Every New Years Day, our club (Derwent Valley Orienteers) puts on a ‘mass start’ Urban event. Normally orienteering starts are at 1-minute intervals over, say, a 2-hour window to avoid following. But sometimes we mix it up with some head-to-head racing – and a mass start has the advantage that the event is over much quicker, the winners are the first ones back, and everyone gets home nice and early!
So Belper Urban was set for January 2nd 2017 (a neighbouring club had an event on the 1st), and work started on the map in January 2016. Mike from Ashbourne is DVO’s mapping officer, and he organised a base map for me to trace and got me started with O-cad, the mapping software.
Orienteering came to the UK from Sweden in the 1960s, so the first thing to say about ‘O’ maps is that the symbols are international. Top-end orienteers compete world wide, and even recreational orienteers will often plan a holiday around a multi-day event in an exotic location. I’ve orienteered in the four Scandinavian countries, France, Hungary, Switzerland, Lithuania, the USA, Australia and New Zealand!
In O maps, use of colour is counter-intuitive, as we map runability, not what’s actually on the ground. This helps orienteers make route-choice decisions: is it quicker to run though forest with brambles, or go three sides of a square, but along a path? So there’s a continuum from white through to dark green, with white being runable forest, light green denser forest (we call it ‘forest walk’) to dark green ‘forest fight’ – rhododendrons, gorse, holly or felled trees where you have to crawl under or climb over the trunks. Don’t go there if at all possible!
Open land (grass) is mapped as yellow and again there’s a continuum of this to white, so that a few scattered trees on grass is mapped as white with regular yellow spots, in something we call ROST (Rough Open with Scattered Trees). Are you enjoying the lingo so far?!
You can see that there’s quite a lot here that’s open to interpretation, and although I’ve been orienteering for 27 years, I would find mapping a forest just too daunting.
In 2001 our club Derwent Valley Orienteers (and all 120 O clubs in the UK) were unable to hold competitions on many of our countryside areas due to sanctions to control the foot and mouth outbreak. So orienteers began mapping towns and cities … and the sport of Urban Orienteering was born!
Urban offers the same challenges of planning and executing a route while running at speed that normal orienteering poses. Orienteering has been compared to playing chess while sprinting, and mistakes are made because oxygen debt builds up when you are running too fast and misinterpret the map.
In 2016 I ran in Urban races in Edinburgh, Whitby, Grimsby, Manchester, Liverpool and Todmorden. I’m quite evangelistic about the excitement of Urban, and got it in The Guardian Weekend Magazine’s Body: How I Work It column in September. The journalist did a great job, as did the photographer, who was jetting off to LA to shoot will.i.am (and his new wax model in Madame Tussauds) two days after my photoshoot! Does anyone recognise where the photo was taken?
DVO has mapped Chesterfield, Matlock, Wirksworth and Ashbourne for Urban orienteering. Our best non-urban areas are Eyam Moor, Birchen Edge, Stanton Moor, Chinley Churn (photos from our September 2016 event), Crich Chase and Shining Cliff Woods. We have a lot more areas mapped, but these latter are of such a technical standard they would pull orienteers from all over the country. Lower down the scale we have a number of parks and grounds of National Trust properties, which are great for beginners.
I find Urban racing much easier than forest running, as buildings are either there, or not there. There’s nothing half-way about a building, whereas with contours we have a half-contour symbol called a form line, which looks like a contour, but is dashed. Contours are mapped at 5 metre intervals, and the form line is used for prominent features not big enough to merit a contour. Some maps, especially sand dune areas, look like a pile of brown spaghetti!
So Urban mapping is largely a case of tracing streets and buildings from a base map, using a CAD package called, yes, you’ve guessed it, O-CAD. The only skills needed are persistence and attention to detail, as even the curb edges are mapped, as well as things like islands at road crossings.
The scale of an Urban orienteering map is 1:5000. Compare this to the OS Explorer maps at 1:25000 and you can see that it’s a lot more detailed. A square km on Explorer is 4cm x 4cm, but on an Urban O map it’s 20cm x 20cm. Every building is shown remarkably clearly. Grass verges are mapped, as are individual trees in town streets.
I worked on the map on and off all through 2016. The first job was to trace the buildings, which took a couple of weeks. The next step required more thought. Remember I said that conventional orienteering map symbols represent runability? The Urban symbol set represents permissability. Private land (gardens etc.) are shown as olive green and public tarmac’d areas as pale brown. Grass is yellow, runable forest is white, as in forest O.
You can see Belper Library at the bottom left, above. Each tree at the front is shown, the grass behind is shown as yellow, with the trees as white. The single tree on the lawn is shown as a small green dot (trunk circumference less than 30cm). Of course it’s a bigger green dot for larger trees, like the oak just showing on the southern tip of The Triangle. You can see Long Row playground marked with the pink out-of-bounds symbol, rather than olive green. This is because it’s useful to show for navigation purposes, even tho you can’t cross it.
Walls and fences have two symbols depending on whether they are crossable or uncrossable. Not physically crossable, note, but whether or not you are allowed to cross them! Yes, it’s confusing and, yes, people do get disqualified (58 people were disqualified for crossing out-of-bounds wild-flower meadows at the British Sprint Championships at the Olympic Park in 2016; not me tho, I got 3rd place in my age group!). Anyway these are the rules and the sport must be fair.
So once all the buildings are traced onto the map, the next step is the boundaries of the private land, shown in olive. Technically this should be an uncrossable wall or fence, but because you’re not allowed to cross olive, adding a bold black line around it would be overkill (the map looks less cluttered if only essential or helpful symbols are used). So we use the thin black line that denotes a ‘step or edge of paved area’. The uncrossable wall symbol is used round the railway in the Clusters extract above, and uncrossable fence is used at the edge of the football pitch.
Next come the outlines of the roads and pavements, and this is done with Google Street View open on another laptop. It’s a very time consuming job to get the curves nice and smooth! Then there’s adding the colour, which can be done quickly if it’s simply a case of filling in a closed area, but often it isn’t that simple.
All told, I must have spent about 300 hours on the map, spread over 6 months. During the last 2 months I was checking the map on the ground, scrawling amendments onto a tracing paper overlay and taking photos, and then amending it on the computer. When I handed the file back to Mike (June 2016), I felt like I’d got my life back, and I’m very grateful for all the hours he put in that autumn checking things and extending the map t.
Not all his changes are things I’ve missed, however! New features do appear, cases in point being the new B&M/Aldi store and the trim trail up on the Parks.
Once a working version of the map was ready, I started planning the seven courses for the race on January 2nd. The longest course, Men’s Open (for men age 21-34) was 8 km with 23 checkpoints, and the shortest was for Juniors under 12, 1.8 km, with about 15 checkpoints. We use a program called PurplePen for this, and discuss the courses in detail with the race controller, who suggested improvements and advised on safety. For instance, the two longest courses will likely go into the River Gardens, so to avoid people running across the A6, we had a timed-out crossing at some pedestrian lights, with checkpoints either side. Electronic timing means that the time taken to cross can easily be deducted.
The seven courses needed a total of 52 checkpoints, so, with my husband Dave, we started hanging them on New Years Day afternoon and at first light on the 2nd. The race controller then visits them all to ensure they are in the right place and have the right number attached.
Meanwhile the Coppice car park is filling up with with people in trainers and Lycra, and they are filing into No 28 to collect their maps. The event was included in the 2017 UK Urban League, so we got lots of orienteers from further afield than usual!
This was nice, but it made the Market Place mass start quite a crowded affair, with about 270 competitors starting on the blast of Andy’s whistle!
Fortunately Mike (you can see him above, his back to the camera) had the idea of starting the children and beginners off separately 5 minutes later in the Parks Nature Reserve. There were about 60 of them, and British Orienteering rules state that under 16s must not compete on busy roads, so the Parks and quiet estate roads beyond were perfect for this.
Because Belper is so hilly, I planned relatively short courses, but I was surprised how quick the winning times were. Men’s Open was won in 42 minutes. The straight-line distance was 8km, but distance on the ground would be 11 or 12km because of all the out of bounds areas. Plus there was 200m of climb, so that’s pretty fast!
It was a big relief when everyone got back safely, apart from 2 DVO members who slipped on some ice in a shady alleyway. And better still, the DVO control-collecting team brought in all the markers, meaning Dave and I could have a much needed rest : )
You can see what events we have coming up on our Facebook page (go on, have a look & give us a Like!), or on the Fixtures tab of the DVO website. British Orienteering have a great Guide for Newcomers.
I love the fact that our sport needs its own dictionary! Do you know what a re-entrant is?!