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Nathan Borton |The student OE (orienteering experience)
By Christo Peters - Fri 1 Sep 2023 11:01pm

It is time to connect with one of our NZ orienteers who – like many – has recently combined the travel and study with an intense orienteering sport experience. 

Nathan Borton found the sport as a fun thing to do with his friends in intermediate with the Auckland schools sprint series. In year 8 he qualified for the Auckland final without even knowing it was a thing! This led into lots of school competitions and then the Auckland orienteering club.  He claims he was never really that good at any sport but always quite competitive so being naturally okay at orienteering got him hooked. The most memorable win before that, he reckons was at an orienteering event –  finishing 7th overall in that Auckland schools sprint final way back in year 8 (he say hopefully he has remembered that correctly!)  He says “I’m not sure if I would be the person I am today without that. I had some really satisfying results in my last year of high school as well as this year at Junior Worlds but that first race will always have a special place in my heart.”

Ever since starting he has just gradually improved and progressively taken the sport and  training more and more seriously.  Now his main motivation is “Let’s see how far I can take this thing”!

Recently, Nathan has had full-on packed itinerary with 9 weeks of travelling that has included:
Bulgaria – EYOC Tour
Romania – JWOC
Switzerland – Swiss o week
Sweden – Oringen
Czechia – WC2
Belgium – ASOM

The selected for both JWOC and WC2 started the whole trip planning. He knew he was going to be in Europe for both and had a university exchange starting only a few weeks after WC2. So he figured he should just stay in Europe. It was a bit of a step-up after travelling for 5 weeks last year but he says “I really enjoyed it and I can’t recommend a European adventure enough for any orienteer – regardless of your ability”.

There was lot to prepare for in the lead-up the JWOC.  Specifically the sprint and sprint relay at JWOC, these were his big focus events and so specific preparation was done in advance for them.  Aside from the typical pre-training, and there was quite a lot of pre-trip scouting on google maps and street view, with some practice courses on running wild as well. There was a training week in Romania with the whole team. This was really beneficial, and he gives a shoutout to the Australian team for “letting us see the full map of the embargoed area for the sprint they let us look at, there was nothing super special but it gave more confidence especially with the first few controls – knowing there wasn’t going to be a huge curveball.”

Nathan’s best run from this time – and result – would probably have to be the JWOC Sprint. He says, “The end of the course was pretty boring. In some ways the race and result felt somewhat like a relief. I put a lot of focus and energy into this race for the past year so to come out and achieve my dream of a top 20 performance felt pretty incredible.”
He also added that the biggest learning would just be to “trust the process”.  As cliche as it is, he goes on to say “if you put in consistent and purposeful effort for enough time then good things will come.”

We asked Nathan how do you keep the focus on such large orienteering travel trips. Nathan replied:  “After quite a disappointing first round of JWOC trials where I struggled a lot mentally with focus and due to personal reasons. I then put a lot of emphasis on the mental side of my performance in my build-up to JWOC. The most effective strategies which I find work well for me is visualisation and self-talk prior to these big races. In the days leading up to these races I would take time to get comfortable, close my eyes and imagine myself walking to quarantine. During the warming up, being in the start box, and even running the first few controls, I would imagine things like the heat (in Romania’s case), the terrain, what I expect to be seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling – just as much as I can really. I found that this frames my mind well as when my start time does actually come around there’s some familiarity and with that confidence.  It’s arguably one of the most important things to have in orienteering at a competitive level.”

Nathan thinks we should spend more time as a collective talking about the mental side of orienteering (and we’re sure many other sports do) as it is really crucial. Nathan remembers discussing routes after a sprint training in the JWOC build-up week, and he was told he was very “certain and unwavering of my route choice decisions and of what he thought was the best route.” To Nathan this was a huge compliment, regardless of whether or not he actually was actually picking the best routes (although we’d all like to think we always normally do this!).

Nathan says it is good to remind ourselves that every second spent looking at a route you are not taking, after deciding on your  route is 100% wasted time (and yes, we all do know this). So we need to build discipline, and often the blind confidence, to not do this. And it’s very much easier said than done. “That’s why it’s important for us to spend more time on our mental side competing outside of just the technical aspect. Knowing how to have, build, and sustainably maintain confidence is key.”

Nathan admits he had a bad map run on this trip, and it was the first stage of Swiss O week. In his words ” I  got miserably lost on practically every control and had no idea what I was doing. It felt like I was a little kid doing orienteering for the first time again!”

What he learnt from this was how different other maps are done in terms of style. He felt the Swiss maps often felt very under-mapped by NZ standards so he found it really hard to follow and he found the mapping was quite different in both Switzerland and Sweden. Nathan thinks it is because New Zealand maps have seemingly everything on the map, as opposed to the more simplified ones he found overseas. 

He came away from the trip feeling that all of the events expanded his view on the raw terrain speed which the top orienteers have over in Europe. To find similar difficult training areas for terrain speed maybe head to the coastal dunes in the likes of Auckland, Palmerston North or Christchurch. But finding similar terrain like the unfamiliar Swedish marshy terrain would be difficult. Also, the raw size of some events like Swiss O week and Oringen, he says “it’s crazy how much bigger the sport is overseas. I hope one day we can have that many people showing up to events in New Zealand, that would be really cool.”
Although Nathan mentions that the size of the event can be a bit hard to manage sometimes. “The media definitely threw me off a bit in WC2, with lots of cameras in place and following people around which I hadn’t quite mentally prepared for.”  The whole atmosphere he says  is “pretty crazy with spectators, commentators, and the big names you can spot up close.” 

Nathan is a second year student at the University of Canterbury, and for the current semester he is studying at the University of Colorado, in Boulder on exchange. He said he always knew I wanted to do an exchange it was always more just a question of when/where. Doing new and different things has definitely piqued his interest a lot in recent years. He has actually just  started classes recently and he says “so far so good, fingers cross it stays that way! “
He is sad to miss NZOC and he is gutted about it as he really wanted to get revenge with a last performance in the sprint at Splash Planet. Nathan will be over in Boulder until just before Christmas, then taking January to focus in on Oceania Sprint Champs.

Nathan thinks challenges of continuing to orienteer whilst at university works out OK, mainly because there is no conflict as so many orienteering training events are during the weekend. The social aspect of university is sometimes  difficult for other people, especially for those who have moved for university. Nathan says “you have to become more conscious and self-sufficient in terms of finding out when those events are, sorting transportation and such. I definitely take my dad’s organisation for granted whenever I’m at home”.

Nathan enjoyed what Southerly Storm has done so well – the building of a community around the sport. He says it has revamped the sport in the past couple years for him, and it brought people together. “It is really good for motivation and keeping people in the sport as it doesn’t feel like training and working hard, you’re just having a yarn with your friends. I hope that Auckland can do something similar with the Auckland University Orienteering Club as it seems as though they’re trying to make a comeback.” 

And as always it comes back to getting more people involved in the sport. Nathan think the biggest thing is “people just not knowing what the sport is about. People are normally really interested in the sport after you explain it to them and want to give it a try but most people just have no idea what the sport is. As to how this can be done, I’m not quite sure but I do know that it’s important!” 

Nathan goes on to say that “clubs giving training groups and individuals the resources and ability to complete the training they want is quite important. Like PAPO supporting and working with Southerly storm.”  He says it is all up to the combination of groups and individuals though, “I think at a certain point a person or group of people need to take initiative for themselves.” Nathan recommends that orienteers can start off getting into the groups by volunteering to coach others or  set / plan and control at events – as it is really good for the sport. “Helping carpool and showing up to give input at AGMs and meetings are also good, but just anything that reaches out to more people is generally a good thing for students to do. And it’s all free, that’s a bonus.”

Nathan is now situated in Boulder in the USA, and so he will have a limited  amount of orienteering to choose from. He is hoping to spend his weekends doing more running, keeping up with catching feature /  route choice gaming, and have lots of orienteering FOMO!

Nathan reflects that all orienteers are innately good at problem solving, trying new things and stepping out of their comfort zone. “It definitely takes a special kind of person to consistently, and willingly, venture out into the forest every weekend at high risk of feeling miserably lost. Orienteering as a sport is I think pretty unique. It’s the only sport which involves a map, and depending on where you are, you can utilise a completely different skillset / techniques which you don’t find in many other sports. I think this definitely works in favour for the sport and it should be highlighted. No two races are ever the same in any capacity. It’s great for getting your brain going and also a bit of a workout in disguise. So what’s not to love! “

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