Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tessa Hill: "I still get a buzz out of running fast through a forest and finding the little orange and white flag right where I expected it to be"

Tessa Hill is a real Sprint expert and the 5th final place in the recent World Orienteering Championships, in Vuokatti, speaks for itself. But the things may be changing. From the urban to the forest, there's a lot to expect from the “moaner and perfectionist” athlete, that here takes a look into the future.

It would be nice to start our conversation knowing something about you. What kind of person is Tessa Hill?

Tessa Hill (T. H.) - Simple questions like "Where are you from?" aren't very easy for me to answer! I was born in London but have lived in seven countries and many places within them. I'm now settled in Edinburgh but still travel lots for orienteering and hill running. I used to be a researcher working in the field of Exercise Science but that has been put on hold for a short while as I try to fulfil some sporting ambitions. My main non-sporting hobby is bird watching which is a bit amusing/annoying for the rest of the GB team but luckily our team manager is a twitcher too so I have company.

I spent a while thinking about a person that I admire and my teammate Sarah Rollins kept sticking in my mind. Ever since I joined the GB team she has been so genuinely supportive and has helped me at every stage. Even when we were competing against each other for places on the team or results at the World Champs, she would share every bit of knowledge she had with me. That's the teammate I would love to be.

Are you a “family product”, a “school product” or a “self-made-woman product”, as orienteer?

T. H. - I started orienteering through my family and although my Dad was keen, none of us were particularly competitive. It took me until the age of 14 to properly understand what was going on with the map, before that I just went on a wander in the forest. Then something clicked and it all snowballed: I enjoyed it, I got better results, I got into teams, I made good friends and the upward spiral continued. I was away at a boarding school for all my teenage years and I relied heavily on my club and other local orienteers. Without them I would have struggled to keep going with the sport.

Was there a moment in your career, a “click”, where you said to yourself: That's it, that's what I want to do?

T. H. - I feel like I've had two 'careers' in orienteering as I took a break when I moved up to the senior age class. It wasn't really a conscious decision to do that but work took over and I was dropped from the GB squad after my last junior year so I drifted away from the sport a bit. But that coincided with my move to Trondheim to study for an MSc. and during my time there I realised that I missed the sport and the training. I don't regret that break as I think it has helped me get a little perspective on things and remember that I do it because I enjoy it.

However I think the most significant moment for me has to be getting on the podium in the World Cup final in 2011. The result was beyond anything I thought I could ever achieve and quite a shock. Having been called an elite international athlete for a lot of my life, it was really cool to actually feel like one.

Why orienteering? What makes it so special?

T. H. - I still get a buzz out of running fast through a forest and finding the little orange and white flag right where I expected it to be - maybe it's still a novelty for me. I love the variety of training and competition we get to do. I think that's very good for me as I can get bored quite easily.

How do you define yourself as orienteer?

T. H. - I seem to have become a sprint specialist although it's only been in the last couple of years that there was any difference in my sprint and forest results. I'm a better runner than navigator but I also think that the quick decision making and route choice problems that the sprint distance presents suit me better too. I have worked hard this winter on improving my forest orienteering, particularly my compass work so I hope I won't be quite so lop-sided in my results in future.

What can we see, opening the windows over your typical training week?

T. H. - A good winter week will involve around 100 km of running. I have done blocks of higher volume but I'm slowly learning that they don't last too long. 2-3 hard sessions a week (usually one is a race) are the backbone and then I fit orienteering technique, long runs and hills in around them. I'm rubbish at remembering to do the strength and conditioning essentials but it would help a lot if I did.

How do you deal with the different kind of races, maps and terrains?

T. H. - In recent years I think I've fallen into the trap of saying “that terrain doesn't suit me”. This started with the French WOC limestone terrain and extended over the next few years to anything with a tree near it. I'm trying to reverse this attitude and it's probably the mental side that is the most important for me there! But there are some terrains that suit me more than others - terrain that doesn't require me to look at my feet all the time helps because then there is a chance I might look at the map.

The Sprint distance is the one who, I believe, you feel more comfortable. At least, your best results, including the fantastic 5th place in WOC 2013, were achieved in Sprint courses. Would you like to tell me about it, reminding Vuokatti and forwarding the future?

T. H. - I really enjoyed preparing for WOC 2013 as I had near perfect build up to it and I was really excited to show what I could do. I think this mindset was one reason why it all worked on the day. It was very different to my World Cup 2011 result because I had been aiming for the podium all season but it was still a fantastic feeling to be standing up there. I do enjoy sprint training because I feel like I can focus on things that will save me a couple of seconds and they might actually make a difference to my result.

Talking about the future, I follow attentively the “Project 2015”, towards WOC 2015, in your home country, and beyond. Please, tell me something about it, about all those youngster like Florence Haines or Jonny Crickmore joining some others not so young, like Claire Ward, for example, and about the project's results until now?

T. H. - I think Project 2015 means different things to different people but it is providing a common focus towards WOC next year. For me, it is about getting as much of the UK orienteering community involved in the world championships as possible. It's a motivation to get more people training hard and aiming to be the best whatever their age. Not everyone will get in the team but the more we can push each other, the better the team will be. Hopefully everyone will feel part of the results that those in the team do achieve.

But I also think it is about getting local clubs involved. I'm really lucky that there are lots of people who will send me a course to pre-run or a new map to check out for errors - it's a great training for me and it usually helps them. I really hope Project 2015 might encourage other clubs to do that with their local elites.

Beyond Tampere (Finland), Inverness is the only place in WOC's history receiving twice the event (the first one was in 1999). What kind of WOC can you expect next year?

T. H. - WOC 2015 will be a top quality event. Orienteering in the Highlands is about as good as it gets and we're looking forward to showing that off. You can already feel the buzz at local events in Scotland. There are so many people volunteering for different tasks and everyone is preparing for them, it's not just us athletes. Come along to Race the Castles in October 2014 ( and you'll get the feel for things!

We can see you talking in your blog about the “winter frustrations”. How is your preparation running and how the problems can conditioning the rest of the season?

T. H. - It's all fine really, I'm just a moaner and a perfectionist. I set way over ambitious winter plans and they broke me a bit but I've managed to train a fair amount. I'm on Plan B but it should still work out ok provided a really busy 8 week period during March and April doesn't ruin me.

What are your main goals for 2014? Are the European Championships and Portugal an important part of it?

T. H. - EOC and WOC are the main orienteering goals of the year and I'll be hoping for good sprint results at them both. I'm also excited to get to run in the forest at EOC and in some World Cups and I'd like to put in some decent performances there and see whether I've made a difference this winter.

In the beginning of a new year, I would ask you to make a wish.

T. H. - I'll wish for injury-free sunny training please!

Joaquim Margarido

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