by Sophie Pruzina
As a second year W18, this was my last year running in the Junior Interregional Championships. I first ran in the JIRCs in Sandringham in 2012, where I got very lost in the unfamiliar terrain and head high ferns that had grown up overnight. Since then I have competed in Graythwaite in the north west, Breton Spurs in the west midlands and Cambus O’May in Scotland, and each year the experience has helped me to improve my navigation skills and confidence, as well as meet other orienteers my age from all over the UK. This year the competition was held in the south east of England. We got up at 4:30am on Saturday morning and flew from Belfast International Airport to Gatwick, some managing better than others to catch up on sleep along the way. Our squad was, as usual, quite small, with 9 members instead of the standard 24. Andrew Elwood ran up to M18; Daniel and Matthew Vasey, Odhran McGoldrick; and Peter Reed ran M16, and Daniel Earnshaw ran M14; while I ran W18; Rachel Collins W16; and Meadow McCauley W14. Stephanie Pruzina, Mark Earnshaw and Stephan McGoldrick came as leaders. This year we were proudly modelling our brand new NI Junior Squad shirts, recently designed by Andrew and Rachel, and in a range of sizes so we no longer had to fight over the remaining handful of shirts that weren’t ‘extra small’. After a quick stop at Sainsbury’s for lunches and snacks, we headed somewhat early to Winterfold and Pitch Hill for the individual race. Looking at old maps before the start, we could see that there were lots of green hashings, indicating undergrowth, as well as deep re-entrants to avoid where at all possible. My course was 6.6km, with 22 controls. I quickly learned that the runability of the bracken could be unpredictable and, on some legs, the re-entrants were unavoidable. However, where the bracken was low, the terrain was perfect for running. Where it grew higher, route choice along the small tracks was key, and map contact was important to avoid getting lost on these, particularly towards the end once fatigue had kicked in. Learning to take full advantage of timed out road crossings is another useful skill I need to work on! Back at the finish, we discussed our courses and those of us with friends in other regions got the chance to catch up.
Our 5 star accommodation that night was the sports hall floor of the local school. Once there, we were free to mix with other squads. As usual, some form of rugby and/or football with varying very large team sizes took place outside on the pitch, while others sat around and played cards or chatted in the hall. (Slightly chilly) showers were provided, and we had a team meeting, looking over our courses and discussing our best route choices. After dinner, we headed into town, exploring a bit and stocking up on snacks before the prize giving. Lights went out at 10:30 and everyone was tired enough after their run that the hall went quiet very soon after.
We were up early again the next day for breakfast at 6:30, then headed to Blackheath for the relays. The weather was sunny and over 20 degrees- perfect for relays as they involve a lot of standing about and it meant you didn’t have to worry about handing over clothing at the changeover. We had a full boy’s team of Andrew, Peter and Daniel Earnshaw and girl’s team of me, Rachel and Meadow, while Odhran, Matthew and Daniel Vasey ran the ad-hoc relay. In the male and female relays, M and W16s ran the first leg, followed by 14s and 18s. This meant I was running last leg. Stephanie and I got some nice photos of first leg runners starting off in mass starts, and of the changeovers between runners, while we all looked out for team members passing through the spectator control, as this was our cue to get into the start box. Meadow sprinted down the run-in, touched my hand and I was off! The terrain was more open than Saturday’s, but with the same unpredictable bracken and complicated path system. I again really enjoyed my run and had some really good legs, but also some less good ones, including accidently running to number 6 before 5 and having to go back on myself. The easy terrain and sudden direction changes made it fast and furious, leaving lots of scope for ‘silly mistakes’, so you had to stay awake and keep careful contact with the map. After finishing, we again had time to eat lunch, chat and make the most of it still being summer in the south of England, knowing autumn was fully underway back home. At the prize giving it was announced that we had come in 11th, and improvement on 12th and last place the night before (unfortunately, it was later found that this was a calculation error). Our flight wasn’t until 18:10, so we took the chance to lounge about in the sun and go for a stroll around the park. Rachel even took some photos for her school art project! We made it to the airport in plenty of time, and no one’s shoes were stinky enough to be considered a weapon and confiscated in security. After and hour in which we made full use of the airport food court, we were on the plane headed home. As always, the chance to run on unfamiliar terrain, very different to that of Northern Ireland, has been hugely beneficial to all of our navigational abilities, while being away with other orienteers our own age has been a great experience that I would fully recommend to any other Juniors, whether they’re approaching M or W12, or have come more recently to older age classes and are interested in competing at this level.