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Alasdair Mcleod’s WOC Report

Ali finishing the WOC long

One of the outstanding performers in Scotland this year, Alasdair made his debut on the biggest stage in a home world champs. Read his superb report of the experience.
He wasn’t the only debutant - just in case you missed it Jess also wrote a report…

2015 is a special year for orienteering in Scotland as we played host to the world championships. I was one of the few people lucky enough to have the chance to compete in the world championships races and I wanted to try and give you an idea of what a home world championships is like from the perspective of an athlete. 

But first, a massive congratulations has to be given to the organising team, who presented a great stage for orienteering in Scotland to be shown to the world, and for the world of orienteering to be shown to the Scottish public. It was an incredibly high quality WOC in terms of spectacle and orienteering. I am very proud to know some of the people who helped pull it all together and want to say a huge thank you to all the people involved in delivering an event that gave me the opportunity to achieve one of my dreams of running at the World Orienteering Championships.

Now a home World Championships doesn't come around very often and it is something very special to anyone who is trying to reach the top of their sport. That fleeting opportunity to come full circle and race the worlds best where you first learnt your sport, deliver a top quality performance in front of a partisan crowd that everyone can be proud of, and inspire a generation of younger orienteers to emulate and surpass you in the future. Not a week you want to miss. That is why since the announcement of a home WOC a few years ago every elite orienteer in Britain has been motivated to be part of the GB team that will get to race. I was one of those people and 2 years ago I started to train with WOC2015 in mind. 

I had never been to a world championships before but had been in and around the GB team for a good few years. I wanted to get to run in my home terrain and be part of the WOC experience, so something had to change for me to get in that team. I had to improve and get better. A home WOC was what inspired me to do that, to put all my effort behind it and give it a real shot. Because why wouldn't you? The reward of a home WOC was so special, it was a no lose situation. Get to race WOC or get to watch WOC in my home country, both seemed equally exciting to me.  

I wasn't the only elite GB orienteer that a home WOC inspired. All you have to do is look down the GB Team and you will see that half of it is WOC first timers. WOC made people want to be as good as they could be and I think it has already had a noticeable effect at raising the level of GB elite orienteering. We now have a much stronger team with a new depth of talent in all areas. So it isn't surprising that one of the outcomes of WOC2015 was that GB was promoted from division 2 in the world to division 1 on the back of some successful results. 

Over those 2 years my training was coming along nicely. Graduating from university and starting a job with some routine really helped me train consistently. The winter of 2014 saw me feeling the fittest I had ever felt.Then disaster struck and while out night training I stood on a spike that went through my foot. No running for me for 5 months. This wasn't ideal and looking back on it what happened next probably would not have happened if it wasn't for the motivation that a home WOC affords. For those next 5 months I continued training hard but instead of running I went aqua jogging. If you have never experienced aqua jogging it is possibly one of the dullest activities you can do. Confined to a small 10x10m physiotherapy pool with no windows I splashed around in circles for endless hours and watched the 2014 orienteering season go by. 

Come the start of 2015 I had been back running for 5 months and was once again feeling fitter than I ever had. Luckily this time there were no spikes waiting to sabotage me and 2015 got off to a good start as I set off on a campaign to rack up as many World Ranking Orienteering points as I could. The starting system operated at the world championships is based on your world ranking. The better your ranking, the later you start, and the later you start in races the more advantage you gain from tracks in the forest and having good orienteers around you. I started 2015 ranked around 750ish. After trips to and some good races in Portugal, Spain, Norway, Sweden, the Lake District and Tullockroisk this had improved to round 80th place. Satisfactory to get a good start place in a world championships.

The other campaign going on in 2015 was to qualify for the GB team at the world championships. This involved a series of 3 races, each race filtering runners in a smaller pool which eventually turned into a world championships team. First was the JK in the lake district, then a set of world cup races in Norway and Sweden and finally the world championship test races in Deeside. After a JK where I struggled I was lucky enough to get into the pool of athlete's to race the world cups. Then in the world cup races I did much better and managed to secure myself a place in the team to run the Long race at WOC. Delighted! And better was to come at the test races here I managed to get a second race at WOC in the middle race. Double Delighted! That was me all set for WOC. I had got into the team, the training had worked, I hadn't got ill or injured in 2015. Now just the actual races to run... 

Now I thought it was important to show all the build up that goes into one of these races for an athlete. Sometimes it is hard to appreciate that the majority of effort has already occurred before the big race even comes along. Athletes have been living this day in their heads for years and finally it is there.

Standing on the start line of my first WOC race. A middle race in Darnaway. Starting in Conicavel, a tiny village I have driven through countless time with my family on the way to colour coded events when I was young. I should know this place, I've been here before. I'm good at orienteeering, I'm here aren't I. Yet, it's the World Championships, I'm nervous. I usually get nervous at races but after 5 hours of quarantine where I have done the best to distract myself from the race by reading books and chatting I am still very nervous. I have just spent the last 7 minutes going through call up boxes reading a set of mental maths problems, prepared by our great coach for me, to try to get me to focused mind set. Usually I'm good at maths this time I got more than half of the problems wrong but it does the trick, I've got to the the start line not over come with nerves and am ready to race. The beeps start, the start official rests his hand on my shoulder, the long beep sounds, I lean forward pick up my map and run off toward the start kite past the onlooking TV camera, frantically trying to find the start triangle on the map and into my first ever WOC race.

I could give you a second by second account of that middle race, because I remember it that vividly, but instead I'll focus on the key memories for the sake of brevity. The first control was scary as it felt like I couldn't orienteer. When I looked up nothing seemed to fit with what I was expecting. It was a lot bushier than I thought it would be and when I finally started to make sense of some of map just before the 1st control the relief was huge. As the race continued I settled into my orienteering but my legs felt very sluggish, I kept fighting forward as hard as I could and through the middle of the course made a few mistakes. At the time these mistakes felt enormous, the feeling of time slowing down came into play as my brain started shouting at me "You're making a mistake at the world championships! Fix it! Fix it! Fix it now! Fix it faster!" Afterwards I would find out that in total I probably lost 60 seconds but while crossing the finish line I was distraught! The middle section of the course also had lot of TV cameras and other competitors. I'm used to seeing other people I'm racing against but seeing lots of people standing round making sure they got the best shot was not so familiar. As the race progressed the novelty of TV in the forest quickly passed me by mainly because I got more and more tired and was using my concentration to look at the map and not the spectacle of the TV. That moment of enjoying the spectacle was saved for the last 90 seconds of my race where coming towards the penultimate control I could hear the crowd screaming and cheering. That noise followed me all the way to the finish and was probably the most memerable moment of the day. So many people being so passionate about orienteering, that run will stay with me. 

Warm down. Eat. Sleep. Eat. Rest. Eat. Rest. Eat. Sleep. Eat. Train. Eat. Rest. Eat. Sleep. Eat. Thats me as recovered as I can be and it is time for the Long race.

The Long is the discipline of orienteering I have been the most successful at all year. I was hoping to try to improve on my middle result and was very excited about getting to run on a new map in Scotland; part of rightfully legendary Glen Affric. Once again getting my thoughts together before the start of the race was one of the big tasks of the day. This was the race I had really wanted to do well in all year and now it was here. What an amazing opportunity to achieve a dream! What a perfect opportunity to void  2 years worth of training! Lets focus on that first thought alright, stay positive, treat it like any other orienteering race. And the start was like any orienteering race. A bus malfunction meant a 2km walk to the small assembly near the start where the midgies were fierce and the toilets were non-existent. This was great, I'm used to this its just like any other colour coded event. I went to the start with the anxious anticipation of getting to run the race I had trained for all year all the time reminding myself that I was going to enjoy every second of this special place.

It was heathery and wet but not as tough as had been thought when preparing. I relaxed after 2 controls and tried to keep a steady pace. Things were going well to begin with then coming into the 4th control I had trouble. Up ahead of me the runners who had started 3 and 6 minutes in front of me were milling about on a hillside. I got distracted missed the control and joined the milling party for 2 minutes before relocating and finally finding the 4 control. Disaster! And early on. I was now running with 2 other people who weren't having the best day. The next few controls didn't go that well, scrappy orienteering and a missed route choice. However, instead of having a breakdown a quarter of the way into the race I still had a smile on my face. I was loving the terrain and the experience and I was going to make the most of it. Things started to improve. I ran away from the other runners, I found the next few controls cleanly and got some confidence back. By the time the course had got into the second half I was comfortable and enjoying myself. This is my only slight regret of the race, I maybe got my pacing wrong and didn't run hard enough at the start, I shouldn't have been feeling this comfortable at this point. The comfort was only temporary though, as I kept finding the controls I began to tire on the last quarter and was really fighting hard with my running. Approaching the arena I could hear more noise and I gave everything I had on the final easy section of the course; sprinting down the run in to complete my final WOC race. After getting my breath back I was satisfied and also glad to be finished. Not just the race but the experience; the build up and the pressure of a home WOC now all dissolved into satisfied relief.   

As you might have guessed by now from what I have been writing a lot of what matters on the day of the race when it comes to delivering a good performance hinges on the mental side of things. The long training build up beforehand makes sure you are physically fit and have cemented all your orienteering skills into automatic mental routines. All that is left is to control your head on the day to try to get the best out of yourself when it really matters. This definitely is not yet my strongest skill but it is something that I'm looking forward to improving over the next few years.

To finish I would like to reiterate that this was a very successful WOC for orienteering in Britain and the GB team. A great event and some great performances. On a personal note I feel so privileged to have been able to race at a home WOC. I might not have shown my best but I am very proud of the two performances I put together and the journey of training that allowed that to happen. And for the stats geeks amongst you I finished 28th in the middle and 26th in the long. Both race maps are now proudly displayed on my wall at home.  

Alasdair McLeod

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