Joe Grant 2001: Course Setter's Report

by Vladimir Gusiatnikov

It is now Sunday, Nov. 18, 2001, and a week has passed since BAOC's event in J. D. Grant Santa Clara county park that I had the honor to set the courses for. Many of you enjoyed the event, and even more mentioned to me or on the Bayonet that the courses were certainly quite different from what Bay Area orienteers have been accustomed to. I am providing this lengthy review to discuss route choices that the course setter thought were good, better, or best; to illustrate these examples with feedback from competitors who took those, or other, options; and to explain the practice of and hopefully make the case for setting long, route choice- filled legs at orienteering events. I'm also writing this to share some of my orienteering philosophy with those interested.

Course-Setting Strategy

The advanced courses at Joe Grant were predominantly composed of legs longer than 1000 m, with several distinct route possibilities. The goal of a course setter is not simply to provide opportunities for the competitors to choose among different ways of travelling between controls; if all of those ways are substantially equivalent in physical and technical difficulty, and as a result, take about the same time to complete, then the choice does not serve as a test of the navigational and planning skills of the competitors. The accepted international philosophy for route choice is that a good leg should supply several distinct routes which can be readily identified by the majority of the competitors. Of those routes, one and only one should be the best; the competitor who takes the route and executes it mistake-free should gain quantifiable advantage over another competitor who correctly navigates a different, less superior route. It should be possible for a skilled, trained competitor to make the correct choice based solely on the information provided by the map and the supplemental event information.

A successful orienteering course should not only contain route choice; coarse and fine navigation are more important constituents of what constitutes a fair test of one's high-speed navigational abilities. The courses at Joe Grant were one-sided, emphasizing route choice and fast running over the fine navigation. However, I find meaningful route choice problems so seldom present at BAOC events that I thought it would be justified to sacrifice the more often-tested fine navigation. The Bay hills can certainly make courses possible that have fair shares of all components of a good orienteering race.

My educator's hat off, there was another reason for the courses being the way they were. I am frankly amazed at the amount of preparation and work that is put into local events in BAOC land. This amount is not that different from work on an A-meet. The course setter is expected plan the courses, go out and survey the locations, make map corrections, enter them into OCAD, set out streamers, look for a vetter for the courses, and put out bags, e-punches, and water the day before the event. All of this investment certainly pays off with excellent local events. All of the above should be done in preparation for an A-meet. However, the situation is different, in my view, for local events.

For Joe Grant, I chose not to make any map corrections. I'm quite proficient with OCAD. But being somewhat of a perfectionist, and having made one map and set seven A-meet days, I knew I wouldn't be able to stop once I started. I recalled that the Grant map used for the 1995 A-meet was generally fairly accurate, except for the mapping of vegetation, and I presumed the fact that the vegetation was somewhat flaky was well known to the locals. My thesis advisor in college told me several times, "if you spend twice the time to make things 99% perfect instead of 90% perfect, you can instead make another set of different, 90% perfect things". I am frankly happy if the customers (competitors) are 90% happy and understand the tradeoffs involved, and for the extra free time, I'd rather put on another Joe Grant event. The event should still provide a fair test of the competitors' orienteering abilities, just maybe not as exquisitely insured against any possible unfairness as A-meets are.

So there were shortcuts taken; the small number of controls on the courses meant less vetting and day-before-event work, and some sites were only vetted once, either by me or by Jeff Lanam, the event director. (Note again: this approach does NOT apply to A-meets, where shortcuts are not acceptable. There is and should be a distinction made between A-meets and local events. If local events are held to A-meet quality, the club should pay the USOF A-meet sanctioning fee and get the runners ranked. This is my own, very subjective, opinion.)

The Problems

So, I spent a total of about 3 full-time workday equivalents on planning, preparing the maps for, and setting courses at Joe Grant, not counting the day of the event. Certainly there were problems. A control on Green and Blue, #48, was described by me, the course setter, as "thickets, between, lower part". Jeff went out and thought that the thickets were there, on a slope of moderate steepness; he was just unsure of where the exact lower part of between thickets was. When I went to hang the bag the day before the event, I found out that Jeff was right. The thickets, of medium green, were there. However, some of the space between, and most of the space around, the thickets appeared light green, instead of white forest on the map. It was not immediately obvious to the runners that the almost-distinct boundary of bush and poison oak they saw was not necessarily that of one of the mapped thickets. I hung the control high and spread a white water stop bag on the ground to increase the site's visibility, but to no avail. As I went out to the site on Sunday during the event, I witnessed one of the top Green runners survey the visible boundary again and again, for a couple of minutes, until he finally took a look through the light green and saw the bag. After talking to the participants and reading their accounts, it became clear that just about everybody had problems with the control. For the majority, the problems were limited to under 3 minutes. This certainly made the control site unfair. The amount of unfairness was, however, not strongly correlated with the chosen route, which the event intended to test.

Another site, #46, was the last control on Red, Brown, and Orange. It was the end of a fence, mapped as the centerline of a narrow band of medium green at the bottom of a broad reentrant. In actuality, the fence was off more to one edge of the band, its end almost came out of the medium green, and some of the medium green was next-to-impassable green. This made the two approaches from the two different sides of the green differ in a way that was not discernible from the map, and created unfairness.

This site was also the source of an unrelated problem which exclusively affected Orange runners. The finish banner was visible from the last control; the direct path to the banner lay across a horsemen's assembly area which the park was actively renovating. We were asked to stay out of the area. I streamered the path from the last control to the finish around the boundary of the area, through some rough open with blobs of fight. This was in stark contrast with the parking lot-like surface of the out-of-bounds area. The path from the last control to the finish was marked on the maps as a streamered route around the area, and this was noted on the control descriptions; I did not think it was necessary to mark the area itself as out of bounds on the maps.

Little did I know that most Orange runners are unfamiliar with the standard last control-to-finish notation on the clue sheets, or with the fact that streamered routes marked on the map are mandatory. This issue usually does not come up at A-meets, at which the Orange M- and F-16's are most often orienteers' kids and are well acquainted with the rules. One after one, the early Orange finishers shortcut through the horsemen's area, in plain view of a pair of unhappy rangers who were painting a park shelter. It was clear that cutting through saved those runners some time, and put those who dutifully played by the rules at a disadvantage, so I instructed the finish crew to send the shortcutters back to the last control and tell them to follow the streamers this time. This did not work, as an Orange finisher refused to do so and threatened the course setter with eternal damnation for his mistreatment. So I had to go find a bored-looking orienteer in the results area and ask him to guide the Oranges along the proper path. After that, things went smoothly, at the expense of this person's time.

Yet another problem arose the morning before the event as I woke up at my campsite to find out that one of the yet-to-be placed e-punch units lit a red LED which I presumed to be a battery low indicator. I could not see the yellow "pulse" LED, which flashes every few seconds, on the bottom of the unit. Curious, I checked the rest of the units on the picnic table. About half of them did not have pulse. I panicked and replaced the presumed-dead units with spares, and later went out and replaced a couple of close units already in the woods with spares. I thought that there was some sort of mass malfunction owing to the very wet weather overnight. When I brought the deceased units back to the e-punch guru, Robert Lewis, he showed me that they weren't dead at all. Rather, they had the pulse LED in a place different from the other units, which was harder to see. In the middle of the commotion, I forgot to put out the last remaining White control, in plain view of the finish. The early White finishers found it out, and the control was quickly placed. Still, some people were inconvenienced as the course setter was more concerned with keeping the e-punch system working and the advanced runners happy, rather than making sure the White course was taken proper care of. One has to wonder whether technology is an asset or a liability.

I think this covers the problems. The rest of the courses were, in the majority's view, fair and exciting. Would you personally prefer flawless events, held nearly to A-meet standards, or imperfect ones such as Sunday's, but with interesting courses, and offered at twice the frequency? It's up to you to decide.

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