Friday, August 30, 2013

Relay Day, Susan's Birthday & Joe Brings Home the Silver!

Relay Day started out pretty sweet. The race took place in Rakvere so we only had to ride a few blocks to the start line rather than load the bikes in our vans and make a trek. It was also Susan's birthday so we began the day by giving her a mostly unintelligible Estonian birthday card (which turned out to have the word 'map' in it after Tom broke out Google Translate), and a chocolate cupcake from a local bakery with a large '0' candle in it. The '0' obviously stood for Orienteering.

Adding to an already special day, the race announcer wished her a Happy Birthday AND she was interviewed by an Estonian news crew after our relay. The interviewer was excited to congratulate her about her birthday, as well as inquire about the race, MTBO, and how she liked Estonia. Happy Birthday, Susan!

The MTBO Relay began with a mass start in which the rider of the first leg sprinted to their bike while simultaneously reading their map and planning their first route. Sue and Tom both took on the role of riding in the first slots and did a great job handling the pressure.

Each leg of the relay included two maps: a larger one with a smaller one stapled to the back. Once you reached the "spectator control," the larger map was torn off and dropped on the ground nearby for an official to pick up, and then you were off again with the smaller map. Seeing your teammate at the spectator control usually meant they would be coming through the finish area to tag your hand in about 10-12 minutes. After the shift change, the next leg of the relay rode through the parking lot to pick their two maps up where they were attached to a board and numbered for your team.

The shorter leg with the smaller map zipped around Rakvere Castle, a structure dating back to the 5th century, as well as near the famous Tarvas statue of an aurochs that's said to be the largest animal statue in the Baltic countries. It made for pretty fantastic views and terrain.

Susan, Sue, and I went back afterwards to snap a few photos and cheer on David as he was hammering through. 

The relay course went through an amazing amount of suburban forests around Rakvere with a pretty intricate and often rooty trail system. Steeper descents were an added bonus, too. You had to pay close attention as some of the major streets and residential areas were forbidden, leaving only a few options for crossing major roads or picking routes. A wrong turn down one of the roads could easily be a disqualification for your team.

Here's a slightly poor photo of the first map of the women's second leg. There should be a better version of all the maps available online sometime soon.

It was another strong day for the US in that we didn't have any mispunches or disqualifications. Fletcher had his best race yet and Dash was pumped about crushing it on his second map. As always, we left the race with an incredible amount of respect for the abilities of the athletes who are seemingly experts in this sport, and with inquiries on how we can create opportunities for more MTBO events of similar quality in the US.

To add even more good news to the day, our alternate rider and orienteering guru, Joe, raced his age group in the Open Category Sprint and took home the silver and second place! We would have missed his chance to stand on the podium had we not already been out eating dinner for Susan's birthday at the same location as the awards ceremonies. His successes earned him a mixed bag of beverages, including one of the local energy drinks, Jungled Battery. Great job, Joe!

Tomorrow will be our last race, the Long Course. After the men race 46k and the women 35k, we'll need to truck back to Rakvere, start packing up our bikes and gear, and also hustle to the final banquet and disco. It's going to be a busy day but we're looking forward to it. There may even be costumes involved.

We've been super lucky to have Dash's wife, Diane, along for the trip with some photography experience and a nice camera. She's been our team photographer at every event and captured a lot of the sweet shots we've been able to post. I'll end today's write-up with a pic she snapped this morning before the relay that we hope to send to our sponsors as a thank you. This is right in the middle of Rakvere's downtown area, just a few blocks from the Event Center, our hotel, and today's race start/finish area.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sprint and Middle Distance Summary

With two days of competition behind us, it's time for a rest day and the weather seems to agree. For the first time in a week, I did not wake to blue sky and sunshine; it's quite foggy out.

Tuesday's sprint race was rather a debacle for most of the American team as we let the pressure of the "sprint" lure us into rushing through the tricky navigation rather than taking the time for accuracy. At least for my part, this cost me more time in backtracking and relocating myself on the map than it would have taken to study the map more carefully in the first place.

Abra had the best performance of the day, finishing in 45th place out of 61 starts, cutting her sprint time in half from last year. Joe and Tom represented for the men, placing 57 and 58 out of 93 starts. The rest of us had a rough go of it and either punched controls out of sequence (easy to do since there were four different courses set up and a given flag may or may not be on the course you are riding) or navigated out of bounds and were disqualified (this happened to one fourth of the competitors). 

The map was challenging to read and at one point had racers weaving through a spiderweb of mowed trails through a meadow of tall grass, searching for the correct control out of many. Tom summed it up hilariously in the van on the 25-minute drive back to the hotel: "There's a control---GEET IIIT!!! No, that's not the right one! Wait, there's another one--GEEET IIIT!" 

During and after the ride home we poured over the maps and splits, reliving the chaos that it's MTBO sprint racing, comparing routes and sharing stories of our first race of the competition. We went to bed confident we would perform better in the middle distance event next day.

I woke up feeling energetic and excited about the race. The first day was anxiety ridden since most of us did not really know what to expect. Being in quarantine for hours before hour race start, the pressure of the start chute, and launching from the platform after a "beep" countdown rattled our nerves. This time we knew the drill and I resolved not to be distracted from reading the map and riding my own course.

Although we still rounded out the bottom of the field, all the US riders punched clean and finished with respectable times. Tom had the best race in 76th place out of 93, beating at least 10 Euros, and Sue led the USA women 56th out of 61. Today there were only three mis-punches (mp) on the men's side and none on the women's.

I made a few navigation errors, but overall, given my experience level in the sport, I was happy with my performance. I navigated quite well through the first four controls, then missed a turn onto a trail leading to a road crossing and had to backtrack a couple hundred yards. I found #5 easily, then turned onto a different track than I planned to #6 as I came to it from the opposite direction. I had to study the map a bit for #7, a flag buried in a network of hilly, bermy ATV trails. I punched at the same time as Carolyn of Australia and resisted the temptation to follow her, losing precious seconds to confirm my turns on the map. I took a gamble to #14 via a singletrack, but flubbed it up and ended up taking the long way around after all; #15 required careful attention. I navigated the remainder of the course fairly quickly to the point where I was in a bit of disbelief that I only had one control left and spent a moment reviewing the map to make sure I had really punched all the controls. I sprinted hard to the finish, fairly confident that I had done well, only to discover that I had the slowest time of the day so far. 

Alas, some disappointments, but we're learning a lot and getting to ride top quality MTBO courses. Although the Karaoke we were looking forward to did not happen, we had a great time socializing with members of the Austrian team, who are really fun, nice, and encouraging.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Opening Ceremonies and Pre-race Jitters

Joe and Tom are back from the team leaders' meeting, the team is briefed, and we're settling in for the  night with pre-race jitters. Tomorrow is the first of four official races in the World MTBO Championships!

After breakfast this morning, Tom and I set off in search of a laundromat and instead found a commercial laundry service. We were pretty proud of ourselves for navigating the neighborhood and the language barrier for the end result of returning at 3 pm to pick up bags of neatly folded socks and chamois.

The model event was a pleasant tour of Rakvere with only seven checkpoints, after which we went to lunch at the pub next to the hotel again then split up for an afternoon of errands: groceries for the week's lunches, trips to the bike shop, and picking up laundry.

At 4:45, we lined up in front of the event center for the parade to the town square for opening ceremonies. The Americans led off the march, preceded only by the band and the Estonian woman who carried our country sign. 

Local, national and international officials gave brief welcomes, then a local dance troupe entertained us before we took turns taking team photos with the bicyclist statue adorned in MTBO shirt and map holder.

The opening ceremonies gave us time to reflect on how lucky we are to be given the opportunity to compete here at Worlds.  Tom could be heard talking to the Aussies, saying that he felt like the trip thus far was near perfect, and is excited to get out and race.  We are all enjoying the experience.

Tomorrow is the sprint event in the nearby town of Tapa. We all have our numbers pinned and start times assigned. We'll load bikes at 9 am and have to be in the quarantine area by 11 so we can't see any of the course before our start. We'll go out in one-minute intervals. Here's to seven clean and fast runs!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gang's all here!

Joe, Fletcher, Dash and his wife Diane all arrived in Rakvere just after the rest of us checked into the hotel. First things first: we were all hungry, so went for lunch at the "Englise Pubi" next door. We caught the jet-lagged crew up to speed on local maps while we waited for food.

Earlier, Sue won the first round of Tetris on the first try. I would have wagered it couldn't be done, but we got all of us and all of our stuff into the van (and the rental company will be glad to know we didn't have to leave the third seat behind)!

It was a 40-minute drive to Pikasarre for the fifth and final training course. It looked complicated on the map with lots of lakes, bogs, barely-there trails, and hilly terrain. Some of the "barely-there" trails turned out to be pretty fun to ride and the open, moss-and-lichen carpeted forest was beautiful.
Lots of mushroom-pickers out today.

Approaching control #5, a stick flew through my rear wheel and snapped off my valve stem giving me an insta-flat. I wasn't carrying a flat repair kit, so had to walk a mile or more to the start/finish area to take care of the job, but determinedly set out to complete the course. For the first time all week, I absolutely nailed the navigation--no wrong turns, no uncertainties, just CP to CP to CP. Bam! Sue and Abra both have international race experience and Tom has been rocking the courses, so I really needed the confidence I gained today to make me feel worthy of being here.

While nine other teams participated in the training camp, 26 are competing this coming week in the MTBO World Championships. The gravel parking lot of the hotel was an ad hoc bike shop while high-end bikes were tugged from travel boxes and assembled while we waited for check-in time. It's rather inspiring to be surrounded by so many world-class athletes, known for both athletic and navigational prowess.

Michaela Gijon, a top-ranked racer from Austria, is continuing her tradition of sponsoring a "fantasy team" competition; you have 30 points available to buy three male and three female racers from six countries to fill your dream MTBO team. The US racers are pretty inexpensive right now; we're curious to see how often we get picked!

Rakvere is an adorable town of 16,000 with human history dating to the third century. For those of us who have been sequestered at the "country manor" for several days, it's a relief to have restaurants, banks and shops handy and we're looking forward to exploring by foot and by bike!

Off to bed--tomorrow is the model event and opening ceremonies.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Training Camp, Day 2

We have three more practice courses under our belts and are feeling more prepared for the upcoming competition. Just one more training course tomorrow morning--and it looks like a challenging one!--then we move to Rakvere for the coming week.

Yesterday afternoon we rode a middle distance course with 14 controls. My ride was rather disastrous as I got completely disoriented trying to find the first flag and had to go almost back to the beginning to relocate myself. Sue later referred to this area of the course as The Matrix; we had to ride through it several times and it always seemed confusing. I was able to basically follow someone to #2, then got back on my feet and navigated well up until #8 where I again took a wrong turn and wasted several minutes. I was pleased with my route choice to #9, though (avoided going up and over a hill and the out and back section meant I returned over familiar terrain) and even mastered The Matrix to #10. 

Abra and Tom had the best rides of the day for Team USA. Disheartened and feeling in over my head, I set out today to navigate cleanly, even if it meant slowing down the ride and stopping a lot to verify map features. I made a few errors on the short course here at Janeda this morning, but nothing disastrous and never lost track of my position. Everyone else rode really well; unfortunately Tom had a flat but he fixed it and finished the course.

Sue feeds grass to a horse on our cool-down spin:

This afternoon we drove about 30 miles to Tamsalu for a really fun middle distance course. We started in town near the sports center and again I bungled the first control. Once I get out in the woods, I'm fine, but the urban stuff is really challenging for me! For the most part, I was pleased with the rest of my ride; again, a few errors, but mostly learning experiences (note to self: the tiny dotted trails barely exist and should be avoided when possible; even if you can find them, you probably can't ride them). Tom aced the course (except for a failed attempt at a rolling punch which left him off the official results) and Sue and Abra both had strong, consistent rides.

On the drive back to Janeda, we stopped to visit this church:

Dinner tonight was perhaps the biggest adventure of the week so far. We went to the usual dining hall at the usual time of 7 pm to learn that it was closed for a private party (a school reunion, perhaps? the language barrier made it hard to understand). After some wandering around, we found the Aussie's seated at a pre-set table in a building that appears to have been a stable in a former life. When we went to sit at the next table over, the server blocked it with her arms and shook her head. So we joined the Aussies at their table; they had been told that dinner would be at 7:30.

We were hungry from riding all day, so after we finished the carrot salad that had been pre-placed, we devoured our desserts (something like the filling of strawberry cheesecake). And waited. And waited. Suddenly, a troop of young boys marched in and sat down and were served heaping bowls of fish chips and potatoes and salads. We finally were brought bowls of baked chicken (2 per person, the server indicated with her fingers) and rice with a hollandaise-like, mustardy sauce. Delicious! But we were still hungry. The boys vacated the tables as abruptly as they had arrived and Sue quickly ran over and grabbed leftover bowls of potatoes and salads. All this training has us eating heartily.

Perhaps a bigger challenge than the training course tomorrow will be fitting four bikes, four bike boxes, four people's luggage, and four people in the van for the trip to Rakvere...

Friday, August 23, 2013

Welcome to Estonia!

I arrived in Tallinn yesterday afternoon after 18 or so hours of travel on three flights (through Amsterdam and Helsinki), to the welcoming faces of teammates Sue, Abra, and Tom, and the even more welcome sight of my bike box spinning around the baggage carousel. Since I work for an airline, I used my stand-by travel privileges, and between the unknowns of space available travel and sporadic communication between the teammates who were already in country, it seemed somewhat miraculous that we all happened to be in the same place at the same time in a faraway land.

It was about an hour's drive east to Janeda, the headquarters for a three-day training camp that precedes the competition, where the rest of the gang had already checked into our dorm rooms. Janeda is a former aristocratic estate built ca. 1510, with pastoral grounds featuring a duck pond and walking paths as well as a variety of outbuildings that now serve as a market and dining hall for conference attendees and where we had a family-style dinner last night with teams from Italy and Australia. 

I crashed hard around 8 pm and Sue estimated I would wake up around 5 this morning due the time transition (10 hours difference from  Portland); I was wide awake by 4 and at 4:30 decided to go to the bike storage room to assemble my bike. After breakfast in the lobby and some last minute bike adjustments (the Australians were kind enough to loan tools and a floor pump) we pedaled the 5k to the morning's training site. The weather was sunny but cool, much like an October day in Portland. After a few pedal strokes, I marveled, "Holy crap, I'm riding my mountain bike in Estonia!"

During the training camp, we'll have the opportunity to ride five MTBO courses around the area, a great opportunity to practice our nav skills and get a feel for the local terrain and mapping styles. This morning's course was roughly 10k on a flat, forested network of trails and double-tracks of varying discern-ability. After most of the Italians and Australians had set off, Sue started, then Abra a minute or so behind. I waited a full minute before punching the start control and riding toward the first flag. Despite having studied the map for several minutes, I still stopped and checked at least three times enroute to control 1. I expected the flag to be to my right when I reached a trail junction; instead, it was to my left. Even though I found it quickly, I was glad this was a practice course and not the first day of competition!

I found #2 fairly easily and gained confidence when I was able to locate a faint track on the way to #3. I navigated the next several controls cleanly, but got to experience first-hand how hard it is to stay focused on your own navigation when other competitors overtake you. Then I got really mixed up in a complex intersection between #10 and #11 and took almost 7 minutes finding it. Feeling flustered, it took me almost as long to find #12, but the final control, 13, was a piece of cake. 

The organizers gave us a print-out of our control punch times; after comparing mine to Sue's and Abra's, I felt a bit discouraged, but Sue reassured me that my times were consistent and that I would improve throughout the training weekend. We spent another hour riding back through the course to look for trails that were hard to find or just to see what variously mapped trails looked like.

The ride was refreshing and a great way to shake off the jet lag, and it was fun to be out navigating again. The four of us walked from the dorm up to the market to pick up some salami, cheese, bread and fruit for lunch, which we ate at the picnic table out front. "This does not suck," as Tom said in the warm Estonian sun. Now it's time to get ready for the afternoon session on a slightly longer course. I bet we all ride it with fewer errors!