot, but there are many different varieties, including mountain bike orienteering, radio orienteering, ski orienteering, and trail orienteering for Paralympic athletes, just to mention a few. As a cross country race, it has intense demands on your body and your gear.

    VJ shoes were in fact first made for orienteers.

    I personally have been participating in the sport since I was 8 and have been competitive since I was 18. I’ve represented the United States at the junior world championships and the world championships multiple times. 

    Biannually, there are regional championships around the world. This North American Orienteering Championship (NAOC) was originally scheduled for 2020 but was postponed for reasons we are all familiar with. So the anticipation for the event had been building for years, particularly since the last North American championship was in 2018 in the Yukon.

    This year’s event took place in the surroundings of Truckee, California. This meant VJ Shoes USA North American Orienteering Championships Greg Ahlswede that many of us had to prepare for the altitude and the possibility of high temperatures. I had spent a month in Telluride, Colorado, at just about 2700 meters/9000 feet to prepare for the altitude at this competition. As an aside, one of the wonderful parts of orienteering is how much the location we are competing in affects your preparation and your approach to competing. Naturally, high-altitude is a factor in many sports. But how many other sports consider a region’s climate? The characteristics of its vegetation? How detailed or vague its topographic relief might be? These seem to be unique considerations to orienteering, and they make travel for the sport all that more interesting.

    The Sprint - Routegadget - Course C10 is Men's Elite

    Sprint orienteering is a somewhat newer discipline in the sport. The first orienteers were primarily running distances of up to 20 or 25 km straight through the forest. A sprint race, in contrast, is designed to have a 12-to-15-minute winning time, which in the men’s elite category often translates to 2.5 to 3.3 km. It is usually contested in urban spaces. Many small European villages with their intricate street networks are perfect for the complex and fast navigation of Sprint orienteering. North America lacks many of these intricate street networks thanks to the forethought of early American settlers who didn’t want to make complicated cities. However, for orienteers, this means we often must run on university campuses or city parks for sprint orienteering.

    This year’s sprint was held at Northstar Resort just north of Lake Tahoe. While there was a small urban component, much of the terrain was forested, which is considered unconventional for Sprint orienteering. The course set her made up for this by creating “artificial fences” that are represented on the map with purple lines and in the terrain with caution tape. These artificial fences made for much more complicated rejoices and, in many cases, competitors missed the key choices, such as leg 8-9 on the men’s course.

    I was unsure of what to expect from my performance as I had started to get sick with something only three days before. I was sick enough that I even considered not flying to Tahoe and simply resting at home. So I went into this event unsure of where I would be physically and mentally.

    But when I started the event, the concerns melted away, and I was left only VJ Shoes USA Orienteering map focusing on the terrain in front of me, the map, and how to connect the two.

    I made several small mistakes but nailed the key route choices. Ultimately, this was good enough to give me second-place just behind Joe Barrett, another US competitor.

    The Middle - Routegadget - Course C14 is Men's Elite

    From the US team’s preparations for the middle distance, we had learned that there would be many areas of vague terrain. This means that there are few strong features to use for navigation. Luckily, we are allowed to run with a compass, which gives us an aid in vague terrain. We had also identified the most likely area for start and finish—which are kept secret until competitors traveled to the event and flip over the map at the start. So we knew that there would be an area of dense vegetation (low visibility) and little contour detail.

    When I flipped over the map, I could see that there were two distinct parts to the race: the first part was much more technically challenging while the second part was technically easier but faster. With this in mind, I aim to keep my pace well under the “red line” for the first part of the course in order to continue thinking clearly. I managed to do that with a few minor errors, but I could certainly clean up things for coming races.

    My biggest mistake came when I stopped trusting myself heading into number 12. Everything had been making sense up to that point, and when I went in for the final attack on the control point, the boulder I was looking for was somewhat hidden by the bushes around. I panicked and went back to the last point I was sure of and attacked again. This whole maneuver cost me about a minute and possibly a medal after I finished in fourth place. 

    The sprint competition reminded me of the importance of flow and making fast decisions for middle distance.

    While the winning time of the middle distance (30 to 35 minutes) is significantly longer than a sprint distance, the fast decision-making of the sprint is often necessary for middle.

    The Long - Routegadget - Course C13 is the Men's Elite

    The last individual race was the long-distance event, which has a winning time of 90 to 100 minutes in the men’s elite category and is considered the most traditional type of orienteering and the most physically demanding. Running for 90 to 100 minutes may not seem particularly challenging for many of the readers here, but I guarantee that maintaining high intensity for that time while running straight through the terrain has an impact that is difficult to explain.

    My best explanation is that I have never experienced anything so physically demanding as a world championship long-distance. Even my 100-kilometer ultramarathon was easier than this.

    The long distance does not generally require the fast decision-making of middles and sprints. It does require you to make efficient route choices that will save you time but also energy for the entire course. Another challenge is maintaining focus is simply not paying attention to the map and terrain could lead you into a mistake that cost you precious seconds or even minutes.

    There were two unforeseen challenges for me in this long. The first was that I was still feeling sick at the start of the race. I was able to run, but I could tell that something was off. This manifested as a mistake when I was running down the hill from 5 to 6 and went off of my compass bearing. Initially, I had no idea why I did this, but then I realized that my head was not in a clear space after climbing the hill to 5.

    Orienteers must often walk the limit of pushing their physical limits while maintaining mental clarity.

    It is no use to run 30 seconds faster than a competitor if it means that you lose 5 minutes to a mistake. I forgot that rule after punching number 5 and immediately pushing myself into 6 and not taking the time to go through my process and reassure myself that I was executing the leg correctly.

    The second challenge came on the entry to control point 7. On my route choice, I could tell that the logging road I was taking in had been extended significantly and the mapped vegetation was considerably different. It is a common issue with orienteering that other activities in the forest may affect the map in some way. The organizers always make their best attempts to adjust for these changes, but in many cases they happen at such a late point that nothing can be done. I should have stopped and reassured myself of my position as soon as I started to see that the vegetation was no longer accurate. Again, I felt the pressure of competition and rushed through the process rather than doing things

    This is probably my worst race at this event, but at seventh overall, I would say it is a pretty good bad race.

    The Relay

    Relay orienteering is one of the most exciting varieties. While in most races competitors have staggered starts to discourage following, the relay is a mass start with forking, which is where competitors are given control points that are very close to each other but not the same. This means that if you blindly follow another competitor, you may be disqualified at the finish as you didn’t punch your controls.

    But this mass start means that we can directly see our position in relation to our competitors. There is usually a forest section followed by an arena passage, where you can see how far ahead one team is in front of another.

    I was ecstatic to be placed on the top US team and to be competing against a VJ Shoes USA Greg Ahlswede Orienteering North American Championship strong group of Canadians.

    Many of the top men had started to get sick or injured at this event, but thankfully the US men’s team currently has considerable depth of talent. Leg 1 was Joe Barrett who speed was sure to give us an advantage. Leg 2 was Will Enger who does not have the same speed but is an extremely consistent performer and the type of person you want on a relay. As the anchor leg, I hoped that I would have the speed and consistency of my teammates.

    We fought hard through this competition and all three of us had clean runs. But that wasn’t enough to overcome the Canadian speed this year, and we finished second overall. Thankfully, there always seems to be another race to give it another try ; )

    Tying it all together

    While I was hoping for better results at this event, I can say that I am very happy in general with how I executed my process. It is not uncommon for me to be overcome with nerves and anxiety at events like this. But before the start of each event I took off my watch placed it in my back pocket and ran freely, only focusing on the task at hand and not the results at the end.

    I did not want to go into the competition thinking about how I was already done because of sickness. But in hindsight it affected me more than I wanted to let on. Ultimately, it is another part of the game.

    We have to play the cards that we are given, and the only thing we can do is to decide what to do with those cards.

    There were moments of growth and areas for improvement that I saw, including the ever-present need for better fitness, the need to check in with myself and recognize when I may be stepping over my personal red line and losing mental clarity, and the need to continue focusing on the process rather than the results.

    While we never went to Lake Tahoe, the forests and mountains around the region continually captivated our group. I love the northeastern US for its forests and rounded mountains, but there is something special about a place like the Sierra Nevada.

    For many of us, this competition was the first time we had seen each other since before COVID. It had been too long since our tribe and come together. So, even when we are surrounded by mosquitoes while camping next to a creek, I was deeply grateful for the chance to reconnect with so many good friends.

    One of my favorite parts of orienteering is that it brings me to spectacular and unique natural locations, both during the competition and outside of.

    Sometimes it is difficult for me to stay focused on competing when I burst through a dense area of Pine into an alpine meadow and simply have to appreciate how lucky we are to have these ecosystems and how we are also responsible for maintaining them for future generations.

    My primary takeaway from the 2023 NAOC is that North Americans are getting good. Traditionally this sport has been popular in Europe, and Europeans have dominated it. While North Americans are certainly not winning medals just yet, I can see the start of something very big at these events. I feel grateful to be part of it.

    The next competitions on the calendar are the Ottawa O-Fest and the Canadian Orienteering Championships in Montreal. After that, I’ll be taking over the short bike packing trip and then a return to normal life before competing in Spain in October. And I am very grateful to have VJ with me for the ride!

    -Greg Ahlswede @g_the_swede