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Cambridge University student Peter Molloy sets compass on making an impact in the world of orienteering

As far as stereotypes go, it is hard to get away from the depiction of orienteering as anything other than someone out in a field with a compass and map.

Peter Molloy is quick to correct that assumption.

“For orienteering, the vast majority of training you do is just running, so I train like a runner and then do some orienteering within that as well. I’m running 120km to 130km a week.”

Molloy is not just setting the record straight, but also providing the background on joining the University of Cambridge Athlete Performance Programme.

It was within the context of how the scheme has assisted with not just funding, but giving structured strength and conditioning training to the Great Britain competitor.

We are sitting in Nevile’s Court at Trinity College on an overcast day that is wedged in exam season and before a busy summer for the 20-year-old.

When you first meet Molloy, there is something that says athlete about his physical profile and so it is no surprise to learn that the core of the training is in that field, and with the Cambridge University Hare & Hounds Cross Country Club.

But just by being at Cambridge meants that he is breaking the family lineage.

Orienteering is now embedded in the family, and it was brought to them by his mother, who met his father at the Oxford University club, where his sister is currently a member during her studies.

“Technically, I’m a product of the Oxford orienteering club, which is weird,” jokes Molloy.

It was a combination of the studies and the sport that drove Molloy to Cambridge.

He is a second year modern languages student doing French and Russian.

“It opens up this whole world,” he suggests. “At the time I thought it was quite irrelevant in the global context, and now it has become the most relevant thing – far too relevant, I would say.

“It feels like you have been living global events through your degree.”

But the course at Oxford would have deprived him one final chance at world success.

Peter Molloy Orienteering competitor . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57245735)
Peter Molloy Orienteering competitor . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57245735)

“At Oxford, if you do Russian, they send you abroad in the second year so I would be abroad now and I didn’t want to do that because I’m still a junior athlete in orienteering – I would have missed out that last year.”

Molloy is a fascinating character and each and every conversation area opens up a rabbit warren of subjects, such as the Scot going to Georgia and Kyrgyzstan for his year overseas after the plan to head to Russia had to be aborted.

But we are here to talk about orienteering.

You could say that it is a sport that has a bad rep, yet that is probably not true – so little is known about it in broader society that it probably has no rep at all, apart from those preconceived ideas.

“It’s like running, cross-country running, but it’s more interesting because you have to find your own way,” says Molloy.

“I just think it’s a more interesting way to do running.

“Orienteering very much has the Scouts reputation because the main way people encounter it is through Scouts where you have your walking boots and a compass.

“What I do is not like that at all. We all use thumb compasses so they are much smaller and versatile and sit off your thumb. You have your map, but it is a very intense sport.”

He explains in great detail how a race works, with the concept being a time trial where competitors pick up a map on the start line as they set off.

“For me, that is the great thing about it – you’ve got to be quick-thinking, able to adapt to what you’re seeing. The effort level is exactly the same I would give in a cross-country race, if not more.”

There is something really enjoyable about the passion with which Molloy speaks of orienteering.

It is unwavering and, if you are of a competitive mindset, would probably make you want to chance your arm at taking it up – it is, in his own words “a family sport… with age groups from under-10s to over-85s”.

But that should not detract from the top end.

Orienteerers naturally run slower in races than in a straight-running race because of the terrain and the map reading.

the quickest he would be running in an orienteering race would be 3min 30sec per km, which equates to about 17min 30sec for a 5K.

“In orienteering, there is no element of PBs, best times, season bests, they just don’t exist because every single race and every single course is different,” he points out.

The urban sprint races can be 15 minutes long, and the forest races up to 100 minutes, with competitors wearing a dibber on their finger that they swipe through an SI unit at each checkpoint, similar to a self-service scanner at a supermarket.

As Molloy describes racing in detail, it becomes clear that one of the most enjoyable aspects is the mental challenge.

Peter Molloy Orienteering competitor . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57245623)
Peter Molloy Orienteering competitor . Picture: Keith Heppell. (57245623)

He plays down the suggestion, preferring to highlight how, as a kid, it was fun to do and as it got progressively harder, that helped aid the motivation.

Even as he explains that, you get the sense you are speaking to a deep thinker, especially when you take into account not just the orienteering but his choice of studies.

“I suppose I like a challenge, and I won’t shy away from one and I think that is what orienteering is and that’s what learning Russian is,” says Molloy.

“I think the most difficult things are the most rewarding and the most fun. As much as studying Russian at the start was a nightmare, it does become enjoyable once you realise ‘OK, I can do this’.

“It’s the same with orienteering. You work it out, you get better at it and practice it and it becomes to the point where it is really rewarding.

“I genuinely do love doing it.”

But he counters the idea of being a deep thinker, when asked which came first – the deep thinking or the orienteering?

“I wouldn’t call myself a deep thinker necessarily because I think orienteering is a lot more about quick-thinking, I think that’s more important,” he replies.

“How quickly can you weigh up options and then make a decision because you don’t have time in a race to slow down and think ‘what am I going to do now?’.

“It has to be what am I doing straight away, it’s a really intense mental work out as well.”

You can understand exactly what Molloy means which is why you can also see how mental exhaustion kicks in after events.

“Orienteerers always talk at the end of long races about feeling really mentally fatigued because you’ve just been making decisions for an hour, hundreds of decisions, and your brain gets tired.

“It’s the same if you do a really long stint of work, you get tired. If you do a really long stint of driving, you get tired because you’re making loads of decisions.”

Quick thinking, after all, is the prerequisite of all elite sportsmen and women, it is what defines them and adds to their ability to reach the top which is a course that Molloy certainly seems to be on.

He is the under-20 British men’s champion at the sprint, middle and long distances, and represented Great Britain at the Junior World Orienteering Championships in 2019.

“I had booked a two-week holiday in Paris during the competition, that is how little I thought I would go, but the selection race went really well,” says Molloy.

It is an event he will be returning to later next month as part of a 12-strong GB team in Portugal, while further down the line is the World Universities Orienteering Championships in Switzerland in August.

“Certainly, if I think about the places that I’ve been able to go to thanks to orienteering, I’ve been to the most amazing places all over Europe that I would never have done as a conventional runner,” he adds.

“I just think it’s a more interesting way to do running.”

And it is hard to find a reason to disagree.

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