Ninety-six hours after a bruising encounter with a pedestrian barrier, where the winner by knockout was the barrier, I found myself in a chilly car park on Waldridge Fell near Chester-le-Street together with Joan Hanson, my chauffeuse and fellow competitor. We made a sorry couple: me nursing bruised ribs and Joan what appears to be becoming a somewhat intractable hip flexor problem.
Keen to capitalise on her Hamsterley success, Joan was figuring that at worst she could just walk around a light green course which indeed she could such is the accessible and inclusive nature of orienteering. I would normally have chosen the longest course – brown – hoping that I could keep it all together sufficiently not to embarrass myself. However, problems with the simple act of drawing breath persuaded me to opt for the blue course that was generously – at 6.3 kilometres – almost a whole kilometre shorter.
Today’s event was organised by my own club – Northern Navigators – and is held in one of the few orienteering areas that I am reasonably familiar with, in steep wooded denes and over one of the few remaining areas of lowland heath still to be found in County Durham.
I consider that I’ve done well if I finish a course out of breath because that means I’ve been running hard and have been finding controls consistently. Often it’s more like interval training where I have brief bursts of activity interspersed with minutes of stressful bashing around through bushes until by some fluke I come upon the control. I almost always have at least one ‘nightmare’ though and today’s came at the second control.
Sometimes I just need a little bit of time to ‘get into it’ and it’s difficult to say specifically why I go wrong. There are a great many factors that go to make up a successful orienteer but I seem to be lacking in quite a few. I was a good four minutes longer than the quickest competitor in my class in finding the second control and in orienteering terms that’s a lifetime. However, once I’d found it and moved on it all seemed to start flowing much more easily.
As usual it wasn’t long before I was soaked. I rarely opt to look for a bridge when crossing a watercourse and have no idea whether anyone else does. At one point I found myself up to my knees in the greenest of bogs that looked like it hadn’t been disturbed for a hundred years: I could imagine Jenny Greenteeth, on holiday from her native River Tees, stretching out a bony arm to pull me down to keep her company.
Somewhere along the way I came across Dougie who had opted for the brown course and was studying his map with great intent at the bottom of a steep woodland slope. It was here that I became locked in battle with a chap who was clearly also on the blue course. I definitely had the legs and was even a bit affronted when he rather obviously tried to pull away from me when he could have just waited and let me make a couple of little errors because his accuracy was clearly much better than mine.
But we carried on in that vein, more or less in each others’ footsteps, his slightly more efficient map reading against my physical advantage. As it continued I tried to concentrate harder on the map but it’s not easy to do whilst running through dense woodland and I didn’t see the overhanging branch that nearly put my lights out and left me with a bloody forehead.
The forest is definitely not my favoured terrain and when at last we emerged onto the moor for the last couple of controls I was able to start running with a greater sense of purpose and even set a fastest split for the last control (leaving my erstwhile foe behind). When I got back Joan had already finished and was bemoaning a couple of navigational errors that had let her down, but that’s orienteering – just when you think you’re getting somewhere it has a nasty habit (for me at least) of bringing it all crashing down and forcing you to rebuild whatever it was you think that you had.
These events are however,very friendly, cheap (£5.00) and easy to access. You don’t have to be a member of a club and the courses up to light green are pretty easy to follow along footpaths, walls, fences and stuff. It’s properly adventurous stuff too: you find yourself happily running through terrain that would make a fell race look tame!