© copyright 11.Aug.2009 by Dena Harris.
For years I avoided orienteering. The fact that I got turned around in my own shed seemed a pretty sure sign I shouldn't be set loose on the land with little more than a compass and an energy bar for companionship. But the allure of orienteering as a mind - body challenge - plus graduated levels of complexity - soon convinced me this was an aspect of running worth exploring.
Developed in Sweden in the late 19th century and originally used as training for military officers, orienteering is the sport of navigating by map and compass. Traditional foot orienteering involves racing from point to point cross-country, using a topographic map to identify hills, streams, and rock formations as reference points. The sport has expanded, however, to accommodate all levels of runners in all types of environments. It's no longer unusual to see runners in an orienteering sprint racing through urban streets, an amusement park, or even along a string course (for children).
The United Kingdom and the United States use a colour-coded system, white through brown, to identify the difficulty level of courses. With individual competitions, relays, night races, urban sprints, mountain marathon events, and even wheelchair races, the sport offers something for every level of competition and fitness.
A standard orienteering course requires runners to locate a number of control points in a specific order. The control points are typically found near features such as a stream or boulder and are marked by flags. Runners use an electronic or needle punch found at the control site to mark their control card, proving they have visited the site. Runners are staggered at the start to ensure each does his or her own navigating through the course.
In classic orienteering, the winner is the runner who returns with the fastest time. Score orienteering, however, involves a mass start where competitors find as many controls as possible within a specified time frame.
Orienteering is often referred to as the thinking man's (or woman's!) sport. That's because being in shape physically isn't enough. As opposed to a standard street race where runners follow arrows-or the waving arm of a bored looking police officer-orienteering requires a runner to hold high levels of focus, speed, and concentration, operating under pressure to make decisions on the fly. The most direct route on a map isn't always the shortest and a runner must quickly decide which route to chose and ensure they're staying on track. Strong map reading skills are a must, especially at the higher levels of competition.
Although not as much fun to say as “Fartlek” (but really, what is?), orienteering is nevertheless an ideal fartlek workout or a fun alternative to speed work normally done on the track. That's because the very nature of stopping to read your map, deciding the best route and then speeding off-possibly up a hill or down a gully-means you're incorporating variations in speed and intensity into your workout.
These days, with a GPS in every car and digital appliance, one might suspect a person's ability to find his or her way across a streetólet alone across wilderness terrain-has diminished. Orienteering suggests otherwise. If you're looking for a fun and out-of-the-box challenge that will have you wrangling your way across the land, orienteering may be the sport for you.
After that, navigating the shed should be a breeze.
If you think you'd like to give orienteering a try, local clubs abound in most nations. Try a simple online search for “orienteering” and the name of your city. Those in the United States can locate clubs through the US Orienteering Federation. United Kingdom residents may visit the British Orienteering web site.
Daily Runs is collection of motivational articles, tips & advice about the sport of running, written by authors who run for fun.
Writer and author Dena Harris ran her first marathon in 2007. After declaring at the finish line that she would "never, ever, do that again," she's continued to run at least two marathons a year and recently qualified to run Boston.
Visit www.denaharris.com for information on her writing, books, running, and cats.