Blast from the past

I registered for Blogger because I was sick of typing in my name and URL every time I commented on the Aviation In Canada blog. I put in my interests, and saw that one of the other people with “Orienteering” as an interest was named Tom Hollowell. That’s a name I remember quite vividly.

It was the late fall of 1979, and I was in my first term at the University of Waterloo. I was also one of the best orienteers in the men’s 19-20 age category in Ontario, and since the best orienteers in North America were all from Ontario, I felt like I was in pretty good company. The University of Waterloo cross country ski team had two women (Meagan Peircy and Sue Budge) who had won several Canadian and US Championships between them, and a guy (Kevin Jones) who was also on the national Orienteering team and had competed at the Worlds.

I should mention that at the time, US orienteering lagged behind Canadian orienteering, and US Championships always gave awards to the first three places in each category, and then separate awards to the top three Americans, because in the elite categories there was often a Canadian sweep or near-sweep. Things changed in later years, but by the time I left the sport, Canadians still had better top placings in the World Championships than Americans.

The North American Championships took place near Cleveland Ohio that year. North Americans only happen every two years, so having one that close was good. Not so good was it happening in a year when I was at the bottom year of the two year age categories, but hey, I was winning some stuff. I think I’d already gotten my Ontario Championship by that time – I actually came third in that race, but the first place guy (Mick Day) was from out of province and the second place winner was competing above his age class so I was officially champion, although I didn’t really feel like it.

I arranged to go with the high school gym teacher (Vera M) who had introduced me to the sport 3 years previously. Meagan’s old Datsun B210 was already full. I had very limited means, so I was going to stay at the camp ground. Vera was staying at a motel. I figured that I could arrange a ride with some of the other campers into town to get some food in the evening.

We arrived late Friday night. First problem: There weren’t any families at the camp ground – it was all ROTC groups, and me. ROTC groups tend to treat camping like a military exercise, so they were all self-contained and probably eating ration packs. (I don’t think they had MREs back then.) The other problem with ROTC groups is that they are loud and rowdy, and I was trying to study for a chemistry mid-term on Monday, and because I wanted to get some sleep for the competition the next day.

Saturday morning at the meet site, I found the second problem: Either I’d forgotten to enter, or they’d lost it. I’m pretty sure it was the latter. Either way, they were going to assign me the last start time of the day both days, and they told me I probably wouldn’t get pre-printed courses but have to copy the course off of “master maps”. Copying the course is a terrible handicap, not only because it takes time to do, and because you’re trying to calm down and do it right while the clock is ticking and every instinct is telling you “RUN RUN RUN – YOU’RE LOSING!”, but also because a pathetic red ballpoint pen line doesn’t show up as well on the map as the thick lilac coloured ink they use for pre-printed courses. The last start time was over three hours after the start. Lots of time to get over-anxious, waste all your energy warming up and keeping warm all that time, and drink so much water that you’ll have to stop in the woods to pee. (Believe me you don’t want to try to pee while running, in case some underbrush slashes at you. Voice of experience here.)

A couple of us expressed amusement at the over-cautious Americans, having an ambulance near the finish area. Until we saw some idiot being carried on stretcher to the ambulance because he’d twisted his ankle jogging to the start area. Sorry for my lack of empathy, but I thought that was pretty funny at the time.

Hanging around the start area for three hours, you get somewhat less than impressed with the ROTC people and West Point Cadets. First of all, they’re all trying to out-macho each other. A lot of them were going on in shorts, in spite of the rules that require full body coverage (a hold over, by the way, to a hepititus epidemic that hit Sweden in the early years of orienteering – too many slashes from the underbrush combined with communal water tubs for rinsing off afterwards). And secondly, some of them didn’t seem to understand the difference between the sport of orienteering and their military land navigation training, so their talk was full of phrases like “following a bearing of 223 degrees for 423 metres” instead the way other orienteers talk about “following that ridge line, dropping into that reentrant and following it to the control feature”. I was starting to feel if this is what passes for orienteering in the US, no wonder they were so far behind Canada.

When I got to the start, they told me that they’d had some extras, so today at least I’d get a pre-printed course. Well, that was a relief anyway. But then the start whistle blew and I had a look at the map. Oh oh. The pre-meet information packet had mentioned that the maximum climb was around 40 metres. Normally, meet organizers will give you the maximum total climb on each course, and that’s what several of us had assumed this was talking about, and figured that this meant an extremely fast and easy course. Turns out we were wrong – what they really meant was that the area was dissected by dozens of stream valleys, each 40 metres deep, and you could be going down into and back up out of several times on each leg of the course.

In spite of the harder than anticipated climb, my first day went pretty well. As the last starter, I got to see a lot of people as I blew past them. Lots of West Point’s distinctive black orienteering suits. Sometimes they tried to follow me, but rather than losing time attempting to lose them, I just trusted that eventually they’d fall off, and generally they did. The course was challenging, but I was on that day.

I hung around at the finish for my result to come up for over an hour, and it never came out. That was annoying. So I went back to the campsite not knowing how I’d done relative to the competition. Vera had taken pity on my lack of ride prospects to get to dinner, and had given me a chunk of keilbasa and havarti cheese. Not a substantial dinner for an athlete, but it kept the wolf from the door.

The next day, Vera got me to the meet site before the first start, so I had three plus hours to wait around for my start. I tried to scrounge around for something to eat, but there wasn’t anything in sight. I did find the previous day’s results posted. First place was Glen Geddes, the guy who’d beaten me in a lot of Ontario orienteering meets, as well as being on the Southern Ontario Division cross country ski team. Second place was a guy from Nova Scotia who I’d competed against, and I knew he was good. Third place was this guy I’d never heard of before from the US, named Tom Hollowell. And fourth place was me, not far out of third. I cockily assumed that because I’d never heard of Tom Hollowell, he probably wasn’t that good – so all I had to do was pull off another good day, and I could move up to third place and make it a Canadian sweep of the medals. And if I didn’t, there were two other Canadians in fifth and seventh who could conceivably do it.

I waited for the start on the path leading up to the start, and was surprised to see some of the recent starters on my course heading straight back down the trail through all the people milling about waiting for their starts. When my start came, I could see why – for the first control, you could basically either run uphill up the trail, and then descend a ridge line through the woods to get to this trail on the relatively flat stream valley, or you could backtrack downhill a hundred meters on the trail through the start area and get onto the trail without having to cross any fences and without having any woods running at all. I took the former option, although examing the map afterwards I decided it probably would have been faster to do the latter. As a person who has laid out orienteering courses for high level meets, I’ve got to say that is extremely bad course setting on the part of the meet directors. You don’t want people waiting for their start to get such a strong hint as to what would be a good initial route by having people running back through that area.

It turned out I didn’t have a good day. That route choice at the beginning and another bad route choice later on cost me a couple of minutes, and my hunger probably cost me a few more. The upshot was that I was ninth on the day, and dropped into seventh place over all. Not bad in retrospect, but far worse than I expected. And the anticipated Canadian sweep? On the second day, Tom Hollowell turned in a blistering performance, several minutes faster than Glen Geddes, and ended up first overall.

A year later, Tom Hollowell became a member of the US national team, and went on to have a very good performance at the World Championships. I, on the other hand, competed in the elite men’s 21-35 category as an “also ran”, with my best finish in a big meet being a 31st in the Canadian Championships in Manitoba 2 years later. (I sprained my ankle in the week between the Canadians and the North Americans that year, so I did the North Americans at a walk and got disqualified for taking too long.)

I’ll never misunderestimate an American again.