Orienteering: the sport of hiking

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The energy in the forest is palpable as US competitor Greg Ahlswede heads for the start line. Around him, professional sailors from all over the world prepare their bodies and minds for battle. Like everyone here, Ahlswede has no idea which direction he’s about to run, but he plans to do so very, very quick.

It’s July 4, the fifth day of the 2017 World Orienteering Championships, the biggest and baddest series of navigational racing competitions. Against Ahlswede there is a slew of professional hikers and backpackers with a keen sense of direction and speed. It’s a sport for the map lover, the trail lover, the endurance runner. For Ahlswede, this sport is everything.

This year the race brings competitors to Tartu, Estonia, an exceptionally hilly and low forest covered in moss and dense in vegetation. Due to its complex terrain and low visibility, the Estonian forest offers what orienteers call “very poor running ability”.

Orienteering, the activity of navigating at speed over unfamiliar terrain with just a map and compass, may seem like a new trend in the United States, comparable to mud racing and obstacle course racing. But in Europe, the century-old, Olympic-recognized sport is serious business, with origins in Sweden as a military training exercise.

Although growing in popularity, orienteering in the United States has taken much longer to gain followers. Until the 1960s, it was generally thought of as just a boy scout game or a training activity for backpackers. America’s lack of success has been mostly attributed to our very short history with the sport. But as the 2016 North American Long Distance and Classic Champion, as well as the 2016 American Orienteer of the Year, Ahlswede is one of America’s top contenders. Today is long distance race day. Although he’s been at other events for days now, this one is really what he’s here for.

In a few moments, a volunteer will hand Ahlswede a topographical map and a compass, which he will see for the first time. Its objective will be to use both tools to navigate from point A to point B on the map, zigzagging through each marked checkpoint in chronological order along the way. Because start times are staggered to allow each race hall to go its own way, Ahlswede will race against himself, having no idea where he ranks until all is said and done.

As soon as the card makes contact with his hand, Ahlswede flies off into the distant forest, alone, sprinting dead. He likes to compare fast orienteering to the art of getting lost. “You are always, on some level, lost,” he says. When you think you messed up, you just”[s]top running. Look around you. Look behind you. Reconnect with the map and relate your surroundings to what the map is telling you…then you start running again.

It’s a mental game as well as a physical one. During training, Ahlswede almost always has a card in her hand. “We do something called overspeed training, which basically means you’re moving faster than your running pace. The goal is to train your mind to read the landscape as fast as your body can run. Imagine trying to process everything around you while driving a car down the highway.

Over the next 2 hours and 27 minutes, Ahlswede will face swamps, mosquitoes, grueling climbs, slippery descents, massive valleys and uncertain terrain. Because there is no set route or track for navigation races, the term “long distance” is somewhat ambiguous. In a straight line, the World Championships long distance map covers a distance of approximately 17 kilometres. By the time he crosses the finish line, Ahlswede will have run over 22 kilometres, roughly the distance of a half marathon.

“It may not seem like a lot, 22 kilometers in 2h30, but this course was dense!” he says. “Really complex.” When asked about his favorite running ground, Ahlswede always mentions the dense stuff. “The more complex, the better.”

And at the 2017 long distance world championships, his preferences paid off. Ahlswede placed 47th in the race, the best American finish since 1989.

After a day of rest, Ahlswede will then tackle the middle distance relay with his American compatriots, one of the only races with a mass start. On “go,” a rush of world-class navigators takes off at a dead sprint, with a map and compass in hand. “Everyone runs 4:50 minutes/mile through this thick forest.” He says.

“It’s crazy. It’s amazing…I love it.

To be involved:

Greg Ahlswede is a world-class athlete and American orienteering coach whose goal is to create a national training center for America’s elite orienteers. He fell in love with the sport when he was 8 years old, after his father took him and his brother to a local race in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Orienteering clubs are located all over America and provide training, support, and information for people of all ages and skill levels. For those interested in boat racing, Ahlswede recommends visiting the Orienteering USA website, where you can find your own local club and get involved.

Want to hone your navigation skills? Check out BACKPACKER’s Backcountry Navigation Course.

Dino J. Dotson