Running without boundaries

This is orienteering

The silent forest. The crack of a branch shatters the stillness. Heavy breathing, faint at first, but getting ever louder. Suddenly there he is, careering over the brow of the hill, hurtling down in to the small depression below. There it is in front of him – the red and white marker that shows he’s bang on course.

13th Feb 14

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Quick glance down at the map. Got to get the exit route right.  Swiping his e-tag in the control, he knows that every second counts.

Long leg coming up – must be at least 1500 metres. Big climb up ahead, but wait. The track off to the left contours round the hill and offers faster running. Must be at least 500 meters further but easy navigation and better under foot. Yes, go for it – really up the tempo on the track and start planning ahead.

He glimpses his 2-minute man up ahead taking the direct route, running strongly up the hill. Must have gained 90 seconds on him since the start, but he looks strong.  He hopes the track option’s the wise choice.

Lungs bursting after a 3-and-a-half-minute K, he turns off the track. Slow down and keep in control but no room for hesitation. Look for the small clearing 200 meters ahead and try to spot the couple of small hills just beyond. A flash of yellow over to the right coming down the slope. That’s him. Gained another 30 seconds. Both runners hit the control at the same time coming from different directions but he’s got his tail up. He knows his plan. Fighting the oxygen debt, he’s planned his next leg while racing down the track and is straight out of the control and out of sight, leaving his more hesitant opponent floundering.

But he knows there is much to do. Some of the top guys are yet to start. Picture the imaginary runner 10 seconds behind. Got to keep up the speed but run smart. It’s been a flawless run so far. No time lost anywhere but can’t afford any mistake now. Keep running in control – the finish is less than 2 K away.

WOC 2015 logo
This is orienteering. Running without boundaries. Running under pressure.

In August 2015, 400 world-class athletes from 50 nations will contest the sport’s blue-riband event – the World Orienteering Championships. And the event’s in Scotland – Inverness and Moray to be precise.

To compete at this standard requires not only exceptional strength, speed and stamina, but also an uncanny mental skill that takes years to perfect. Orienteering is cunning running. To succeed at world level means you have to be magic with a map as well as fast across the ground. Christopher Colombus, Mo Farah and Paul Daniels rolled in to one.  Those at the top end of the sport are at one with the terrain, instantly coming up with a 3D picture of the shape of the land as they run across it, map in hand, making decisions intuitively and constantly. Plan your route by selecting the fastest possible option, and keep yourself on track.  Orienteering these days is multi-disciplined. There are still the classic-distance forest races but now the sport has branched out in to the urban sprawl with spectator-friendly city races getting ever more popular globally. And it’s not just time-trial style individual races either. Head-to-head team relays show the sport at its most intense and exciting.  Five-figure crowds in the “big” orienteering nations at the showcase finals of World Championship races are becoming the norm.

In the Scandinavian countries orienteering is big news. People get paid for doing it. In Sweden it’s a national obsession. Some of their top orienteers are well-known sporting icons and their biggest event, the O-Ringen, attracts 20,000 runners. But the rest of the world has been catching up fast. Ask anyone in Switzerland about Simone Niggli-Luder and chances are they’ll tell you she’s the greatest female orienteer who’s ever lived. Her 23 World Championship gold medals during a career spanning 13 years make that impossible to argue with. She is, according to WorldofO, the web’s authoritative guide to elite orienteering, “The biggest star in the sport of orienteering, ever”. France’s Thierri Gueorgiou “The King of Middle-Distance” is many people’s choice as her male equivalent. Supreme athletes like these, physically and mentally, have ensured that Scandinavian domination of the sport is no longer the sole domain of the Nordic nations. And amongst them is Edinburgh-born Scott Fraser who now lives and trains in Stockholm.

Fraser is no slouch on the track and on the roads, comfortably holding his own at sub-30 minute pace over 10K where he was 3rd in the 2012 Swedish 10,000 metres national championship. But put a map in his hand and Fraser is king – and not just in the forest. At the 2013 World Orienteering Championships in Finland, the Lothian man took the silver medal at the World Championships sprint-distance event which is run almost exclusively on the tarmac. Here, orienteering’s traditional forest environment is replaced by the urban jungle. The complexity of the navigation is replaced by the need to think lightning fast while running on right on the very edge. One bad route choice, or a careless error will spell disaster over the 15-minute race. Margins are tiny at this level. Another 0.9 of a second – the equivalent of running the wrong way round a lamp post – and the silver medal would have ended up in Swedish hands. Fraser, who before moving to Sweden was Scottish Orienteering’s full-time Professional Officer, is eagerly anticipating racing against the world’s best on home turf in 2015. “I'm looking forward to welcome the world of orienteering to Scotland and taking on the best in the forests, mountains and streets of the Highlands and Moray!”

Fraser’s Edinburgh-based Team mate Murray Strain, was not far off the pace in Finland, taking 9th place. The Hunters Bog Trotter is a familiar face on the Scottish hill-running circuit – although his rear end is the aspect that most of his rivals get to see most of.  Strain has no split personality problem with his hill running and orienteering persona. He sees them as complementing each other.  “Runners think of me as an orienteer, orienteers think of me as a runner. The truth is I'm a racer.”

And it’s true to say that many orienteers have become big names in Scottish running clubs while  many of their club mates have no idea what they get up to in the woods. Scottish veteran cross-country runners will need no reminding about the talents of the likes of Claire Ward who still represents GB at orienteering despite her veteran status. Most of the decent club-level orienteers have worked out ways of getting the best of both worlds – training with their local running clubs for the physical side of the sport, and training with their orienteering clubs for the technical side of life.

Scotland’s orienteering clubs are growing fast. Discovering the reality that there are people out there who want to do the sport, Scotland’s best orienteering clubs are now putting on a staggering number of events – 20 or more a year in some cases. Stirling, Edinburgh, Royal Deeside, Aberdeen, Inverness and Moray are arguably the strongholds of the sport’s development at the moment, with Grampian Region boasting the country’s first-ever Regional Development Officers. Funded by sportScotland, Moray LEADER and Aberdeenshire Council, WOC hopeful Jess Tullie and veteran ex-RAF navigator Mike Rodgers are busy spreading the word about the sport, particularly in the region’s schools where both have struck up fruitful partnerships with the area’s Active Schools teams.

Even the smaller local orienteering events, once the domain of 20 bearded 50-somethings and their dogs, are starting to attract 100-plus runners. Many are attracted by the family-friendly side to the sport. “We do kids in this sport” says Moray’s RDO Mike Rodgers. “Any club who put on an event without a course for the children would be strung up”. Most events are run as a time trial – a bit like downhill ski racing. Ant the similarities with ski-ing don’t stop there either. A black run on the ski slopes strikes fear in to the heart of your everyday recreational skier. It’s the same in orienteering where a top-class elite runner will expect to take well over an hour for a Black course. Anyone without rock solid technical skills and fitness to match would expect to be out for most of the day. But the lighter the colour the easier it gets, right down to the White standard where 5 year olds can look for easy-to-find markers as they discover the great outdoors with mum or dad in tow to keep them right. Most of the larger club events have 7 or 8 courses covering every conceivable standard, and with start times spread over a 2-hour period, the whole family can compete, with mum or dad supervising the kids on their course while their partner runs before swapping over.

It will be no different at the 2015 World Championships. Well it will be a bit different in as much as there will be 5,000 runners and a choice of about 40 courses, including “follow the string” courses for toddlers. These “public” races will be part of the biennial Scottish 6-Day Event which will run in tandem with WOC, often using the same terrain.

The races will be carefully choreographed so that the public will be able to spectate at the World Champs where organisers confidently expect to see crowds in excess of 6,000.

According to Assistant Event Director Colin Matheson of Nairn, there are some exciting plans afoot that could make WOC 2015 the biggest athletics event that the North has ever seen. "The recent World Championships in Finland were a real eye-opener. It was fantastic to see the amount of local support from a region with a total population of 85,000 - so many people wanted to be involved, either as volunteers or as actual participants in the 'spectator' races, the equivalent of our 6 Days Event. Twenty per cent of the Finnish population watched the orienteering live on TV. We will never match that here, but in 2013 we brought together a top film crew from the Czech Republic, a giant screen, a commentator from Swedish TV and a band of enthusiasts to help stage our own arena production as a trial for 2015. Lessons learned will be used for the real thing in 2015 when many of the top orienteers we saw in Finland come to battle it out for medals in our own forests and towns."

These are exciting times ahead for orienteering and for Scottish sport. Although many runners are put off by the technical demands of orienteering at the top level, the sport’s leadership wants to put down the welcome mat so that runners of all standards can be part of the action. President of Scottish Orienteering, Roger Scrutton, sums it up by saying:

“Orienteering is different – there are times on the course when you need to focus on making the most of your running strengths, but many more times when the running must look after itself as you concentrate on interpreting the map to optimise your route.  At those times your running is on
auto-pilot.  Unsurprisingly, it is not necessarily the fastest runner who wins.  So, if you’re not making it into to the top three, five or ten in your races, try orienteering, where you may well do so.  If you do regularly pick up prizes, give yourself an extra challenge!”

Novices are welcome at club events throughout Scotland, and there are few things an orienteer likes more than explaining it to the uninitiated. Give it a go one day. It might open up a new angle to your running that you never knew existed.

More information about the  2015 World Orienteering Championships can be found on the event web site


This is an extended version of an article published on the Scottish Running Guide website

Photo of authorPosted on 13th Feb 14
by Mike Rodgers