After 10 minutes of thrashing through the pucker brush around a small granite outcrop, I've suddenly spotted the well-hidden Control No. 7. This orange and white nylon box, about the size of a 12-pack, is the seventh checkpoint on my course at a local orienteering meet.
I dash over to the control and find the hole-punch that's dangling from a short string. Marking my scorecard with this unique punch will prove I've been to No. 7. Then I check my map for Control No. 8, about a quarter-mile to the south. Suddenly another racer comes crashing through the brush. I scurry off into the woods.
Unfortunately, I've forgotten to check my compass, and after about a hundred yards I realize the sun is at my back. Wasn't I supposed to be heading south? In my haste to shake my competitor, I've made a rookie error and run 180 degrees in the wrong direction.
Welcome to the confounding and addictive sport of orienteering, a blend of cross-country running and navigation, with brains and woods sense counting more than brawn. Course setters hide a series of controls--those orange and white boxes--and competitors race to find them, in order, using an extremely detailed map showing each of the controls' locations.
At most meets, several different courses will be color-coded by length and difficulty, allowing everyone from newbies to experts (many with Scandinavian surnames) to compete. The easiest white and yellow courses stick close to roads and trails, while the difficult red and blue courses force racers to navigate over, through or around swamps, cliffs, impenetrable brush and other obstacles.
At local orienteering meets, the courses range from about 1.5 to 8 kilometers (1 to 5 miles), but that's as the crow flies. Only the best orienteers hew to the correct line, and most runners can expect to add at least 25 percent to the official distance. Plus, the ground you're covering isn't exactly a cinder track. I've been orienteering off and on for more than two decades, and a mid-length course of around 4 miles still takes me one to two hours to complete, depending on how lost I get. That's right: I may be running 30-minute miles.