Due West interviews Ted de St Croix

Ted de St Croix is arguably the most successful elite orienteer that Canada has ever produced. Ted may no longer compete at the elite level, but when he attends a major international orienteering event such as the World Masters Orienteering Championships, he can still produce a podium finish against a gang of former World Champions.

However, Ted’s impact on Canadian orienteering extends far beyond his athletic prowess. Over the years, he has served as the Executive Director for Orienteering Canada, as organizer and coach at the annual Sass Peepre Junior Training Camp, and as a member of the OC High Performance program. In 2019, he was made a Founding Member of the Orienteering Canada Hall of Fame.

DW: How old were you when you first went orienteering? Were you immediately ‘hooked’, or did that take a little time?

TDS: I attended a Guelph Spring Festival event organized by Sass Peepre in 1970 when I was 12 years old. I was given a brief instruction on how to use an induction dampened compass and handed a map, but no plastic map cover. As soon as I started my race, the skies opened and my map basically turned to pulp. I was not deterred and ran all over the place, finding roughly half of my controls. On the drive home with my four brothers my Mother asked if we wanted to go again. I was hooked and retorted an emphatic ‘yes’. I remember that day like it was yesterday. My parents drove us all over the place, me and my three brothers; it drove them nuts, but they did it weekend after weekend.

DW: When you were young, you had an opportunity to live in Sweden for some time. How did that happen, and what impact did the experience have on your orienteering career?

TDS: At a subsequent Spring Festival event in Guelph, a touring team of leaders and international elite orienteers visited from Sweden. They created a colour orienteering map, got it printed and set some courses, all in a matter of days. One of the participants was a Swedish military champion, Captain Yngve Odell, who bested my Father (Richard) in the men 50+ category. He introduced himself to my Father, gifted him with a model Dalarna horse, and invited us to Sweden. We went the following summer and took in several multi-day events. Captain Odell invited me to come back the following summer, and it became a regular summer ritual that I would spend my school break training with his club, OK Kare, in Falun. I learned map-making, met lifelong friends, and learned a Swedish dialect that I didn’t really need, because everyone wanted to practice their English. The Falun club at that time was mostly what they called “veteraner” (masters), so I did most of my training by myself. I know every rock in and around Falun (and there are a lot of them). It wasn’t until I was 17 that I met a group of orienteers who were the best in Sweden at the time, and we became lifelong friends. It was those friends that taught me how to train, how to race, and to never pass up any adventure.

DW: One hallmark of your orienteering career has always been your remarkable performance consistency. To what can you attribute this consistency?

TDS: Training and lots of it. I learned a systematic approach to racing, and to prepare mentally for handling distractions such as incorrect maps, other runners, or any number of things that influence your ability to focus. Learn how to regain your focus once you realize you have lost it. Never give up, ever. Learn the Golden Rule that I learned from my favorite coach, Knut Nord: “Never run faster than you know where you are on the map”. He also taught me that “there is more to orienteering than fancy spike shoes” and “don’t run with your head under your arm”.

DW: Over the years, you have been a highly successful elite orienteer, an orienteering and running coach and the Technical Director for the Canadian Orienteering Federation. How difficult was it to play these very different roles?

TDS: The first role I consciously decided to pursue was that of Elite Orienteer, but only in that I wanted to perfect my orienteering fitness and technique. I was ‘all in’ so to speak; every moment of my day was focused on that role. As a result, I found myself winning races, and with that came a responsibility to act respectfully and follow certain protocols and procedures. I was not perfect, but I learned as I went.

The opportunity to become COF Technical Director happened by chance, when I was still quite young and naïve, so I had to learn on the job. It was a difficult situation for me as I tried to juggle my training, the office work and some politics. It was never a good fit for me, being an introvert, and there were many sleepless nights. I was expected by some quarters to solve all the problems in COF (Canadian Orienteering Federation; the precursor to Orienteering Canada) which I took to heart, even knowing it was impossible. After 7 years, I gave it up and went back to University. Long-time COF secretary Lee Leger once said to me, “Ted, I am going to come in there and break your pencils”. The PC was not yet mainstream; all I had was paper and pencil, and she had to type up all my scribbles (coaching manuals, mapping, officials program, national team, training camps, Sass Peepre National Jr training camp, etc). Near the end of that time, I got my hands on an Apple II PC for myself and learned how to program. I applied some of those skills to the Technical Director job, started a database and other fun projects we used in the office. We started a ranking system, with some outside help. but it was then that my interests changed from sport administration to software development. Bill Anderson, Ottawa OC had a central role in that change of roles in my life, I am grateful to him for that.

I am now retired from my software development career, and my role as running coach has taken over my life, together with an interest in fine arts; specifically, oil painting. $1400 was raised at the recent COF Silent Auction from some of these “experiments”, and a few hundred more for the Branchout Foundation this summer.

The role of running coach with Ocean Athletics (OA) is something that I took to naturally. The club we formed in 2007 attracted some local coaches, and my role in OA was as administrator and official. At one practice session, I noticed some kids aged 7 & 8 also sitting around watching their older siblings training. I asked if they wanted to do some running with me, and soon I had a dozen youngsters running through the forest beside our track. We called our group Seahorses, and it is now a program of 30-40 kids with 4 parent coaches and a waiting list with 50 kids. I am now also coaching the high school middle distance runners, some of whom are destined to pursue post-secondary education with full track scholarships. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into this mix, but my kids bravely turn up in their masks with a smile in their eyes, ready to run in the pouring rain. It is a privilege that I have their parents’ trust, and it’s a role that I take seriously but with a sense of humour.

I remember back to one incident when I was teaching some Seahorses how to long jump (something I knew very little about, except how to jump over logs). One little 8-year-old girl was digging in the sand and I asked what she was doing. It was a long trench, with banks. She told me to lie down in it and I laughed and said “no, you aren’t going to cover me in sand”, to which she replied “It’s your grave and these are your arm rests”. She is now almost finished at UBC on a combined track and soccer scholarship! Such is coaching Seahorses.

DW: Who has been the most influential person in your own competitive orienteering experience?

TDS: This is a very difficult question to answer; there have been so many influences from so many different periods of my orienteering career. My parents, of course; none of it would have happened without them. Six people come to the forefront as well; my wife, Maureen, who taught me the importance of interval training, and never wavered in supporting me at the height of my career; my color-blind friend Per Sandberg, who taught me how hard one has to train to overcome obstacles, and my track coaches; Skip Gillam, who taught me the joy of running, and Denis Landry, who accepted me into his group of 1500m runners, and taught me how to run faster. Knut Nord, our Team Coach, taught me the Golden Rules. There were many others….

DW: How do you describe orienteering to a friend or colleague who has never heard of it?

TDS: I simply say; “Cross country running with a map”, and leave it at that.

DW: What is your favourite O discipline – classic forest, urban sprint or rogaine?

TDS: My favorite is Classic Forest, mainly because during my career, Urban Sprint was only a method for teaching orienteering to beginners and was not on the program, as such. Isn’t Rogaine just another name for Mountain Orienteering (TIC)?

DW: Do you prefer SI timing or Emit timing, and why?

TDS: I have used Emit when it was a large brick that fit into the palm of your hand. I have never used a remote punching system (is that Emit now?). I would say that a remote system would be preferable during the pandemic.

At one Canadian Championship, when it was a 2-day race, and day 2 was a chase start, I managed to catch Ron Lowry at the last control. He handed the plastic pin punch to another competitor, so I just had to wait – it was a classic move! The other trick was to let go of the punch (hanging from string) with a flip of the wrist, so it would go flying in a circle. Such tricks disappeared once the punches were attached to a wooden post, and remote punching systems now eliminate such gamesmanship. A mass start in a relay once saw a huge line-up of runners trying to punch a single control unit at control 1. One poor fellow received a broken arm in the ensuing battle, and the control stand could be seen moving away from the site as runners fought over it! Remote would have been better (or providing multiple units!).

DW: What advice would you give to a youngster who aspires to become the best orienteer in the country?

TDS: A young orienteer needs to pursue three main things:

1. Become proficient at reading maps, and this is obtained faster by making maps. I made at least 50 maps as a summer activity, starting with my backyard forest area, learning with my Father.

2. Join a track and cross-country running club to learn how to run fast. Your optimal improvement for strength and speed is your high school years (i.e. onset of puberty).

3. Race as much as possible. The best training by far, for the sport of orienteering, is racing. You learn to deal with distractions, different terrain and courses, and how to deal with people and race situations.

You also have to be prepared to travel a lot, and learn how to do it while staying healthy. My wife Maureen and I travelled so much during our careers (hers was track and field) that we are now home-bodies.

DW: If you (ever) make a mistake in an O race, what would be the likely reason?

TDS: My main cause of error is loss of focus due to a distraction. Once I learned how to properly analyze my races and training, I figured out what distracted me the most, and how to deal with it. This process took a long time. I finally correlated that my mistakes most often occurred whenever I would see another runner.

The 2nd most common mistake I would make is running too fast, thereby breaking the Golden Rule “Never run faster than you know where you are on the map”. I no longer have that problem….

DW: Which orienteer do you most admire (or have you most admired, if they are no longer with us)?

TDS: So many, but my first orienteering hero was Sarolta Monspart from Hungary, when I was about 14 years old. She became World Champion, from a small [non-Scandinavian] orienteering nation. I had read about her achievements in Orienteering articles, and about how hard she trained. I met her once at a World Championship banquet, after she had retired, when she was a member of the IOF and a team lead for Hungary. It was during the time of communism in Europe, so half of the Hungary team officials were from the Communist Party, and she was being watched. However, she knew the game and played it well. Once the country was freed, she traveled with her husband to Canada, and paid us a visit in tiny Vineland (Niagara Falls, of course); an amazing person.

DW: What do you consider your best race, and your worst race, over the years?

TDS: My best race is the 1985 World Championships in Australia. I was never so ready mentally and physically, but there were some concerns. I was not recovering from training as fast as usual that summer, and I had to skip the team trials due to a pulled calf. I also had ankle issues. During the actual race, my ankle went over again and I had to walk for a while which later showed that I dropped from 7th to 10th place at that point of the race. The ankle pain soon went away and I was able to regain my focus and get back up to speed. I had no idea how well I was doing because I wasn’t thinking about it at all; it was very difficult orienteering, very detailed, and I knew I had to focus hard. The organizers presented me with a Timex watch for my top 10 result, which was special.

The slow training recovery issue turned out to be due to an “Epstein Barr” virus infection, which led to ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ for two years, and the beginning of the end of my elite orienteering career. I was never the same after that.

My worst race? Ha!ha! – so many disasters. Here is one; in the 7-person Masters relay in Sweden, I was 2nd or 3rd leg runner for Stora Tuna, a favorite team to win the race; it was a night leg, and we are down by 10 minutes. There is a really long line of runners through the forest, so all I had to do was run beside them, and passing them. By the middle of the race, I was in the lead, the “train” all strung out behind me. Night O? A Canadian?? What were they thinking??? I promptly ran off the map, and it took me 10 minutes to find my way back, by which time we ended up where we had started. The year after that, however, my team redeemed ourselves, and we won the relay (they gave me a day leg that time!).

I do have to mention my first COC (aged 14), as well, when I spent the first hour totally lost and relocated myself back at the start. The 2nd hour was spent running the entire rest of the course.

DW: What is your usual warm-up and prep for an O race, from arrival at the arena to the final start signal?

TDS: My prep starts before I arrive, but we can skip that. I will just say that, there is nothing worse than arriving without something you need – like O shoes, or your lucky compass. Upon arrival, I figure out where everything is and plan the time I need to go to the start. When I was younger, the warm-up routine started 20 minutes before but these days I need 40. Physical warm-up happens first, and once the body is moving I switch to mental warm-up. This involves checking out the surrounding terrain, and deciding what the map might look like. If it is familiar terrain, I think back to past races.

My goal with this preparation is to be able to start the race knowing as much as possible – no surprises. There have been a few over the years. At a relay in Hamilton, the organizers thought a joke would be played on naive Ted, and they handed me a map with no contour lines on it. My first thought was: fold the map and plan my route – part of my system. They told me to turn the map over (or so they said afterward!), which I didn’t hear, being so focused. With no contour information on my map, I could only run straight on compass bearings, and Dundas Valley is not at all flat. It didn’t faze me at all; I was strong, ran hard and had no problems. The whole time, I had the proper map folded underneath, and I never knew it. Nice one, guys!

DW: What is your favourite map or terrain, in Canada, and anywhere in the world?

TDS: My favorite in Canada: Manitoba sandhills – absolutely love it. Close 2nd: parts of Yukon and Gatineau Park, Quebec. Favorite in the world: Northern Finland – fairy tale forests.

DW: If you could make one change to the sport of orienteering today, what would you like to see?

TDS: Local events where kids can win something would be my idea for a positive change, I suppose. Our current events are technical in nature, and we do a great job at that. The maps are very good, so much better than when I started. It has been a few decades since I have had to look for a control that is hung in the wrong location; it rarely happens anymore. We’ve solved all those issues, I think.

The thing that initially attracted me to the sport as a kid was that I could win prizes, and from what I see at our track meets, kids have not changed; it is still a motivator. It takes time for kids to find the intrinsic value of sport.