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Monday, April 9, 2012

Blurring the Map to Find Patterns

Somewhere along the line in my geography education I learned how to blur the map. The idea is that by blurring the details of the graphic, patterns will emerge. Somehow we humans can do this on demand when the map is close, like on a computer screen. In other cases we can just take a few steps back to blur the details.

I don’t think about this skill too often any more; I think it’s become automatic. That said, I returned to the concept this past weekend while running in the woods in Georgia. I’d traveled there to tackle a 50 km (31 mile) run. Most of my running is done on the roads in and around Boston; I’m still rather inexperienced when it comes to trail run navigation and simply staying upright on the changing surfaces.

The course was marked with tiny flags on the ground, white chalk arrows and most helpful in the woods, pink survey tape tied to branches, poles, and fences at about shoulder height. I considered one section of the course “bushwacking” because it was quite difficult to see any trail. I ran with a small group on my first loop through this area. We carefully sought out each new piece of pink tape and stopped frequently when it did not appear. The vegetation was thick with brambles and the ground cover included a mix of leaves, rocks and roots. I enjoyed the “hide and seek” aspect of that section on that first loop, but didn’t feel I ran it as well as I might have.

When I returned to the “bushwacking” area the second time, I was alone. I realized if I tried to find the big picture, that is, the general trend of the trail ahead, I could find each new marker more quickly. Further, focusing on finding the “line” of the trail distracted me from looking down at my feet and worrying about falling. I ran lighter and more confidently. My mantra was “see the trail, be the trail.” It was a lot like “blurring the map” to see that big picture. I felt I ran that section far better using this method.

On the second loop, I also began to get inside the race director’s head about how he laid out the course. If there’s a choice between up, down or flat, the course goes up or down, never flat. If there’s an edge, you run along it. We ran along edges of forests that abutted meadows and property lines marked with rebar. A corollary of the edge principle relates to linear features: If there’s a linear feature, you run along it. We traveled along barbed wire fences, creeks and climbed up a gravel road for probably a mile and a half  to the local water tower.

I developed a decent amount of intuition, which pleased me. I tested it regularly when the next pink ribbon was no where to be found. I’d head in what I thought would be the right direction and more often than not found the missing ribbon on the ground or well hidden by spring leaves. Only a few markers were actually missing, testament to our out of the way course shared by private land owners in the area.

While I’m sure I could have learned about these spatial tactics of trail running from books and other runners, it was sure fun learning it on the trail.

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