“Run, run, run.” they cheer. You have to “run in,” it is a matter of pride, to the finish, no matter how you have dawdled over the course. You get your time. Then a cookie.
Orienteering is a paramilitary sport which involves navigating a timed course with map and compass. You can do it with your kids, walking as a family, or you can do it at the world class level running at top speed.
My friend John Charlow is president of the Ramblers Orienteering Club based in Montreal. Many Sundays in the early and late summer he and his wife Gloria set up and run meets in some of the larger area parks in the Montreal area. They almost always win when they compete in their category, the “over 80's.”
The areas where the meets are held are mapped in detail, the charts showing boulders, fences, buildings, and footpaths to a scale of 1:10,000 or 1:15,000. Courses of three to 12 km are drawn on the maps. Ten to fifteen control points, which might be the end of a fence, a tree, or the turn of a footpath, are chosen, and indicated on the map.
To lay out the course the day before the meet, the organizers go to each control point and leave an orienteering flag, with a unique punch for that check point location, and a ribbon marked with a letter. The runner has to check that letter against the letter for that control on his map to be sure he is at the right place. Controls points for several courses may be close together, and you lose points if you stamp your map with the wrong punch.
If you are new to the sport, or even if you are not, you will get a lesson in map reading from John. He will show you how to determine the direction you are headed, how to hold the map and compass together to make sure you are going in the right direction, how to measure the distance you need to go on the map, and to determine your stride length. It is important to count your steps to determine how far you have gone, because if you overshoot the control point you may find yourself lost. For emergencies there is a whistle attached to your compass with which you can call for help. And it is important to check in with the organizers when you finish, whether or not you care about your time, so they do not waste their time looking for you if you are not lost.
Before you start on the course John will talk to you about the map.
“Do you see check point number seven? When we laid out the course we realized there has been lots of rain, and so you won't be able to cross that stream on foot. You will need to follow the footpath to the bridge up here.”
“Now look at number eight to nine. The most direct route would seem to be a direct cross country route. But the contour lines are very close together there , meaning that is almost a cliff face. You will need to go around this way, and it is still steep, but do-able.” The experts will go cross country in the direction of the next check point rather than follow the paths, but this requires more precision in use of the compass than following the footpaths, so beginners usually choose the paths.
The day of the meet you drive to the indicated location and you recognize the organizers by the red and white orienteering flag on the nearby signposts and at the registration desk. You sign your registration form and and a release to say you know there is a risk of injury. You choose the length and difficulty of your course depending on your skill and fitness level, and mark your map with the check points for the course you have chosen. Then you are assigned a start time. At your time, you head out to follow the map.
Regular orienteering meets are held in the summer in parks (like Mount Royal Park or Angrignon Park), and in the winter “ski-O” meets are held on cross country ski trails. There are regional, national, and international meets, and the real enthusiasts like John and Gloria spend their annual holidays going to international orienteering meets. But wherever you travel in the world for an orienteering meet, you will have a map and compass to guide you. And the people are the best.
If you go: Make sure you take good sun protection; a hat, sun glasses, sun screen, bug repellant. It is best to cover your arms and legs with clothing, especially if you are planning to run in wooded areas, to avoid being scratched by trees and bushes. Walking or running shoes with good treads are essential. You should take along a snack, for example trail mix containing dried fruit and nuts, and water. To carry these it is best to have a back pack. If you have a good compass with a millimeter ruler bring it, otherwise rent a compass from the organizers, and carry a whistle. Get there early, since you need to finish the course by the take down time, usually around 2 PM.