Sunday morning, Brent and I packed up the car and headed out of the city, dogs in tow.
The destination? Tyler State Park in Bucks County.
The reason? DVOA – the Delaware Valley Orienteering Organization – was holding an orienteering meet. Brent was planning on doing an advanced “red” course, and I was going to dip my toe into the world of map navigation for only the third time with an intermediate “orange” course.
Brent has been a member of DVOA for a few years now, and has been running through the woods for far longer than that. He likes it as a sport unto itself, and finds it an indispensable training companion to his first love (or second, if you count me, he maintains), Adventure Racing.
I, on the other hand, have been to three DVOA meets. The first was last fall, out in Lancaster. Brent handed me my map and compass, smiled, and yelled ‘have fun’ over his shoulder as he took off running with the fast guys. I contemplated divorce for the first third of the course. By the middle of the race, I’d begun to get a handle on what was going on and only sort of hated him. When I finished, I was so thankful to have made it out of the woods in one piece that I forgot about calling my lawyer.
My second orienteering adventure went far more smoothly. We decided to make a day of it, biking out to Valley Forge Park, spending a couple hours on the race course, and then biking home. It all went well, save for the 96 degrees and 100% humidity. It took us a couple days to recover and rehydrate.
I enjoyed the orienteering well enough, but what really prompted my return last weekend was the knowledge that in order to get better at adventure racing, I would have to find my comfort zone running around in the woods. On trails, I could hold my own, but as soon as my team ventured into the untamed wilderness, they’d open up meters and meters on me as I’d carefully claw my way through brambles and over downed logs.
So, with that in mind, I picked up my map at Tyler this past weekend and decided to make a go of it. The pressure was on, of course. Next weekend, I’ll be racing on an all-women’s team for the GOALS ARA fall sprint race, and one of my teammates decided to brush up on her orienteering skills as well. Sue and her husband Jon, along with their 13-month-old adventure-racing-in-training, Finn, came out for the day. Jon is one of the GOALS head honchos, and course director for the upcoming race. When Sue first started racing, he made sure to teach her the finer arts of navigation, hands on. The two of them covered several DVOA courses together, Jon checking out Sue’s decisions, teaching her the language of the map, and helping her to make the right route choices (consider this in the context of Brent and my near-demise in Lancaster last fall).
From the second I began the race, I knew I was in trouble. I could find the start point okay, but couldn’t – for the life of me – figure out how to get from there to CP 1, let alone CP2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, or 14.
Here is an orienteering map (coincidentally, from the park that’s hosting next weekend’s adventure race):
The object is to get to each checkpoint, in order. The red lines show you the route, as the crow flies. It’s your job to figure out the route, on the ground, along trails, creekbeds, and sometimes, charging through the thicket.
It took me ten minutes to get to the first point, and another twenty to get to the second. At that point, I thought I could see what I was doing. Fifteen minutes and a big loop later, though, I was back to doubting myself. I charged back up a dirt cliff. Take 2. At that point, I saw Sue run by with Finn in his jog stroller, and not-so-fleetingly contemplated abandoning ship and joining them for a run.
When we were in Italy last summer, Brent and I had dinner with a group of my law school professors who were teaching abroad. At one of their apartments, we came across a book on patron saints, and leafing through, we discovered that St. Nicholas is the Patron Saint of navigation. Then and there, Brent earned himself a new nickname and made an ever-lasting pledge to live up to it. On the race course, in the car, on a leisurely bike ride, he would command the compass proudly.
But back to the task at hand…
En route to checkpoint nine, Brent and I crossed paths. He was heading north-ish on his course; I was heading southwest on mine. “I suck!” I called out to him. “No you don’t,” he yelled back as he ran by me.
I made it through the final few checkpoints without incident and sprinted to the end with a time of 1:43, good enough for a middle-of-the-pack finish. Sue, who started her course an hour after me, finished in 1:03. She won decisively the role of Navigation Fairy (her words, not mine) for next week’s race. I had been ready to hang up my racing jersey at the prospect of having to do any lead navigating so I was relieved, to say the least.
As we were heading back to the car, Brent asked me how it went. “Well,” I told him, “if the object of this is for me to get more comfortable running around in the woods like a chicken with my head cut off, we might be making some progress. If the intention is to get better at navigating, we’re shit out of luck.”
He reminded me that the former was, in fact, the original goal, and I relaxed a little bit.
And then, with a smile, he said, “maybe you just don’t have the Santa Clause gene.”