Dartmouth hosts Orienteering Championships

by Kourtney Kawano | 9/26/16 12:00am

92616sportsorienteering1_courtesyofdaveyee

by David Yee / The Dartmouth

It’s not everyday that most of us find ourselves running through an unfamiliar forest in search of checkpoints. For most, the thought of having to navigate during a race without the use of a phone is a nightmare. Yet it’s precisely this combination of speedy decision-making skills, physical endurance and map interpretation abilities that is essential to orienteering, a navigation race that originated in Scandinavia in the late 19th century.

This past week, orienteers from the United States and Canada traveled to Hanover for the 2016 North American Orienteering Championships, which began on Friday and concluded yesterday. The three-day event opened with a middle distance race at Storrs Pond and Oak Hill on Friday followed by a long distance race at Burnt Mountain on Saturday. On Sunday, athletes raced in the individual sprint race as well as the elite sprint relay at the College.

David Yee

In the female-21+ division, Alison Crocker ’06, a member of the U.S.A. National Orienteering team, placed fifth in the middle race with a time of 39 minutes, third in the long race with a time of 1:27:12 and second in the sprint race with a time of 17:16. Canada’s Emily Kemp placed first in all three individual events. Crocker said she was pleased with improving her finish from Friday to Sunday.

“Second is a hard place to finish [in the sprint],” she said. “But I’m happy with that result.”

In the men’s 21+ division, Crocker’s teammate Gregory Ahlswede placed first in the long race with a time of 1:41:43. Thierry Gueorgiou beat Ahlswede with a time of 1:25:31, but since Gueorgiou is not a member of the North American orienteering federation, he was ineligible for a medal.

Ahlswede said it felt good to win, especially after training hard for a little over a year.

The Burnt Mountain terrain, he and Crocker noted, was world-class.

“It’s a good challenge and I haven’t been on many maps like that,” Ahlswede said. “You could hold a world championship race there.”

The middle-distance race featured complex and technical terrain, and orienteers had the added challenge of having to look out for huge boulders and logs while running and navigating through the woods.

As a winner in the M-21 elite category, Ahlswede automatically qualified for the 2017 World Orienteering Championships in Tartu, Estonia.

The sport is organized so that competitors begin the course at different times so that no one follows alongside another or tries to use another competitor’s decisions to one’s advantage. When Ahlswede began the long race, about half of the competitors already started. Gueorgiou, a French orienteer with more than 20 gold medals credited to his name in the sport, caught up to Ahlswede, but he continued to follow his own routes and map contexts.

“When someone else is in the forest with you, you have to use that energy and go with it,” Ahlswede said.

Middle-distance courses are meant to test technical map reading at high speeds in challenging terrain. Orienteers are intended to complete the middle course in 60 percent of the time it takes to complete the long course, which is the traditional distance used for elite and international competitions. Sprint races usually occur in parks and college campuses in the U.S., but they can also occur in the center of developed cities, Crocker said. Because the sprint race is so fast-paced and dispersed throughout the campus, director of outdoor programs Brian Kunz said, it is the most spectator friendly.

Throughout various locations on campus, volunteers set up boxes as checkpoints, where competitors must slide a magnetic e-card that verifies they passed that specific location and sets up splits that show how fast each athlete made it to each spot.

As soon as each race begins, competitors are given a special topographic map that identifies specific checkpoints that they must pass. The map also includes symbols that indicate environmental features such as land forms, rocks and boulders and vegetation. By analyzing the map and using a compass, orienteers must choose the best path to take and start running to finish in the fastest time.

Hosting this year’s NAOC is special, Kunz said, because 75 years ago, Piltti Heiskanen, a recreational skiing and physical education teacher at the College, organized the first North American Orienteering events at Dartmouth.

Crocker said she was delighted to return to Hanover and excited that some of her former professors and acquaintances from the Dartmouth Outdoor Programs could see her compete during a different era in her life.

She was first introduced to orienteering in high school but did not orienteer at Dartmouth due to a shoulder injury she sustained while rowing. However, she was reexposed to the sport while studying at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Since completing a doctorate degree in astrophysics, Crocker has established herself as a world class orienteer, having qualified for the U.S. national team and competing in the 2015 World Orienteering Championships.

Ahlswede said he started orienteering when he was 8 years old, after his father saw an advertisement to participate in a local newspaper.

Kunz said members of the U.S. Orienteering Federation requested to have the championships at the College and he agreed not only because it is a commemoration of Heiskanen’s efforts but also because it is a chance for students to see top-class navigators on campus.

Part of hosting the event was investing time and money into developing updated maps of the three race locations for the competitors, Kunz said.

To prepare for the championships, Crocker said she trained individually but it’s always helpful to train with fellow orienteers.

“There’s the physical side which is just being in the best running shape you can with some agility and trail running training,” she said. “It’s also studying and being quick with making decisions.”

Crocker said she was unable to get enough orienteering practice so she felt a bit rusty when making decisions in the woods.

“When you’re well-trained, it sort of flows. You look at the map and it’s simple to execute,” Crocker said. “To be at the top of your game you need to be orienteering two or three hours a week at least, finding the maps and going to the venue.”

Ahlswede said he trained by doing a lot of running through the woods and practicing on technical courses. He moved into a mountain hut and trained there for two months before traveling to Sweden to train for 20 days.

At the championships, the U.S. and Canada aim to win the Björn Kjellström Trophy, which is given on the last day of the meet to the team with the highest combined score for the sprint relay and the scores of the team’s top three male and female performers in the individual events. Teams receive 50 points for finishing first in the sprint relay and 30 points for second place. Individuals also receive points in the middle, long and sprint events on a decreasing scale, with a maximum score of 25 for first place and 22 for second place. After the conclusion of this year’s sprint relay, members from Orienteering USA announced Canada won the trophy, Crocker said.

Since the award was first presented in 1980, Canada has won more trophies than the U.S., but the U.S. has won the last three trophies since 2010.

“Both teams have been doing well and trying to push ahead in the international scene,” Crocker said.

In 2012, Orienteering USA created the Future Champions Cup, which is given to the top team in the junior division. Scoring is similar to that of the Björn Kjellström Trophy, with the exception of scoring differences in the individual events, which carry a maximum score of 15 points for first place, and separate classes based on age, ranging from 17 year olds to 20 year olds. In 2014, the U.S. won and in its inaugural year, the U.S. and Canada tied.

U.S. Junior Orienteering Team coach Erin Schirm said the junior team did great overall and developed a sizeable lead before Sunday’s sprint relay.

“They got a lot of experience over the last few years and that held through,” Schirm said.

The U.S. junior team maintained its success from the individual events and won this year’s Future Champions cup, Crocker noted.

Although orienteering is not nearly as popular in America as it is in Europe, Kunz said it is a great sport to learn because it is important to be able to navigate and make decisions on the fly.

“It’s a life long sport,” Kunz said. “People love it and they keep doing it even when they’re 90 years old. They’re walking and trying to find the best way.”

After this year’s NAOC, which marks the end of the North American orienteering season, Crocker will be taking a break. Ahlswede will be taking a two-week break before returning to Europe for international and Spanish league competitions, focusing on mountain running and preparing for the 2017 World Orienteering Championships.