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You Can Substitute Smarts For Speed

Published Sept. 15, 1997, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Experts describe orienteering as running for the thinking person, a cross-country run with an attitude, and a modern version of the tortoise and the hare. Map and compass in hand, competitors navigate to a sequence of controls as fast as possible. In most cases, map-reading skills and interpreting the terrain win over raw speed.

Legend has it that orienteering started when the entire field at a scholastic cross country meet became lost in the woods. To prevent another mishap, the coach equipped his runners with maps and compasses. Gradually, the need for trails disappeared, and cross-country meets were contested over hills and valleys, through woods and swamps.

History credits Major Ernst Killander, a Swedish Youth and Scout leader, with the invention of orienteering in 1918. To increase participation in track and field, Killander made running more attractive by setting courses in the woods, and issuing maps and compasses to the runners. His idea proved successful, and orienteering became the national pastime in Sweden. In 1942, the Swedish government added orienteering to the curriculum as a compulsory subject, and set up a high school test in orienteering proficiency.

Orienteering spread from Sweden across Scandinavia into Europe and the rest of the world. In 1961, the International Orienteering Federation was established as the sports governing body. Locally, Central New York Orienteering CNYO, and nationally, the United States Orienteering Federation USOF, promote the sport and organize events.

Next weekend, CNYO will host SOC HOP X, a nationally sanctioned orienteering meet, at Highland Forest. Over 200 runners from several countries and many states are expected to compete. The full spectrum of courses will be offered both Saturday and Sunday, including short (2-3 km), medium (5-8 km) and long courses (10-12km), in both the recreational and competitive divisions. Recreational runners do not need to pre-register, and they can start at their leisure.

When you arrive at Highland Forest, you receive a detailed color map of the woodland area. The map shows streams, gullies, trails, big rocks and notable fallen trees. The elevation contour lines allow you to spot the hills with their various twists, turns and slopes. The meet organizers put orange and white flags in the woods, and mark the location of these controls on every map. Your assignment is to go to a sequence of controls in order, as quickly as you can.

With the help of a compass, you navigate between controls. Speed is important, but not as important as in a road race. You can substitute smart navigation for speed. The best orienteers do just that. They cover 1Km in about 7 minutes. The middle of the packers average 15 minutes/Km. As you trot through the woods at this pace, you must pay attention to where you are, and where you are headed.

Despite the accuracy of the map, it is easy to get lost. To avoid confusion, smart orienteers use three main methods. First, they watch carefully as the terrain flows by, noting trails, gullies, and everything else that matches the terrain to the map. Second, they use a compass to avoid gross errors in direction. Third, they count their paces and translate the count to distance on the map. Sixty paces equal 150 meters on the ground or 1 centimeter on the map.

As you try to keep track of your location, you must continue running through the woods, over fallen trees, up and down steep hillsides, across gullies and streams, with the gravel skidding out from under your feet. Irresistible fun!

Orienteering offers an easy adjustment of the event to different skill levels. Besides the map and compass, a string guides the youngest orienteers from flag to flag. At the next skill level, the control flags are located on trails or at easily found stream junctions and pond banks. For the advanced orienteers, the courses are designed so that the runners spend more time in the woods than on the trails.

If you are tempted to give orienteering a try, next weekend is the time and Highland Forest is the place.

Kamal Jabbour runs often in Highland Forest. Next weekend, he will watch his steady mentor hop around in black socks and a 1957 convertible Nike Waffle Racer. Is that why the meet is called SOC HOP X?

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