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REPORT: Irish Orienteering Trip to Fontainebleau Training Camp and La 77 // 13-17 December 2023

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

Late one night in November, I got an email from Eileen Young (FIN). Within was a forwarded message from Eoin Browne (GEN), detailing that he and his family (along with the Rowes [GEN] and O’Donnells [FIN]) would be heading to the forest of Fontainebleau in central France for three days of training in December, leading up to a famed event called 'La 77' ('A' course 15.4km, 77c). This year would be their third outing, and they were putting out an offer for others to come along.

At this stage, I was 9 months into my whirlwind romance with orienteering. In January, I had been reminded of the several times I escaped the classroom for a day of orienteering with geography teacher Andrew Cox (SEVO), and wondered if running with a map in the forest might be what I was missing from my life. A cold Sunday morning in February at Tintern Abbey confirmed that for me, and there was no going back. Eileen (whose student I was lucky enough to be on two occasions this year, both for mapping and basic instructing) had gone on the previous trip to Fontainebleau, and, though she wouldn’t be able to attend this time, encouraged me to tag along with Eoin and the others.

In the end, of course, it was inevitable that I would go. As I was quite late with my RSVP, there was no room left at the (now very full) Browne inn, so I booked flights and a rental car, and found a gîte close to the main training area. Telling my mother about it all, I gained a last-minute chaperone, and, before I knew it, it was time to leave for the airport.

Day 1

The Irish juniors listening intently to Benjamin Hofmans, one of the FTC organisers, at Parking de l’Éléphant

We flew into Paris Orly on the Wednesday evening, a few hours ahead of the others, and on Thursday morning we met them at Rocher de l’Éléphant (Elephant Rock) on the northern edge of the village of Larchant. The rest of the group consisted of the originally advertised trio of families, as well as the Churches and Mastersons (CNOC), Tim Norwood (GEN), Eanna Grennan (SEVO), Sadhbh Hassett (SET), and Eve and Fionn Buckley (BOC). Conditions were much as we had left them in Ireland - mild (around 10°C) and dry, with overnight showers. Before long, a tall, blonde Belgian named Benjamin arrived, stacks of maps in hand. He laid them out on a rock; these were the next two days’ worth of trainings, which we could complete at our leisure within the given time windows. After a quick warm up on the quiet road which cut through the forest, it was straight into the first: Multiposte (Multicontrol), a control picking exercise. 

The opening training, a control picking exercise with lots of changes in direction

With 51 controls in just 5.5km, the main learning aim was to practise taking and leaving controls with accuracy, contending with plenty of changes in direction. Benjamin also pointed out that it was a good opportunity to get to grips with the terrain and the mapping. We headed out around 30 seconds apart, with some going around the course the opposite way. While I started slow and deliberate, by the 5th or 6th control I had picked up the pace, running alongside a speedy Belgian. I got distracted leaving the 9th control, and had mixed success from there. A rocky start to the training, but I was beginning to understand how different, and how technical, the terrain was compared to home.

The afternoon training - this was the easier course with all rock features removed, but retaining the paths

The second training was in the afternoon, about 20 minutes away in an area called Vallée aux Chatons (Valley of the Kittens). Entitled ‘Ultimate’, it featured a double-sided map: on one side, a more technical 7.6km course, with all paths and rock features removed; on the other, a less technical 6.1km course, with only the rock features removed. The exercise forces you to really tune into the contours, and, in the case of the more technical Noir course, to stick almost exclusively to the forest and not be distracted by paths. Compared to the relatively flat, very clean terrain of the morning training, Vallée aux Chatons was much steeper, and was almost entirely covered with a ‘slow run’ undergrowth hatch (usually withered bracken, about half a metre high), as well as patches of greener forest. I decided to show some restraint after the morning’s mishaps and do the easier course. The first half was nice and smooth - a good network of sizeable paths made for safe and easy navigation for most of the leg, but still required some fine navigation and attention to detail within the control circle. I ended up skipping a few controls at the far end, and finished up as they were beginning to collect the flags (not kites - small red or blue pennants, attached to dowels about a foot high). 

That night, we all dined together at the Irish compound, a gated courtyard of three accommodations in the village of Noisy-sur-École, enjoying generous helpings of a delicious salmon tagliatelle prepared by Deirdre Coyle (GEN) followed by a dessert of birthday cake courtesy of Gerry Browne’s 16th. The chat and the buzz was great after a full-on day of training, and heading out into the cold night I was warmed by the thought of another few days of camaraderie in the forest.

Day 2

The master map for the shorter of the two map memory courses

The next morning, we met just north of Rocher de l’Éléphant for the ‘Mémo’ training, a map memory exercise. We jogged en masse to the start, a clearing around 2km from the car park. Hung on a tree were two A5 map cards - one showing the first two legs of the shorter course, the other showing the first three legs of the longer course. Again, I set my expectations realistically, and opted for the shorter course. We didn’t know how long each course would be, nor did we have control descriptions, though Dave Masterson had a few master maps in his back pocket. The first control was on a path junction, and the second on a path bend, but from then on it was an off-road affair. My strategy quickly developed into taking a precise bearing from the map for whichever was the longer of the two legs, and noting the rough heading for the other leg. Along with trying to remember as many collecting features and contour sequences as possible, this proved to be a fairly successful approach. 

An example of the small red pennant flags used in the training, this one with a map memory card

I went astray after the 10th control, where I met a few of the Irish lads; trying to hold so many things in my head at once, I left the control in the exact opposite direction for the first time in my fledgling orienteering career. It takes a bit longer to realise what you’ve done when you don’t have a map to refer to, and, as usual, I was amazed at how easy it is to force your surroundings to line up with your expectations. Eventually, I realised what must have happened, retraced my steps and continued through the course until I met Eoin, Hugh, Dave and Alan, who were intercepting those still out in the terrain.

The group (less parents) after lunch on day 2 (photo: Eoin Browne)

A quick lunch in the car park, with some of the group crossing the road to Auberge de la Dame Jouanne for a much-needed hot chocolate, and we were off to the south-western end of the same area of forest for the next training: O-intervals. We were given double-sided A5 maps at 1:7500, one side more and one side less technical. After our train of rental cars opted for an about-turn on the increasingly rough track up to the ‘parking’, we marched up the hill on foot, and eventually agreed on where the start was located. Dropping bags and coats, groups of similarly-matched runners ventured off to compete on sets of head-to-head legs at pace. 

The more technical O-intervals on an A5 map, beginning in the south

I was encouraged to go out with the group consisting of Oscar Rowe (M18), Gerry Browne (M16) and Tim Norwood (M20). Eoin had enquired with Thibaut Robinson (of the Belgian club ThOR, and organiser of the 3-day training) as to whether he knew of any fleet-footed fellows who could be sent out with us. Thibaut managed to rustle up Régis Vanschuytbroeck, a Belgian M16 who we were told had come 30th in the Long at EYOC 2023. The five of us stood with uncertainty at the start, no-one too eager to kick off proceedings, which prompted Alan O’Donnell to give us a five-second countdown. With all but Oscar showing a moment’s hesitation at the word ‘go’, we had our leader out the traps and down a narrow path. Already, the pace was fairly blinding - reviewing the GPS, we hit 3:14 min/km as we careened downhill between fairly dense vegetation, skirting around fallen trees and other obstacles. This set the tone for much of the first interval, although it was occasionally punctuated by a group pause as we figured out where exactly our legs had got away from our heads, the forest silent except for the sound of our laboured breathing. We kept pace together, and also made our mistakes together; visiting 6 before 3, it took us a while to realise what had happened, and we laughed ruefully at the chaos as we convened at the last control. 

After a (very) short rest, we were off on the second interval. Unfortunately, as we entered the third control, Oscar came down badly on his ankle descending from a crag. After reviewing the situation, the others headed off to continue the exercise and he and I made our way to the central start at a light jog. Meeting Dave Masterson there, Oscar wisely opted not to push it and headed back to the car. I had a few blissful moments of standing around until the group consisting of Eoin Browne, Richard Church, Alan O’Donnell and Brian Rowe returned from interval number 3. Before long, they were off again, and I with them. The pace was still ferocious, and the GPS shows a peak of 3:51 min/km in the forest between controls, with plenty in the low 4:00 range; a testament to the beautiful runnability of the terrain. We were a well-matched group, with a constantly shifting leader from control to control. Sprinting back to the central start, I was shouted on by some of the resting Belgians, and managed (with great dignity, of course) to tumble head over heels across the line. 

That evening, we headed into the town of Fontainebleau for a quick visit to the Christmas market. Some went looking for restaurants in the town, but we had a reservation to join the Brownes and Rowes at the Auberge de la Dame Jouanne, beside which we had parked for the morning training. A homely establishment with friendly staff who entertained our hesitant French with great patience, it was the setting for a lovely evening. There was geography trivia at one end of the table, a few beers which appeared to be meditatively savoured at the other, and plenty of chat in between forkfuls of a hearty three-course meal, which made some inroad to replacing the masses of energy spent on a fast and technical day of training. 

Day 3

A cold and foggy start to day 3 in Amponville

I looked out the window of the gîte on the Saturday morning to see a thick fog filling the morning air. Outside, it was a brisk 0°C as I started up the car and pulled away for the 20-minute drive up to the morning’s parking - L’Escargot, on the opposite side of Vallée aux Chatons to where the Ultimate training had taken place. I was first to arrive for an advertised 09:30 mass start, but it became clear that there were still a few kites and SI units to be put out as the time neared. This was to be a timed event which would simulate relay conditions, with forking on the more technical (Noir) courses. On offer were a Bleu Court, Bleu Long, Noir Court and Noir Long. 

The Irish in the Noir Long mass start - front left Eve Buckley (BOC); front centre Brian Rowe (GEN), Alan O’Donnell (FIN) and Eoin Browne (GEN); back centre Tim Norwood (GEN)

As Thibaut’s instructions rang out in the cold and foggy air, people began taking their places in front of rows of maps laid face down on the ground. Finally feeling more comfortable in the terrain after the previous day’s O-intervals, I decided to go for the Noir Court - only to find they were all taken. Instead, Thibaut advised a shortcut on the Noir Long which was equivalent to the Court. Benjamin counted us down and there was a mad rush off up a bracken-covered spur.

The gaffle I picked up for the mass start - I took an optional shortcut from 4 to 11

Both the mass start and timed nature of the training lent it an urgency different even from the intervals of the evening before. I took the first four controls carefully and methodically, playing it safe and moving fast on forest roads when the opportunity arose. My shortcut took me from 4 to 11, where I wandered for a minute or so on a depression-studded hilltop until I reached the pit I was looking for. While the following leg to 12 was the shortest of the course, I went off line to go around a steep earthwall, and lost minutes to confusion with a small-scale parallel error - had I learned nothing about short legs in the control picking exercise? Still, I managed to put my frustration behind me, and the remaining five controls went according to plan. We had some very good results: on the Noir Long, Eve Buckley was well in front as first Irish, placing 6/30, followed by Brian Rowe in 14th. On the Noir Court, the Irish dominated, taking the top 8 places out of 22, with Fionn Buckley leading Gerry Browne by 1:45 - an excellent outing for Bishopstown all round.

Less than a kilometre south of the morning’s excitement, the afternoon training couldn’t have been more different. A group of us went out together into what felt like an impossibly still and peaceful forest for a training very aptly named ‘Perfect Flow’. This was to be a slow, intentional exercise that would feel ‘almost too easy’. The group naturally broke down into a few different blocks of runners, which lent itself to occasional collaboration and the comfortable feeling of never being too far from someone else, yet having the freedom to run your own course. Calls rang out from some of the lads as they encountered a wild boar, something not unheard of over the few days. It was a beautiful afternoon to be in the forest, which was strewn with striking rock formations and the square ruins that seem to be characteristic of Vallée aux Chatons. The heavy fog of the morning had endured, which only made the setting all the more dreamlike and serene. It was the perfect way to round out the training camp and wind down after the madness of the mass start, and to clear our heads before the race the next day.

Dramatic rock formations in the beautifully misty Vallée aux Chatons for the Perfect Flow training

Square ruins like these litter Vallée aux Chatons - I didn't find out what they once were. Maybe hunting hides?

Day 4 - La 77

The Violet Court course for La 77 2023

La 77 is a yearly orienteering event which has taken place since 2005 in various reaches of the forest of Fontainebleau (a 250 square kilometre mix of deciduous and coniferous trees which is filled with masses of sandstone boulders, some gigantic). The event is so named because the forest is mainly located within department number 77 of France, Seine-et-Marne, and the event is held by the Orienteering Committee of Department 77, CDCO77. As a result, their A course features 77 controls (the first year there were 154, two times 77; in 2015, there were 177), and runs over a straight-line distance usually of 15.4km (again, 154=2x77 - the 77 reference is hidden elsewhere too, with the maps printed at a scale of 1:7777, and the final control code for all courses being 77). This makes for a race which is as much about your mental stamina as your physical stamina - a Belgian man I spoke to said that he could handle it physically, but that his mind would be gone by the 50th control. There are courses from B-G also available, this year ranging from 10.7km to 2.7km (note the ‘7’). 

When planning the trip, I had registered for the A course (Violet Très Long, 15.4km, 480m, 77c), with the rationale that I didn’t know if I’d get an opportunity to do it again, and that I should be able to complete a course which could end up exceeding 20km, however slowly and with however many mistakes that might be. In the end, I changed to the D course (Violet Court, 5.7km, 220m, 21c), due in part to the fact that I had arranged to drop the car back at 14:30 ahead of a 17:40 flight, but also to having come to a healthy understanding of my abilities in such technical terrain. At any rate, I felt I would get more out of completing a shorter course than DNFing on the A course.

The low temperature and fog of Saturday persisted into Sunday morning, and the parking at Rocher Cailleau was packed. We arrived just before 09:30, which was when the general start window began - those doing the A course would have a prescribed start time - and just about got a space; others had to begin parking on the roadside. Changing my registration from A to D was easy, even with broken French, and the organisers were all very helpful and in great form. Deirdre had picked up some intel that there were a lot of unmapped paths out in the terrain due to its use as a popular bouldering area - as a result, compass work would be paramount. There were plenty of Irish runners to be seen doing 250m laps of the car park to warm up, and before long we began trickling out into the competition field. I arrived at the queue for the start alone, but spotting Brian, Dave and Gerry arriving behind me, I cut back to join them for a bit of familiar company. 

I ended up at a phased start box just like the ones used at our own championship events. Control descriptions had been given out at registration, and maps were in boxes before the punch start. The atmosphere was well-organised, but not overly strict, and I got to have a quick glance at my map and orientate it before punching start. I encountered a huge novelty start kite around the corner, and, with that, I was into the first leg. The forest looked good, so I cut in to travel under the line to the first control, which was sited in the middle of a crowd of huge boulders on top of a hill. I punched alongside Dave, who was running for the first time that week on account of an injury. The second control wasn’t far, but I wandered around the marshy and vegetated control circle for a while before rounding a thick line of young coniferous trees and spotting the kite. Control number 3 was my longest, with a split of 15:54 - despite knowing that the paths were unreliable, I chose to take one rather than cross an unappealing looking area of bracken. To make matters worse, I had flipped the contours, and so ended up on the south edge of the hilltop rather than the north foot of the hill, convinced that the control should be around somewhere. It was here I met Sadhbh Hassett (with whom I would run a lot of the course), who seemed to have suffered the same fate - before I could work out what had happened, we were pointed in the right direction by Hamish Church, who had found the control. 

From there, things started to settle into place. There was a decent bit of elevation gain, climbing and descending to climb and descend again, all among snaking contours which were liable to inversion. The 11th control was inside a cave on the edge of an outcrop covered with young coniferous trees, and the whole area was teeming with people clambering carefully over boulders and areas of bare rock. With all the commotion, the vegetation, and the map detail, it was hard to think (or see) straight, and it was all too easy to start following people blindly. This resulted in a second double-digit split, at 10:01. 

The second half of the race began to feel more competitive, and I was becoming familiar with the runners around me as we wound our way into the midst of dense areas of boulders, all individually mapped, for controls 15-19. Spurred on by the rapidly approaching finish line, I overshot number 20, a few others in tow. From there, it was all out to get to the final control (code number 77, accompanied by a well-decorated Christmas tree) and straight on down to the finish at the end of an avenue of kites.

Tim Norwood of GEN finishing La 77 A course (15.4km, 480m, 77c)

With shouts of encouragement for their own 100m dashes to the finish, the Irish contingent arrived back in a steady stream, and mishaps as well as successes were shared, commiserated on, and celebrated. On the A course, Tim Norwood placed an excellent 29/103 finishers with a time of 2:54:33. Also on the A course, Oscar Rowe managed a remarkable 43rd place despite his injury. Gerry Browne took an impressive 9th place on the B course, in the top 10 of 65 finishers. Liam O’Donnell’s time of 1:54:51 secured him 14th place on the C course, which saw as many non-finishers as the A course (30no). Fionnuala Rowe came in 8th on the D course, highest Irish placement across the board, and Aoife Masterson kept the flag flying on the E course, achieving 9th place.

The journey back to Paris Orly felt much shorter and easier than it had during our rush-hour arrival in the dark just four days earlier - maybe because I was now comfortable enough with the left-hand drive to maintain a speed greater than ⅔ of the limit, or maybe because of the happy memories of a successful trip spinning around my head as I was overtaken time and again by impatient French drivers. Despite being so generous when scheduling the car return, there seemed to be little enough time at the airport as the Irish crowd snaked through the security line and boarded buses to the tarmac. The tendency of budget airlines to underpromise and overdeliver on flight duration meant that we arrived in Dublin on time despite leaving 40 minutes late. A rushed goodbye at the baggage carousel, and the book was closed on a very enjoyable week of orienteering.

Thank you to everyone for a great trip - I learned a lot running with you all. Thanks especially to Eoin and Deirdre for their leading roles in making it all happen. It’s an experience I wouldn't mind repeating, and I hope to return for La 77 proper - maybe next year.

- Jack Hanafin (SEVO)

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Great account

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