Hamilton’s Emma Waddington is finding her calling in a unique sport, orienteering

If you compete in his sport, you’re guaranteed to have at least one story about being hopelessly lost in the woods. Or 10. His came five or six years ago.

A frantic search for a checkpoint that day went completely wrong. Everything she did to find him made her walk past the same trees over and over again for 45 endless minutes. When she finally found it, she was so relieved that she set off in search of the next waypoint at a brisk pace.

Only to get terribly lost again.

“I was there for so long,” laughs Emma Waddington.

You don’t become one of Canada’s top career counselors without a few hiccups along the way. Or without a unique launch pad in the unusual sport.

Waddington’s father – Mike is a professor of hydrology at McMaster – has been one of the top runners in North America for years. His parents brought him into the game after living in Norway for a while. Naturally, he would pass this interest on to his child. Or try.

So she’d been dragged to a few races as a girl but never really found much to like. Until dad took the family to Sweden for a three-month sabbatical when she was eight and found a kids’ club. It’s a big deal there and it only made sense for her to get involved. Frankly, she liked it.

Yet when they returned home, he was cast aside again. No one here has. Certainly none of his friends. The best she can say is that there is no one her age.

By his own admission, the sport is not really well known. Some people have told him that they vaguely remember doing something that looked like an orienteering race in Boy Scouts. The others have absolutely no idea what she is talking about. When she explains, the light comes on.

“Oh, they often say, ‘it’s like a treasure hunt.’

She almost growls at that response, which for a serious orienteer is up there with “your mother wears wigs with chinstraps” as an insult.

“Not really,” she said.

In the simplest possible terms, this is a cross-country run on a course with no markers to guide you. You have a map and a compass and figure out how to get from A to B on your own with these checkpoints along the way. The first to the finish line wins.

This requires not only great physical fitness, but also a keen sense of direction and an ability to solve problems on the fly. Not to mention a high pain tolerance. Not just for the lactic acid that builds up as you run, but for the inevitable falls, rolled ankles, and nasty collisions with tree branches and logs that result from running with your eyes up to find those checkpoints rather than on the way.

“I’m definitely not going to be a leg model,” laughs Waddington.

But back to its roots. She was pretty much done until she discovered the local series Don’t Get Lost Adventure Running. It was orienteering with a cooler name. There were other children involved. Suddenly she was interested again. From there, it was a rapid progression.

Today, the 20-year-old Mac kinesiology student has an impressive resume that’s growing week by week. Earlier this summer, while racing for the Junior National Team, she finished sixth in the Junior World Championship in Hungary. Shortly after, she finished eighth at the World University Championship in Finland. In the relay, she actually finished her run in fifth position.

Next week, the Westdale High School graduate will travel to the Yukon for the North American Championships. With a healthy body and a few tricks up his sleeve that will keep him from getting lost again.

First, when she’s unsure of where she is, the secret is to head for higher ground so she can figure out the terrain. It helps, she says. Second, and most important? When you get lost, admit it and retrace your steps until you know where to go.

It’s advice that’s not only good for her. His grandparents also follow him.

Yes, they are 76 now but they still do orienteering. In fact, they still run the occasional 24-hour race.

“My grandfather wants me to do one with him,” she says.

This is remarkable. The fact that they keep doing it and the offer to join him. So will she?

Emma thinks about it for a few moments and laughs.

“I do not know.”

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Spectator columnist Scott Radley hosts The Scott Radley Show weeknights from 6-8 on 900CHML

Dino J. Dotson