Take 5: Frisco local practices fine art of orienteering at 2017 World Masters Games
May 9, 2017
Sharon Crawford is ridiculously good at seeing shades of green.
For the past 30 years, the longtime Frisco local has traveled the nation and globe to compete in orienteering: a slowly growing (and seriously competitive) mix of hiking, map reading and good-old ingenuity. Each event features a custom course map that includes landmarks and other ephemera a competitor needs to navigate: rivers, trails, topographical info and, in the past decade or so, at least three shades of green.
But what do they mean? As Crawford explains it, most maps feature three shades of green for different types of terrain — say, light green for sparse forests and dark green for thick ones — to help competitors parse through the best route for the day. See, most courses are littered with upwards of 100 "controls," or markers, but competitors only have to find 15 or 16. The trick is weaving from marker to marker in the best, most efficient pattern, using a mix of trails, roads and bushwhacking to finish faster than everyone else.
And Crawford has gotten really, really good at seeing those patterns. From April 21-30, she competed in orienteering at the 2017 World Masters Games in Auckland, New Zealand, where she went up against nearly 2,000 competitors from every corner of the world: Sweden, Russia, Norway, Japan and dozens more. She won a bronze medal in the first event — a sprint-style short course spread across the University of Auckland campus — and then repeated with another bronze at the second event, held on a rugged, sandy, beachside course at the Te Paki Sand Dunes north of Auckland.
The medals bring Crawford's 30-year total to a whopping 15 podiums (that's about one every other year), split between World Masters Games, held every four years, and World Orienteering Championships, held every year for the past decade or so. Talk to her long enough and she'll start digging into the details of orienteering as a sport — technique, terminology, even tricks for how to estimate how you're doing based on other competitors in the field — but she'll also explain how it's simply a wonderful way to visit the world. In her career as a competitive orienteer, she's been all across the U.S. and several different countries.
"You don't have to be a super athlete to enjoy reading a map and orienteering and figuring your way through a course," Crawford said while enjoying some much-needed downtime in her hometown of Boston after wrapping up at the Masters Games. "But a lot of the people who have been doing this for 35 years are former members of their national teams, and they are just so good. They're the best in the world."
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A few days before she returned to Colorado, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Crawford to talk about the Masters Games, her bronze medals and why IDing shades of green is something of an artform.
Summit Daily News: Let's start at the top: What is competitive orienteering and how does it work?
Sharon Crawford: A lot of people don't really understand what orienteering is. It's navigating on foot, reading a map, and it's all organized with control markers that are on your map. The organizers give you the map and tell you to find your way between the markers. You can go any way you want — it's not like there's a straight line. You can go through water, swamps, over hills — anywhere. They're topographic maps, very good maps, and they come with all the features you need to navigate. People start searching at staggered intervals, so you have about a two-hour start window. At the Masters Games we had two minutes between each person. You've got 100 markers total out there, on the course, but you might only have 15 or 16 to find.
SDN: How did you get into orienteering as a sport?
SC: I'd heard about it a few times. I was living near Boston at the time and there was a New England Orienteering Club. I went to my first meet then, did a beginner course. I'd always been a Girl Scout — liked the outdoors, liked using maps — but I wasn't really sure if I exactly knew how to use a compass. There's a three-step method they teach you, and so you line up the direction you want to go, then line up the red arrow with north. That's how you follow a straight line, but of course you don't always want to go straight. You just use that compass to keep you navigating.
SDN: How did you go from trying it out to competing for the past 30 years?
SC: A lot of orienteering people are runners and joggers, but they're always the middle of the pack. This is kind of a way to keep running, to exercise, with some map reading in between. You can do it with a group — walk it with your dog or a kid or anything — and that's what people really like. There are so many people who like to just go out and take a walk with a map. You might get these very competitive people, the people who just want to win, and then there are new courses and distances all over the place. You have these new urban courses that are held on college campuses and things. It used to be that you were only in the forest, but now you can do it anywhere, and people do.
SDN: Was this your first trip to World Masters Games?
SC: No. In the world of orienteering, there are elite championships for people who train, but then there are the Masters events and they are great for people who just want to go at their own speed. The Masters people started with an experimental format, where they were holding events every other year, but now they are bringing it all over the world and doing it every year. That's the thing about orienteering — people want to see different parts of the world, they want to go on different courses. It's just not the same with basketball or tennis or anything else.
For orienteering, we have active clubs all over the place. In New England you have thick, thick woods, and in Colorado you have lovely open meadows with the Ponderosa Pines, but then you're battling the altitude. You find different vegetation, different trees — different all of it. If you're in California, like Silicone Valley, you have these wonderful hills but they're quite steep, and then you have poison oak out there.
SDN: How often does sightseeing get in the way of the competition? Like, have you ever placed poorly because you got distracted by your surroundings?
SC: (Laughs.) If you're really competitive you have to blank all that stuff out, but it's about like trail running in the Rockies: you can look at all that while you're running. A lot of people, people who won't win a trail run, they just love to get out and be in the nature. If you're competitive you just keep your mind on the goal, but there are a lot of people who are really speedy and lose contact with the map. That can be fatal.
For orienteers, it's like a puzzle of sorts. You know that there is complex geography between you and the next marker, so you ask: Do I go straight there? Do I abandon the trail? Do I get on a road first? You have to do all of these things, and then of course make sure you find the marker. You're working with a 2-D map in a 3-D world, so you have to learn how to work with that. You're trying to decide what's the best route for you to get to the next control. Everyone has various techniques.
SDN: What are some of those techniques?
SC: There's something called "aiming off," which is using a large landmark you can easily find near your marker. It might cost you 30 seconds because you decided to go the other way around, to go the long way, but it might cost you two minutes if you decide to (go straight at the marker and) search around. If you go straight and don't hit the marker dead-on, you waste time. You drift maybe two degrees in 500 meters, just walking with a handheld compass, and you won't hit it — you won't "spike" it, we say.
Another technique is called using a "handrail" — a linear feature like a ridge or valley or stream — and you don't leave the control on that feature. You just go along it for as long as it runs, and then you adjust.
SDN: What changes have you noticed over 30 years of orienteering?
SC: The maps these days are made by computers and they are so good. When we started the maps were just black and white, so you have all of these different symbols that were cluttered on a map. Now, we have color. We also have aerial maps and those have been so good, with real contour lines and accurate features. They also use GPS now. When organizers are making a base map, a mapper will go out, see a big rock that isn't on the normal map, and he'll GPS it so that the points are put exactly where they find them. Maps are just amazing these days. Sometimes, organizers might even go to the engineering or open space department of a town or wherever to help them.
SDN: It sounds like there's an art to reading these maps.
SC: I should show you some maps from across the world. They really are works of art. You've got a color like black that can be rocks, cliffs, outcroppings, trails — plenty of things that don't appear on a normal hiking map — and they're on there to be useful for navigating. You've got power lines, boulders, fences — anything. Imagine: when you enlarge a map to 1 to 10,000, not 1 to 24,000 (like most topo maps), you actually have the space to put all of these features.
SDN: When you go out on a fun hike these days, do you still practice orienteering skills, or do you take it easy and just go?
SC: I have a friend who doesn't know how to read a map at all. It's a lot of fun to go hiking with her because she always has a map but can't read it, but I can point out the features and everything else. That's a lot of fun to go out and navigate. I love to have a map with me if I can — street map, city map, hiking map, anything. I'll even download it from Google just to practice. When you're back east, every trail junction has a signpost, but in Colorado you don't have the same thing. There's a trail junction, but it doesn't always point you in the right direction, or tell you where you're going. You need that map, that USGS map, to help you on the way. Trails aren't perfect — they can take you further and further away from where you want to go if you don't know how to read the map.
SDN: Are there any events in Summit County, or do you have to travel?
SC: We have a club called the Rocky Mountain Orienteering Club, but most of the members are Denver-based, and a lot of our events end up there. But we have a map of the Frisco Peninsula — one for summer, one for ski mountaineering — and this year I think we have one scheduled (there) for the end of July. We also have good maps in Buena Vista, Lake George, down into Colorado Springs, Camp Alexander.
It's a very social sport. When you finish, you get the map back and you're talking with your friend about how they did it, how you did it, and you talk about all of your mistakes and everything else. It's just too much fun.
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