Finding a good spot for an orienteering course can be complicated. Mapping it can be complicated. Setting up equipment to record times – complicated.

But Gary Kraft of Mill Valley, California says the sport’s premise is pretty simple.

“You have a map and you have a compass,” the former president of the U.S. Orienteering Federation said. “It is your responsibility, or your pleasure, to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B and then to Point C and then to Point D and then to Point E.”

It’s like a 3-D puzzle while I’m out there. It’s even better than a maze because I’m not funneled from one direction to the other.
– Lisa Carr, Dallas
On a bright, cool Saturday in late October, orienteers gathered in the Lynn Woods in Lynn and Saugus, Mass. for the U.S. Orienteering Middle Distance Championships, part of a three-day event that also includes sprint and long-distance races at other courses in Greater Boston.

 

The location was part of the attraction for Lisa Carr, who traveled from Dallas.

“I’ve never been here before, so this is going to be true orienteering. It’s not my familiar home terrain. That’s why we like to travel,” Carr said. “Golfers like to travel to different golf courses they’ve never played. For orienteers it’s the same way with terrain. We’re excited when there’s a new map, a new area we can explore.”

There were several overlapping courses set up for different age groups and experience levels. Carr and other veteran orienteers will be on one that’s about 4 kilometers long, with 13 checkpoints – known as controls.

“So it’s like a 3-D puzzle while I’m out there. It’s even better than a maze because I’m not funneled from one direction to the other. It’s my choice where I go and it’s my choice when I mess up,” said Carr, who is the president of the North Texas Orienteering Association. “I feel this real sense of accomplishment when I get there and I find the control where I thought it would be. It’s kind of a rush, you get addicted to that feeling.”

Alison Crocker heads from the final check-in area to the starting line. Crocker won all three of the U.S. Orienteering Championships, held in Greater Boston last month. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

Alison Crocker heads from the final check-in area to the starting line. Crocker won all three of the U.S. Orienteering Championships, held in Greater Boston last month. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

Cambridge, Mass. residents Larry and Sarah Mae Berman founded the Cambridge Sports Union in 1962 as a running club. They added orienteering after learning about it in the early 70s. Larry says it was an adjustment.

“I was always running faster than I could navigate,” Berman said. “Over the years, I gradually learned how to navigate years, but of course, over the years I gradually learned how to run slower.”

The CSU spent months organizing the 2011 championships. An orienteering map is far more detailed than a standard topographical map and the group hired an expert to fill in specifics like large boulders, stone walls, and small streams. Berman says those elements are critical.

In your mind you have a picture, you say, ‘Well, in about 50 yards, I pass a big rock and in another 30 yards there’s another rock. And the control flag that I need to find is on the other side of that rock,’” Berman said. “Of course if the flag isn’t there, you say, ‘Oh, they put it in the wrong place!’ But of course, they didn’t, you made a mistake.”

Sneaking a peak at the course would spoil the fun, so the registration area was far removed from the start, about a 15-minute hike that ended on top of a rock outcropping where runners did a second check-in.

The starting point was just 20 yards away, but still hidden from view. Orienteering USA President Peter Goodwin says a blind start keeps everyone honest.

“I can see where they start from, but I can’t see where they run. So there’s no advantage to me to say, ‘Oh, the person on my course went that way so therefore I can just follow which way to go,’” the Wolfeboro, N.H. resident said. “I have to look at my map and say, oh I guess I’d better go a particular way.”

Annica Eng (l) and her husband Jakob (c) traveled from Sweden for the event. Orienteering is more popular in Europe than in the U.S. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

Individual starts are spaced out. Starter Peter Lane hands the orienteer the appropriate 8½ by 11-inch map, face down, then sends him off.

When asked if any runners try to pry some last-second advice out of him, Lane revealed yet another layer of secrecy.

“They can ask, but I have not seen the maps,” Lane said, standing in front of several boxes of maps. “I have not looked.”

Standing out on an orienteering course, there are long moments of complete silence. Then an orienteer bursts into view, rustling leaves, racing to the next control.

Competitors search for orange and white nylon markers on short stakes. When they find the right control they punch a small electronic chip worn on one finger into a reader on the stake. After the race they’ll be able to see their split times from point to point.

The championships attracted about 300 people from all over the country. Although anyone can orienteer, many participants have backgrounds in science, engineering or math.

Alison Crocker is an astrophysics researcher at UMass Amherst. Crocker is also the top female orienteer in the U.S. and went on to sweep all three events.

We joke that an orienteer never gets lost, they just get disoriented.
– Eric Kemp, Ottawa, Ontario
It’s so much more than just running. Do I want to go over that hill? Do I want to go around it? Should I cross this stream now or further up? Are there cliffs in my way? What do I do?” Crocker explained. “You end up running really hard for a full hour and you don’t even know you’ve done it because you’ve been thinking so hard about how to get to the next place the whole time.”

 

The sport is more popular in Europe than the United States and has a loyal following in Canada. Eric Kemp is from Ottawa, Ontario. The 21-year-old says even with maps, orienteers can lose their way.

You can get really lost. Once you sort of get to the elite level of orienteering that happens less and less, ideally never,” Kemp said. “There are varying degrees of sort of ‘lostness.’ We joke that an orienteer never gets lost, they just get disoriented.”

Orienteering is a solitary sport, but 11-time national champion Sharon Crawford of Frisco, Colorado says one of the best parts is analyzing the race with friends.

“You talk to them and say, ‘Gee, I had no trouble with Number 2, but I sure wobbled at 3. I overshot it. I had to circle back. How did you find it?’” Crawford, 67, said.  “Your friend will say, ‘You made a mistake there. That was trivial, but Number 5 I couldn’t find it.’ ”

Peter Gagarin of Sunderland, Mass. has been racing since 1973. The former national champion and US team coach says the sport speaks to something in to human nature.

“There’s always a sense of adventure, which is something that I think is missing too often in life,” Gagarin said. “What’s it going to be like this time? How am I going to do? Sometimes you do well and sometimes it humbles you. But that’s just part of it. To me just the sense of newness each time is a wonderful thing.”

Exploring the wilderness has timeless appeal. The youngest orienteers on the course were just 9 years old. The oldest was 84.