Possum Trot VIII, Camp Naish, December 5, 2004

by Eric Buckley

I didn't get around to scanning the map, so you'll have to use your imagination if you weren't there. Sticklers for details can get splits at http://www.attackpoint.org/racesplits.jsp?raceid=1332

You might want to check your paper tray if you're going to print this out - it's pretty long.

Camp Naish, just west of Kansas City

Blame it on sunspots, harmonic convergence, or plain dumb luck, but the even Trots have been good to me. Possum Trot I was one of my first orienteering races and when I ran out of rookie mistakes, I invented a few new ones. I was coming off injuries at III and VII and ran OK, but below what I would have hoped for had I been healthy. The odd curse appeared to be broken at V until I gave the whole game away with an atrocious skip decision and proceeded to knock myself out (literally) when I fell heavily in the final few kilometers. Meanwhile II, IV, and VI were solid runs that I look back at fondly. Would VIII continue the string?

Perusing the start list does nothing to build my confidence. The field includes multiple Trot winners Mikell Platt of Wyoming and Mark Everett currently of Arizona, but still wearing the Orienteering Kansas (OK) colors. The local favorite is 40+ National Champion Mike Eglinski who is the only person ahead of me on the prestigious Lifetime Trot Standings (more of an attendance prize than a performance ranking - the first four spots are occupied by the four people to run every Trot). From Maryland, Nadim Ahmed is back after a strong run in his first Trot last year. Joining him is his wife, Peggy Dickinson (also, OK in absentia), who will challenge perennial women's winner Sharon Crawford of Colorado. Tom Carr is up from Texas for his first Trot; Pete Curtis and Ian Harding are back from Minnesota. Other local runners of note are Aaron Aaker and Gary Thompson. Of course, my teammate and personal nemesis, David Frei is here. Having given away the lead in the Buckley-Frei Death Match with a poor showing at Kansas Championships yesterday, he'll be out for revenge.

The mass start is the usual chaos as the favorites try to get some distance and everybody else tries to latch on. I don't like sprinting off into the woods before I'm comfortable with the map, so I find myself deep in the field after just the first 200 meters. In the past, this has hurt me as the field can jam up at the first control. This year, the first leg is over a kilometer long, so I don't worry about it. Halfway through the leg, I'm reading the map comfortably, so I start to move up through the field. By the first control, I'm in the main pack of Eglinski, Frei, Ahmed, Carr, Aaker, and a few others trying to hang on. Platt and Everett have gone clear off the front.

In the Trot, you can skip any 2 controls. The first decision comes early. I satisfy myself that there are other skips at least as good later on and follow the pack in not skipping #3. Nadim tries to break free by taking a different approach left of the red line. Nadim is the top-fuel dragster of orienteering. When he's on, he's crazy fast, but when he booms it's pretty spectacular. This time it's the latter and we watch him miss the control and blast off on one of his epic walkabouts. We've dropped the remaining stragglers, so our group is down to 5.

There are no more opportunities to split the group until #7, so we work together. I drop back a bit to look over the skip decisions. The individual skips of 9 and 22 look OK, but it appears that the big gains will be the double skips of 8-9 or 14-15 (17-18, 18-19, and 22-23 are nearly as good). I like 8-9 the best, but don't want to leave the relative safety of the group so early in the course. I decide that if the group splits at 7, I'll take the early skip; otherwise I'll wait for 14-15.

Just before #7, Mike, who's been doing most of the lead navigation, trips and goes down hard. When he won't accept a hand from David to get back up, I wonder if he's taking a dive to get us to make a decision without him. No matter, as David punches and blasts down the trail towards 10, I tear after him. Mike takes a few more seconds to get his wind back (he insists he wasn't playing head games) and then heads to 8 along with Aaron and Tom.

Going with David is the higher risk choice. David is the fastest runner in the group, so if we're clean, we'll do well. This is Mike's home turf, though, and he can be expected to make up time with flawless navigation. Still, I like the skip because both 8 and 9 are subtle spots in thick woods and 7-10 is an easy trail run. Despite our rivalry, we know that we had better work together and knock out the next few controls quickly so we're still ahead after the other group skips. We pick up the pace and manage to correct each other before small bobbles turn into big mistakes.

On the way to #15 we drift right of the red line and wind up on the lower trail. David immediately cuts back up the hillside while I decide to use the trail to get right below the control. I head up the reentrant and get to the general area of the control, but the vegetation patchy and I can't really tell what qualifies as the small clearing. After poking around a bit, I bail to the trail to the south and attack it again following the rock features. This time I hit the control cleanly (I'm not too impressed with what passes as a clearing). I've lost between 3 and 4 minutes but help is on the way. Just as I punch, Mark and Mikell show up. Mikell has yet to skip; Mark boomed something early on.

I latch on as best I can, but the next two legs are mostly trail and I simply don't have the foot speed to stay with them. By #17, Mark is out of site and Mikell has 100 meters on me. All is not lost as I spot David and Aaron coming into the control as well. From their angle of attack, it's clear they've boomed it. I wonder if Mike and Tom are ahead or behind. Leaving #19 I spot Tom on the way to 17. He's obviously going for a late skip. No sign of Mike, but I assume that he's ahead.

Going through the water stop on the way to #20 the gap to David is down to around 10 seconds. The next few legs promise a bit of trail running and good visibility so I'm confident I'll catch him. The bigger problem is what to do then. There isn't much route choice on the remaining controls, so we may run the rest of the course together. A sprint finish against David is not a good thing. I decide I'll just have to wait and see.

I don't have to wait very long. David blows right by the trail junction that leads to #20 (amazingly, this is the same trail he was on when he boomed #17 - David hates trails). I dart into the woods so he can't look back and see me get on the other trail. Aaron is right behind me and hangs on as I crank it up to full speed.

A light rain is beginning to fall and the temperature isn't much above freezing. Running through the scout campsite on the way to #21, I cut across one of the wooden tent platforms. The surface has iced over and I suddenly find myself staring at the sky. I pick myself up reasonably quickly and, since I didn't hurt myself, even get a bit of a chuckle out of the pratfall.

I continue pushing to #21 with Aaron still close behind. I'm running out of time to get free. We're in the final kilometer and having a runner 15 years my junior on my tail sounds like a recipe for finish line humiliation. Despite desperately wanting to drop him, I'm careful approaching #22; it seems like the type of control where you could lose a lot of time. I'm glad I do, because the dark green vegetation that I was going to use to lead me into the control isn't there. Fortunately, I took a quick bearing when I crossed the stream a hundred meters back so I spike it. Aaron is still less than 15 seconds behind me.

I sprint out of the control and blast up the hill to #23 as hard as I can go. Aaron gets hung up in some vegetation and I have the gap I need. Because I'm going all out, I take the safe route through the clearings left of the red line. I consider taking the road around to the final control so I can continue to blast, but Aaron's not in site, so I take the red line.

My attack point for #24 is the small stream junction just north of the control. When I get there, things don't look right - I see the main stream and the road alongside it, but can't spot the small stream that leads to the control. The thought of both Aaron and David scooting by with just 200 meters to go is too horrible to bear. Rather than risk a fatal boom, I take a few seconds to check off the large stream junction below and the rocks above. Then, I realize that the small stream is coming out of a pipe under the road. I hop across the road and everything makes sense again. A quick punch and into the finish for my best placing (3rd) ever. My time of 1:41:37 is 13 minutes off Mikell's run, but only three minutes behind Mark. The even-Trot streak is in tact!

Turns out that Aaron boomed #22 and was passed by David. Both were further back than I realized, but Mike Eglinski, who saved his skips until 22-23, finishes only 1:20 behind me. Had I really panicked and boomed #24, he would have had me. Another lesson reinforced: if you're not sure - make yourself sure before you go any further. Next after David and Aaron is Tom. A few minutes later comes Nadim who takes some ribbing about his adventures at 3 with typical good humor. It's interesting that the top 8 were all clear by the second control. That long opening leg certainly helped sort the field.

Prior to the meet, I had heard a number of people talk about how the woods would be trashy and the map might be sketchy in spots. While the woods were consistently light green, the absence of thorny underbrush made them quite bearable. The vegetation mapping was a bit suspect around 15 and 22, but there were enough other features to read that it didn't matter too much. The course was a bit short; it felt more like a blue course than a goat event. Overall, I thought the course was both fair and fun. As for next year, well, if the Red Sox can win the World Series, surely I can find a way to break the curse of the odd-Trot.

And now it's time for:

Eric's Absurdly Detailed Skip Analysis

The serpentine nature of this year's course created more than the usual number of candidates for skips. This analysis is based on the speeds observed among the top 8 (approx 8-9 min/km overall). Taking the single skips in order:

3 - Fairly obvious and good if you're not worried about staying with the pack. Also a good choice for runners just off the pace since they would benefit from having the leaders come by them. 2-4 is an easy handrail leg, so it could probably be done in about 3:00. Savings: approximately 4:45.

9 - Also fairly obvious, this was the first skip that I committed to. From where 8-10 leaves the trail, the reentrant gives a good handrail. Thus it should be a pretty fast downhill leg. I'd estimate 3:30. 8-9 has a trail route, but it's much less direct and the approach to 10 from 9 is more technical than from 8. Although, I skipped all of these, looking at Tom Carr's splits, I'd say the savings is at least 5:00, maybe 5:30.

10 - Although it doesn't save much distance, 9-11 is a trivial navigation leg and I'm guessing the running along the top of the ridge was pretty fast. Savings: around 3:00.

18 - As far as I know, nobody took this. It's not that great, but it is interesting that you can basically make the entire leg to 17 a dog-leg which should allow you to run the return trip all out. If you had the starch in your legs to hammer, you might get 3:00 out of this.

20 - Gary Thompson took this one. Before you laugh, take a look a good look at 19-21. Sure, it's just as long as 19-20-21, but it's 100% road running, and we're not talking a short run here; this is 15% of the entire course. For the top runners, this one doesn't save enough, but if you were getting tired of pushing through light green by this point, a 2K road run could do wonders for your average speed. Savings: 3:30 for top end of the field, 5:00-6:00 for those struggling with the vegetation.

22 - Similar to 3 with the added advantage that it removes one of the most technical controls. With the road being an almost unmissable collecting feature, you can run 21-23 fast and loose. Perhaps 3:30 for a savings of about 4:45.

So, pick 2 of 3, 9, and 22 for just under 10 minutes. Can we do better with double skips?

8,9 - One of four obvious choices and objectively the best, albeit barely. 7-10 is a short trail run whereas 7-8-9-10 is subtle contour navigation through light and medium green. Tom Carr shows 13:27 for the long route; David and I did 7-10 in 2:13. Savings: 11:14.

9-10 - Objectively bad, but I find it interesting because it's not at all obvious. Much of it depends on how fast you can run the ride from 8-11. If the ride is fast, you've got a direct trail route almost the whole way. If it's overgrown, the savings is pretty minimal. Since you get to see the ride on the way to 8, you could make the decision at that point. If the ride is fast, 8-11 is around 5:00 giving a savings of about 6:30.

14,15 - Another obvious one and again pretty good. Taken by Aaron. Saves more distance than 8,9 but more of that distance is on trail. I don't think you could do 13-16 much faster than 2:30. I boomed 15, but Mike's splits indicate that 13-14-15-16 should be a bit over 13 minutes. Total savings: 10:45.

17,18 - Saves a bunch of distance, but again, that distance is largely on trail. 16-19 could probably be run in around 1:30. Time around is 10:33. Savings: 9:00.

18,19 - A bit harder to spot because of the looping. Again, saves distance that is mostly on trail. Tom Carr took this one and ran 17-20 in 5:34, but said he was getting tired at this point. I was 13:36 around and that was when I was really pushing. Adjusting for the difference in tempo puts savings at about 9:00.

22,23 - The fourth obvious one. Taken by Platt and Eglinski. 21-24 is 2:00 tops. The long way around was 11:02 completely clean at 22 which is hardly a given considering how bad the vegetation mapping was at that point (David had a small boom here). I did blow some time at 24, though. Savings: 9:00, maybe 9:30.

8,9 and 14,15 appear to be the best candidates. Both save more than any two individual skips. You could argue that 14,15 should be preferred because the vegetation mapping was screwy at 15, but there was no way to know that in advance. Also, David and Mike both got in and out of 15 quickly taking the preferred route, so my boom could be blamed as much on poor route choice as bad mapping. Or, it could just be blamed on me, period. At any rate, 7-8-9-10 presents plenty of opportunity for error as well, so I don't think one is inherently safer than the other.

The bottom line is that all the reasonable skips were pretty close. The only way to lose a lot of time on skips was to spend too much time trying to figure it out (or boom a control because you're thinking about skips rather than navigating). That's too bad, because I think choosing the best skip should be a key factor in running a goat event. This sort of course setting error (lots of meaningless choices) is pretty common.

One comment that I heard repeatedly after the meet that simply must be refuted is that skipping later is better because you are cutting off distance when you're running slower. This is the same logic that argues that February is a bad month for the leap day because nobody wants an extra day of winter. The fact that running speed may (but shouldn't) degrade over the length of a course doesn't change the fact that a longer course is longer, regardless of what combination of legs created that length. Certainly, there is some merit in looking for safer routes in the late going as mental fatigue can lead to some embarrassing late race mistakes. But if you're really falling off your pace at 8K, you've got bigger problems than split decisions. You probably should quit reading my pedantic comments and get out and do some stamina training.