The blood is pounding in my ears, my thighs prickle with nettle stings. I’m not seeing entirely straight either – the intricate footpath network printed over a mosaic of colour-coded vegetation zones on my map is swimming slightly before my eyes. It would help if I could hold the waterproof paper still, but I’m on the move, stumbling over tussocks and brushing past yet more stingers.
Amazingly, I’ve covered less than three kilometres –if this were a normal run on familiar territory I’d be in considerably better shape after a steady 10k. But this isn’t just running, it’s orienteering. Three kilometres in this case is an-as-the-crow-flies measurement that would require me to soar over fences, trees and bramble patches, straight as an arrow. As it is, I have to rely on map skills to find the fastest route from point to point. And fastest isn’t always shortest – a direct line up a steep hill or over rough terrain may take much longer than a dash along a few even paths. All the information I need is on the map but taking it all in while the clock ticks is a head-spinning. My brain is racing as well as my body.
The sport of orienteering began as a military training exercise, honing navigational skills under time pressure. Competitors navigate between controls using a special map. In the modern event you usually check in to each control using an electronic chip that records your time. The sport encompasses (no pun intended) a range of variants from standard foot orienteering to courses completed by mountain bike, canoe, by car or on skis. For the less mobile, or those just wanting a technical challenge there is trail orienteering or Trail-O – which takes place on a very short course where the time and route choice elements of the challenge are removed, leaving the emphasis purely on precision. Events take place everywhere from local parks and commons, to remote uplands and bustling town centres.
Just as there is no typical orienteering terrain, there is no typical orienteer. While I’m out tussling with the brambles, my two-year-old son is toddling round a one-kilometre course with his daddy, running from control to control as fast as his legs will carry him, exclaiming in glee as he spots each marker kite and scrambling to check in with the dibber strapped firmly to his finger, listening for the electronic beep. Later we’ll swap babysitting duty, and my husband can run the same course as me. Also competing are grandparents, students, club elites and casual first-timers and even national squad members.
I’ve not been a member of Eborienteers – the orienteering club covering York and Ryedale – long, but it’s one of several thriving Yorkshire orienteering clubs, and boasts a number of top competitors. Among them Irish international, Aislinn Kendall. Aislinn and her older sister started orienteering while staying with family friends at the age of nine when her aid-worker parents were overseas.
“By the time my parents got back, we were hooked. We started competing every weekend, got selected for the local squad, then the Irish squad. We went on trips and training camps and started coming to England to compete when I was 14. It was so exciting and such a novelty – we felt so grown up. The standard in England was higher so I got used to coming here to compete in tougher races against the British team. And that’s why I moved to the UK in 2001.”
Eborienteers seems to have more than its share of elites, like GB squad member Matthew Speake – currently living and training in Norway, where, says Aislinn, orienteering is a mainstream sport. “It’s like football here – massively popular – and anyone seriously interested in orienteering usually goes to train there at some point.”
The family tradition of orienteering is emphasised by veteran Eborienteer Steve Whitehead. Three generations of Steve’s family currently enjoy the sport. His daughter Jenny Johnson (now of Sheffield’s South Yorkshire Orienteers) excelled at both junior and senior international level, and has won several British Championships and represents the kind of talent the club likes to nurture.
There’s no lower age limit and at bigger events toddlers are encouraged to have a go on so-called string courses.
Steve explains: “There’s a roll of string about 500-600 metres long, which we unroll through the woods for the kids to follow. Sometimes there are toys or dens on the course and often there is a theme. My daughter Rosie built a fantastic one based on Thomas the tank engine.”
Slightly older children start to use a map, and at the age of eight or nine are able to compete solo on a standard course. “That can be a bit nerve wracking for the parents,” says Steve, “but they kids are fine about it – they know what they’re doing and it really gives them a sense of independence.”
So what makes a good orienteer? “It’s half about running and half about using your brain,” says Aislinn. “Even someone who’s not that fit can beat others who run a lot faster. Some people are definitely better at understanding the map, while others who orienteer for 20 years still struggle, though practice makes a big difference.
“For a big event like the World Championships preparation takes a year – you clear your diary and then really it’s just a massive amount of time out running on a map. We moved here (Malton) for the moors, which are brilliantly subtle terrain. Before a big competition the event area is embargoed for up to two years, so we try to train on similar types of terrain elsewhere so that even though you’ve never seen the map before you’ll know what techniques to use.”
There must be temptations to go and take a peek, surely? “I guess you could, but even at international level I think it’s a very honest sport. There’s no money in it, so why would anyone cheat?”
At all levels, there is something refreshingly low key about this sport. Taking part is inexpensive. You need no special kit to start out, just a pair of basic trainers. As you progress you’ll want to use a compass and maybe invest in your own electronic dibber – but for novices these are available to hire on the day. Your event entry fee (typically about £4) covers all the logistics of setting up the course and a specially printed waterproof map usually, showing the area in extraordinary detail.
“It starts with the Ordnance Survey, but a lot of detail has to be added,” says Steve, whose name has appeared on several of the maps I’ve used. “We used to use specialist aerial photos but these days we use Google Earth and other online resources. Then we go out and check the area for real. Mapping is like painting the Forth Bridge used to be – it’s amazing how much things change on a short time, even in urban areas. Buildings go up, trees fall over. In summer and winter the vegetation is very different – so an area mapped as runnable in winter might be totally impassable with bracken in summer. You have to go back and check the course for every event.”
Thanks to Steve and his fellow mappers, I eventually find my way out of the labyrinth of woodland trails and force my weary legs into a higher gear for a sprint to the finish. After a rollercoaster of a run I’m giddy with the effort of squelching through ditches and darting along tiny winding paths. I check the last control and manage not to collapse on the spot. Not for the first time, I have the feeling my mini-adventure must have taken part in a parallel universe. Back in the real world, picnic rugs are spread on the grass and my watch says just 27 minutes have elapsed.
If you’re feeling inspired, why not have a go? Eborienteers cover York, Malton, Ryedale, Scarborough, Selby and South Hambleton. Guest entries are welcome all events. www.eborienteers.org.uk or you can email [email protected]
Or check out these other Yorkshire clubs.
Claro, covering Harrogate Ripon and the eastern Dales hwww.claro-orienteering.org
Airienteers Leeds, Bradford & Craven www.aire.org.uk/
South Yorkshire Orienteers covering Sheffield, Doncaster, Rotherham and Barnsley www.southyorkshireorienteers.org.uk/
Cleveland Orienteering Klub www.clok.org.uk/
Humberside and Lincolnshire Orienteers; covering East Yorkshire www.halo-orienteering.org.uk/
East Pennine Orienteering Club for Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield http://www.eastpennineoc.org.uk/