Oxford City Race
Saturday 4th November 2006
The idea of the Oxford City Race was first floated by Becky Carlyle at the 2004 OUOC AGM, originally to be run as a spectator race alongside the World Cup Races in May 2005. After my first taste of planning on the TVOC Summer Series, I was quite enthused by the whole concept and asked Becky, the original organiser, whether I could plan the race. To agree to someone planning what was intended to be such a high-profile race off the back of only one other low-key event was perhaps a brave decision - I hope she agrees that it was worth the gamble!
Two and a half years later, on the third attempt, and with a much revamped organisational team, we've finally pulled it off and I'm here writing the planner's comments. And it was by no means your standard planning task - I probably had more organisational input than in most events purely because where I wanted to take the courses determined the permissions. There were many of them - as you may have seen from the acknowledgements in the Final Details there were around a dozen separate organisations that were liaised with. In most cases the concept of the sport had to be explained to them, so the reassurance that there wouldn't suddenly be a group of 50+ runners destroying lawns and creating mass disruption was necessary. Trying to explain that people would actually be running rather than walking was also difficult - this particular example comes from the negotiations to use Wadham - however from the number of comments I heard anyone taking that part of the course at full speed was in a very small minority (or had local knowledge, Miss Carlyle...)!
In the end the main task was to get the map in a suitable readable state for the race. I spent far too many hours firstly converting the map to the ISSOM symbol set, which improved the readability no end - there are standards out there for a reason! Then there was the field checking, mapping new and redeveloped areas like the castle development (a shame I could only take Course 1 to this area), updates around control sites - yes it was me who added all of those confusing hedges in St Catz (the college early on in Courses 1 and 2), widening paths/alleys/passthroughs, and the production of the final three maps used for the courses - the list goes on. There were still map corrections being made less than a week before the event, as yet another building had been demolished and the site surrounded by a construction fence. I suppose it was inevitable that there would be a couple of things that I'd miss - the unfortunate fact that the loading bay for the Westgate centre in the SW corner of the map was directly under the shopping mall walkway - or where my thoughts on how some things should/could be mapped would be interpreted in more than one way - namely the stairs up to control 119 in Wadham College. It seems that the kitchen staff and porters took this in good humour though, and I hope these two oversights did not detract from the courses too much.
As for the planning itself - the constraints of the area meant that I finally settled on a standard out and back course rather than the original idea of a head-to head loops race - there was no way I could get the courses to all the areas I wanted to and of a suitable length for the loops idea to work. The challenge then was merely to plan four courses in the city, using the minimum possible number of controls (so as to reduce the numbers needed to man them), ensuring enough variation between the courses, and to hit a winning time of about 35 minutes for each of the open courses. Restricted access to college sites made it almost impossible to pre-run the entire course, and so to get the distance right I estimated an actual course length of between 9 and 9.5km for the Men's Open, and 20% shorter for the Women's Open. For those interested, the shortest actual distances were approximately 9.5km for Course 1, 7.8km for Course 2 and 5.7km for Course 3.
In terms of the course design, a city like Oxford presents challenges far removed from that in the forest. Quick identification of feasible routes is key, then choosing a route choice, sticking with the decision and executing it well was necessary. The main idea behind the courses was to get to as many of the more detailed areas where short technical legs were possible, and link these with route choice legs, fully taking advantage of the quite varied terrain - from parkland to colleges, and from the network of city streets to open plan areas like the Science Area south of the Parks. In the majority of cases the route choices were almost identical in length, but with one route that could have been considered "safer" than the other, especially near the end of the courses. Talking to competitors at the finish, the physical exertion of full-out running meant that the safe option was taken by some to minimise the risk of losing time on the slightly more difficult execution near the end of the courses. There was of course the added consideration of taking competitors past some of the more famous Oxford sites, even if they didn't realise this during the heat of the race!
The junior courses were equally as challenging to plan with such a wide age range across each one. The "minis" course had path routes for the youngest, while trying to provide a straight line route across the parkland where possible as well for the more experienced orienteers. The 14s/16s was designed as a sprint course, with many controls leading to short legs and changes in direction - a test of control flow and navigation at speed. There was also the contrast of several legs through the Science Area for a change of scenery and technique. With the Parks being so visible it was difficult to plan "difficult" legs that tested the fine navigation. Hopefully they suited all ages and abilities of Juniors and were enjoyed as much as the City-based courses
I'd like to say a big thank you to all of you - the competitors - for taking part and making the event such a success! It truly was third time lucky for us - I guess we were due some good fortune. I appreciated all of the feedback that I received on the courses (any more comments are welcome - firstname.lastname@example.org), seeing the (sometimes surprising) routes people had taken and being witness to the combined expression of exhaustion and amazement on people's faces at the finish. It made all the effort that has been put in over the last few years, and especially the last couple of months, all worthwhile. And I guess many of you will have seen me at the finish, those few nervous moments before the first competitors of each course came in, seeing whether people had met the challenge that had been set, whilst overcome with a simultaneous sense of relief and elation that the event had finally happened.
Finally, a few more acknowledgements - to the marshals, the members of OUOC who helped everything go smoothly on the day knowing they weren't going to get a run themselves (the disadvantage of being a small club), our controller Roger Thetford who was of great assistance and kept us on target (NTL eating emails apart...) and last but not least to the organisers, Cerys and SGB, who put in an immense amount of work leading up to the event. The organisational logistics of the whole event - organising a team of 50+ people, working out how to get controls and marshals out and within such a short time frame and to keep them out for the minimum amount of time, and the numerous other tasks, was handled amazingly. Oh, and of course to the weather gods - we were truly blessed, goodness knows what it would have been like had it been raining...
For those who are already asking if/when we're doing this again - I think all I can say is watch this space - we (especially Mr SGB) need some time to recover from this one first! I hope that a precedent has been set and that we can look forward to running in similar city-based events elsewhere in the UK first - are you listening Cambridge? :)
Ian Webb, OUOC
PS. johnloguk - yes, I might be able to start some work on my PhD now ;)
At last! Oxford students who were freshers when this race was first scheduled are now in their final year, and OUOC deserves great credit for keeping things together over such a long period. It was a complicated operation, with two official organisers (plus the planner chipping in), military-style recruitment and deployment of marshals, a map that took Dave Peel twice as long as he'd quoted for and still needed modifications. (Saturday night: "That [the Castle complex] wasn't on my survey!" "No, it's new, just opened: Ian added it.") Oxford is a complicated place, and the green out-of-bounds symbol on your map blots out a lot (yes, really) of detail that wasn't used: three mapped colleges down, 25 or so to go. Having seen the trailer on the local TV news (well done Cerys and Ian), perhaps the reluctant colleges will understand better next time what's involved. There's certainly one cloister-related treat we had lined up for you that unfortunately had to be pulled with two weeks to go, owing to a clashing event -- next time perhaps.
This was the first City race that I've controlled, and only my second experience of the sprint mapping standards. Ian has described two of the problem areas, both relating to the difficulties of making a 2-d representation of 3-d reality. We'll do better next time. We had to do a lot of learning 'on the job', but focused on providing an enjoyable experience with a variety of challenges: complicated slow sections with some leg-stretching opportunities in between, and a bit of tourism. This was certainly the first time I've suggested moving a control to improve the photo-opportunity! My other suggestions were very minor: Ian's first-draft courses were excellent, and as I scrolled round them on the computer screen my smile of anticipation broadened into a wide grin. I knew that it was going to be a race to remember.
Your comments at the finish made it all worthwhile. Thanks for coming.
Roger Thetford, TVOC and JOK
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