Orienteering – Northumberland Forest, ON

It’s 7 am on a saturday morning, and I am excited to be climbing out of my warm bed and heading to a forest full of poison ivy. It’s a little weird, then again, maybe I am just excited to be running a race for the first time in over a year.

My trusty Saab and I are headed to Northumberland Forest for my first ever orienteering race. Running shoes, long pants, a compass, and a bottle of water lay on the seat beside me.

Orienteering is a sport that can take place on foot, in a kayak, on a bike, on snowshoes, in a car – pretty well anything that moves. Regardless of the format, orienteering is different from regular races because the courses aren’t linear. You’re given a map and you have to find your way from point A to point B to point C …. to point J or however many points happen to be in your particular race, and at each you have to plug in a little microchip called a “dib”.

Today’s race is a footrace, and while the age guidelines say I should be running a 5-10km race, I don’t want to be lost in the forest overnight, so I signed up for 3.1km course.

As I arrive in Northumberland, I turn down a little dirt road typically reserved for cross country skiing.  It’s a cold morning and I am a little late, but the suns up, there’s that foresty smell in the air and I am full of a lofty feeling of superiority because I got up early to go exercise. I introduce myself to one of the race organizers who quickly gives me a run down on how the sport works and how to use my map – it’s not as simple as I thought. “Dammit” I concede to myself, “I am going to get lost today”.

At this race, everyone has an individual start time. Ten minutes before mine, I am still talking at the registration tent. I then realize that the start line is about 800m away down a trail, so I hightail it into the woods.

I get to the starting area and I realize a few things:

  1. This forest is covered with poison ivy. Everyone else has duct-taped their pants to their shoes, or they’re wearing special shin-guard devices to protect themselves from brush and poisonous plants.

  2. There are actually 3 start lines. Someone starts every minute. So, for 60 seconds you stand at the first line, then you’re allowed to walk 30 feet to the second line where you are given a legend of symbols for this forest. After another 60 seconds you walk up to the final line, where you are given your map.

After waiting 60 seconds at this last line you’re allowed to look at your map and take off into the woods.

I immediately head in the wrong direction.

Now you’re probably thinking, “that’s ok, just wait 60 seconds and follow the next orienteering chap, you’ll be fine Gymineer!” But it’s not so simple. You see, there are a multitude of different courses, some people are doing 2km courses, some brave souls are on 10 km courses, and they all go in different directions and hit different control points in different orders. So you can’t just follow anybody.

Here’s a sampling of my internal dialogue en route to the first control point (CP):

“Ok, compass points north…map points north”

“Where is that trail?”

“Where am I?”

“This is a race! I need to get moving, I can’t just stand around!”

“I’ve gone way too far. Wait, was that a deer?”

“Where’s this go? Yes! Nothing can stop me now, I am Goliath!”

Seriously, finding that first CP felt like the first time I solved a long division problem on my own, it just took me all the way back to grade 8. In fact, finding every CP gave you this exciting comforting feeling, because really, you’ve been running around unsure of your own location for the preceeding 5-10 minutes, but everytime you find a CP, you know exactly where you are and can re-orient yourself. Totally satisfying.

At the end of the race the organizers give you a break down of how long it took you to reach each CP, and where you were in comparison to the other people in your category. I was eight minutes behind after two control points. But after that, I turned up the domination.

I had figured the course would stick mostly to trails in the forest, but I was very wrong. Sometimes you’re forced to run through very thick brush or fields of poison ivy, and sometimes its just an obviously quicker route to the next CP.

The 3.1 km race took me over an hour to finish. You end running a lot farther then the course’s listed distance, particularly when you’re as prone to getting lost as I am.

After our race, there was an event called a micro sprint, which it turns out was already covered in my entry fee and everybody was planning on running, so I did too. This was supposed to be a quick 1km race, with the catch being that there were “dummy” CP’s. You’d run up to an area where the CP was shown on your map and you’d find that there were 2-4 CP’s within 100 metres of each other, and none of them had identifying numbers. You had to figure out, based on features on the map, which one was the real one and which one’s were fake. You’d be penalized with added time if you picked the wrong one.

I was excited about this, as it was really more my length of race, but I think I tried to rush through the course, and as a result, got really lost. There were eight CP’s, two didn’t have any dummies around them (unless you count me), and of the six that gave me a choice, I only got one right. What’s worse, is that I got completely lost. In a 1km race I ended up at least 1 km west of the most westwardly CP.

Fortunately, that gives a great opprtunity to explain the safety systems orienteering employs:

  1. You have a whistle. If you’re lost or injured, blow it and help’s on the way.

  2. There is always a safety direction, for this race it was East. So if you get lost, like I did, just head East and you’ll eventually hit a road that will bring you back to the starting area.

My extremely diverse results are shown here:

“open 2” – http://www.toronto-orienteering.com/Results/2009/TT2009_Middle.txt

“men 20-34” – http://www.toronto-orienteering.com/Results/2009/TT2009_Micro_Sprint.txt

Orienteering comes with a really high level of “try-it-at-least-once” recommendation. You can do it completey at your own speed, and it’s just more engaging than your typical 5km road race – nevermind the distinctive scenery you get to immerse yourself in. In Toronto check out www.toronto-orienteering.com, and else where just google your nearest major city and “orienteering”.

You’re outdoors, there’s friendly people, you choose the level of competitiveness – why not go play?