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Navigating the Outdoors : Orienteering Finds a Way to Mix Map Reading, Cross-Country Runs


TRABUCO CANYON — Somewhere in the steel-wool hills of O'Neill Regional Park, competitors were already on the clock. Carrying maps and compasses, wearing running shoes or flexible hiking boots, swaddled in protective clothing and goggles against the prickly brush, they hurriedly searched the sun-baked landscape for checkpoints marked by orange and white nylon baggies. These people were not new to orienteering.

But first-timers gathered warily in the shade of a benevolent oak. These were runners bored with suburban sidewalks, or nature-lovers with walking sticks and sandals, maybe paramilitary wannabes wearing camouflage and combat boots, a couple of Boy Scout troops in T-shirts and baseball caps. They wanted some instruction. They had some questions.

How do you read a topographical map? Which way do you point the compass? What's the treatment for poison oak? Is this a rattlesnake habitat? Where's the bathroom? And what kind of a sport calls itself "orienteering," anyway?

"Orienteering does sound something like a tour of Southland sushi bars," conceded Gary Dolguin, 51, an orienteer for 28 years, as he provided the neophytes with an amazingly detailed half-hour crash course. "I think we ought to come up with a better term. The name doesn't lend itself to that much marketability."

So what else are you going to call a sport that combines reading maps with running cross-country? What kind of market is there for a competition spawned by the union of squinty cartographers and spindly distance runners?

"Oh, I think orienteering will someday come on as a big, big sport," said Tim Hallrud, 38, of Mission Viejo, the meet director of the O'Neill Park competition.

It's been 99 years since orienteering was born in Scandinavia as a military training exercise, first on cross-country skis and later adapted to foot. It is still best practiced and most popular in those countries--the 1997 World Championships are set for Aug. 10-16 in Grimstad, a town on the southern coast of Norway. But orienteering has spread to every inhabited continent and has applied for admission to the Olympics.

Orienteering came to the United States in the 1940s, and was officially organized in 1971 with the founding of the U.S. Orienteering Federation. Membership in the USOF is about 7,000 nationally and approximately 35,000 Americans orienteer on a regular basis.

"Of course, we don't want it to grow too big," Hallrud cautioned. "That would be destructive to the environment. Also, we don't want orienteering to become another of those sports dominated by huge egos and costs going crazy."

So far, so good.

Fewer than 100 people competed in April's orienteering meet at O'Neill Park, paying $4 for the privilege with no awards, refreshments or T-shirts. That is typical. Orange County orienteers are served by clubs from Los Angeles and San Diego, but the locations of the organizations aren't significant; competitors must travel to the wide open spaces for events anyway. Between the two clubs there is usually at least one orienteering meet--called an "O"--every month.

"Orienteering is a lot bigger in the northeastern United States," said Clare Durand, 34, a member of the U.S. national women's team, who took up the sport 12 years ago when she worked in New England as a professional cartographer. "There's something to be said about the personal atmosphere of these meets, but we're always trying to spread the gospel of orienteering.

"I like to tell kids--especially girls--that this is one of those sports that if you're 12 years old and want to be the national champion by the time you're 26, you have a good shot at it. Gymnastics, it ain't."

At an orienteering meet, competitors set out alone from the starting line, find the fastest route to a series of hidden checkpoints--called "controls"--by using only a map, a compass and their wits, then return to the finish line. They carry cards and at each control mark it with a paper punch to show that they reached each target. Depending on their ability, they may choose any of five routes--from easiest to hardest: white, yellow, orange, green and red--rated according to the length of the course, the difficulty of the terrain and the hiding place of the controls. The fastest time in each category wins.


The ambience is a throwback to the days before weekend distance-running races became corporate-sponsored, computer-timed, 10-K stampedes with $20 entry fees and product-sample goodie bags. Most of Hallrud's work was done during the weeks preceding the event, when he reviewed the maps for accuracy, selected courses from 1 1/2 to 5 miles, and positioned the controls.

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