The Serious Condition of Cluster Phobia

The medical condition called “Cluster Phobia”, though difficult to identify, is often found rife amongst mountain marathon runners.

Cluster Phobia symptoms manifest themselves as follows: in navigational events, the map coordinates for checkpoints are normally given together with the order in which they must be visited. The challenge here is in determining your route choice between the points and in finding the control itself.

Navigation race with order of controls clearly indicated 1-4
Navigation race with order of controls clearly indicated 1-4

Every so often, a “cluster” is thrown in to the list. A cluster is a set of checkpoint coordinates in which you decide which order to visit them in. Get it right, and you can gain precious minutes on your opponents. Get it wrong and you effectively throw your whole race away.

The 5th and 13th control are marked - the rest of the seven red circles can be visited in any order.
The Mourne Mountain Marathon cluster in 2008: The 5th and 13th control are marked on the right and left respectively - the rest of the seven red circles can be visited in any order.

When you are faced with a cluster, you need to consider and balance the following elements:

1)      Visiting the checkpoints in the shortest distance as possible.

2)      Visiting the checkpoints with the least climb as possible.

This is not always easy to do considering that the shortest distance can mean climbing straight over mountains, whilst doing the least climb can mean doing a considerable amount of running around mountains. You need to therefore find the optimum balance of distance and climb. Then you’ve got to remember which order you planned to do them in – all this you have to do whilst precious time is ticking and all the other teams are already sprinting away.

For my last two mountain marathons, the cluster has been on the second day of the two day event. For the team navigators, this has often meant a sleepless night of “Cluster Phobia”, worrying about what the cluster will be, anxious that they’ll see the right route choice, nervous about executing the correct decision. Though there is no known cure for Cluster Phobia, the best way of alleviating the symptoms is to simply chill.

When I start getting Cluster Phobia myself, I remember a story I was told about one of Ireland’s top orienteers, Gus. At the start of one race, everyone else was running off finding the first control. Gus was the last to leave the start. Gus was also the first back. He took his time, plotted his route and executed his plan. The trick to Cluster Phobia therefore is being cool and taking your time.

The Cluster Choice we took at the Mourne Mountain Marathon 2008
The Cluster Choice we took at the Mourne Mountain Marathon 2008

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2 thoughts on “The Serious Condition of Cluster Phobia

  1. Not only was it seven controls, but it was also on Day 1, not Day 2!

    Point taken though about cluster anxiety… clusters can be scary, but yes, they are indeed highly addictive.

  2. Guess who’s decided to catch up on all your blog entries?

    Seriously though you’ve left out the other major condition – Cluster Anxiety ! Distinctly different from cluster phobia, the afflictee may indeed love clusters (actually I think they’re the only good part about a Mountain Marathon) but experience a feeling of panic as the revelation of the cluster details draws near.

    And I can’t believe you got 7 controls in last year’s cluster, 2007 was rubbish.

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