From his second presence in a row on the international Trail Orienteering scene, Tom Dobra gets a good experience and a handful of important lessons for the future. With his sights set on Strömstad, the young British athlete shares today the most relevant moments of the recent European Championships, in the Czech Republic.
I would start by asking you about yourself. Who is Tom Dobra?
Tom Dobra (T. D.) - I’m a PhD student in engineering at Bristol, born in London and then moved to Tunbridge Wells aged 10. Obviously, I am an orienteer (a mudblood to use Harry Potter terminology), still mainly FootO, with my biggest successes in urban races, but also a cross-country runner and occasional hillwalker with a bit of scrambling for good measure. In addition, alpine skiing is a must-do every winter, especially off-piste, and I play the trumpet socially. If there’s time to do something, I will; if there isn’t, I’ll often do it anyway!
How did Orienteering come to your life? Was it love at first sight?
T. D. - I was a cross-country runner at school, normally at the back of a very good team, so logically went along to a training camp just before starting at Cambridge in September 2010. There I met an orienteer and thought “that sounds interesting”, especially since when hillwalking I was nearly always the one with the map. Unfortunately, it took me a week or two to find the orienteering club (they were hiding at the freshers’ fair), but when I went along one Sunday to Mildenhall North, I ran the long orange course (as hard as an M12A course but double the length), won it by over 10 minutes, then went straight out again on the light green and found it much harder. Nonetheless, it was one of the best days of my year and I was hooked – that was the end of my Sundays! Planners take note: long orange courses are essential for attracting adult novices, but are sadly few and far between.
And what about Trail Orienteering? Was there a particular moment, a “click”, when you said to yourself: “That's it, Trail Orienteering is my sport!”?
T. D. - When faced with a choice of sit in the car waiting for two hours or try something new, I tried something new. This was the 2013 British Championships at Newlands Corner, that year only a PreO. I zipped round the first half of the course getting many wrong, before I realised the point, then got most right in the second half. Afterwards, I thought it was a good training exercise but still didn’t really appreciate TrailO as a sport. Over the next year, Anne Braggins had somehow made me plan two short TrailO exercises (IntrO) and put on some herself. Still I was finding TrailO interesting but didn’t really have the buzz. Eventually, I sent a throwaway email in January 2015 saying please consider me for WTOC (probably Anne’s bullying again!). After all, what could I lose? I competed in four UK ranking events that spring, had almost forgotten I sent that email, then received the selection email out of the blue in late April. Suddenly, everything had got very serious with a trip to Croatia (top work by Vihor club last summer!), 53rd in the TempO but then winner of the public PreO. Things only went up from there and I’ve never looked back. Never say no and who knows what might happen!
You left the Great Britain towards the Czech Republic and the European Trail Orienteering Championships ETOC 2016 with some goals in your head, I believe. Would you like to share them with us?
T. D. - With a selection for TempO last summer and then again for WTOC 2016, naturally I wanted to justify my place in the team by qualifying for the final. Deep inside though, I felt I was better at PreO, having won the public competition in Croatia last summer with a result that could have had me on the WTOC podium, so I was dreaming of an ETOC podium, knowing the chances were very slim – I simply wanted to see what I could do without a firm target in mind for the PreO.
What you've found during the competition matches with your expectations?
T. D. - These were the hardest courses I’ve ever come across in my limited experience, but with the exception of a few map-reading eyesight tests in the relay, I thought everything was very fair. Tomáš and the team did a fantastic job, even though they could have done with a little more manpower. One thing I would have liked is for model 1 to have been harder so that I could learn Tomáš’ style, which I feel took me until PreO day 2 to sort out properly.
We could see you reaching the TempO Final and being the third most accurate competitor out of 36, with just three wrong answers. However, your overall result was far away than one could imagine. I would like to hear your thoughts about your race.
T. D. - I’m still trying to find my best TempO pace, having been second most accurate (but slow!) in my first ever TempO at BTOC 2014, then had been trying a bit faster, got seven wrong at ECTO in Slovakia for not spending enough time to understand the maps, leaving me well down the results, so decided to concentrate on getting them right this time. Obviously that worked but, down in 23rd place, now the game is to speed up without losing the accuracy. That’s what makes TrailO in general to engaging. In terms of the final course itself, I thought all the maps made sense, including station 1 in the final once you thought about it and traced out the lumps. I should have been faster on station 3, having remembered it from the relay. The final spectator station was a tough experience under the pressure, with an obvious zero to start, but then I just could not work out problem 3 and guessed; at least I got the last one in the stream right.
What about the other races – TrailO Relay and PreO competition?
T. D. - My relay performance was not great with three wrong in the PreO and below average in the TempO, helping to keep up the British tradition (as I was told before we started) of GB2 beating GB1. I had a serious shock in PreO 1 when I spent over 8 minutes on each of the first two controls and then more later on, to be running 20 minutes late by control 9. At that point, panic set in, I lost concentration, guessed number 22 and was 3 seconds late, leaving me with only 16 points. A good debrief, mental note that I must stick rigidly to 4 minutes per problem and not to zero unless I can articulate why worked wonders on day 2, where I scored 22 points, becoming top Brit of the day. I’m not at all annoyed about day 1 since it was an important learning experience – I had never faced so much time pressure before, and I think I wouldn’t have done so well on day 2 had I not done so badly on day 1.
Talking about the TrailO Relay, do you like this new format?
T. D. - I think the principle is good, although a few details need ironing out. Using times as the score is definitely the way to do it, but the PreO penalty should be increased so that the times come 50/50 from PreO and TempO for the top teams. The PreO time limit should not be shortened below the normal PreO recommendation, as the relay is there to test a team’s ability at both disciplines; otherwise, it ends up becoming a TempO team competition.
Please, tell me about the Championships' best moment of all.
T. D. - My best morning for excitement was the TempO qualifier. As bib number 1, I had to wait a long time to see how I was doing, with the rest of the team gradually arriving. In the end, I qualified 15th in heat B just 7 seconds above the line!
You're a “rookie” in a team of “much older guys”. How do you feel about that?
T. D. - At WTOC last year, I was less than half the age of the second youngest on the team, which I felt was a brave move. The guys are lovely, but looking around at the success of young faces from other countries, I need to persuade more of my peers to compete. Regardless, I am honoured to have the chance to compete for my country, among a great team who wants each other to succeed.
The new challenge it's called WTOC 2016. Are you planning to be in Strömstad, Sweden, next August?
T. D. - Yes, I’ll be there, competing in the TempO and aiming for a relay place.
What are your main goals? And your main adversaries?
T. D. - My main goal will be the same as at ETOC, to make the TempO final, with 23rd to beat. By doing the ROC (public) PreO, I also have another opportunity to demonstrate that the GB PreO selection was wrong! I hear that Scandinavia is the mother land of orienteering, so I expect to be really challenged. My biggest concern is it will be too hard (like PreO 1 at ETOC) and I won’t get the result I want.
Are we going to see you committed with TrailO for the next years?
T. D. - Of course! I want to keep appearing on the international stage, but more importantly, I intend to spread my enthusiasm around the UK.
Would you like to share with us your biggest dream?
T. D. - A medal! The question is: can I improve so that I only need a little bit of luck rather than a big bit to get there?
[Photo: Iveta Malá / kade.cz/EOC2016/tempO_im]