Change of Heart revitalizes Top Orienteer
Cardiac arrest and open-heart surgery haven’t slowed down top kiwi orienteer Lizzie Ingham, who is on her way to another world championship, writes Merryn Anderson.
Lizzie Ingham was born to be an orienteer.
She attended her first club event in Wellington when she was just three days old – her mother, Gillian, and father, Malcolm, both keen on orientation, stopping on the way home from the maternity.
And she also almost died during an orienteering race.
Now 34, Ingham is the only New Zealander to win a World Cup medal, and at present she is the only Kiwi ranked in the sport’s top 100. She has also secured a ticket to the world championships in Denmark next month – an event she has been competing in for more than a decade.
It’s an incredible feat for someone who went into cardiac arrest at the end of Sweden’s biggest orienteering race, the O-Ringen, in 2017 and needed CPR and a defibrillator to bring her back.
It turned out that Ingham had competed at the top of his sport with an undiagnosed heart condition for six years. It was not until she was taken to hospital after collapsing in Sweden that doctors gave her a diagnosis, and Ingham underwent open-heart surgery in Norway later that year.
“It probably defined me in my elite career,” said Ingham, who has been competing since age seven.
Previously, doctors had told Ingham that his episodes of clouded vision, difficulty breathing and heavy limbs were due to anxiety and a mental issue of panic attacks.
This caused the physical problem to become a mental problem and Ingham began to doubt herself.
“It got to the point where I was standing at the start line and I didn’t know if I was going to have a normal day and be able to run at full capacity, or if I was going to feel like crap and having to pull out of the race,” says Ingham, an environmental scientist.
The Norwegian doctors were convinced they could fix Ingham’s congenital artery defect and get her back to full fitness, and they were right.
“I learned to trust my body again and it’s amazing,” Ingham said. “I can run at full intensity, at full speed and be sure that the same thing won’t happen again.”
The operation took place almost five years ago, but Ingham’s road to recovery has been long – the mental side proving to be just as important as the physical.
“The whole course gave great appreciation to people with mental and physical challenges. It was a complete trip,” says Ingham.
Orienteering combines physical fitness with mental skills and the ability to stay calm under pressure.
There are three main events: sprint, medium and long distance – the winning time for an average race being around 15 minutes, 35 minutes or 80 minutes respectively.
Sprint races are normally held around cities and in cityscapes – New Zealand events sometimes around a university campus, while some European races will see competitors racing through old towns, medieval towns and back streets .
The medium and long distance events are more difficult to prepare, as they take place on more difficult terrain. New Zealand races can be held on farmland or in the bush, and overseas competitions are often held in forests.
Competitors are given a map and compass at the start line and must navigate the field and visit points marked on the map, with the fastest time winning.
Ingham says all three events are about balance.
“The key is in balance, so knowing how hard you can push yourself physically while still being on top of map reading and decision making,” she says.
She is no stranger to academic pressure, having earned a PhD in geophysics from the Australian National University’s School of Earth Science Research after four years of study.
Then, having felt she had peaked in New Zealand and Australia, Ingham ventured to Europe, where the sport is huge, even being shown on national television.
She joined the Halden SK club in Norway, training five to six days a week for four years, with a clubhouse in the middle of a forest. She also got a job as a geophysicist.
In August 2019, Ingham competed at the world championships in his new home, Norway, finishing 38th in middle distance and 25th in long distance.
Finally returning home to New Zealand at the end of that year, Ingham planned to compete overseas in 2020 but ended up just running around New Plymouth during various Covid lockdowns to stay fit and continue to practice. Since then, she has worked as an environmental scientist for the Taranaki Regional Council.
“Trying to maintain a workout routine and motivation through it all was really difficult,” Ingham says. “It’s very difficult to train properly when you don’t know if or when your next competition is.”
International competition is back on Ingham’s radar – she is one of eight Kiwi orienteers who will leave our shores next month to compete at the world championships in Denmark.
“We have a good mix of experience and riders who will also be racing their first world championships, so it’s really exciting,” said Ingham, who finished ninth in the sprint at the 2012 world championships in Lausanne.
“The World Sprint Championships will be our best chance as New Zealanders because it’s easier to train for the sprint in New Zealand than for the field. The forest in Sweden or Switzerland is very, very different from here in New Zealand. But a sprint around a city or a university campus, we can train quite precisely here in New Zealand.
Ingham proved her sprinting prowess at the 2013 World Cup, raced in her hometown around the capital’s Parliament Buildings, where she won bronze.
She competed at every world championship as a senior elite orienteer from 2010 to 2019 (and at the junior world championships for four years prior). Although she feels excited about her return, she admits the two-and-a-half-year absence from international competition has been difficult.
“Sitting here and looking at the results and the competitions in Europe, it’s very easy to think that your competitors train and train a lot more and have top level racing there,” says -she.
“But what I’ve learned over the past 13 years is that for me personally it’s better to prepare at home – I have confidence in the training I’m doing, I know I’m doing efforts.”
Orienteering is a staggered start, a time trial, so unless a competitor is overtaken by another athlete, they don’t know where they stand on the field, which Ingham mentally finds more easy.
“Because I haven’t raced these girls for two and a half years, I don’t know where I stand against them. So there’s nothing to worry about there, I can focus on a single race. I have no preconceived idea of my place in the field.
Ingham encourages anyone interested in finding an orienteering club near them, getting active and learning life skills.
“So many people say ‘I don’t wanna do it, I don’t like running’ – but you don’t have to run,” she says. “”Oh, I can’t read a map” – we “I’ll teach you how to read a map, just come and try.”
“It’s an incredibly family-friendly sport, and as we’re entirely volunteer-run in New Zealand, you’ll find your local club more than willing to help newcomers. They’re the lifelong friends I’ve made through to orienteering which make it such an interesting sport to practice.