Will Gardner at the European Orienteering Champs

The beautiful beech forests which we trained in. The terrain of the races wasn't quite this nice.

The beautiful beech forests which we trained in. The terrain of the races wasn't quite this nice.

Earlier this year the Orienteering Foundation supported Will Gardner along with four other athletes at the European Orienteering Champs in Switzerland.  Will tells us about his experiences, how the support received helped his preparations, and the ups and downs of the competition itself.

How do you prepare for a European Championships in Switzerland when you are living on the other side of the World? This was a problem I was faced with this Winter whilst living down in Melbourne, Australia working as a Coach-in-Residence for Orienteering Victoria. Firstly, I had to focus on making the team at the JK festival and train for the demands of the West Midlands and Cannock Chase. Having grown up in the West Mids Junior Squad, I knew the demands I would be facing, and it was all relatively simple: train hard, get good technical training in on areas similar to that of the JK Festival (which luckily Australia had in abundance) and plan accordingly.

But what about when you get selected for the team for EOC? Due to various factors – most of my own making – I was only racing in the Middle Distance at Europeans, but I was all in. This was one of my only shots to make the team for WOC again, and I wanted to show that I deserved my place in the team and to prove that I had returned from Australia as one of the best in the British set-up. The most obvious choice of what to do to perform at a championship is a training camp; get onto the terrain if you can and learn as much as possible.

Swiss terrain is distinctly different to that of the Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino. The steep, rocky beech forests were distinctly different from the rolling spur-gulley, eucalypt terrain of Victoria. Even in Britain, on the same continent as Switzerland, we cannot replicate the sheer size of the hills which we would face at EOC, with training courses which would regularly average 400-500m of climb. To perform at the championship, I had to get out to the terrain itself – though I had actually managed to race on the terrain of EOC before, but this was when I was 9 at the 2001 Swiss O-Week, so possibly not the best preparation…

But how could I fund this camp? After returning from Australia, I was unemployed and on the job hunt; but anyone who knows the current job market for graduates in Britain will realise this is almost a job in itself. I had managed to get some work with the marketing firm which I had worked with prior to heading Down Under, but hours were slim with cut backs being made, so I had no current income to help support my training and racing. However, after being encouraged by various sources, including Sarah Brown (the brains behind the On The Red Line website), I applied to the Orienteering Foundation for support, which I was lucky enough to receive.

With this support, I was able to head out to Switzerland the week before the championships, staying in the small border town of Ponte Tresa, and training on the relevant terrain, trashing myself on the hills of Ticino. After 6 days in the terrain, numerous controls hit, kilometres of climb racked up and hours in the terrain, I wound down my preparations ready to race. The Championships began on the Sunday, with the Sprint Qualifier and Final, but I would not race until the Middle Distance qualifier on Tuesday. I felt ready to race, confident that I knew the terrain I would be faced with and the tactics to use for a good result, and that I was in the shape to perform well thanks to the training which I had been able to do. Sadly, after and early mistake I let the pressure get to me mentally, and I capitulated and ran myself out of qualification; a scenario many were faced with by the end of the day.

I was, of course, devastated. I had put well over 8-months into my preparations for this race, and felt that I owed a performance to myself and those that supported me to get there. I ran the spectator race the next day, on the same terrain as the Middle Final, and things went as I had planned; cool, calm navigation and strong running – what I had hoped for the previous day. I knew after this that the training I had done was invaluable, and that if I had got the performance right, I would have qualified. I can only thank the Orienteering Foundation profusely for the support they gave me in trying to achieve my goals at the European Championships, and my disappointment that despite the best preparations which they were able to help me have that I didn’t deliver. However, I know that the experience I was able to gain through the racing and training I did in Switzerland will serve to help me progress further, and at the next internationals, hopefully deliver.

21st Jun 18