Orienteering: A combination of marathon running, chess | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Orienteering: A combination of marathon running, chess

Susan Wood, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Defending U.S. orienteering champ Brian May stood near the start line Sunday as cool, calm and collected as one would want to be in an unknown wilderness.

The Duluth, Minn., man’s mission — to get from point A at Taylor Creek sno-park to point B at Camp Concord in the shortest time possible by following landmarks that serve as clues. We’re not talking about the corner drugstore.

Individual competitors strap the clue sheet to their wrist to be able to quickly check the next boulder, hilltop, tree or streambed.

Orienteering, which originated in Sweden at the turn of the last century as a military training exercise, represents a bit of a departure for May’s life in the physics classroom at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

“Traveling to these races is a nice way to see different areas,” said the competitor, who came in second in the men’s division.

Cross country skiing in the winter and running in the summer helped May familiarize himself with the activity that many directionally challenged people would avoid with a 10-foot pole.

May, like a lot of people who come out for the national championships every year, is a natural for orienteering. He started at age 10 and plans to continue into his elder years.

“It’s really a lifetime sport,” the 31-year-old said.

James Scarborough started competing at 8. He likes the mix of the athleticism of running through the woods over stumps and the intellect of using a map and compass to find his way.

“They say it’s like playing chess while running a marathon,” he said.

The Denver man’s father, Joe, put a map in his hands when he was 5.

In 1978, Joe Scarborough — a geographer by trade — was drawn to the sport in England where he met his wife, Sue. She’s also active in the hobby, which is popular in Europe and taught in physical education classes in Scandinavian countries.

With his wife’s help, Scarborough formed the Bay Area Orienteering Club — which hosted the event this year in the Lake Tahoe Basin. A Reno section of the chapter was recently formed.

The clubs have provided technical advice for adventure races, a sport that has gained popularity in recent years.

More than 350 people competed in the championships this year, with half belonging to the approximately 500-member Bay Area club. The group once used U. S. Geological Survey maps, but it has since created its own more detailed versions.

Competitors come from all over the nation and abroad, with one competitor hailing from Finland. The contestants were classified by age in seven competitive courses and four recreational routes. The competition is two days, with Friday having been a practice day.

“Do you have a whistle?” Ev Beuerman asked one anxious competitor while working the registration desk Sunday morning. Many people were intense on the final day, running around gathering their map, compass, clue sheet and electronic punch which confirms they made it to a checkpoint. Global positioning units are not allowed and would slow up a competitor because it takes too much time to plug in numbers.

Competitors — who are given staggered, designated start times — use finger sticks to check in to route stations. The routes range from 1.2 to 7.14 miles.

Like triathlons, this is a sport that requires traveling light and a skill at juggling logistics.

Competitor Janet Petersen started her morning taking her 3-year-old twins Katie and Sarah on a recreational route before her scheduled competition.

“Now you’ll come and pick them up later, right?” she asked her husband, Mark. He was bustling around preparing for his competition.

The couple, who live in Twain Harte north of Yosemite National Park, took part in their first competition in Marin County in 1989.

Many advocated the sport as a good way to be active with family members as well as meeting people.

“We met orienteering and look what happened,” Petersen said, pointing to her children.

Her hubby quipped: “It’s a good way to meet chicks.”

But don’t let their light-hearted nature fool you. These competitors are serious.

Throughout the morning, the whoops and crackling of movement in the trees could be heard over the breeze breaking the silence of the woods.

Karen Williams, who claimed the fastest time Saturday, modestly said she was leading the women in the competition because she made “the fewest amount of mistakes.” She completed five miles in 97 minutes.

“This sport is interesting because it’s never the same. And it’s not something you can perfect,” she said.

For this weekend’s competition, the altitude distinguished the event from others — even though it was staged at Spooner Lake four years ago.

Despite the higher elevation than her Kansas City home, Mary Jones sprinted to the finish line.

“Altitude plays a part, but it’s hard to know if it’s just that or that I’m a little out of shape,” she said, glancing around at the buff bodies surrounding her.

Although he’s also a flatlander, Mike Tyszka had an extra spring in his step crossing the finish line. At 37, he had a rough time negotiating the terrain for Saturday’s competition.

“Today’s map fitted the terrain better,” he said.

With a time of 1:04 in 5.6 kilometers, Tyszka figured the performance came close to the standard of 1 kilometer in 10 minutes.

He quickly thought of his father, who got him into the sport at age 10 in England.

“He got into it in his hippie days as an alternative sport,” he said. “The worst day of my life was when I beat him.”

Eric Bone of Seattle came in with the best time for the men’s division of the 2003 Silva U.S. Orienteering Championship, covering 13.67 miles over two days in 3 hours, 24 minutes. Erin Olafsen of New Hampshire took the women’s division with a time of 3 hours, 15 minutes for 9.94 miles.

— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at swood@tahoedailytribune.com

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