A Challenging Championships!

Last weekend’s Irish Championships provided a range of orienteering types and of running conditions to test the competitors in every aspect of their orienteering, from a fast and furious urban sprint race at the Maynooth university campus on Friday, through mist and heather at the Middle Distance on Saturday, to energy-sapping peat hags and 5-metre visibility on Sunday and even a bit of forest and some steep hills to finish us off on Monday.
Setanta Orienteers and Great Eastern Navigators came together to run the event, with GEN running the sprint on a lovely new map by Jonathan Quinn, and Setanta running the remaining three races near the Wicklow Gap. The sprint, where the Elite race was won by 3ROC’s Colm Moran by 2 seconds from favourite Darren Burke, had perfectly judged winning times of close to 12 minutes, with Colm finishing in 11.59 and Elite Ladies winner (no surprises here!) Niamh O’Boyle in 12.27. In a sprint, every second counts, and classes were won and lost by the smallest of margins.
The courses were confined to the northern part of the campus, with many small and oddly-shaped buildings, some grass and trees, and the runners enjoyed the courses, proving that it is possible to have satisfying orienteering without getting all wet and muddy! See the results, courses and routes here.

Saturday’s middle-distance event was another matter altogether, though. Luckily, the organisers were able to get access to the top of Turlough Hill, the ESB pumped storage electricity station near the Wicklow Gap, for parking, avoiding the long slog up the service road, familiar to runners on leg three of the Lug Relay. As we drove up the hill, the mist thickened more and more, until at the top the visibility was maybe 10 to 20 metres: what would it be like out on the course? Would foul-weather gear be required? A cold wind was blowing but it failed to dislodge the mist. The start, finish and car park were at the high point – about 650 metres above sea level, one of the highest drivable points in Wicklow (the summit of Kippure with its TV mast is a bit higher) but after the first control we dropped into the top of the Glenealo Valley on the side of Camaderry and the mist disappeared but the heather got higher.
A run around the sides of the mountain followed by a steep climb back to the finish in the thick mist completed the outing, and GEN’s David Healy, back from Sweden for the event, took first place in the men’s race with Niamh O’Boyle (CNOC) adding another win to her impressive collection. See the results, courses and routes here.

There is no doubt that the Classic race on Sunday was an epic and was the talking point of the weekend: the cloud level dropped even lower than on Saturday and visibility was down to about 5 metres. Competitors were getting lost in the car park, that’s if they could even find the car park. The thought of running 12.7 km with 530 metres climb and 30 controls was a daunting one for the elites, but equally daunting was the prospect of 1.5 km for M85’s. (One of the M85’s this weekend was Seán Rothery, who I vividly remember running in the first Irish Relay Championships at Ballinahinch in Co. Wicklow in 1975, an event I came across more or less by accident: this old man (why, he must have been at least forty!) steaming down the run-in with a gut-busting finish. How many sports are there that you can compete like that over a lifetime?)

The main feature of the map was the turf banks, an intricate maze of cuttings, knolls and gullies: in practically zero visibility, once you came unstuck, you stayed unstuck! Relocation was a matter of luck or of searching for some distinctive feature and trying again. There was a very high number of non-finishers and the range of times among those who persisted tells its own story. Perhaps the most extraordinary result, though, was the mere three seconds separating winner Marcus Pinker from runner up Colm Moran in the M21 Elite category, after more than  two hours of running in thick mist. In the W21E class, Maeve O’Grady (DFO) took her second Irish title, adding to her win at Inch in 2012.
Looking at some of the routes drawn on Routegadget is fascinating: the little spirals close to the controls as runners searched blindly and found the flag; the larger diversions where they went further astray in the mist in between controls, but few are a spectacular as Colm Hill’s excursion recorded by his GPS after control 3  on the Elite course, and very brave of Colm to make it so public! See his route below.

In all honesty, it was among the most challenging orienteering I have experienced: the only thing I found more difficult was the terrain used for the World Championships in France in 2011. In my own case, I threw in the towel several times only to suddenly find where I was and decide to continue a bit longer, a tactic which eventually saw me to the finish line. For me, fogged up glasses and thick mist meant it was pretty much “compass and pacing” the whole way round. I have to say that I thought the area was excellent, the map very accurate (though I still have to find that “indistinct path”) and it was much more runnable than I expected, the going underfoot a bit like Inishbofin, with low heather, grass and peat, undulating rather than steep: definitely worth a return trip on a nice dry, sunny day!

Interestingly, Turlough Hill, where there is an artificial lake on the hill top and a natural lake, Lough Nahanagan, at the base, only got this name when the ESB built the power station in the late 1960’s: before that it was called Tomaneena. A “turlough” is a disappearing lake such as is found in the Burren in Co. Clare, where the lake comes and goes depending on the water level. This wasn’t the only disappearing lake on Sunday, however: Lough Firrib (after which the map was named) proved equally elusive: several competitors decided to use it as an attack point or as a feature to relocate on, but couldn’t find the lake! (It was notoriously difficult to find using the old OS maps too).
A water station for the Elites provided a welcome recognisable feature, particularly for one runner who was offered a cup of tea there, which he gratefully accepted! Finishing on Sunday was a real achievement, so very well done all of you.
The organisers wisely recognised the limitations of the area for planning Junior courses, and ran the courses for the youngest kids at Oakwood, a lower down, simpler area of forest a couple of kilometres further west. See the results, courses and routes here.

Monday’s Relays also moved to the Oakwood area and threw in some boulder-strewn forest and steep mountainside. Apart from the mossy boulders and the steepness, the area was runnable and a complete contrast to the previous three days. CNOC took the Open and Women’s titles, showing that orienteering is indeed a family sport (Men: brothers Conor and Ruairi Short, Kevin O’Boyle; women sisters Niamh and Caoimhe O’Boyle, Regina Kelly), while Fermanagh Orienteers (Ros Hussey with sisters Eibhlin and Ciara Largey) rose to the occasion and taking their first major team prize, finishing second in the Women’s race, 20 years after that club ran the Irish Championships at the Burren on the Cavan/Fermanagh border. LVO finished a close 3rd, only 5 seconds adrift of FermO, while CorkO finished second in the Men’s race with 3ROC 3rd .See the results, courses and routes here.

John Shiels of Action Photography took a large number of superb photographs which you can see and buy on his website here.

(This issue of The Irish Orienteer will develop over the next couple of days when I have time, with reports on the JK at Easter and other stuff, so keep coming back! – JMcC)