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Why Sprint Races are Different

Posted on Sunday, April 29, 2007.

You might think that sprint race planning is just more of the same, but experience has shown it probably needs a lot more care, certainly when looked at in terms of effort per kilometre of race! Fairness is a concern for any orienteering event, but the problems are made much more apparent for sprint races.

What follows is based on my experience as a controller at several recent big sprint races (British Sprint Championships at Milton Keynes, World Cup sprint races at the University of Surrey in Guildford and at Battersea Park) and as a spectator at sprint World Championships and Park World Tour events. (Reproduced from CompassSport, December 2006)

Terrain Suitability

The British Sprint Championships guidelines state that “the planning should emphasise map reading, map interpretation and route choice in complex environments and at very high speed” and that “the nature of the terrain means that courses are likely to be of technical difficulty 3 or 4, but the speed of the event adds extra pressures which compensate for the lack of technical challenge”.

Sprint races need to be about running speed, map reading and spectator interest. You’re looking for something reasonably flat, reasonably open and with a fair amount of small detail but little traffic. Experience to date shows that university campuses and ornamental city parks are ideal. City centres look like they may be about to become the next growth area, judging by the enthusiasm generated by the Oxford City Race.

Sprint Maps and ISSOM

ISSOM, the IOF specification for sprint maps, introduces a number of modifications to the more familiar ISOM standard used for most other races. The main differences relate to the representation of paths in urban areas, the introduction of extra symbols for small but significant objects (such as trees, bushes, staircases and building pass-throughs), and the use of symbols to define whether fences, walls, standing water and vegetation are “passable” or “impassable”. ISSOM is not without its critics, and the Czech Orienteering Federation has gone as far as producing its own version. Even at elite level there is debate about whether the representation of paths with a brown infill rather than black makes things easier or harder to read and interpret. The recommended scale is 1:5,000 or 1:4,000 with 2.5m contours. 1:5,000 should be fine for most areas, although we did end up with 1:4,000 at Guildford to ensure legibility given that the area was so complex. Whatever scale you end up with, it is important to have clear cartography, and to use the correct symbol set from the start. Converting an ISOM map to ISSOM is possible, but not a recommended way of doing things.

Consistency of mapping across the whole area is critical, particularly the use of the “impassable” symbols, vegetation screens and the mapping of individual trees. We had lengthy debates at Battersea about whether individual trees should be mapped at all, or marked as a green circle or a green dot, and whether they should then have an associated area of white around them. These issues need to be considered before the survey is complete, since it is difficult to change this sort of thing consistently across the whole map at a late stage. Be particularly wary of buildings on hillsides or with multiple levels. It can be very difficult to map areas where runners can be on one or more levels, with stairs and walkways between them. In certain cases it may be necessary to adjust the map specifically for each event, to add or remove route choices, or to avoid planning route choices through certain parts of the map. This can remove problems of map interpretation and reduce the scope for runners ending up where they aren’t meant to be.

Sprint areas seem to be much more subject to “map changes” then other areas. I have had problems with new fences and scaffolding, vegetation clearance and draining of lakes all within two or three weeks of the event. You need to keep in close contact with the relevant bodies and explain to them how important it is that you are told about any such work that might occur. We had repeatedly asked about building work at Guildford and been assured there was none planned right up to the point one week before the event when a new fence appeared that blocked a route choice on all courses.

The Spectator Element

Sprint races should be designed to offer spectator interest, and this needs to be considered from the very earliest stages of the planning and organising process. The layout of start and finish needs particular thought, and as a first principle it is always worth trying to put them within sight of each other. This definitely adds to the atmosphere, as well as to the pressure on competitors. Putting the start on the raised stage next to the finish at Milton Keynes provided a focal point, and also produced some great photographs of competitors looking distinctly tense as they waited to start. This start location was chosen even though it introduced a relatively dead first leg to get competitors into the real terrain. Wherever possible it is also worth considering a spectator control near the start and finish. Even though spectators may be offered the chance to go out into the race area they will still tend to find a spot near the finish and stay there. But beware of legs where a possible route choice goes through the start or finish.

Given that many of your spectators will also be competitors it is important to define where they are allowed to go, both before and after they have run. Determine any necessary rules and then make them clear to competitors and spectators. In many cases it may be simplest and fairest to decide that anyone can go anywhere at any time. Otherwise you need to make it clear where spectators are allowed and where they must avoid, and find some way of enforcing this.

Course Length

The recommended winning time for sprint races is 12 to 15 minutes. On a typical UK park area the top men will do just over four minutes per kilometre (or slightly under when corrected for climb), and the top women will be 10 to 15% down on this (but still under 5 minutes per kilometre). This means that most courses should probably be somewhere between 2.5km and 3.5km. Experience shows that it is quite difficult to force yourself to plan short enough courses to get down to a 12 minute winning time. Be careful when planning in urban areas, since the distance run to get around the buildings is likely to be quite a lot longer than the straight-line course that you measure.

Test running the courses is useful to check the length is about right: one advantage of sprint races is that this is quite a quick job. I know that I will be about 30% down on the top men so can judge the likely winning time from that. The other benefit of test running is that it gives you a much better view of how the course feels to run than you can get from looking at it on paper. At Guildford I wasn’t initially keen on the “simple” section around the cathedral, but having run it I found that it provided a complete contrast in technique to break up the course. Test running can also help in deciding the exact location of control flags, depending on the line of approach to control sites. Moving tapes no more than one or two metres can make a huge difference to when a control flag becomes visible. This isn’t an excuse to hide flags, but equally runners should not be allowed to switch off when they see a flag from fifty metres away, unless of course it’s not their control.

Course Planning Philosophy

The planning should do everything possible to put pressure on the competitor. Given the easy nature of most sprint areas this almost always starts with a high control density to force constant map reading. I’d certainly be looking at an average of less than 200m per control, although this would include a number of legs of 50m or less. Legs of 500m or more should be used sparingly, unless the terrain really does offer multiple route choices requiring frequent map contact over a leg. This might be true in urban areas with complex building patterns, but parkland is seldom complicated enough to justify such long legs. The normal practice of planning a good course and then leaving at least one control out is almost reversed for sprint races. In retrospect there are places where I would put in more controls on the courses I have been involved with.

In an ideal world you’d make the course complex throughout. An almost equivalent technique is to start off in a complex area, run through the less interesting parts of the map in the middle of the course, and then finish in a complex area. The other tricks to make use of are frequent changes of direction and going in and out of any blocks of woodland or groups of buildings. Include groups of three or four controls quite close together to force direction changes, followed by longer legs to get to the next good bit of terrain. In many cases you end up with legs with only two obvious route choices, often “left” or “right” around buildings or lakes. These may look trivial, but it is better to offer the option, and make people decide which way to go, rather than offer no choice at all. Two such legs in a row is a potential dog leg no matter what you do about it. I’m much less worried about dog legs in sprint races than I am for longer forest-based races.

Watch out for courses where runners may end up running at high speed in opposite directions through narrow gaps. There was one totally blind corner with runners going both ways at Guildford that I only spotted when checking controls on the day of the race. Luckily there were no problems, The WOC 2006 sprint planner was less lucky. Courses went both ways through a narrow gap in a hedge, and a Canadian and American runner staged a high-speed collision, resulting in significant blood loss and a trip to hospital for stitches in a head wound.

Planning multiple courses at the same race will almost inevitably raise questions about how close together controls can be. The BOF and IOF Rules are written with smaller scale maps in mind, and some people argue that the 30m/60m rules can be relaxed for sprint races. As ever it comes down to a question of fairness and individual cases need to be looked at on the ground. Sticking to 30m between controls is certainly possible and probably a good thing to aim at.

Take extra care when producing course overprints that they are clear and you have broken lines and circles to show fine detail. It is often difficult to break or divert lines, especially in urban areas, since there are simply too may options to consider. Convention at world level seems to be that you draw straight lines between all controls no matter what, even across buildings and lakes. This is probably a starting point, but it is always worth looking at the course overprint at a late stage to see if there is a better or clearer way of drawing things.

The Accidental Out-of-bounds Problem

As a controller this is now my biggest concern with any sprint race. The ISSOM standard introduces impassable features, and therefore anyone crossing them must be disqualified. The big worry is where runners accidentally (or to a lesser extent deliberately) cross features mapped as impassable or out-of-bounds since they are not marked or obvious on the ground. This is a particular problem for fences and walls marked as impassable but which are relatively easy to cross (and remember that elite runners can get across practically any barrier if they think it is saving them time). Updating the map may be useful if there is no reason for the fence or wall not to be crossed. Otherwise you need to look carefully at the planning and route choice options, tape off areas or provide marshalls on the ground.


Safety of runners needs to be considered early in the planning process. For crossing major roads it is best to use tunnels or bridges, and courses should be planned to make these unavoidable. Beware that runners may not be familiar with the ISSOM symbol for tunnels (a dashed black outline). Explain what is happening in the final details or start lanes. If in doubt tape the routes into tunnels or put controls on the entrance to ensure runners find them. For roads with only light traffic it may be possible to plan fixed crossing points, again with controls near them to ensure they are used. Look out for runners emerging at speed from narrow passages onto a main road. We put a control on the side of the road in a situation like this at Guildford to stop people simply running across the road without looking. Also watch out for features such as crags, steep slopes, lakes and streams that may be dangerous to cross. Sprint race planners seem to have a great desire to take runners through water (and it does produce good photos) but check how deep it is and what the bottom is like before you do this.

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