Friday, August 01, 2014

Martin Jullum, IOF's Athlete of the Month: "Tricked" into orienteering - now TempO World Champion

When he left for the TempO Final of the 2014 World Trail Orienteering Championships (WTOC) with a deficit of 68 seconds to Antti Rusanen, Martin Jullum could never imagine that, two hours later, his name would appear in first place on the scoreboard. Who is this Norwegian, born 26 years ago in the city of Halden, and what’s his relationship with TrailO? You’re about to find out this and much more in the August edition of IOF’s Athlete of the Month.

Name: Martin Jullum
Country: Norway
Discipline: Trail orienteering
Career highlights: World Trail Orienteering Championships – PreO Open class, Individual competition: 5th place (2009 and 2010); PreO Team competition: 2nd place (2011); TempO competition: 1st place (2014). European Trail Orienteering Championships – PreO Team competition: 3rd place (2010); PreO competition: 5th place (2014). World TempO Trophy: 1st place (2011). Unofficial European Cup in TrailO 2013: 2nd place.

He comes up very quickly to stop just ahead, in a very precise spot. One eye on the map, the other on the terrain, his head like a radar beacon. He pauses briefly to note more precisely the centre of the circle on the map, scratches his head with his compass, runs a little in the opposite direction. His body follows his look and moves from side to side, like the terrain’s contours. He has absorbed even the smallest detail, and it’s time now to mark the control card. Trust in the answer, and victory at the distance of a couple more bites of his punch.

He is Martin Jullum, born 26 years ago in Halden, where he lived until he was 18. Currently PhD Fellow in Statistics at the University of Oslo. And Trail orienteer. Not just an ordinary one, but the TempO World Champion 2014, a nice title achieved last 7th July at Alberè di Tenna, in the beautiful Trentino region in Italy. An athlete who, like many others, started with Foot orienteering and, suddenly, became a Trail orienteer. Just someone who loses one thing to find another. And these are not the only things that we know about Martin Jullum at the beginning of our nice talk. We also know what he absolutely carried with him to the desert island: A pillow! Yes, a pillow, because “a good night’s sleep is important”, he says.

The early years

“I was sort of tricked into starting orienteering, as I was participating in Halden SK’s sports school for children”, says Martin about the start of his contact with orienteering and the first steps in the evolutionary process. “They introduced more and more orienteering, and suddenly I was out orienteering every weekend”, he remembers. Always “fairly good physically, but technically not perfect”, Martin had some top performances as a Foot orienteer: a silver medal in National Youth Championships at the age of 16 and another silver medal at the Norwegian Championships as a 17-year-old. He also participated in the Nordic Championships, at the age of 17, finishing 14th in the Sprint. But his biggest and proudest victory in Foot orienteering was the victory in the Youth Jukola, with Halden SK, where he ran the last leg: “I decided it, taking a smart route choice by myself to the second last control. That was an amazing experience”, Martin recalls.

In the late autumn, when he was 18, Martin got some serious stomach problems also affecting the rest of his body and making him unable to train hard. He talks about those hard days: “I rested a lot and went to see all kinds of doctors, but none of this resulted in any improvement in my physical condition, and all attempts to get back to training failed eventually. I was therefore forced to retire as an elite Foot orienteer.”

Turning point

Martin Jullum tried TrailO for the first time in 2008, when he was at 10mila as a spectator and realised that this “PreO thing” was being arranged from the arena. But let’s hear what he has to tell about that initial experience: “I got into a team with two team-mates, Stine Kildebo and Andreas Johansson. We met up at the starting point 20 minutes before the start with no clue what we were going to do. We got instructions from Ole Johan Waaler on our way to the start and went off. I did a shorter A-standard course and got all correct. I then tried elite level a few more times with good results, and was really eager to learn and improve my skills for each new competition. All of a sudden, this was what I was spending almost every weekend on…”

- What do you see as so interesting in this discipline that it keeps you tied to it?

“Honestly I don’t know. The great fun and confidence boost I get by competing and solving decent, but difficult tasks by pure map reading on a very precise map is important. So are the big events where medals are awarded. I really enjoy competing in something I am good at. I haven’t won everything yet, and even if there are few techniques I feel I don’t master, you can always find some details to improve”.

The greatest challenge

Let’s get to the point. Martin was not a winner from the very beginning. In fact things were not at all easy in the early stages. “I started off fairly well, making few mistakes”, he says, remembering the first steps in TrailO. “I had more trouble after a while but then stabilised on a good level, and have steadily increased my general performance by tiny steps year after year”, he adds.

I’ve mentioned “easy”, but the truth is that this is not an easy discipline. In fact the challenges are often very difficult and not very well understood by all. For Martin Jullum, TrailO’s greatest challenge is “probably, that it is difficult and extremely time-consuming to devise problems that are difficult enough for the world’s best map readers with a fairly wide time frame, while at the same time being perfectly solvable and fair.” He explains why: “A map is a simplification of the terrain, hence it cannot be absolutely correct and competitors will interpret it differently and with varying degrees of precision. This leads to discussions and, in Championships, to claims and protests and that is a bad part of the sport, maybe keeping some people away from it.”

Arrange TrailO competitions at the same place as FootO competitions!”

- In what way is TrailO impaired by the “constraint” of being seen as a discipline (only) for people in wheelchairs?

“Some people might still have such attitudes, but they should really consider opening their eyes a tad. There are only a few competitors in wheelchairs over the world as a whole. TrailO is a sport where the physical requirement is brought to a minimum, but that’s about it.”

- Is there any formula to make TrailO more attractive?

“Arrange TrailO competitions at the same place as FootO competitions!”

Moving in the right direction

TrailO as it is now is something that concerns all who love this discipline. Are we developing in the right direction? Martin’s answer could not be more assertive: “TrailO is definitely growing on an international level”, he says, adding that “personally I think TempO should be given higher focus and priority by organisers”. The reason for this is simple: “It is less time-consuming to plan, and you can organise it almost everywhere.”

The geographical distribution of TrailO continues to have its epicentre in the Nordic countries. In Martin’s opinion, “Sweden and Finland have done some excellent work in TrailO to improve the reputation of TrailO nationally. Norway is still behind in some areas, but hopefully we will get there some time. Access to LIDAR data, making the necessary updating of maps for TrailO a lot easier, may also be better in the Nordic countries. That is a very important resource.”

A good feeling

By winning the TempO competition and the corresponding World title in 2014, Martin became one of the brightest stars of the 2014 WTOC. He woke up that morning, opened the window, got the kiss of sunshine in his face and said to himself: “I’m gonna be World Champion.” Was it this way? The smile on his face shows that things weren’t exactly like that, and suspicions are confirmed with his words about the subject: “Hmm, it wasn’t exactly like this, but I certainly had a good feeling. The atmosphere in the whole team was very good, and some had the feeling that something great was going to happen…”

- What was the magic formula you used to pull back the huge difference in score to Antti Rusanen and take the victory?

“Maybe the magic formula was to actually forget about the gold medal and concentrate on doing a good performance. Nobody thought anyone could catch Antti — it is so rarely that he breaks down. With the final being held in a park, everybody thought the answering times and number of mistakes would be much smaller, but instead the final was very difficult. My goal for the final was to have a stable performance and my aim was a medal. As in the qualification, my motto was “back to basics” and that certainly worked.”

The secrets revealed

- What memories do you have from the TempO Prize-giving Ceremony, especially when your name was announced and you climbed to the top of the podium?

“This exact moment has been in my thoughts and dreams for years. I think I will never forget this moment with my hand held high, the crowd applauding as I had finally become the world champion.”

Now is the time when I “get into action”, trying to take some personal benefit from our conversation. As I am also a trail orienteer, the next question is obvious: “What do I need to do to be World Champion?” Without suspecting that he’s giving “the gold to the bandit”, Martin answers to me in a very innocent way: “To be a world champion in TempO, you need to interpret the map and the terrain extremely quickly and find the best and fastest way to solve the control. You need to continuously take the decision on whether to read the map for two seconds more or to answer, so intense focus is the key.”

And he shows me, also, how to train: “The best way to train is, of course, to compete on good courses on good terrain, so I generally travel quite a lot to take part in the best competitions. I competed in the Italian championships in TrailO, in the same area as WTOC, the year before, and I did some additional training there. Two weeks before Italy I was in Lithuania and did seven very difficult competitions and training sessions which went very well and gave me confidence, in addition to some organised TempO training on home ground. Then I got my mind on to completely different things until a day or two before departure, when I did a series of online TempO training exercises and some map studies, to get into WTOC mode.”

The best and the worst

The TempO world title is certainly the most important moment of Martin’s career, but there are others, both positive and negative. Martin thinks for a while: “It’s hard to say, but from the top of my head the performance on the first day of the European Cup in Lithuania, in late June this year, was from my perspective quite extreme. It was a 2.9 km long PreO course, 28 controls and 180 minutes time limit. I had done a two-hour PreO training earlier the same day, and had a quite nasty cold. The course was very difficult and I was very tired, but I managed to force myself to work well on each control and not give up. I was very fast on the timed controls and made only a single mistake on the course, winning confidently. In addition, winning the World TempO Trophy (unofficial) at WTOC 2011 and O-Ringen in 2014 were ‘big wins’ for me”.

On the other hand, Martin recalls the worst TrailO experience, still well established in his memory: “It was maybe WTOC in Finland last year. Finishing 10th in PreO and 5th in TempO was way below my ambitions, after having an almost perfect spring season and what I thought was very good preparation. The course-setting style was completely different from what I had predicted, after an uncountable number of hours studying and training on the course-setter’s old courses in PreO and in TempO. I was simply not good enough. I then needed a bit of a break from TrailO to find new motivation, but luckily I found it.”

Three questions, three answers

- TempO is the latest variant of the discipline of TrailO and it’s also in TempO, in the opinion of many, that the greatest strength of our discipline sits in terms of the future. What are your comments?

“In terms of getting the sport out to the younger generation you are definitely right. Fast decision-making under pressure based on map reading should be attractive. In theory it may be as exciting as the shooting in Biathlon if the results are given to the audience right away – it has been tested and has shown promising results.”

- Is PreO an endangered species, given this outlook?

“I don’t think so. It is the classic version, and still some nine out of ten TrailO competitions are of the PreO format”.

- The answer seems obvious to me but, even so, I have to ask you the following: TempO or PreO, which one do you prefer?

“To me it’s actually not that obvious. I like both disciplines equally well. PreO for its classical tone and demand of accuracy and TempO for the intense competition format.”


After being 5th ranked in ETOC 2014, the best that Martin could get in Italy was 13th place. You can say that he expected a better result, but… “I am not sure. I felt I was fully ‘reloaded’ after the TempO, but maybe I wasn’t after all. Like many others, I was sort of tricked by the smaller margins on Day 2 compared to the rest of the Championship. In some sense I was not sceptical enough on Day 2”, Martin admits.

Talking about the European Championships and the World Championships, we would like to know how Martin evaluates the two events. Here is his answer: “I think they were similar in terms of those criteria, overall fairly good, but they had their challenges. The most important components, the maps and courses, were good on both championships. They were not ‘excellent’, but definitely worthy championships. From what I have heard, the important mapping and work with the courses were unfortunately done way too late. Doing this important job earlier would surely have lifted the championships an extra level. The results service at both championships was awful! ETOC was fairly fast, but with tons of mistakes, whilst WTOC was just extremely slow.”

Advice and hopes

The re-established Trail Orienteering Athletes Commission is about to take up its work, and Martin has one piece of advice for them: “I advise them to run their main proposals through a larger portion of the active trailO athletes around the world before submitting them to the TrailO Commission (TOC). This could be done through simple questionnaires for/against. Otherwise it is basically just the opinion of a tiny group of athletes which may not reflect the opinion of the majority of the active athletes.”

Let us turn now to the future, to hear what Martin’s goals are for the rest of the season. With two-thirds of the stages completed, the athlete is the uncontested leader of the Unofficial European Cup in Trail Orienteering 2014 and the overall victory could be one of his goals, but… “Actually, I will not compete much at all this autumn as I am spending five months as a visiting student researcher at Stanford University in California, USA, as part of my PhD fellowship. Even if I am competing in only six out of twelve competitions in the European Cup, which of course is a huge disadvantage, I hope to be on the top. I just finished O-Ringen with a result I could only dream of: three stage wins and a clear overall victory. Two of the stages I won were also part of the European Cup, so I am leading that as well and just have to hope nobody will catch me”, he says.

Looking forward to Croatia

- What about 2015, and the World Championships to be held in Croatia? What kind of Championships do you expect?

“I was very impressed by Zdenko Horjan’s presentation of WTOC2015 at the Team Leaders’ Meeting in Italy and I am confident it will be an excellent championship. Hence I am very motivated for this championship. Both the TempO final and one day of PreO will be on a golf course, so I have to consider what to do about that.”

Martin has his own plans for Croatia and these are not “only” to preserve the gold on TempO. But let’s leave that to be him to explain: “I don’t believe any gold medallist in the PreO open class or in TempO has ever successfully defended their gold medal the following year, so it will certainly be very hard. I am confident I will be back fighting for the medals also in PreO in Croatia.”

TOC’s preferred format for the Relay is wrong”

The Relay is a feature which appears on the near horizon, maybe to substitute the present Team competition at the European Championships and World Championships. Martin Jullum says he is in favour of this and hopes it will be included in the programme in a few years, but he disagrees with TOC’s preferred format of the Relay. He explains why: “Their suggestion is to set a total of 24 different controls and let the competitors on each of the three legs choose 8 (+/- 1) of the remaining controls. The alternative format, which I think is much more suited for Championships, is to set approximately 10-12 controls and possibly have some of them forked (different controls in the same clusters). The course-setter and controller save time by having to plan/control far fewer controls, and it is much easier to find a suitable area for 10-12 excellent controls than it is to find one for 24 excellent controls. It is already an enormous job to plan and control all courses in a Championship, and I therefore think it is a bad idea to add another 24 controls that only a third of the competitors will try to solve, when less than half that number would be sufficient. The savings in time should rather be spent on making the map and existing controls better.”

We have to say that TOC’s argument in favour of the chosen format is that it involves tactics, with the competitors on the two first legs having to choose which controls to take. For Martin, things are not as they seem to be: “That might to some extent be true in theory, but in my opinion definitely not in practice. To me it seems like that TOC haven’t really thought this fully through, but I hope they will before they take a final decision”, he says.

- Without trying to use a crystal ball, how do you see TrailO in ten years’ time?

“Rather than a paper map, each competitor will have a waterproof tablet with an app showing a zoomable map with one task shown at a time. The timing and punching will be done directly in the app both for the PreO course and the timed controls/TempO.”

I am aiming for both WTOC 2015 and WTOC 2016”

- And what about yourself, what are your long term plans? Will you continue practising TrailO much longer?

“I was about to write that I take one year at a time, but I can assure you that I am aiming for both WTOC 2015 and WTOC 2016. My level of motivation controls everything”.

- Do you accept to share with us your biggest wish?

“No protests (and no reason to protest!) at WTOC 2015 and 2016!”

Athletes’ questions and answers

The question from Søren Bobach, the Athlete of the Month in July: “What was the most difficult thing to give up in foot orienteering when you started trail orienteering instead?”

And Martin’s answer: “The reason why I enjoyed foot orienteering in the first place is, as for most other orienteers I believe, the requirement of physical stamina and that you also have to use your brain. Hence what I miss most is pushing my body to the absolute maximum. But you cannot always get all you wish for. When I started TrailO, anyway, I had almost given up FootO due to stomach problems, so it was more like ‘lose one sport, found a new one’, rather than an exchange”.

Finally, the question from Martin Jullum to Emily Benham, Athlete of the Month in September: “What would you say is the most difficult challenge for MTBO to become a more recognised and popular sport, with more competitions and competitors around the world?”

Text and photo: Joaquim Margarido

[See the original article at Published with permission from the International Orienteering Federation]

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