Yukon orienteerers prevail at massive Finland event

Mud. Darkness. Risk of being trampled. Sounds like a good time, huh?

Mud. Darkness. Risk of being trampled. Sounds like a good time, huh?

Members of Team Yukon thought so at the Jukola orienteering relay in Lappeenranta, Finland over the weekend.

“The race started with a mass start, which I took part in. It was a bit of a surreal experience being in that mass start – I simultaneously felt very excited and very anxious about being trampled,” said Whitehorse’s Pia Blake in an email to the News. “Because so many people start at the same time, you end up running in ‘trains’ through the forest, like one long snake trying to find the controls. The start was also at 23:00, or sundown, so all of the orienteering was in the dark, which made for a very different and ‘small’ feeling while orienteering – you could only see what your headlamp touched. The best part was at the very end. The forest was open, and everyone had the same last three controls, so I could really push and felt like I was flying past other runners!”

The seven-person Yukon team finished the relay 597th out of 1,712 teams, completing the 84-kilometre seven-stage relay in 13 hours, 11 minutes and 22 seconds.

The event, which started in 1949, is the largest orienteering relay in the world with about 11,900 racers.

Just reaching the finish is an accomplishment, as 337 teams were disqualified for missing control points this year.

“Relays are far more stressful with so many people out there,” said Yukon captain Forest Pearson. “It is really a different kind of orienteering as all of the stakes are so much higher because you are running with people in the forest in ‘trains’ or packs of people. But the organizers make ‘splits’ or ‘forks’ in the course so you can’t blindly follow other competitors as they might have slightly different control points … So what that means is it is really easy to make a mistake. And most disastrously of all would be to go to the wrong control point and miss the one you were supposed to go to. That is called a ‘miss punch’ and would result in the disqualification of the entire team. So that did not happen to us which was our major goal: focus, focus, focus.”

Whitehorse’s Leif Blake had the highest finish for the Yukon team. The 17-year-old completed his 12.8-kilometre leg – the second leg of the race – in 1:41:46 to place 302nd out of what had already been cut down to 1,624 teams.

“Jukola was unlike any other orienteering race in which I had competed before,” said Leif. “It was incredibly exciting to be out in the woods in the middle of the night surrounded by so many other runners. I am quite happy with our team’s performance, and I think everyone pulled through to deliver great results.”

Pearson placed 475th on his leg, Whitehorse’s Ross Burnett 644th on his, Svante Larsson 373rd on his. Larsson, 59, was a last-minute addition to the team after Whitehorse’s Brent Langbakk had to drop out due to injury.

“He is married to Christine Boyd from Whitehorse and has lived here in the Yukon in the past,” said Pearson of Larsson. “Svante and Christine now live in Kalix, Sweden, way up north near the Finnish border … Miracle of all miracles, within a day of emailing Svante, he was on our team and came down to Lappeenranta in southern Finland to race on our team!”

Pia placed 1,219th on her leg, Jennifer MacKeigan 1,303rd on hers, and Caelan McLean brought it home, finishing the final leg – the longest at 16 kilometres – in 2:40:22 for 757th.

“There are many swamps in the race area that have these drainage ditches. Those became deep mud pits that if you tried to run across them – or were unlucky in your jump and didn’t make it – you ended up sinking up to your waist in mud,” said Pearson. “So I felt like I was going through the mud trenches of WWI. It made the running pretty physical too as your feet kept sucking into the mud.”

The Yukon team, which was the first from the territory to race at Jukola, was one of just two Canadian teams at the event. A team from Ottawa placed 209th.

The Blakes, who are brother and sister, and McLean will represent Canada at the Junior World Orienteering Championships in Switzerland next month. Pia will also compete for Canada at the World University Orienteering Championships in Hungary, beginning at the end of July.

“I think I speak for the rest of our team when I say that we are very satisfied with our standing,” added Leif. “We didn’t all have the race we were hoping for, but everybody kept pushing and finished strong. It was truly a great team effort.”

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