Learning to Navigate: IMRA’s 2006 Navigational Series

Working out the map route at Carrot and Stick with Isabelle Lemelee, Paul Nolan and Fergal Reid
Working out the map route at Carrot and Stick with Isabelle, Paul and Fergal. Photo courtesy of John Shiels.

IMRA’s Navigational Challenge Series is a compendium of three races, the distance of which totals 50k. However, unlike IMRA’s Wednesday runs which abounded with signs and markings showing the way, these races demanded ‘navigational ability’. You must know how to read a map and work a compass. You have to carry with you jacket, water and food. From my days of mountain navigation whilst scaling the likes of Mount Kenya, I reckoned I’d be fine to find my way.

Navigational Challenge 1: Ballydonnell

Finding the actual start of the Ballydonnell race was to be the first navigational challenge of the day.  Directions were purposefully omitted from the posted event details, a grid reference, O 058 118 being judged sufficient to denote the starting site. It was a clear statement: If you can’t read the map and find where the race starts, then you shouldn’t be running in the first place. I drove dubiously down a tiny country road, into parts of the Wicklow Mountains you wouldn’t normally be seen dead in. The mist was hanging already menacingly low, hiding all the hills from sight. The rain soon started lashing too, just for theatrical effect.

I was still wondering if I’d read the map right when I chanced upon a car-park, and some cars, parked in the middle of nowhere. It soon became obvious that this race series was no way as popular as the Wednesday night runs. Where were the crowds of 200 limbering up to lollop on up the hill? All there was were a committed but unlucky 13 standing around, looking albeit it already a little lost. Joe Lalor and his wife Nora soon arrived with race details in hand. Before I knew it, the clock had struck 12 and Joe handed us each a piece of white paper. On it was inscribed:

1.       Start 058 118

2.       Summit 042 119

3.       River Junction 058 084

4.       River Junction 084 081

5.       River Junction 066 109

6.       Finish 058 118

Controls must be visited in the order given.

That was it. No markers, no starting gun, no follow that fast lad there. I ran as quickly as I could. Straight to my car. I had to get out of the rain and mark down the points on my map. I knew that Sorrell Hill was that-a-way, and worked out that was indeed, most probably, point 2, the summit itself. Getting to its base, there were only sheep tracks up through the heather and moss, so I took one and followed it on up. Fortunately there seemed to be 12 other of such tracks around, the 13 of us each having the luxury of our own personal trails to the top. Nearing the summit, we could just make out a marshall, swathed in gortex gear. It was Brendan Doherty underneath all those layers, noting down our numbers. With no time for idle chit-chat, and with the wind and the rain ploughing through us, I made a hasty descent out of there. Unfortunately, all you could see was sheep, grass and heather, so a compass bearing was imperative. However, such was my impetuousness to leave that I forgot this essential part. I wandered aimlessly, downwards and downwards, until to my surprise, I reached a tarmac road, not at all what I expected from the map. I figured to keep heading on down in a downward direction, so followed the road to the left. Low and behold, before I knew it, I was slap-bang back at the start. The good news was I knew where I was. The bad news was this was not where I wanted to be.

Fearing I was last, I decided to make the best of a bad situation. Studying the map again, I found a forest track from the car-park that would land me 500 metres south of the next control – a river junction. The forest road provided fine running, but those last 500 metres could as well have been 500 miles to me. I tripped and trudged along the river bank, through the usual jungle foliage of reeds and grass that Irish rivers tend to breed. I eventually found that control and punched my card to prove it. Over to the next river junction, I ran across the hill, through burnt bristly heather that scooped from my legs their pound of flesh. This time, the trudge took longer, and I feared I had lost my way. The river went on and on, with no apparent fork to be found. Just as I was about to turn around and head home in defeat, I spied a little tent sitting on the river side. Before I knew it, a head popped out and punched my card. Inside was Brian Bell, hiding from the midges that fed off native tent-dwellers. “Well done, not far to go now. You’re in fifth place and first lady through”. “What? Are you serious? But I got lost. So I must be I’m last”. Much as I wanted to stay and protest his position, I thought it best to battle on and find the third and final control.

Fortunately, in the distance, I could just make out the fourth person in the race. I cunningly followed his path, over the crest and down to the forest side. It was rough running all the way, with grass and heather trying to trip you up, whilst the mud and bog tried to slow you down. I found the river and followed it, the control lying at the crossroads in wait. Finally, I battled back up to the car-park, where my arrival was greeted with much surprise.

I found out later that the other faster runners had correctly used their compass and followed their bearings off the hill. Their chosen route, though good on the map, brought them into a deep, deep pine forest, with branches too low to limbo under. Some had been stuck for up to an hour, allowing lost edjits like myself to slide up the rankings.

Looking back, luck was very much on my side on the first race. At the time though, I thought it was all down to pure skill. Good fortune had it thankfully that the second race of the series would set my ego straight.

Navigational Challenge 2: Carrot and Stick

It wasn’t looking good from the start. My compass I’d accidentally left in my bag whilst transiting through Dublin, passing right through airport security. The needle now swung wildly around, unsure if was still magnetised or not. Soon, it settled at a 90 degrees angle from true north. Fortunately, the hills stayed where they were. “Oooh, look at that”, one athlete cooed, pointing at my compass. And before I knew it, a crowd had formed. “Never seen a compass do that before. Normally they’d sit at 180 degrees when fecked”. Their avid curiosity was failing to calm my nerves. Fortunately, one onlooker noticed, and kindly leant me a spare.

By now I knew the ritual. At the stroke of 12, those innocuous pieces of paper were handed around. More coordinates, more hills, more valleys, more running. I set off like a red setter along the forest track, sniffing after the first control. It was planted firmly in the forest, at a crossroads of forest fire breaks. Thankfully, they were in no fear of fires as we sloshed our ways through the water, the forest floor moss having lapped up the last of the rain. There were 4 of us together as we escaped from the woods, making our way to the 2nd control on the lakeside. I followed in the others’ footsteps, pausing a moment to take in the map. Between looking down and looking up, they were gone. “Not a bother, I’ll catch them later” as I followed the track to the lake. But before I knew it, the map no longer made sense. Hills were where they weren’t meant to; tracks turned when they should have been straight; rivers were in the wrong places; forests appeared where none had been planted. In technical terms, I was lost.

Fortunate had it, that in my confusion, I ran down a wrong forest ride. As I went down, two lads were coming up, John Shiels and Isabelle Lemee, both looking a little less lost as I. They too had a made a small error, but had now worked out which way to go. “We’re here”, points John. “And we need to be here”. His finger waggled over a clear blue smudge. Seemed simple enough on paper. But could we do in practice? They opted for the road around the mountain. Thinking it looked a long way round, I decided to go up and over the mountain. That was the day I realised that sometimes going straight is not always the best option.

In the end, we arrived at the lake about the same time. It was only half way, but already I was shattered from having first run around in circles, and second having run straight over the hill. And things just didn’t get better: my choice of route to the 3rd, 4th and 5th controls, still to this day, are far too embarrassing to be recalled. Needless to say, where in Ballydonnell I feared I was last, this time I actually was last. Even the 70 year old mountain goat, Mick Kellet, managed to make it home before me. Not even a pint at the Drumgoff Inn could stem my sorrows. How, why did I get so lost? The well seasoned runners just starred. “Get over it, will ya woman”, was their best and indeed practical advice.  

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