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Rogaine Championships - 2011-11-01

It's Monday midday and I'm still recovering from a hard weekend. My head has that slightly detached feeling and my stomach is fragile but the real indication of the weekend's activity is my swollen and raw feet. No it wasn't an alcohol fuelled binge but the New Zealand Rogaine championships, a 24 hour orienteering race in the hills of Marlborough.

The principles of rogaining are quite simple. Competitors receive a map marked with controls worth varying numbers of points and over the course of the event have to collect as many points as possible by visiting the controls. Events can be as short as an hour, but the championships are always 24 hrs long, with an additional 3 hours planning time.This year the event centre is a woolshed 5 minutes out of Blenheim. We arrive at 8am and quickly set up camp. Over the next 40 minutes a small city of tents goes up around us as everyone prepares for the map handout at 9am. Everyone is friendly,but it’s a busy time as the race really starts at 9am with the issuing of maps.

The 3 hours for planning sounds a lot but it's never enough time. There is a mathematical challenge called the “stravelling salesman” in which the object is to plot the most efficient route between 30 cities. Until recently it had defied most computers and mathmeticians. Our challenge with 80 controls and several routes between each is much harder. A small advantage of rogaining is that it's a team sport and I'm competing with my daughter Hazel. We use highlighters to emphasise the highest value controls as we generally discuss the map. Where can we get water?, are there areas that look harder?, any nasty bits or honey traps (appealing to visit but ultimately traps as they are too isolated to link back to a next area)? We then each plan a possible course before comparing notes and plotting a probable course, trying to leave the easier bits for after dark and an area with lots of options for the end. Agreeing on a planned route is surprisingly easy, although as always there are many compromises; we plan to carry water for the first 6 hours – which means using a bigger pack, if we stick to schedule we may be back at the hash house for a feed before dark, which would be a waste of daylight and we are likely to have a long run back to the finish with fewer options than we would like. So it is a well set course.

The start is from inside the stock yards, so for most of us there are several fences to climb before we can head for the hills. The stockyard is good practice for the numerous

barb wire and electric fences that are to come. For the first couple of hours we travel close to several other teams and a large group of Canterbury college students stand out. They are training for the Hillary challenge and are full of beans. They work well together supporting each other and breaking into occasional chants. For the first 3-4 controls they are faster than us, but their detail navigation is not as tight allowing us to comfortably keep up. While my knees are beginning to ache and the constant traversing on steep grass slopes is blistering the sides of my feet we are going well. Hazel and I share the navigation, both trying to stay constantly in-touch with the map. We are catching each other’s small mistakes and still have time to take in the surrounding countryside. While some is parched and dry like the faces of the Wither Hills, there are green valleys and even patches of moss. There is even one control set on top of a spectacular rock spire overlooking Blenheim.

Our first major mistake comes when we overestimate how far we have travelled and run down the wrong ridge. 15 minutes and a lot of climbing later we are back on track and even more importantly back up to speed. It's very easy to lose confidence and slow down after a big stuff-up. Five and a half hours into the race we have our first stop. Time to pull on a pair of compression tights and change socks. We eat on the run, but the short break and the tights have been a great freshen up.

We arrive back at the event centre just after dark feeling reasonably pleased with ourselves. We are pretty much on schedule. While we've made a few mistakes and are aching a bit we are working well as a team. We eat as much as we can and a nurse lances and tapes a large blood blister on my heel. The first few steps are tender, but my feet soon settle (probably added by the painkillers) and my stomach is the main challenge. For the next hour and a half I fight to hold dinner down and we walk steadily. In the dark, navigation is significantly harder and we concentrate on staying in touch with the map. A very lost couple ask for help and we guide them to the next control, but most of the night we are completely on our own. Torch lights on the surrounding hills are reminders of others and we watch with interest as they sometimes move purposefully and at other times seem to go round in circles. No doubt we would have looked the same as some of the navigation is extremely subtle and subtlety is hard to achieve at 2am when you have been on your feet for 14 hours.  

When the full moon is not hidden by clouds the surrounding hills are clear and from the tops we get glimpses of the lights of Blenheim and Seddon.

Hazel is keen to pick up a control we had marked as optional. It's an out-and-back trip, something usually avoided, but we decide that it's just worth it and so dump our packs and run to what we are expecting to be an easy control on a tiny hillock. What we find is a 60mtr very steep “mountain” surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Pushing down a low wire with my hands I start crawling through the fence, using my back to push up the wire above. It's electric and the current gets a perfect shot through my sweat soaked back and damp hands. More than “bother” escapes my lips as I get thrown out the fence. Some self control is needed to say nothing about why we visited this point, but the frustration soon passes and later we agree that points-wise it was a good control to get (and the light burn line across my back is a good battle wound). 

Dawn finds us still moving steadily. We've avoided any major mistakes during the night but only gone at half the speed we planned. Hazel just thinks it’s my notoriously overoptimistic planning. We continue on through the morning on a route that is clearly unique. We periodically meet up with other teams near controls, but as we approach and part from different directions it's hard to tell if we are slower or faster. At the world champs in October we had worked as hard for a disappointing finish place and I wonder if we have again made some poor planning decisions. 

Using the last hour of the race well is tricky. Get back early and clearly there were points left behind, but get back late and the penalty points are even more severe. With very few controls close to home, timing is everything, but thinking clearly is a challenge. Hazel has an inspiration on an alternative route to the second to last control and we take a slightly longer route that avoids a big climb and saves 20 minutes, seeing us home in comfortable time. We have climbed and descended over 4,400m, probably covered over 100kms and used more calories than we would eat in 4 days. I'm hugely surprised to find we are 3rd mixed team and 7th over all. 

Are rogaines worth the pain? After sleeping the clock round the answer has to be yes. When the navigation and teamwork are going well there is a huge sense of accomplishment. But it does have to be said that they can be an exercise in frustration. Being lost and under pressure is a recipe for stress. So start with the shorter events and always try to treat them as learning exercises, not competitions. They are more fun that way.