Many find orienteering a lift for mind and body

Maps, compasses lead participants on woodsy courses


February 04, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

Daddy, I wanna punch Clare."

Dave Alexander - who is standing in a large meadow inside Greenbelt National Park, eyes fixed on the topographical map he's holding - wisely ignores that pronouncement made by daughter Mairead, age 7.

Daddy employs a diversionary tactic to get the girl's mind off her 5-year-old sister and back on the business at hand.

"Is anybody gonna look at the map with me?" he cheerfully asks.

Alexander is taking the lead on a dual-family outing. He and his wife, Rachel, and their two children, along with friends Bob Candey and Amy Hansen and their two young boys, are a team entry in a recent Sunday afternoon race organized by Quantico Orienteering Club.

Think of orienteering as cross-country chess - "cunning running" as some like to say. It tests both body and brain.

The object is to locate a sequential series of control points (sounds impressive, but they resemble small, nylon trash baskets) scattered over a variegated landscape - and to do it as fast as possible, aided by only a map and compass.

Competitors record their progress by manually punching a piece of paper at each control station or by tripping an electronic sensor. Alexander, 47, took up the sport three years ago. He is the only experienced member of his multigenerational team.

He also works for the federal government designing census tract maps, which is a bit like being a Scrabble player whose full-time job is memorizing the dictionary: Good orienteers must be able to quickly turn cartographic squiggles and symbols into viable approach routes.

"Green areas mean really dense, nasty terrain," explains Alexander.

To avoid trouble, he suggests they head due east into a relatively thin patch of woods. A control point is hidden somewhere in a "re-entrant," a mini-gully represented by V-shaped contour lines on his map.

Quantico Orienteering Club spends $5,000 to $10,000 a year producing and updating its maps, according to club president Greg Lennon. He says the maps are better than what the military uses.

"It's by far our biggest expense," he says. "Every stone is mapped. A tree that falls down is mapped."

Lennon doesn't mean literally every stone, but the detailing is impressive. Still, people occasionally do get "misplaced," the sanitized orienteering term for lost.

Range of difficulty

Orienteering was conceived as a method of teaching soldiers how to find and keep their bearings. The Swedes turned it into a sport in 1919. Today, they're the world's foremost competitors. Some Swedish orienteers read comic books while jogging through the woods, a way of training their eyes to scan a fine-print map on the run.

Not everybody takes things that seriously, especially in the United States, where orienteering remains a shadow sport. Races usually feature at least six courses geared toward different skill levels, each designed to be completed in about an hour.

"A number of people just do it for fitness reasons," says Lennon, noting some orienteers actually prefer to walk rather than run.

Sam Listwak, a 50-year-old National Institutes of Health researcher from Gaithersburg, claims it's a great stress reducer. "If you start thinking about something else," he says, "you're going to get lost."

Well, misplaced.

Another plus, notes Listwak, is the chance to become intimately acquainted with regional parks and wilderness areas.

Quantico Orienteering Club, which has about 300 members, holds two or three meets a month. There are occasional team relays and events like canoe orienteering, but head-to-head individual competition is most popular. It's so popular, in fact, that the annual national championships are open to all comers.

Greenbelt race

The race at Greenbelt National Park, just down the road from Goddard Space Flight Center, creates a slightly surreal tableau as orienteers orbit around one another. A pair of runners bound through the woods as sprightly as deer. A woman wrapped in headscarf and long black dress pauses to consult her pocket compass. A man paces back and forth, lost in the details of his map, seemingly wracked by indecision.

Meanwhile, the Alexander team finishes the first half of its beginner's course in just under an hour. Seven control points found, 1.45 kilometers of undulating ground covered, everyone present and accounted for. No punches thrown, either.

Six-year-old Scott Candey is enjoying his introduction to orienteering. "I'm a little tired," he admits, "but after some water I get rested up."

Dave Alexander says his troops moved at leisurely, nature-walk speed. "The really good people," he adds, "can keep one eye on a compass, run through the woods and count their steps."

Jon Torrance, 34, falls into that "really good" category. He started orienteering in high school in his native Canada, and placed 17th at the U.S. championships last year. Torrance logs the day's best time, completing the 8.5-kilometer advanced course in 61 minutes, 46 seconds. He's appropriately drained.

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