A map, sneakers, and quick wits
Running through Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass., Jennifer Shultis drops a hand to the three-foot-high retaining wall and jumps to a grassy patch below. "Sorry!" she calls over her shoulder to a reporter trying to keep up.
She heads onto a footpath, studying the map in her hands without breaking stride.
"OK, it will be faster if we just go this way," she says, suddenly swinging sharply to the left. Moments later, Shultis, with reporter in tow, thunders up a ramp, throws open a glass door, sprints through an air-conditioned building, and speeds out the other side. Bingo. There is the next objective, called a "control point," marked by an orange-and-white flag.
That's the essence of orienteering finding your way from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Anyone who's been lost in a new city or tried running for a connecting flight somewhere in another part of an airport has orienteered. But orienteering is also a competitive sport for world-class athletes.
Competing in an urban setting like this is a relatively new approach to a sport that's been around for the past three decades in the United States and usually takes place in the woods, far from city streets and traffic. Its cousin, urban adventure racing, often includes orienteering along with other forms of racing. It's also growing in popularity.
In orienteering, participants are handed a map with lots of lines and symbols, but few labels. The objective is to decipher the map and find the markers, called control points, in as little time as possible. The sport began as a military exercise in Sweden around 1900, but it didn't take hold in the United States until the late 1960s. Today, there are nearly 70 US clubs in about 35 states.
Orienteering has always been considered an aerobic activity for thinkers.
"People who are in orienteering are people who like to solve things," says Jon Nash, a spokesman for the US Orienteering Federation. "There are a lot of computer programmers [in orienteering], but also people who like to read 'whodunnit' novels or do crossword puzzles."
Shultis, who has been orienteering for the past four years, was participating in one of the Cambridge (Mass.) Sports Union's Park-O events. Park-O events aim to be accessible to people not wanting to travel far to compete and provide a relatively easy short-course introduction to beginners. Shultis, also a triathlete, finds the Park-O series a good way to get in a workout for both mind and body.
"The short courses are confidence builders," she says. "If you make a mistake, you can correct yourself in a matter of seconds. In [longer] courses, you can get stuck for half an hour just trying to figure out one control [point]."
Being fleet of foot doesn't ensure success. A fast runner who can't read a map is good at only one thing: getting lost faster.
Good orienteers can figure out a mapmaker's style within the first quarter-mile, says Larry Berman, who founded the Cambridge Sports Union with his wife, Sara Mae. Patience is key, and so is not being tempted to follow other runners, who may or may not be using the same map. What to do when you do get lost is part of the game: The trick is to know when to admit defeat and backtrack, a strategy seasoned orienteers swear by.
"The biggest difference between orienteering and [a footrace] is that you can't go all out. You have to know where you are," says Kenny Walker Jr., the mapmaker for the Cambridge Sports Union and a nationally ranked orienteer.
So far, urban orienteering on public streets hasn't encountered any problems of collisions with pedestrians or vehicles. Participants must sign liability waivers and promise to adhere to all traffic laws and race rules.
One attraction of the sport is that people of widely varying ages and abilities can enjoy an event together. "Orienteering is a lifetime sport," says Sharon Crawford, who was at a Park-O event in the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood. She should know. She is an 11-time US champ who has competed in the world championships 10 times.
In contrast, urban adventure racing is all about making the city into a giant outdoor playground. The sport began in Chicago when John O'Connor and John Hamill, who couldn't always escape to the wilderness, began training for adventure races in the shadows of skyscrapers.
"With the waterfront and the river, it was a lot of fun to train in the city. We started thinking it would be fun to do one of the races in Chicago," O'Connor says.
Teaming up with Will Burkhart of Denver, they formed Urban Adventure Racing, LLC. In the spring of 2000, the first 24-hour Wild Onion Urban Adventure Race was held. Wild Onion races are now annual events in Chicago and Indianapolis.
On a typical Wild Onion course, coed teams of three might kayak, canoe, or skate; ride a scooter or bike, and orienteer. Racers have climbed Chicago's Sears Tower stairs and rappelled from the Navy Pier. Racing from dawn to dusk and through the night, teams must cross the finish line together.
Today elite adventure racers travel to the Windy City for the Wild Onion from all over the world, O'Connor says. For those wanting a less vigorous introduction to urban adventure racing, the Wild Scallion will be offered for the first time this year. Already, 80 teams have signed up for the four-to-six-hour race to be held Sept. 14.
There's obviously a demand for urban adventure races, O'Connor says, "and we're trying to fulfill it."