dealing with the unexpected

Dealing with the unexpected

For the past few years I have been competing each summer at various mountain bike orienteering events. These can vary from UK based events to packing my bike and flying overseas to some of the larger international events. Whether I am competing in Australia, Hungary or Portugal there are many things that are exactly the same. The maps are drawn to a common standard, with standard ways of indicating how wide the track is or how fast or rough the surface is. The way of describing where the “controls” are is done in the same way that is not reliant on language. There are usually the same 700 or so competitors who go to these events so you are frequently racing the same people and I have got to know so many wonderful people from all over the world.

Each year I have competed in a series of international races that form a World Masters League culminating in the Mountain Bike Orienteering Masters World Championships. This year was no exception and so at the end of September I was off to race in the World Championships in Kaunus, Lithuania.

My training and racing over the summer had gone well. I had started my year with quite a bit of foot orienteering to keep my skills sharp and so was looking forward to the big races. Two of my fellow GB team members and myself had won the World Masters Relay held in Czech in August. I had won several of the Masters series races and was leading the standings going into the World Championships.

Unfortunately life is not always predictable and VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) things do happen. With 10 days to go I was warming up before a foot orienteering race and was jogging across a playground, fell over and damaged my knee, hip and elbow. The knee and hip were relatively superficial but the elbow and one of my hands were quite deep. A bruised and stiff elbow is not great for mountain biking but the holes in my hand were just where I grip the handlebars. Fortunately nothing got infected and slowly they started to heal.

The next thing that happened was the organisers emailed the GB team to say that despite us booking our accommodation back in January (and paying in May) they had failed to pass the booking onto the hotel. They had however probably found us alternative accommodation that was not quite as good. Trip advisor seemed to suggest the rooms were very small. I had to just think positive and know that my roommate is a tidy person so we would be fine.

For this event we would also be using a new system of proving that we had visited the correct controls. The new system is much the same as the old but is more sophisticated where your micro chip can be read from a distance of about one metre. This results in a slightly different style of racing where it is advantageous to ride past a control rather than stop and turn round.

Arriving in Lithuania the hotel was actually fine. We all went and rode on a training area with a map and a practice course. I got used to listening for the beep and checking the flash on my chip. What we also discovered were the mass of small paths crisscrossing the area. The local tradition of foraging for mushrooms had created the paths but the falling autumnal leaves were now disguising them. Not what we expected.

The first race was the Long Distance race. For the first time at a World Championships this was to be run as a mass start rather than the traditional ‘time trial’ start with competitors setting off at three or four minute intervals. Having talked to some of my fellow riders they did not like it – feeling intimidated by this sort of start rather than the anonymity of a time trial start. I had taken the first leg in our relay in August purposefully to put myself under pressure and practice this style of racing.

During the race I realised was that I was leading half the pack as there was no one in front of me. I had anticipated this situation so I just relaxed and concentrated on the map and my route. At one point where there was relatively little choice in route I did glance behind and no one was there. I rode the first loop well and as it turned out I was about three minutes ahead of the nearest person.

The second loop, printed on the reverse side of the map was where in theory we should all start to come together as we completed the two variations. At the start of this loop as I flipped the map over I found it hard to see where it went. What none of us had expected was that the second loop would take us into an area so complex it was hard to read on the scale of map. I stayed calm and looked for the next control. Time well spent as my nearest competitor rushed this and rode the loop in the reverse order and so was disqualified. There was a tricky control near the end, it was down a tiny path that to this point had not had anyone go down so was really hard to spot, I reverted back to the ingrained skills of relocating off a known point. I was where I should have been and yes there was the path. I finished in Gold medal position after two hours of racing just three and a half minutes up on second place

The next day was the Middle Distance race. It was a Saturday and it seemed that it was traditional to go for a walk and what I had not expected was the numbers of people enjoying a sunny day out in the woods. They were great at getting out of the way but it was just one more thing I had not expected to have to think about. A more normal time trial start and the whole race went pretty smoothly – sometimes taking a longer way round to simplify the navigation actually saved time over slowing down through the complex path areas to check where you were on a shaking map board. I was delighted to pick up my second Gold medal.

The final race was the Sprint Distance. Start intervals for some reason were changed from the normal at least two minutes down to just one minute. Not expected. Unfortunately for me the person starting in front of me was injured just before the Championship so her start time remained empty. This gave me a disadvantage as I could not “close in” on someone just one minute ahead. A third of the way round I caught my two minute person who in turn had caught her one minute person. There was also a fourth competitor who has a bit of a reputation of “following”. The four of us raced head to head  - well, I led the three of them around for half the course.

Coming in to the last part I made a small mistake and the “follower” came after me whilst the other two, who were working hard at their navigation, spotted the correct path to turn onto. Correcting my mistake, two controls later, I could see the others just ahead at the next and what turned out to be crucial control. I decided to take a different route out of it by turning round and taking a short but steep descent to cut a corner off. Sure enough me and my follower came out ahead of the others and we completed the course, racing to the end. At the finish I downloaded my electronic chip only to find out it had not registered at that crucial control. My follower had registered at this crucial control and both of ours had registered at an extra control that we had passed on our short cut. Unfortunately this did not enable me to be reinstated to what would have been a Silver medal. We have no idea if my chip had been faulty – or in turning round I had not got quite close enough although I was sure I had checked for the beep every time. I will never know but I was delighted for the other two with whom I had raced and had navigated well who achieved Silver and Bronze.   

With the last race of the World Masters Series complete and after a strong season I was please to be standing on the top step of the podium receiving the overall Gold medal.

On reflection there were a number of mental strategies that I applied to deal with the VUCA challenges that I faced that I also see applied by the successful people and organisations that I work with.

  • Preparation is key. I thought very carefully about the sort of challenges that I was likely to face and planned my response should they occur.
  • I focussed on what I could control and my performance and didn’t let what was going on around me or changes to the rules affect me.
  • I felt that I was part of a team and had the support of my fellow GB team members.
  • I saw the unforeseen events that occurred as challenges to be overcome and, in some way, enjoyed.
  • I had deliberately practised some of the situations that I would face such as the mass start.
  • Sometimes you need to slow down in order to go faster overall.
  • There’s no point in thinking about ‘what might have been’, learn the lesson and move on.

I think that these continue to be great lessons for me in both my sports career and in my business work.

Charlie Somers-Cocks is Head of Global Talent at Impact