Graham Gristwood is one of the biggest names in Orienteering. To his “longevity” within the Elite, the athlete joins a deep knowledge of the sport, a charismatic presence and some great achievements, namely the incredible world title in the Relay, reached in Olomouc, Czech Republic, eight years ago. Now that he ensured the presence in the World Orienteering Championships 2016, the Portuguese Orienteering Blog went out to meet him. The result is here, a really pleasant talk that we share with all of you.
I believe you've answered this question a million times, but I cannot resist asking you again: How often do you think in Olomouc 2008 and in the gold in the Relay, alongside with your mates Jamie Stevenson and Jon Duncan? Do you still search on it a motivation to the challenges you're continuously facing in your sporting life?
Graham Gristwood (G. G.) - The Gold medal that I won with Jamie and Jon has, in many ways, defined everything that has come since. People know me for that, and certainly at races in Great Britain, it is the first thing people say about me. It feels like a long time ago now, but I still think back often to that day – and I often use it for inspiration. Jon and Jamie were huge influences on my orienteering career, and although I don't see them very often now, we will always share that experience. Our win, and I think the Czech's victory in 2012, show that you don't need to have three individual World Champions in your relay team to do well, and that is something the GB relay team talk about a lot.
Even if I don't win any more medals in my orienteering career, I am satisfied and proud that I could stand at the top of the podium at least once. That doesn't mean I am going to stop trying though!
G. G. - It is the greatest sport in the world – there is nothing like the feeling of running fast through the forest, mastering the course and feeling satisfied with your performance. There is always something to improve though – even in the best runs.
What do you see in this sport that makes it so special?
G. G. - The combination of physical and technical challenge, with the bonus of travelling to some amazing places and meeting some amazing people.
How important was that gold medal in your career?
G. G. - It opened a lot of doors for me, but I am equally proud of my best individual achievements. People like to see the medal though!
Would you like to tell me about other equally tasty moments in your career so far?
G. G. - I am very proud of my silver medal in the World Cup Final in Geneva (2010) and my 4th place at WOC Sprint in Chambery (2011). I have run very well in a few WOC relays, but especially 2010 and 2015, with GB finishing 4th (and very close to a medal) in both.
Finishing 4th in Tiomila and 7th at Jukola with IFK Mora was fantastic too, after nobody considered us to have any chance to do well.
Let's move forward a few years and “relocate” ourselves in your home country, in Inverness, Scotland. How did you see the WOC 2015 from a personal point of view?
G. G. - WOC 2015 was a fantastic experience. It was the best GB team I have ever been involved in with regards to the team spirit and motivation levels. The races were generally excellent, and the support levels were absolutely incredible.
My week was very mixed, as I went in to the Championships in just about my best shape ever, but I got a sore throat and light cold two days before my races. I ran very well technically (one minute mistake on one control over three races) but I wasn't quite 100% physically. I showed what I could do in the relay, but I was disappointed with the results in the middle and long (although happy with my performances). Of course we would have liked some medals, but there were some fantastic results from a generally young team.
How was it in terms of the atmosphere, the organizational work, the media coverage, the event as a whole?
G. G. - The atmosphere was fantastic – the noise at the relay was the best I can remember! From my perspective the organisers did well. Although there were problems, they seemed to be minor things and they were dealt with calmly. Things were quite smooth from my 'athlete's perspective'.
Do you feel that Orienteering in the UK is better now than one year ago?
G. G. - In terms of the national team, it is certainly a time of transition now with many senior runners retiring. This has given an opportunity to a new generation of younger runners – I am definitely the senior athlete now in the GB squad.
In terms of participation – certainly locally the clubs and Scottish Orienteering Association seem to be having success in increasing the number of people orienteering – hopefully it will be sustainable.
For the 12th time in the last thirteen years, you managed to ensure another presence in the World Orienteering Championships?
G. G. - Yes, and I feel I was unlucky not to be selected in 2014 as well! I am now selected for middle and relay at WOC 2016 after our Easter Festival at the JK last weekend.
What Graham Gristwood are we finding today if compared with the Graham Gristwood in Vasteras, Sweden, in 2004?
G. G. - Well, I don't dye my hair blond any more (maybe next year...).
I now work a lot more, and spend less time away from home. Racing is a smaller part of my life. But on the other hand, I am much more 'professional' in my approach to nutrition, training, rest and relaxation. I am also much calmer in both orienteering and everything else.
My main memory from WOC 2004 is how bad I felt physically before and during my races - entirely as an emotional response to the nerves and stressful situation. Last year the only race I felt nerves at was Jukola – generally I am very relaxed before competitions now – after all it is meant to be fun!
How do you feel right now in terms of your preparation?
G. G. - I am happy with my preparations. I know I don't train as much as many other athletes, but I try to 'train smart'. The most important thing for me is consistency – staying injury and illness free. This winter has been fairly good – some small problems before Christmas, but otherwise I have been able to train as I wanted.
What are the most important intermediate steps towards Strömstad’s great journey?
G. G. - The most important was to get selected, and now I have done that. I am looking forward to EOC (where I will run long and relay), and then I will have two training camps in Strömstad with the GB team and IFK Mora.
What are your goals for the WOC 2016?
G. G. - There is a strong feeling in the GB team now that we should put more emphasis on the relay, and I am in favour of that. I love running relays, and WOC relay is the pinnacle. I want to win another relay medal, and I believe that we can do it – maybe not this year, but soon. I also want to improve my middle pb – I haven't managed to crack the top 10 yet, although I have been very close several times. Most important though is to get to the start line healthy, and do strong performances that I can be proud of.
You are a person deeply involved with Orienteering, both as a high level athlete, as a coach in your Swedish club IFK Moras or even as a map maker. Want you tell me about this global passion?
G. G. - I am elite coach for IFK Mora, and I am also coach for the Elite Sprint Group in Great Britain. I do some coaching for my club as well. Mostly I work making orienteering maps. Generally there has never really been a plan – I have just made the most of different opportunities that have presented themselves. I never wanted an office job with regular hours – many of my contemporaries have a lot of money but hate their lives – where is the fun in that! People know me in orienteering, so it is easy to get work doing that I enjoy doing and that doesn't control my life. The main challenge is turning down work now!
I am passionate about orienteering as well, and I think it is possible to make some money whilst developing the sport in a good way. That is my target with Sprint Scotland (sprintscotland.co.uk), which is a professionally organised sprint training camp with two World Ranking Events that I am organising in Scotland in July with Kris Jones and Fanni Gyurko.
What's your perception on Orienteering's current moment? Are we going in the right way?
G. G. - It is a difficult question. I believe that orienteering's soul is in the forest, but then I also love sprint orienteering when it is done well (by which I mean it should be a constant technical challenge, not a running test or a competition about who can make the best map during the preparation). I was very sceptical about Mixed Sprint Relay, but having watched a few and taken part in a number of GB team training events I can honestly say I love it (again, when it is done well).
I can see in the near future that there will be an almost distinct split between forest orienteering and 'urban' orienteering with different athletes (and different national teams) for the most part. At least then people can participate in whatever they enjoy.
One element I don't think works at the moment is the World Cup. I have run 50+ World Cups over 12 years and I think the current format is as bad as it has been. That is not to say the individual competitions are not fantastically organised, but the structure is such that many top runners cannot afford to participate, despite the fact that there are no races outside Europe. Many rounds only have the 'big nations' in attendance, with a one or two runners from other countries (who don't have coaches and are generally self-funded). I really enjoyed the format that existed around 10 years ago, with week long World Cup events (sometimes with split venues) in the spring and autumn, combined with EOC and WOC. As a member of a team with very limited funding, the current World Cup has no appeal to me at all. The races are overpriced - with accreditation you might pay 150 euro or more for one race (not to mention travel, accommodation, transport, maybe paying for coaches to be there).
I also think the current World Ranking system is ridiculous. When it was changed a couple of years ago, the statistical element was entirely removed. To be in the top 50 of the current system, the only way to get enough points is to run World Cups and international races. It has killed the importance of other World Ranking Events for the best runners. It also means it is very difficult for younger runners to 'break in' to the system. This is compounded with the use of the World Ranking for WOC start lists etc... More advantage for the 'big nations' who can afford to send large teams to all the World Cups to get their runners' rankings high. I am really looking forward to EOC where runners can earn a good start place in the final by doing well in the qualification race - that is a fair way to do it.
How long are you going to see you competing at the highest level?
G. G. - As long as I keep enjoying it.
Finally, I would ask you a wish to all orienteers around the world?
G. G. - Enjoy your orienteering in whatever format you like. Keep making awesome maps and putting on awesome races in awesome places.