If I say the word “orienteering” what do you think of first? Adventurous exploration? Courageous expeditions? Getting lost? The sport? If you thought of the sport, congrats – pass go and collect $200. Because that is what orienteering is – a sport.
It’s a sport that requires participants to cross checkpoints scattered across rough countryside with nothing but an old-fashioned paper landmark map, a compass, a whistle, a finger chip (that keeps track of time) and a sheet of paper with archaic symbols mostly comparable to Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Useful… if you know what they read as.
It’s one of the toughest sports out there. It’s physical prowess, a whole lot of tactics and a starting strategy — Plus a whole lot of knowing what you’re doing. On Oct. 11-13, this year’s National Orienteering Championships were held here in Hamilton. It was one race a day – the first race, the sprint, was here at McMaster; the other two (the middle- and long-distance race) were out in Ancaster. Races were anywhere from one kilometre for the younger people to ten and up for elites.
Now, why is orienteering such a formidable sport? Because it takes brains. Not that other sports don’t. It’s only that, you can often have someone else do the strategic thinking for you, if not the last-minute, on-the-fly tactics. In the words of a fellow orienteer, “You can’t run faster than your brain.”
The first thing that happens when you flip your map over is you orient yourself. North equals north, the black lines equal north, check your compass – you’re oriented. You’re at the start triangle. Checkpoint 1 is at one towards the east. GO.
Are you still following the thought process? If so, congrats again. You now know where you’re going. But not how you’re going to get there.
Check out the terrain between the start triangle and the first checkpoint. If you know you’ll get lost going in a straight line – like me – it’s simple: don’t go straight. Look at the terrain – can you follow trails, or streams, or that convenient ledge of earth? Follow your trail to where it turns sharply and meets up with a bridge. Before crossing the bridge, you turn right and go straight. Checkpoint seen. Now, you book it to that checkpoint. And guess what? It’s not yours! Don’t pass go, and don’t collect your gold [medal].
Now you’ve got some perspective on the sport. It can be mentally taxing – the stress of getting lost, wandering off the map, arriving late, being last, the frustration of being totally unable to find a checkpoint. When running these races, you don’t see other people, as they happen mostly around large objects – trees, or buildings.
If you deal with that, you’ve still got the physical tax: running in circles, climbing hills, cliffs, losing shoes to boggy mud, fighting burrs and thistles and blackberry bushes. Plunging through icy water. There are all sorts of trials. Some races can be five kilometers and take two hours.
Orienteering is most definitely among the toughest sports out there, so if you’re up to the challenge… GO. Win yourself some medals, and enjoy the races.