Ten months ago I attended my very first navigation clinic. This past weekend, I participated in the Canadian Orienteering Championships! Little secret here – you don’t need to qualify to participate! Regardless, I’ve gone from learning the absolute basics to competing in an event with doping control in a very short period of time!
This year’s Canadian Orienteering Championships were held in the Perth, Ontario area, and were hosted by Orienteering Ottawa. In fact, there were orienteering events from July 29 to August 7, from Montreal to Ottawa to Perth, as part of O-Fest 150. I was only able to participate in the middle and long distance races, held on Saturday August 5th and Sunday August 6th respectively. There was also a sprint distance race, a relay, a night race, and more!
The night before the middle distance race, I stayed with friends in the Ottawa area, and with all of them racing as well, we studied maps and map symbols, and I felt a little like I was cramming for an exam! How many more squiggly lines can I memorize and then recall under pressure while lost in the woods the next day?
For each race that I would be doing, I had to decide which course I would run when I registered a couple of months ago. Being relatively new to orienteering, I had no idea what “level” I was at, or which course I should choose. Each course had different controls printed on the same map, varying in difficulty. Did I want to race in my age category for awards, or in an open class where I could pick the level of difficulty likely better suited to my abilities? I consulted with a friend and with Meaghan from Don’t Get Lost, who also happens to have taught me most of my orienteering skills. They both suggested open 3, which was described as “intermediate difficulty and longer distance”. Compare this to open 1, which is entirely on trails (no off-trail bushwhacking/searching required).
The Canadian Orienteering Championships would also be my first time with a non-mass start (i.e. in this case, 3 athletes would start at a time, but they might all be running different courses, so you couldn’t just follow the person in front of you), and my first time using control descriptions in symbol format (I’m used to text descriptions like “re-entrant” or “valley”), and not little pictures (such as dots, triangles, and parallel lines). It would also be my first experience getting the map at the start line, with no ability to study it or plan a route beforehand.
Race Report: Middle Distance Race
We arrived at the Foley Mountain Conservation Area with plenty of time to park, catch a school bus to the “arena” (essentially “race central” – it was outdoors), get ourselves organized, chat with others (including other Don’t Get Lost athletes), and wait for our turn to start. I also had to sign a waiver and pick up my race packet and t-shirt. Everything was very well organized. I can only imagine the planning (and manpower!) required by Orienteering Canada and Orienteering Ottawa to host an event like this! My start times were listed on my race packet envelope, but also helpfully printed on my race bib. It was neat to be able to look at bibs and see which orienteering clubs people belonged to. There were competitors from across Canada, the US, England, Australia, Hungary, Hong Kong, Germany, France, Ukraine and more!
My friend Kristi was starting 12 minutes before me, and since she has competed in these events before, she taught me the ropes! I had read tips for first timers at the Canadian Orienteering Championships, but never did wrap my head around the clock running 3 minutes ahead until Kristi explained it and I saw it for myself!
The middle distance race (open 3 class) would be 2.4 km if you were to run as the crow flies from the start to the first control, then second, etc. until you reached the finish line. The controls had to be found in order. But I rarely run directly from point A to point B, so the distance I covered would be longer – the more lost I got, the more distance I would cover!
Not only were there athletes of varying skill levels, but also of varying ages! There were age categories from 10 to 85+! In fact I sat on the bus with a man name Alex who has been orienteering for 42 years!
We headed to the start line very early, so that I could see how everything worked. While standing watching the action, a woman said to me, “I love your blog!” She was new to orienteering and had just discovered it a couple of weeks ago. That was neat!
Essentially, the race start goes like this:
- 3 people have the same start time listed on their race bib. You may be running a different course than the athletes starting with you.
- You should arrive at least 10 minutes before your start time, to make sure you are not late! We had to walk 500m to the start.
- When you reach the small gathering of people near the start, “clear” and “check” your SportIdent card (SI card). The SI card is the electronic device you wear on your finger and place in each control as you find it so that the computer at the control registers you were there. Clearing and checking your SI card is to ensure all previous data is deleted (when the machine beeps, you know it worked). You can rent or buy SI cards.
- When the clock matches the time on your race bib (for me, 12:48), present yourself to the race volunteers. They will confirm your name and the number on your SI card. They might also confirm that you have a whistle. They won’t ask if you have a compass, but if you don’t, you’re in trouble! Wait where you are. NOTE: When the clock says 12:48, it’s actually running 3 minutes early, because it takes 3 minutes for you to pass through the steps to get to the actual start line and the beginning of your race. So if I looked at my watch, it would have said 12:45.
- One minute later – there is a 5 second beeping countdown, then a long beep on every minute (12:49 on the clock for me), move to the next “corral”, where you pick up the control descriptions for the course you are running. You need to know which course you are running. So for me, I took a little piece of paper from the “open 3” bag. At this point, you can look at it. Wait where you are.
- One minute later (12:50 on the clock for me), move to the next corral, where you pick up your race map. There will be bins on the ground, possibly odd numbered courses on the left, even on the right like this weekend. Maps are face down in the bins, so you can’t see them. You have to write your name on the back of your map (making sure you grab the map from the right bin). Then you show the map to a volunteer and say, “Map 3?” and the volunteer says, “Yes, map 3”. Wait where you are.
- Finally, one minute later (12:51 on the clock for me), your race begins. You are able to turn the map over and look at it for the first time.
The volunteers told us that the start flag (marked by a triangle on the map) was 25m up the trail. You couldn’t see it from the start line. I had been warned to start slowly, to walk, to make sure I knew where I was on the map, and to begin cautiously so as not to get lost (and flustered!) right off the bat. My goal was to find all the controls within the allotted time (2 hours), and to hopefully not finish last!
Despite starting cautiously, I had trouble finding control 1, and wondered what I was in for! Things got better, but it was harder than I anticipated. There were hardly any trails to use to navigate, and the running was very difficult on the super rocky ground!! I was bushwhacking through poison ivy, raspberry bushes, big logs, little twigs, and all kinds of trees. I got a soaker crossing a creek, and gave up even attempting to keep my feet dry. It was the first time that I was using an arm band to hold control descriptions, and I was forgetting to look at my arm. Instead, I was unfolding my map to see where the next control was (e.g. on top of a hill, or in a depression, beside a cliff, etc.). Thankfully, I remembered to look at the number on each control as I found it, to make sure it was the one I was looking for! For example, control 1 for me was actually marked 123, which my list of control descriptions told me. If you punch the wrong control by accident, or miss one, you get a “mis-punch” and don’t get an official finish. It was when I started looking for control 5 that I got completely turned around – and then, I was stung on my neck at my hairline by a yellow jacket or something equally painful. I tried swatting it away with my map but it was too late! I asked another athlete generally where we were, and got myself back on track. At some point, I caught up to Kristi and we worked together for a little bit. I crossed the finish line 1:40:56 after starting the race, having found all 11 controls. There were just 8 people in the open 3 class, and only 3 of us finished. I ended up with the shortest time, so I was in first place (and Kristi third). It’s a non-competitive class though, so no medals for us! It was fun, but challenging!
After crossing the finish line (and punching the control), you have to put your SI card into another reader to download your results. Then you get a paper printout showing the controls you found, the length of time it took to find each one, and the time elapsed since your race began. After the race, athletes compare maps, printouts, and stories!
Just past the finish line there was water, iced tea, bananas and oranges for athletes, and other food for purchase (BBQ and baked goods). We stayed for the awards, and then headed out. It was after my shower that I discovered I had made a friend – my first ever tick friend, attached to my ankle. It was tiny. Kristi got rid of it with her tick remover. I vowed to wear longer socks the next day (there had been a gap between my pants and socks).
Race Report: Long Distance Race
The next morning we returned for the long distance race. I knew I was in for a longer race, but wasn’t sure what the terrain would be like. I was hoping for more runnable terrain, no yellow jackets, and no ticks!
This time I would start before Kristi. In fact, my group of 3 was a Don’t Get Lost group, with the other 2 athletes (Starr and Christian – remember my Christian Pole Dancing?) also from Don’t Get Lost.
When it was time for me to turn over my map, I found the start triangle and started walking.
It took me longer to find the first control, but overall, I did better on the navigation in this race compared to the middle distance race. However, one control took me 26 minutes to find! I could not for the life of me match what I was seeing to the map I was holding! I backtracked and eventually it all made sense. On another control, I set my compass to south instead of north, and headed 5 minutes in the wrong direction! Thankfully I realized my error and went back to the last control, starting over to find the next one! At one point (going to control 8), I crossed a very swampy marsh, which soaked my feet and was challenging to cross! The plants were super tall, and I didn’t have much of a path to follow – there was a bit of one, but then it disappeared. That was slow going! I came upon a boy at one point who asked me where we were. He told me that he was “scared to death”. We spent a few minutes running together and ended up at a road that we weren’t expecting – and didn’t want. Not all the trails were on the map, so this confused us! We studied our maps and figured out where we were, backtracked, followed the map features, and eventually knew where we were when he found the control he was looking for. Later, I helped a woman by showing her where I thought I was. Unsurprisingly (given the terrain), I rolled my ankle at some point, but it was fine and I plodded on!
This time, it was Kristi who caught up to me – at control 10. Number 9 is the one I spent 26 minutes finding, so it’s no surprise she gained those 6 minutes back (she started 6 minutes behind me). From that point on the controls were pretty easy to find. I crossed the finish in 2:03:56, and knew that Kristi was right behind me. Turns out she beat me by 37 seconds!
The long distance race was definitely more runnable, and I was able to use trails quite a few times to find controls. I didn’t anger any yellow jackets, and didn’t make any tick friends! I enjoyed the race!
- The orienteering community is super welcoming. It was great to hear the different languages and accents of participants, and to talk to people from other countries who came here to compete.
- You don’t have to be an orienteering superstar to participate in – and enjoy – the Canadian Orienteering Championships. Case in point – me.
- If you’re super competitive, orienteering is a terrific sport to test both your mental and physical toughness.
- If you love to learn, you’ll enjoy orienteering. I continue to learn something new each time I race. I noticed this weekend that I was not holding my compass straight (it was level, just not straight), so that the direction of travel arrow was pointing slightly to the right. This meant that I would not end up where I intended to! The more distance I covered between controls, the further I would potentially be from my planned destination! Next time I’ll be paying close attention, until I am consistently holding it properly.
- You’re never too old to orienteer!
Orienteering Canada and Orienteering Ottawa, thanks for a great first experience at the Canadian Orienteering Championships. I’ll be back!!
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