Cardiac arrest and open heart surgery haven’t slowed down top Kiwi orienteer Lizzie Ingham, who’s on her way to her yet another world championship, Merryn Anderson writes.
Lizzie Ingham was born to be an orienteer.
She attended her first Wellington club event when she was just three days old – her mum, Gillian, and dad, Malcolm, both keen orienteers, stopping in on their way home from the maternity hospital.
And she almost died at an orienteering race too.
Now 34, Ingham is the only New Zealander to have won a World Cup medal, and right now, she’s the only Kiwi ranked in the top 100 for the sport. She’s also has secured herself a ticket to the world champs in Denmark next month – an event she’s been competing in for over a decade.
It’s an incredible feat for someone who went into cardiac arrest at the end of Sweden’s largest orienteering race, the O-Ringen, in 2017, and needed CPR and a defibrillator to bring her back.
It turned out Ingham had competed at the top of her sport with an undiagnosed heart problem for six years. It wasn’t until being 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’s probably defined me in my elite career,” says Ingham, who’s been competing since she was seven.
Previously, Ingham was told by doctors her episodes of blacked-out vision, trouble breathing and heavy limbs were down to anxiety and a mental issue of panic attacks.
That caused the physical issue to become a mental issue, and Ingham starting to doubt herself.
“It got to the point where I’d stand on the start line and didn’t know if I was going to have a normal day and be able to run to my full capacity, or if I was going to feel like crap and have to pull out of the race,” Ingham, an environmental scientist, says.
The doctors in Norway were confident they could fix the congenital defect in Ingham’s arteries and return her to full fitness, and they were right.
“I’ve learnt to trust my body again and it feels amazing,” Ingham says. “I can run full intensity, full speed and trust the same thing isn’t going to happen again.”
The surgery was almost five years ago, but it’s been a long journey to recovery for Ingham – the mental side proving just as important as the physical.
“The whole journey has given a great appreciation for people dealing with both mental and physical issues. It’s been a complete journey,” Ingham explains.
Orienteering combines physical fitness with mental skills and the ability to stay calm under pressure.
There are three main events: the sprint, the middle and the long distances – with the winning time for an average race being around 15 minutes, 35 minutes or 80 minutes respectively.
Sprint races are normally done around towns and in urban landscapes – New Zealand events sometimes around a university campus, while some European races will see competitors run through old towns, medieval cities and alleyways.
The middle and long distance events are harder to train for, as they’re on more challenging terrain. New Zealand races might run through farmland or bush, and overseas competitions are often held in forests.
Competitors are given a map and a compass at the start line and have to navigate the terrain and visit the points marked on the map, with the fastest time winning.
Ingham says all three events are about balance.
“The key is in the balance, so knowing how hard you can push yourself physically while still staying on top of the map reading and the decision-making,” she says.
She’s no stranger to academic pressure, having completed a PhD in geophysics from the Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences after four years of study.
Then, having felt she’d reached her orienteering peak in New Zealand and Australia, Ingham ventured to Europe, where the sport is huge, even being broadcast 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 raced in the world champs in her new home of Norway, finishing 38th in the middle distance and 25th in the long distance.
Finally returning home to New Zealand at the end of that year, Ingham planned to compete overseas in 2020, but ended up simply running around New Plymouth during various Covid lockdowns to stay fit and keep training. She’s been working as an environmental scientist for the Taranaki Regional Council ever since.
“Trying to keep a training routine and motivation up through all of that was really hard,” Ingham says. “It’s very hard to train properly when you don’t know if or when your next competition is going to be.”
International competition is back on Ingham’s radar – she’s one of eight Kiwi orienteers departing our shores next month to compete at the world champs in Denmark.
“We’ve got a good mix of experience and runners who’ll be at their first world champs as well, so it’s really exciting,” says Ingham, who finished ninth in the sprint at the 2012 world championships in Lausanne.
“The sprint world champs will be our best shot as New Zealanders because it’s easier to train for sprint in New Zealand than it is for terrain. The forest in Sweden or Switzerland is very, very different from here in New Zealand. But a sprint around a town or a university campus, we can train for that pretty accurately here in New Zealand.”
Ingham proved her sprinting prowess at the 2013 World Cup, run in her hometown around the capital’s Parliament buildings, where she won bronze.
She’s competed in every world champs as a senior elite orienteer from 2010 to 2019 (and at junior worlds for four years before that). While she’s feeling excited for her return, she admits the two-and-a-half years away from international competition have been tough.
“Sitting over here and watching results and competitions in Europe, it’s very easy to think your competition is getting far more training and practice and they’re getting high level races over there,” she says.
“But what I’ve learnt over the last 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 putting in the effort.”
Orienteering is a staggered start, time trial event so unless a competitor is passed by another athlete, they don’t know where in the field they stand, which Ingham finds mentally easier.
“Because I haven’t raced against these girls in two-and-a-half years, I don’t know where I’m at, head-to-head against them. So there’s nothing to worry about there, I can just focus on a lone race. I don’t have a preconception of where I fit in the field.”
Ingham encourages anyone interested to find an orienteering club near them, get active and learn some life skills.
“So many people say ‘I don’t want to do it, I don’t like running’ – but you don’t have to run,” she says. “‘Oh I can’t read a map’ – we’ll teach you to read a map, just come along and give it a try.
“It’s an incredibly family-friendly sport, and because we’re entirely volunteer-run in New Zealand, you’ll find your local club more than willing to help any newcomers. It’s the lifelong friends I’ve made through orienteering who just make it such a worthwhile sport to get involved in.”