Orienteering and Doing It Somewhere You Might Not Expect

Last week on June 14 my husband and I participated in an orienteering event. I’m going to tell you all about it. But first, I’ll talk a little about the sport of orienteering.

Basically, orienteering is following a course from point to point using a map and a compass. You progress through the points in order and check in with an electronic device at the marker at each location. It’s a competition, with the fastest person winning, but winning is also relative.

For one thing, at events, there are different courses set up over the same ground with varying difficulty levels. So there’s a “fastest person” in several categories. And then there is the idea of the personal challenge – getting around the course at all (my goal), figuring out how to manage obstacles, completing the course in the most efficient manner…all these things are achievements. Last, the pleasure of being outside, in the woods or meadows, and the fun of climbing or scrambling around or running on trails…that’s maybe the best part of all.

We belong to the Delaware Valley Orienteering Association and we are rank amateurs, having started last year and done maybe ten events. But we really enjoy it and I can’t say enough about how friendly, helpful, and encouraging the group has been to us.

Anyway, I participated in the orienteering event in the recent Senior Games. And I’ll take this moment for an aside: my photo appeared on the cover of the 2017 brochure from my 2016 performance – I am in the upper left corner wearing the pink sweatshirt.

Anyway, while there, I learned about a Wednesday night series the DVOA was doing this summer. The idea was to go to a different location each week, offer two courses at beginner levels, and shoot for an event lasting about 2 hours at most. It sounded like a great way for me to improve my skills. My husband’s participation is dependent on the course; he is still recovering from his fall and rough terrain is not good for him.

A couple of weeks ago, we did the event at the Schuylkill Nature Center – two courses in a traditional wooded trail setting. I did both courses and my husband cheered me on. But then – we realized there was one coming up we both could do. And it was something unusual for the club as well – the location was the grounds of the Norristown State Hospital.

One of the buildings still in use. The grounds are open and green with trees and lawns and plenty of space.

This facility is a mental hospital, founded about 140 years ago, a large campus located about 30 minutes from our house. The Norristown Farm Park, immediately adjacent to it, and where I did orienteering in the Senior Games, is now a county park. It was originally the farm attached to the hospital, where patients worked in fields, a fish hatchery, and with livestock, as was common practice in the past.

The hospital now is almost entirely closed down. There are still some patients who live there; some of it is used for day programs; and there is a heavily guarded forensic section (we did not go near this part of the facility). The remaining residential patients are transitioning out. Most buildings on the campus are closed and some are being torn down.

 

 

All this means for our orienteering experience is that acres of landscaped grounds with an array of buildings are there, waiting for the challenge. And, since it is a “tame” landscape, nicely mowed, my husband could participate.

OK. We arrived at about 6 PM and got ourselves set up. I planned to do course #2 first and he took course #1. We clicked the start and got our maps.

 

 

The control points are numbered and straight lines connect them (not that you should follow those lines, indeed. It’s harder than that). There is also a key to the locations’ exact positions once you arrive in the general area – I use the one written out rather than the one done in symbols.

 

You are looking for these markers. When you find the one you want, you insert your clicker into it to register your arrival.

 

 

I won’t go into the details of my two sessions – just a an overview of things. And while I talk, I’ll show you pictures of the grounds as I go along. (I took them after the event, not while I was running.)

Keep in mind that unless I say differently, every one of these buildings is closed and mothballed, no longer in use.

First of all, you need to understand that I am a good runner, pretty fast and with endurance. Number two, I am terrible at relating the map to the actual landscape. Just terrible. My technique is sort of like water circling the drain – I get close, I go around and around, I run back and forth, and I finally come in to the control point with a big flourish and an internal sigh of relief.

 

I ran over these stairs several times on my way to control points. They traverse a semi-sunken passageway between buildings in the older section.

I also have a tendency to miss the plain and simple things the map is shouting at me and so I often end up very perplexed; when I review the situation suddenly it is clear, and I would have sworn the map had changed, in my hand. This tendency leads me to explore a lot of places I didn’t have to on my way to the control points.

 

I did have a nice talk with two workers on a break who wondered what we were doing. I stopped for a couple of minutes to show them the map and they helped me by pointing out the control point I was looking for behind a hedge. Remember, they knew nothing of orienteering before I came along, but they could read a map…

 

This building is in a newer section – it has an interesting circular auditorium inside the rectangle form of the building, or so it looked, through the windows.

 

But I digress. My husband, on the other hand, though a slower runner than me even at his best, can go directly from point to point. Hits the target every time. It all just flows for him. He was held back by his walking speed on this occasion.

 

Anyway, I finished the course I was on and he was already in. I decided to go out again and do the course he had done, while he rested. I beat his time (I’m running, remember) by about 15 seconds. Well, if you run in circles, this is what is going to happen.

 

I’ve got a better idea now of what I need to do to improve. First of all, I know I can’t go from point to point. I do better when I pick out intermediate points in between and work my way along. Second, before I start running off, I need to slow my thinking down enough to focus HARD on the map so as to try to anticipate the places I will get confused and what will signal me that I have gone badly wrong. Third, standing and thinking is ok. I don’t have to let the clock ticking in the back of my head urge me on before I am ready.

 

I got very mixed up in this area. I thought the control point should be in front of me, in the grass to the left. It was behind me, hidden by a hedge (which was of course on the map…)

 

Nonetheless, I really love the focus and the exhilaration of orienteering. I love running along with a goal in mind and meeting the challenges of each segment of the event.

I also found that the experience of playing a game in this particular location led to quite a bit of reflection. Not that long ago these buildings would have been full of people – a whole society existed here. As I ran along I imagined what memories these buildings, all silent now, hold in their bricks and concrete. I wondered if it were disrespectful to the patients and their suffering that I was running heedless through their walks and courtyards or jumping over stair railings.

 

 

I noticed, though, that the outside world is seeping in. There is free access to the site now, with an open gate. Near our start point a large crowd of brightly-dressed children were playing in a soccer game while their parents cheered, sat on lawn chairs, and ate dinner from coolers. There is a community garden with greenhouses, worked by members of the surrounding neighborhood (they have signs advertising their plant sale at the gate). I noticed quite a few people obviously out for an evening stroll or walking a dog – people from nearby making use of the lovely grounds.

As my husband said, it is a good thing that we can add happy memories to the history of this location. I think he is right. I am very grateful for being able to have the simple pleasure of doing an outdoor activity with other people, all of us enjoying ourselves.

Re-Orienting Myself

It’s early May, and that means that the Montgomery County Senior Games have rolled around again.

You may remember that last year I competed in several days of this week-long event. I did orienteering, running, and speed-walking. I wrote a whole series of posts about my experiences:

Let the Games Begin

Orienteering Myself

I Run as Fast as I Can on a Track

Walk This Way

In my introductory post for last year, I wrote about how I had set the goal of competing to help me start back into regaining my former fitness levels – I was a good runner and swimmer and loved doing those things, but my various illness, surgeries, bad antibiotic reactions, stress fracture in my foot – all of these had slowly stripped away my strength and almost all of my ability to pick myself up and try.

I wrote about how I hoped the event would be the beginning of returning to my old ways. Well, it wasn’t. I experienced more eye issues later in the year and then, when my husband had his accident in December, 2016, for the next four months I pretty much gave up – exercise came near the end of the list.

All right. Here we are today and I am saying the same thing – I hope that the Senior Games mark the beginning of returning to normality as far as my athletic activities.

This year, I decided to do just the orienteering and walking events. My motto was to be: Complete, not compete, meaning – finish the event, not try to bust a gut winning it.

With that in mind, I arrived at the Norristown Farm Park this morning, site of the orienteering event. My husband accompanied me – his new office is very close, and so this year he was able to attend. That was nice, to have his support. We had an absolutely gorgeous sunny day, a bit chilly, but just perfect for this event. Compare it to last year’s day and you’ll see why all of us at the event were thrilled. Here is 2016:

And now, 2017:

Last year I was a green newbie at orienteering, but I liked what I had experienced of it. If you don’t know much about it, you run around the countryside from point to point (called “controls”) following a detailed map, and you are timed. I am not really able to do trail running anymore because of my eyesight, so this sport really appealed to me as a substitute.

This year I am a slightly less green newbie, and I am game. Let’s go, I said. We got signed up at the pavilion and received the all-important T-shirt.

After some explanatory remarks, we headed over to the start. Now, how this works is simple. You get the map when you start, you take off looking for your controls, and you just keep going to the end. You have to go in order, but you can get from place to place any way you want to. You have a small device that you insert into a reader at each control – it keeps your time. The race starts for you when you click in at the start control.

In larger events, there are courses laid out for different difficulty levels over the same plot of ground. Competitors choose the level desired and get the map for that course. So, the people you see as you traverse your course may be doing a different course altogether – you don’t assume their control is one you want for your course.

This event, though, has only one course. So it’s possible to follow another competitor and get to the controls without orienting yourself on your own. Remember this point – it matters in my story!

Here I am at the start point:

And looking over my map, having just clicked the start. You can’t review it beforehand.

And, running off down the path.

The trick to this sport is to stay focused and continue to adjust and re-orient yourself as you go along. Watch your map closely. I try to plan out what next landmark or location I need to hit in a series of moves to get to a control point. A straight line is not always the best route!

Well, I was zipping along. And very quickly I realized that another woman near me was, well, she was watching my moves. Plain and simple. And given how the course was set up, I could do nothing about it. Several times it was clear to me that she would not have found the control if I had not led her there.

Well, complete, not compete, went out the window. I guess I wasn’t surprised. I’m pretty competitive. Yes. So I got a little aggravated and that put some speed into my feet. Down paved roads, dirt trails, crawling up a trackless hill – we did it all. She was ahead of me at the last control but just a little; that cranked up the aggravation level and I took off for the finish. Hard. And I got there first.

I’m the tiny black speck. I don’t know who that man is who was caught up in our drama.

Well, I’ll tell you, it’s a small thing, but I felt as if I had done something big. I didn’t give up and I didn’t back down. Makes me feel that I am really on my way in this new start.

Thanks for reading. And Happy Orienteering, if you try it.

You Are Not Lost if You Know Where You Are on the Map

Here’s another chapter in the saga of me and my new exercise activity, orienteering. My husband and I decided today would be great for trying out the permanent course at French Creek State Park, where we had gone a few weeks ago for a competition. (I wrote about it here.) So we put on our outfits, picked up a couple of sandwiches and some drinks, put them in the cooler, and set out for the park.

It was an absolutely perfect day for being outside, quite warm and very sunny. The park was full of activity, but it was concentrated on the lake and picnic areas.  We located the start of the course and parked the car right there, having arrived about 10 AM after a pleasant drive into the countryside.

Start French Creek small 5-29-16

The permanent course (as opposed to one set up just for a competition and then taken down) circumnavigates Hopewell Lake. It covers about 2.5 or so miles with 8 controls, plus three optional ones. My husband had printed out the map on good paper and enlarged it. Detail is important.

Map French Creek 5-29-16 small

So we set off. I fell down crawling up the side of a ditch, so I got that over with – I have to settle in a bit, I’ve found, before I concentrate well. There is always a fall to be taken before that happens.

And remember, I have a lot of trouble matching the map details with the terrain. I find orienteering very challenging because of this, and I check my position a lot. I am good at reading the map, though, and my husband is good at reading the terrain, so together, we get along great.

We worked out way through the course. The woods are not as they were originally – this area supplied fuel for a thriving iron industry in the past, and at one time this forested area was cut bare. Now it has a lot of small to medium trees and significant undergrowth. Trails and roads wind through it.

Fernch Creek #2 5-29-16 small

There is also a significant amount of loose rock everywhere, making footing difficult.

Fernch Creek 5-29-16 small

It was pleasant and shady in the woods. We really made good time. Here is what one of the controls looks like, in its position near Hopewell Lake.

Control 5 French Creek 5-29-16 small

We had nice views of the lake at many points.

Hopewell Lake 5-29-16 small

We also passed the dam that created the lake. Here we are at the small spillway.

Dam Hopewell Lake 5-29-16 small

Right after this location, we got over-confident. And the pictures stop, but I’ll give you a short word-picture in tanka form:

The steep hill. A slope
that runs straight into the sky.
The climbers scramble.
The trail fades. They make their own.
Hilltop. A road appears. Go.

To put it plainly, we decided to try for the optional A, B, and C controls. We took a faint trail cutting up and across a steep high slope. It gave out after a while and we found ourselves thrown back on our map and our wits.

Never did find A, though we were close. I saw a couple of little toads hopping along and if we had been in a fairy tale, they would have helped us, but we were not, so, no luck. They went on their way and we went on ours.

I am able to climb well, but going downhill is not very easy for me with my balance issues. So, we checked the map, and we decided to keep going up in order to make for a fence, follow it, and we’d come out at a road. Which we did, with me clinging to the fence to keep from rolling downhill. I would have to say not many people try to reach these controls, since the trail was so faint and unworn – lack of traffic, certainly.

Anti-climatically, we found both B and C along this road, as we had known we would from the map – A was always going to be the hard one. Sigh. We finished the course, and had a nice picnic lunch in the shade near the car. All told, we spent about two hours on the course. You know, I really enjoyed the experience, except for about 10 minutes when I wondered how we would get out of this mess. Well, we did, didn’t we, and that’s what counts.

Orienteering Myself

Senior Games, first event: orienteering.

This is the first year for this activity. No one knew what to expect. I drove over to the park, getting lost only twice. Please remember, I have lived in this area for 35+ years and have been to the park as recently as one month ago. This getting lost business is relevant, I think, when you remember I am planning to do an event that relies on me reading a map and interpreting terrain in order to arrive at designated points. Let’s just say that orienteering doesn’t play to my strengths, but I’m going to do it anyway.

I made it to the park and followed the signs to the picnic pavilion where the event was organizing itself.

Senior games sign small 5-16

About thirty of us were assembled. Most had no experience of the sport at all. But – that had been provided for – an explanation and demonstration was given. I was pleased to find myself a relative veteran.

Group explanation 5-16 NFP small

I got my map, went to the start, and I was the second one off onto the course. It was cloudy and cool, with a little bit of rain falling every now and then. The course consisted of eleven controls – I needed to hit each one in order while being aware of the time. The course was pretty straightforward, as the organizers wanted to make sure the first-year event was something people could find interesting while also being successful.

This park has a history. Norristown Farm Park, as it is called, used to be the farm attached to Norristown State Hospital, a mental institution. In the past, patients worked on the farm in various capacities as they were able. The hospital depended on the farm for food and for therapy. This arrangement was common before the era of medication – it was thought that the patients would be helped by being outdoors and occupying their minds. Patients also worked in other areas,  such as the kitchen, sewing, wood shop, etc. The hospital functioned as a somewhat self-sustaining community, in an era when people went into the hospital for extended periods of time rather than the limited stays of today. Changes to this treatment philosophy occurred with the advent of drugs and other therapies, with the different way mental patients came to be viewed, and in how funding for treatment was allocated.

Today the hospital still exists but the farm is a park. Crops are still grown on the grounds and the agricultural buildings are scattered around. There is even the remains of a fish hatchery, but we didn’t go in that area today.

Here is the park office of today. One of the controls was set near this area.

Park office area NFP 5-16 small

Much of the course went through fields waiting to be planted. It was also quite hilly. Most of it could be done on the farm roads.

NFP hill 5-16 small

At the end, I took a course across this field rather than taking the road.

field NFP 5-16 small

Here’s the finish area, back at the picnic pavilion.

finish NFP 5-16 small

I think this course played to my strengths. I am a good runner and with the unambiguous course I could make time. I also realized that while I am pretty good at reading a map, I am not good at translating it to the actual ground, something I’ve known in other contexts, such as trail running, and getting to the park today! For example, when I went through the field, I was not exactly where I thought I was, though I did realize it later and make adjustments. But, I didn’t get all the advantage I could have by taking that route. I plan to focus on this map/ground relationship next time I try an event.

Still, I have good news. I did the course in 38.02 minutes and I won my age group. Yes, there were two of us in it, so it was not by default! And I got my T-shirt.

Tshirt small 5-16

Tomorrow, I’ll be running on the track at Gwynedd-Mercy University. Until then…

Let the Games Begin

This week will be very busy for me. I’m on the verge of accomplishing a goal I’ve had for a while – participating in the Montgomery County Senior Games, taking place May 9-13.

This series of events is for people 50+. All kinds of athletics are included and they take place in various places around our county. Why is this important to me? Well, I was an avid runner and swimmer before my health issues started in September 2012, but over the course of the last three years, though I’ve tried to stay as active as possible, I’ve fallen out of shape.

Now that, knock on wood, nothing seems to be breaking off or down anymore, I have dedicated myself to getting back to fighting form. I realize things will be different from before – I’m older and I have some deficits I can’t make up. But, I’ve been running and I’ve returned to my gym classes and workouts and I’m making progress.

Participating in these games was goal #1 for 2016. I did swimming events about 5 years ago, and last year, I signed up for running, but – I suffered my stress fracture in my foot days before (the games people were really nice and mailed me my T-shirt anyway).

This year I’m doing orienteering (more later on that); running the mile and 800 meters; and doing a timed walk.

I’ll start with orienteering. I am a total newbie to this sport. My son and daughter-in-law introduced my husband and me to it. I went along with the idea because I thought it would make a nice thing for us all to do together. It also reminded me of trail running, something I really like, but that I don’t feel safe in competing in anymore with my eyesight and balance issues.

So having signed up, I needed practice. (Nothing like just diving in, is there?) So, my husband and I have done 2 practice courses in local parks and 2 competitions, working against the clock.

We did a competition at French Creek State Park yesterday. We arrived around ten in the morning and checked in. Beautiful day.

Orienteering 5-8-16 -1- small

The course looped around a small lake in the park. It had rained the day before and the ground was muddy. The terrain was rocky and hilly.

Hopewell Lake 5-9-16 small

We chose to do the Orange course. This is an intermediate level course and it’s what we had done in the other event.

This time, we were a bit over our heads in some parts – we are so new that pretty much everything is a challenge and there were some control points in the middle of the woods that we took quite a bit of time getting to. I am also very shaky on my feet in trackless, rocky stretches and I have to move slowly. Nonetheless, we found every point, were never lost, and we made it to the end. It took two hours, but we got there. And we weren’t the slowest ones, either.

Map French Creek 5-9-16 -1- small

Here’s the map we used. It’s packed full of information.


Map French Creek 5-9-16 -2- small

You can see the circles on the map – those are the points we had to check in at along the way.

So tomorrow, May 10, I’m doing the orienteering course at the Senior Games – taking place at Norristown Farm Park in Norristown, PA. The other event we did was held in this park, so maybe that will help me out. I will be going out alone this time – just me and the map. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Archives

Categories

Pages