Orienteering my way around orienteering

In 2013, I did my first trail race.

Last year, I tried another kind of race.


What is orienteering, you ask? I’m still trying to figure it out but this is the gist according to Orienteering USA: Orienteering is a race in wilderness navigation using a map and compass.

You run (or walk) around from check point to check point. You find these check points (which are a flag-type box) by navigating on your map (that the race provides). And each check point has a number so you obviously work your way in numerical order until you get to the end.

There was an urban race being hosted at my college alma mater campus so I figured it couldn’t be that difficult. I mean, I know where certain buildings and landmarks are so it’s not like I would get lost. Hopefully.

It was raining on the Saturday before Christmas, which is when the race took place. Everyone around me had obviously been orienteering before. Unlike me, this wasn’t their first rodeo. They had a plastic band around their wrist so they could have their paper map in full view without it getting wet. I had mine in my pocket and every time I took it out, it became more and more like mulch because it was raining so much.

Bryce was set to do the advanced course and I was going to tackle the intermediate one. (I know, I am a beginner but since we were racing on campus, I figured I could complete the intermediate course).

As soon as I started, I looked at my map and saw the check point #1. I ran to the area that I thought it was at but as soon as I saw the orange box, I thought, “What happens if I stick my e-punch into the check point but it is the wrong check point? Will it beep at me? Will I be disqualified?” (By the way, the e-punch is a little device participants carry around and stick into each check point so that the race can electronically keep track of your time and whether or not you go to the correct check points).

Sorry for the blurry photo — my hands were freezing! — but the above is what the e-punch looks like.

Because there were more than four different orienteering races going on at once (varying from beginner to advanced to even elementary and high school student courses,) the number 1 check point for one race wouldn’t necessarily be the number 1 check point for another. This is why each physical box was assigned a box number. I didn’t realize this until I sheepishly stood by what I thought was my first check point for several minutes.

In this moment, I was kind of in a slight panic. I thought I wouldn’t be able to complete the race at all. I don’t know what I’m doing here! I’m a marathoner, not a navigator! As a small child ran by me in the pouring rain, waving her map around, I pulled myself together. If she can do it, well, I guess I can do it, too! It can’t be that hard!

I turned my map over to discover the key that told me what box number each of my check points were associated with. I felt much better and my heart rate returned to normal. One by one I checked off each check point, scrambling around my old college stomping grounds.

Once I got through the first two or three check points, I was in a rhythm. It was starting to be fun!


I never had to use my compass because I was never so disoriented that I didn’t know what direction was north. (All the directions for the check points would give a clue like, “east of a lone tree” or “north of stairway.”) And note while the map looks normal and detailed, there are no street or building names on it.

I’m proud to say that I completed my very first orienteering race that day.

It may have been cold. I may have felt like giving up for a second at the start. But, I really had no expectations going into it. I just wanted to try something new.

When I saw that I finished 5th out of 22 participants for the intermediate course — with five of those being groups! — I was pretty impressed with myself. It took me 38:08 minutes, which was about 10 minutes behind the leader. The race was a 3.2-km race, which means that if you ran to the check points in straight lines, it would be 3.2 kilometers.

I lost a lot of time at the beginning when I was figuring out the first check point, but towards the end, I went from one check point to another in the same amount of time it took the first place racer!


I definitely had fun — the above is my “I’m-done-and-it’s-pouring-rain-and-it’s-five-days-until-Christmas!”-face. But, I know that if I were to do an orienteering race in the actual wilderness, it would be harder than this urban one. I would probably have to talk Bryce into being in a group with me if I were ever to do a wilderness orienteering race so I wouldn’t get lost in a forest or something like that.

If you are a runner looking to try something different or are in the off-season from training for a race, I’d recommend giving orienteering a try. Or, even if you’re not a runner but enjoy the outdoors, this could be a fun activity for you!

I can’t say I’ll be doing many more of these any time soon since I’m beginning Eugene Marathon training, but if I do, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Happy orienteering / running / not-getting-lost this year!


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