CUOC boldly goes to Belgium... and on into Switzerland

Back in the depths of spring, when most CUOCers are often found slaving away in Cantabrian libraries, preparing for their upcoming exams, some other members were hatching a plan for a great European summer tour to take in some of the year’s premier international races. It’s a good thing that these two members, James Ackland and Peter Molloy (your author), were in fact engaging in a distinct lack of revision, thanks to James ‘doing a PhD’ and my continued government-funded galivanting around the former Soviet Union, so were able to devise an exciting schedule to take in both the ASOM Sprint Orienteering Weekend in Ghent, Belgium and the European Universities Orienteering Championships (more on this to follow) in St Gallen, Switzerland.

And so as August appeared on the horizon like a well-chosen attackpoint in an area of open runnable forest, we made our respective ways to the land of chocolate, European governance, speedy cyclists and tall orienteers. However my trip got off to a distinctly bad start when I discovered to my great shock that all toilets in Brussels Charleroi airport (which has the distinction of being about as near to Brussels as Svalbard is to… well… anywhere in the world) were charging a 1€ entry fee. If there’s one type of place I’ve visited many of, it’s airports, and this sort of sick joke/cruel stunt/nakedly preposterous turbo-capitalism is enough to earn Brussels Charleroi the status of bad egg. I will not be back. At least, if I do, I will be back, but in a bad mood.

The weekend kicked off with a 2 person sprint relay around a quaint little mental asylum in central Ghent. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would write. The extremely humid conditions and intensely compact nature of the area made for a rip-roaring evening of chaos orienteering as over 150 teams teared around the asylum, fresh from the adrenaline of a mass start. I personally conducted myself in an exemplary fashion, managing to slam full-pelt into a mere three middle-aged to elderly participants during my two runs. Having the good fortune of NZ runner Laura Robertson being my relay partner, our team managed to secure a 6th place finish in a competitive field. Yet this pales in comparison to James and his Belgian partner who somehow earned a 2nd place finish in the 55+ Mixed Masters category. Now, whilst we all know that James is really old (sources are unable to determine whether he will be repaying his tuition fee loan in pounds and shillings, as was standard practice for those matriculating before 1971) it is perhaps doubtful that even he should qualify for this category. Still, no-one seemed to mind too much, and I personally was far too busy trying not to faint after having a full-blown conversation with the legendary Swedish orienteering commentator and all-round BNOC of the sport Per Forsberg to overly mind about this serious misdemeanour.

Thoughts soon turned to the prospect of Saturday’s knock out sprint. The morning brought a tricky qualification race around another hospital (not a mental asylum this time) and there was no scope of slacking with such a strong field of international runners. Like an X-factor contestant with no heart wrenching backstory, I snuck through to the knock out rounds, whilst unfortunately there was no such joy for James, who, like an X-factor contestant who didn’t qualify for the knockout rounds, didn’t qualify for the knockout rounds. I think this metaphor has run its course. Like an X-factor contestant who- I’ll stop now. Whilst I gave my very best in my 6 man head-to-head quarter final, I unfortunately missed out on qualifying to the semi-finals by less than half a second as I failed to get past a very lanky Norwegian man in all the twists and turns of, would you believe it, yet another hospital. Ghent: the Mecca of medicine, the holy grail of healthcare, the destination for doctors. Said lanky scandi later informed me that he thought I would let him win. What a weirdo. Nae chance mate.

Fuelled on giddy levels of cholesterol after a generous sampling of local Belgian ‘cuisine’, we both gave the Sunday individual sprint a good crack. It turns out that the town centre of Ghent, whilst sadly lacking the medical infrastructure of the suburbs, is a real tourist hotspot and it was with great jeopardy, both to ourselves and innocent bystanders, that we tackled a speedy course in and out of the various alleys. Respectable results from both of us capped off a fun weekend of sprint orienteering and the prospect of an overnight journey to Zurich loomed larger than a rapidly approaching lamppost towards a distracted orienteer. With James on the train and me on the bus it promised to be a race of epic proportions – a 21st century Paris to Dakar, if you will. And whilst I can most certainly claim to have had a more enjoyable (or should I say, marginally less dire) experience on 4 wheels, James was propelled through the darkness of rural Germany and into northern Switzerland considerably earlier on the rails and so claimed victory, having reached the national museum in Zurich quicker than I did.

Over the coming two days we enjoyed some relaxing and very generously provided free accommodation to the seemingly quite large network of former Cambridge students doing PhDs in Switzerland, including our very own former CUOC captain Heather Corden. We did nothing touristy, accomplished little, saw nothing, ran often and drained our bank accounts just to buy ourselves lunch in various Coop branches. And it is at this juncture that James ‘dibber destroyer’ Ackland shall take over the story…

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