Ruairí’s JWOC 2019 Report
JWOC (Junior World Orienteering Championships) 2019 was held in Western Denmark, centred around the leafy town of Silkeborg. Silkeborg is the focal point of Denmark’s “lake district”, a forested and relatively hilly part of a flat and gentle country. Silkeborg and the nearby city of Aarhus (which would hold the sprint race) had previously hosted the 2006 World Orienteering Championships (WOC) which gives an indication of the quality of the terrain. The two weeks in Silkeborg were quite warm and sometimes wet, meaning I still managed to get sunburn.
Team Ireland heading into JWOC 2019 was a fantastic anomaly, as the team consisted of five girls and myself. This is perhaps the largest female Irish team ever sent to JWOC (this might need to be fact-checked) and a far-cry from the usually male dominated teams that are sent to major orienteering events. The team consisted of many of the same girls whom I have been competing internationally with for many years, like Eadaoin, Clodagh and Emer who are club mates at UCD. Ciara, another UCD stalwart, was making her JWOC debut. Finally, making her Irish debut was Emily, an Australian based orienteer born in Ireland. Emily settled in with the rest of us with ease, which is no mean feat given how well we all knew each other beforehand.
Orienteering in Ireland is a family affair and the JWOC team was no different, with our crew of coaches and team leaders consisting of Mike, Catherine, Steve and Nora, with Roisin joining later (all family members of the team). This group were the true heroes of JWOC, especially Catherine and Nora who kept us well fed. We really cannot thank them enough for their support and patience.
I arrived in Silkeborg on the Wednesday before the opening weekend, joining a bunch of the girls who had already been in the area training. JWOC this year had been a target of mine since the year previous, so I was very keen to get into the forest as soon as I could. Joining Team New Zealand and Australia for some training was great, especially when these teams included soon-to-be medal winners like Aston Key.
The terrain in Silkeborg is different to the wilder forests of Norway or Sweden, but still very intricate. Extensive path networks can be confusing, mixed in with dense patches of green forest to add some technicality. The white forest is extraordinarily runnable which made the races fast. The hills are steeper and tougher than you might expect which adds a level of unexpected physicality.
The sprint, held in a suburb of Aarhus, proved a tricky start to JWOC. As I later discovered in conversation with some of the athletes who finished on the podium, other teams had identified just how tricky the sprint would be and prepared accordingly. Most teams, using a combination of Google Street View and satellite images, drew their own very accurate, ISSOM standard maps of the area in order to get familiar with the area and its tight lanes and alleys. I had a look at some of these maps afterward and I was amazed by the accurate detail. Georg Groell, an Austrian friend who finished 5th in the sprint, even told me he had imported his version of the map into Catching Features, the orienteering video game, for some real geeking.
With the above as a precedent, I can more easily see why I found my sprint disappointing. I made continuous micro errors during my race, as the exact location of the control in the circle could be hard to see at speed. Between the circles my route choice was often sub-par and to top it all off I made one 30 second mistake which at this level will cost you seriously. Amongst the team I think we all found it tricky. The race was seriously fast too with top positions very tight. We were all delighted when Australian runner Aston Key won the men’s race to take a gold for an English-speaking country. Kasper Fosser, the Norwegian phenomenon who was overwhelming favourite for the whole of JWOC mispunched, forgetting a small loop of controls.
Next up was the long, the race which I was most excited for. After hearing the preparation other teams had done for the day before, we engaged in some serious map geeking using an online tool on World of O called Running Wild. I would find this really helpful, as being able to visualise where you are on the map compared to the arena and other controls personally helps confidence. This was the first major lesson I was to take away from JWOC. The long map was characterised by its steep sloped forest, which led to interesting route choices. We decided that the track option around the hills could often be a good idea both physically and as a mental break. With this in mind I used the tracks often during my race. It was a physical, fast Long distance but I really enjoyed it and pushed on, leaving everything I could in the terrain. Overall, I was mostly satisfied with my race, with only really small mistakes and some poor route choices. After finishing 69th at the Long in 2018 it was a little frustrating to finish 66th this year. I really thought I had more, but I can’t say I could have done much more on the day. The level of competition is serious. The girls also found it quite hard going. There’s nothing quite like the fatigue of the evening after the JWOC long.
Following the long was a rest day where we headed into probably the most famous map of Silkeborg, Gjern Bakker, for the middle model. Gjern Bakker hosted the 2006 WOC middle and is a runnable forest of varied contour detail and mixed vegetation. The Middle at JWOC has a qualification race wherein all runners are afterwards placed into one of three “finals”. Only those who finish in the top 20 of their heat get into the “A” final where the medals are decided. I have always struggled with the Middle at JWOC and my Qualifier race was not really an exception. However, I did enough to get into my first middle B final, being joined by two of the girls. Gjern Bakker is a nice area with a great central arena, allowing the map to be used for both the Qualifier and the final.
The Middle final had been organised to be extremely spectator friendly. The organisers even put the start in the middle of the arena to simulate how the WOC races are often held. This meant that as we ran out into the forest the commentators were already in full swing. I’ll take this opportunity to commend the quality of the commentary team and media at JWOC. We were all GPS tracked for every race, meaning all our routes could be watched live by spectators in the arena. The commentary team consisted of a bunch of young Danish guys who were very energetic and interested throughout JWOC, giving plenty of attention to all of us and not just the obvious candidates like Kasper. This gave the races a real sense of life and they even added some comedy in places. It’s great to hear Irish names be called out over a loudspeaker when at many elite races all the interest focuses on the leaders.
The middle final was organised to get the B and C finals done first before focus could go onto the A final. For us, there was a serious mix of disappointment and satisfaction. I had a really shaky start to my race but settled in afterwards and found myself moving well enough. Emily didn’t have much fun that day, but others were happy to be shaking the demons of earlier races. The highlight of the day was really spectating the A final, as several of our friends had qualified and there was ample opportunity to shout a mix of abuse and encouragement as they started, came through the spectator control and finished. Christian, a good friend of mine from Canada, was having a fantastic JWOC and it was great to keep up with his race in person and online using the GPS tracking. Christian has spent the previous spring based in Aarhus in preparation for JWOC and it showed, as his results were consistent. Another lesson learned.
Finally, it was time for the relay. I have recently discovered I really enjoy the first leg of the relay. Well mostly, as I found the first leg at Jukola to be maybe a little too much carnage. Due to the nature of the team I would be joined on the men’s relay team by Emily and Ciara, which meant we were all relaxed heading into the race. We started very fast, as one might expect, but I settled in nicely and orienteered as well as I had all week, making almost no mistakes. I found myself exactly where I wanted to be in the pack, passing through the spectator control only about 2 minutes behind the leaders which was really what I had been looking to do for the whole of JWOC. However, heading into the last loop I found myself in a big train of runners. We were all tired by this point and none of us really wanted to read the map, so as a group we managed to drop about 3 minutes through the last loop. Nonetheless, I finished well enough in 37th, buzzing after what had been one fun relay. In the women’s relay, Eadaoin had a fantastic run on first leg, proving that the best tactic for an orienteering relay is to do your own thing and not worry about everyone else. The real hero of the day was Ciara running third leg of the men’s relay. It was a really great day for everyone, but it was topped off by the GB girls winning the women’s and becoming Junior World Champions. I know most of the GB team personally and was delighted for them, having grown up and raced alongside them all for years.
We were all in good spirits heading into the most serious of all JWOC events, the party.
On Reflection, it was a JWOC which taught me many things for my future races. Firstly, although we had all done significant running training during the winter, it becomes very clear that in order to do well in orienteering at this level you have to be orienteering in quality terrain very regularly. On top of this, the top guys and girls are running at a savage level, posting sub 15-minute 5ks and sub 9 min 3Ks. I simply had not done the orienteering preparation required. This is very tough for most of us based in Dublin, as we simply haven’t got the access to quality terrain like the Scandinavians do. They are probably in the forest three or more times a week. If we want to do well at a world class level, it requires access to terrain which unfortunately would mean relocating to west Cork or more logically to Scandinavia. I’m lucky enough to say I am moving to Bergen, Norway for my Erasmus year next year which will probably give me a taste of this lifestyle.
Second, I now know the importance of serious pre-race mental preparation. Although I can never see myself creating my own version of the map, tools like Catching Features and Running Wild really should be as regular in my preparation as interval sessions. No map should be a surprise when you pick it up at the start of an international race. In an ideal world, it should be strangely familiar.
Looking to the future..
Going forward, I know I will continue to learn things about what is required in order to perform at major orienteering races. Senior elite orienteering in Ireland is soon to enter a new renaissance due to the efforts of the current generation to up the level expected to make it to WOC and beyond.
Lastly, I want to finish with a general appreciation for not only the team who gave their own time to join us in Denmark, but for the general Irish orienteering community. We have the pleasure to attend competitions like JWOC by the continuing support of the IOA. JWOC is not cheap by any means, but it is nice to know that we will always be represented and that we athletes have the basic ability to get to the start line fed and rested. I know that the current M/W 14s and 12s will be at JWOC in a few years’ time and they deserve the support I have been enjoying for years. Long may this culture of support and representation continue, as this breeds experience and therefore in time results.
Ruairi Long UCDO
Many thanks to Ruairi for taking the time to share his JWOC with us. Ruairi and the UCD orienteering team are currently competing at the World University Orienteering Championships in the Czech Republic. You can follow their journey on Instagram.