Although orienteering has been on my to-do list for a long while, it has been my entry to OMM Iceland (a huge, mountainous, self-navigated and self-supported event) this April that has forced my hand. For those who are unfamiliar, orienteering combines map reading, navigation and running/walking. It’s a concept that excites me. As much as I love regular running, the addition of extra challenges is always a bonus. I’m guessing that most other obstacle racers feel the same way.
A couple of weeks ago, after two minutes of Googling, I found myself on the events map on the British Orienteering website, which was rammed full of fixtures across the country every weekend. I was completely unaware of this bubbling UK orienteering scene! I figured the best way to approach things would be to jump straight in, so I’ve attended events over the last couple of weekends. My first port of call was a Hill End event in Oxford, which I just showed up to and registered on the day for the tiny sum of £6.
At registration, I was handed an A4 colour map and an electronic dibber (the equivalent of a handheld timing chip, that you present to the electronic check points). The map was similar to an Ordinate Survey map, in that it showed various terrain types, footpaths, roads and contour lines. However, it was far more detailed and on a different scale to anything I’d seen before – to the point that individual buildings, walls, ditches and fences were marked as features. The biggest difference, though, was the colour scheme. Woodland is marked as white, un-passable woodland as green and open land as yellow. This took a bit off getting used to. Particularly the white woodland, for which my instincts kept fooling me into assuming would be open land.
The start was marked on the map with a triangle and all of the checkpoints were marked with numbered circles (18 of them on my first event), which I would need to arrive at and dib in order. On first inspection, it all looked simple enough and there were a couple of lovely volunteers who gave me a very detailed introduction to how to orienteer. So I walked towards the start line with confidence... I’m such a douche.
Before dibbing-in to the start, I had one last look at the map and shot off towards where I thought the first check point was. My confidence was soon crushed when I ran to the exact position I had calculated and couldn’t find it. I spent a good five minutes pacing backwards and forwards in disbelief, still within sight of the start line (rather embarrassingly). Eventually I realised that I had confused footpath junctions – rookie mistake! I dibbed-in and shot off to my next poorly-estimated destination.
My confusion was echoed at the next five checkpoints and, having dressed for running rather than standing around scratching my head, I got very cold! Thankfully my map helped me to navigate back to the car park to grab some extra layers. Eventually I got in the swing of things and started to get a firmer grasp on, what was initially, a very confusing map. I still rarely manged to pick up a consistently good pace and finished off the (supposedly) 3km course in 1 hour 30 minutes. It certainly wasn’t my greatest athletic achievement but I still had an absolute blast. It really challenged me; far more than I expected.
Overall, the event had a completely different feel to anything I‘ve done before. There was no mass-congregation at the start line. People just showed up and started at a time that suited them – as long as it was within a two hour window. Then, with no set course, runners just started darting in all different directions, crossing over with each other, each on their own individual missions.
One thing I found quite strange is that people didn’t tend to communicate or even acknowledge each other when crossing paths on the course. I quite often tried to get some eye contact, smile or even nod at my fellow competitors, as I would at any other race, but everyone seemed very focused on their own mission. However, the vibe was completely different around the event village itself. People were extremely helpful and seemed to enjoy sharing tips and advice to newcomers and talking about the experiences of the day.
A real highlight of the experience was picking my own path. I rarely stuck to the footpaths and, instead, bounded straight through the middle of fields, pushed through bushes and jumped over anything that lay in my path. It was a completely different experience to the set-route events we're all used to.
I definitely need to take part in several more events before OMM Iceland in May but it something I’m really excited for - in a way, I’m gutted that I’ve only just discovered orienteering now. It’s such an easy thing to just show up to and do, if you’re at a loose end at the weekend.
Already I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it. Last weekend I had my second attempt at a Friston Central event in Eastbourne, armed with a new (and vastly improved) compass... with a week to digest I’ve realised that my poor performance at Oxford came down to my dodgy “tools”… ahem. I felt far more at ease, with some experience under my belt and actually managed to build up some sweat over a slightly more expanded course. This time I completed a 5km course in just under an hour – although, admittedly, I actually ran 7km. I felt on top of things most of the time though and only got properly lost once… or twice.
Anyway, I look forward to seeing y’all at an event soon – OCR, trail, orienteering or whatever else tickles the fancy of an adventurous Mudstaclite. Check out www.britishorienteering.org.uk for more info.