Finding My Way to Orienteering

I think I may have found a new outdoor athletic passion.  On the registration form for Orienteering Louisville‘s Return of the Otter meet, there should have been a disclaimer warning about addiction.

A few months ago, I had no idea that orienteering was a sport.  I was still planting trees up in Vermont and dreaming of my upcoming thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.  I was researching desert hiking, West Coast flora, wilderness first aid, and compass skills.  Looking for some instruction regarding the latter, I googled “compass class.”  Because Google thinks class and course are synonymous, most of the resulting links were about compass courses, which weren’t instructional but rather routes through the woods that people followed with maps and compasses.

Intrigued, I clicked from one website to another, reading through lots of orienteering jargon to figure out just what orienteering was.  How had I never heard of the sport before?  How, in all the time I’d spent outdoors and with adventuring types, did I not know anyone who’d mentioned it?  What was I missing out on?

While I’d hoped to attend a class teaching compass work with a bunch of other newbies rather than head off onto a competitive course and figure it out as I went, I vowed to embrace vulnerability, venture to a different edge of my comfort zone, and attend an orienteering competition once I returned to Kentucky.

The first opportunity I had was this weekend, when the nearest orienteering club hosted a meet roughly 2.5 hours away.wpid-wp-1426456080184.jpeg

Excited and nervous all at once, I waded down our very long and very muddy driveway in the dark to get in my car and make it to the meet in time for Orienteering 101.  When I entered the meet headquarters building, I was immediately greeted by warm and welcoming people, and I began to feel just excitement.

Louis, an older member of the group, took me through the basics of the sport.  There were maps with more detail and more symbols than I’d ever seen; a map lover at heart, I was fascinated.  There were courses of various levels and hieroglyphic markings denoting the various “controls,” or checkpoints, along each.  Then, there were these magical devices called “fingersticks” that recorded each participant’s journey through the forest.

I decided to enter at the advanced beginner level, cleared and checked my magical fingerstick, plunged it into the start control, and headed off into the woods.

Three minutes into my first run, I was covered in mud, my feet were soaking wet, I had a scratch on my leg, and I had decided I loved orienteering.

Yesterday and today, I attempted four courses. I completed my first in surprisingly good time, was less speedy and more tired on my second, and couldn’t complete the third yesterday. During today’s long events, I attempted the 8km orange course (which was more difficult than either of the courses I’d completed), but I had to stop halfway through because I was too tired and had a very sore IT band. Basically, I wimped out, but, given that it was only 10 days ago that I was able to start working out (lightly) again after this past Lyme flare-up, I was proud of myself for running through the woods for a few hours.

I was more proud of how much my orienteering skills had improved in two days. I’d gone from being unable to confidently take a bearing to being able to navigate (by either compass or landscape features, albeit a bit slowly sometimes) to controls sprinkled throughout the forest. On today’s orange course, there were a number of controls that I couldn’t see from the place in the forest I’d arrived at while searching for them, but I was confident in my navigating and simply looked over a knoll or into a ditch to find them nearby.

Conversational blue blaze: I am a firm believer that the right level of confidence is essential in outdoor adventure settings. While it’s important not to be overly confident and get in over your head, it’s also important not to have your actions rooted in fear.

All of the little result print-outs I got from the weekend declare that orienteering is “the sport for the thinking runner.” That really seems to be a perfect description! This meet was point-to-point style, and the thinking comes in when you realize that the shortest route to the next control isn’t always the fastest; it’s essential to consider alternative routes to avoid obstacles and the chance of getting lost. Some meets are called “rogaines” or “score-os.” Those have mass starts in which all participants go into the field for the same amount of time; each control has a point value, and participants choose which controls to search for.

By the end of this weekend’s meet I was bruised and bloody and sore and exhausted but completely exhilarated. I got in my wagon, turned on the radio (to “Carolina in the Pines”), and headed east, oddly unable to stop mentally transforming the “lone trees,” “gullies,” “knolls,” and “man-made objects” I passed into features on a topographic map.

To learn more about orienteering, visit Orienteering USA’s website.

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