Orienteering a sport, treasure hunt for all ages

CROSS RIVER — There isn’t much that can be considered “aged” about Ruth Leggett, who is fast approaching 90.

Especially considering that she is a devoted orienteer.

“She used her poles to beat the rattlesnakes,” her son-in-law Dan Billman, 60, said, referring to Leggett’s hiking poles and an unwelcome encounter while racing in Arizona.

Leggett shook his head and quickly corrected the story: “I backed off the track and said, ‘Go ahead,'” the West Hartford, Connecticut, resident said.

Leggett skipped the recent two-day American Classic Championships at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, instead cheering on Billman and his three race girls. But she was planning to be in the woods next weekend.

She’s not uncommon in a sport that appeals to all ages and combines physical exertion with map-reading skill. Competitors study topographic maps to scour forests and other areas in search of designated checkpoints or checkpoints, often partially hidden, in timed challenges against others.

Among the other 337 people competing were a team of 29 cadets from West Point and Ed Hicks, 81, from Somers.

Boris Granovskiy, 36, of Washington, DC examines the map in the woods of Ward Pound Ridge Reservation on Saturday.  Photo from September 16, 2016.

At the other end of the spectrum was 8-year-old Nicole Aleksieva of Charlottsville, Va. (she was followed, but not helped by her mother, Petya). She and her sister, Diana, 16, won their age categories. Their father, Videlin Aleksiev, won silver in his division. “Girls are definitely better than me.”

And they plan to continue to compete and improve.

“It’s fun and I like it where I get a medal,” said Nicole. “It makes me more proud. It keeps me going again and again and I don’t give up – ever.

Tim Dobretsov, 15, whose parents are from orienteering-rich Russia and who has been orienteering ‘ever since I could walk’, tries to keep a pin even though he can’t quickly locate control. Dobretsov is a member of the Rochester Orienteering Club.

“I don’t let frustration get in the way of me,” Dobretsov said. “I just refocus, regroup and fight and keep going.”

Eight-year-old Nicole Aleksieva of Virginia won her division at the United States Classic Championships.  Retake Ridge Orienteering Competition at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation.  Nicole found checkpoints on routes 2.6 miles long as the crow flies.

The Aleksievas, Dobretsovs and other Ward Pound Ridge runners carried compasses and most wore shoes with built-in spikes. All received the topographical map of their route just before departure. The maps showed trails (although most courses incorporated few trails) and other notable features, like streams, roads, large rocks, and, of course, the orange and white electronic checkpoints that every runner had to reach.

Beginners to pros started and finished at the same spots but, depending on age, gender and skill, were given different controls to find courses of different lengths, although all competitors were allowed through to more difficult divisions if they wished.

The most common complaint? Ego-bruises, time engulfing misinterpreted cards.

Evan Custer, 76, of Oakland, Calif., runs a 3.6-mile brown course Saturday at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation.  Photo from September 16, 2016

But most participants rise to the challenge.

“I was hooked the first time I did it. I realized I needed more fun in my life after raising my kids,” said Leggett’s daughter Jane, who lives in Washington, DC “(orienteering is) like an adult scavenger hunt,” she explained.

But there are so many thoughts, “you don’t realize you’re doing physical activity,” said Hicks, who adds that there’s a kind of excitement about orienteering. “It’s a feeling of accomplishment, whatever your level.”

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“Just running bores me,” said Hicks, who started orienteering in 1974 when he attended a physical education conference while teaching at Blue Mountain Middle School in Cortlandt.

This year, Hicks has experienced multiple health issues, but that didn’t stop him from competing both days at Ward Pound Ridge, or holding a one-day orientation workshop two days later at Muscoot Farm. Park at Somers.

While the five-day O’Ring orienteering race in Sweden attracts around 20,000 competitors and a crowd of fans each year, orienteering is a relatively small sport in the United States.

Still, the local competition drew nearly 300 Americans in addition to runners from eight other countries. .

After Saturday's races, Wyatt Riley (l of Wayne, Pa. discusses his race with professional orienteer Thierry Gueorgiou (c). Gueorgiou, who is ranked third in the world among male orienteers, won the men's premier division at Ward Pound Ridge.

Included was Thierry Gueorgiou, 37, a professional orienteer from France who has competed in 45 countries and is the third man in the world. Unsurprisingly, he won his races on both days to win his division title.

“I love discovering new places,” he said, describing Ward Pound Ridge as having a “fantastic forest”.

While Scandinavia and Europe are hotbeds of orienteering, few athletes even there make a living from the sport. Gueorgiou, who now lives in Sweden, described orienteering as 90% a family sport.

This was evident at Ward Pound Ridge, where many husbands and wives, children and siblings competed. Allison Brown of Washington, DC, who won the women’s 5.4-mile green division, even raced both days with Barnacle Beagleson, her pet beagle.

Their runs almost over, Barnacle Beagleson and his owner, Allison Brown of Washington, DC, seemed to be smiling on Sunday.  Photo from Sep 17, 2016.j

“It’s a great sport. I explain it’s like running a marathon and doing your income tax (at the same time),” said Sara Mae Berman, 80, a competitor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who can proudly wear the title “Woman Sports Pioneer” as the best women’s final of three Boston Marathons before women, deemed too frail at the time, were officially allowed to participate in the race.

Indeed, orienteering seems to be even more analytical than physical, although even beginners had to be able to walk, run more than 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) each day. The elite course stretched over 13 kilometers (8 miles) on the first day. And those were distances as the crow flies, not how those who read a map and avoid areas of thick undergrowth could realistically travel.

Larry, the 81-year-old husband of Ed Hicks and Berman, laughed that he has a long future in the sport, noting that in Sweden there are age categories over 90 and over 95 years in orienteering.

Despite their 60-year age difference, Hans Sitarz and they view orienteering in the same way.

The Alabama native and U.S. Military Academy senior was captain of the West Point team at Ward Pound Ridge.

He was on his high school’s state-champion cross-country team, but started orienteering at West Point, where land navigation is part of the curriculum.

“I didn’t just want to run for four years. I wanted an adventure and I wanted to do something mentally challenging,” Sitarz explained.

He added that his running ability only takes him so far. “I can’t just rely on strength because a more mentally focused person will beat me,” he said.

In fact, average to slow road runners can still be successful in orienteering once they master navigation, said Sharon Crawford, 72, 42-year-old orienteer and runner, of Frisco, Colorado.

“Mid-pack or back, once they learn they can beat those pesky road racers who can’t navigate,” Crawford remarked.

Part of the 3.9km Orange Course Day 2 map at the Orienteering Championships at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation.  Photo from September 17, 2016.jpg

Map reading, of course, does not come naturally to everyone.

While her 73-year-old husband, George, grew up in the back seat of his family’s car, studying road maps during family vacations, Australian-born Lyn Walker, 76, first had trouble trouble tossing heads or tails with orientation cards. .

“I’m a city girl,” the Simsbury, Connecticut resident said with a smile. “It took me forever. I used to ask for directions.

Sharon Crawford, 72, of Frisco, Colorado counts orienteering among her many sports.  She explains the importance of reading maps, saying that a good navigator can beat someone who is much more celestial but can't navigate as well.  Photo from September 17, 2016.

George Walker emerged from the woods with a scraped and bloody arm but was more focused on a check that had slipped away.

“I went out too hard. I went brain dead,” he said. “I jumped on the eighth and hit the wrong control and that was it – a miss.”

But he was hardly defeated.

“That’s why you come back next time,” Walker said. “There is still a challenge, even after 20 years – crazy.”

Twitter: @HaggertyNancy

Dino J. Dotson