Monday, 4 June 2007

Starting Orienteering at Forty-Something

Here is an article I wrote for my orienteering club's newsletter, Pacemaker. I am a member of the Hertfordshire Orienteering Club, also known as Happy Herts. Please apply all normal self-deprecatory caveats to this article, though I am also vaguely proud of it in a way despite its heavy weight in unhidden agenda and occasionally bad writing. It's also written for existing HH club members which means it uses some jargon and (to a lesser extent) feeble in-jokes: of these the only one of significance that might need clarifying is the reference to "the struggling and little-known Southdowns Orienteers", which is actually a massive, hugely successful and utterly brilliant club so my brother joining turned out to be a big boost to me. M45 and M50 are just age/sex classes and mean respectively male people 45-49 in the current calendar year and male people 50-54 in the ditto ditto ditto. This is what I was when I started (M45) and what I am now (M50). Now read on...

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I discovered orienteering rather late in life. Well, discovered is a silly word for this context: it was there all the time, and all I had to do was stumble over it, or find it on a map, or some combination of the two. By the time you read this I’ll be an M50 and that’ll only be my fourth year in the sport: I do rather wish I’d started ten or twenty or plenty more years ago, but hey, I didn’t, so I’m making the best of it from M45 on.

I’m not exactly a sporting hero: far from it. I come from a seriously non-sporty background, but I love the outdoors and maps, and was taught to map-read, perhaps quite well, by the Air Training Corps when I was a teenager. Had the Russian hordes ever come screaming across the Elbe there’s no doubt that my ability to find the public footpaths around Goblin Combe would have been a serious setback to their plans. Apart from occasional country walks, the only regular exercise I usually get is swimming. At school I was a total games refusenik: I deeply hated the cricket and rugby sessions at the school field. Indeed, the only times I enjoyed school sports were the games lessons from which we escaped: due to seriously negligent supervision it was delightfully easy to sidle off the edge of the field and straight into a little wood, where we’d happily go exploring. Maybe this was fate trying to drop me a hint about approaches to sport but if so I was, sadly, too dim to notice it for about thirty years

Certainly, my school wasn’t, in those days, about to put a lot of effort into sports development for no-hopers like me. Sport was like music or art – either you could already do it, or you couldn’t: end of story. Except it’s not quite the end of the story. Fast forward a couple of decades and suddenly I’m fending off a scary illness, the sort of thing that can really ruin your weekend in a rather permanent sense. Then exactly one year later a dear friend, of much the same age, simply dropped dead one day. This sort of thing concentrates the mind wonderfully and I started thinking about sports and fitness again. I can’t remember when I first became aware of orienteering: maybe it just sidled into my consciousness while I wasn’t paying attention. Looking back over ancient emails I find that it was 1997 when I first started enquiring – rather half-heartedly I fear – about orienteering. Now, writing in 2006, I’m hugely annoyed that I didn’t follow up on it then: my feeble excuses for not doing so would require another ten pages so we’ll skip them but suffice it to say that my very hazy picture of orienteering, and what I might get out of it, wasn’t enough to overcome my strong inhibitions about sport, about joining an organization, about doing something new, about being useless at it, about always coming last; you name it.

This state of affairs continued for some years, with orienteering – whatever it was – somewhere vaguely around as a half-understood idea of something I might want to try one day, if I ever dared. I think this would have continued indefinitely had help not appeared from an unexpected direction: my brother David suddenly (as far as I knew) took up orienteering, joining his local club, which just happened to be the struggling and little-known Southdowns Orienteers. David had inherited all the courage and decisiveness, along with the brains, so he didn’t spend years vacillating about whether or not to do the sport: he just got on and did it. This really changed things for me as I now had a constant stream of information and experiences to share in. This was just what I needed: I’d previously failed to identify anyone I knew who was into it, and this I found crucial. I couldn’t help but notice that SO had a pretty full programme of events, as my brother kindly invited me to many of them, and eventually the day came when I made it to one.

It was a difficult beginning: unfortunately David was badly delayed en route so the planned gentle introduction didn’t really happen and instead I found myself sitting alone in my car feeling seriously cheesed off, wondering whether to give up and go home, feeling like I couldn’t just hang around for another hour doing nothing, and so on. (I should add that this was Southdowns’ rather wonderful 3-in-1 event, which runs for a decently long day, and was therefore a very useful one at which to dither about whether or not to participate.)

In the end I gathered together my last few scraps of courage and went up to some tent or other and said, “er – what do I do?”. I do realize that a huge majority of people reading this will be going, “uh? What’s brave about that?” but believe me, there will be a few others who do recognize the feeling. For a certain personality type, an event like this can seem a pretty scary environment. You don’t know anyone, you don’t know what to do, you’re worried about making a fool of yourself in 93 different ways and your fight-or-flight reaction is kicking in. And since it would seem impolite to thump someone, you’re left with flight: your sofa and telly suddenly start to exert a strange magnetism. Maybe you aren’t meant to be here at all, among these proper sporty people: you are simply too old or fat or foolish or whatever, and you’d be better off at home. I should not, by the way, be portraying myself as a completely non-coping Billy No-Mates, lacking in all competence and confidence. I operate just fine in my native leisure-habitat, orchestral music – it’s really only in the area of sport that I’ve felt always quite such a fish out of water.

Anyway, I did manage, despite the terrible chorus of nagging doubts, to go and ask for help and, as you’d expect, received it in abundance. I still felt pretty clueless, and I’m pretty sure that I carried out the classic Wrong Queue Manoeuvre at least once, but somehow or other I eventually found myself in possession of the right bits of high and low technology, and ready to start. Even starting was a bit of a bafflement, but the nice SO people running it recognized my advanced state of helplessness and got me started in a kind, efficient and painless way, and even pointing in roughly the right direction, as I had by now, in my fright, pretty much forgotten how to use a compass. I even managed to not freak out completely when I realized that I was going to have to copy all those lines and circles and stuff from that map to this one, and I may even have put some of them in the right places, yes indeedy.

And I was off. At that point – and I don’t want to overdo the sentiment here and make Pacemaker’s readers feel too nauseated – my life changed. I suddenly realized that this was the sport I wanted to do, and that I actually could do it. It’s not that I was so great at it, I hasten to add, but rather that it was so great for me. I am not likely, ever, to wildly impress anyone with my results but that wasn’t, and still isn’t, the point – I was just enjoying being out in the woods with a map and trying to figure out where to go next. One of my concerns about orienteering had always been that it would somehow or other feel like a race, an experience from my schooldays that I’d be reluctant to revisit. Until I actually tried the sport I had no idea how it actually felt, and how inclusive it is of all speeds and skill levels. All my worries about this kind of stuff pretty much vanished during that first run. By the time my brother arrived I was utterly blissful, having finished my first course (yellow, since you ask) and was thinking about my next one. I was keen, you see, to go out and do another because even on that initial try I had discovered how easy it is to overshoot a control, even a nice easy one, and be forced to relocate! Whoops. I thought I might get it right a bit more the next time round: indeed I still live in hope of getting it right a bit more, one day.

From there, it was all as it were downhill. I went on attending occasional Southdowns events and then realised that I would need sooner or later to join a club nearer home. As an aside, I should maybe add that one of the things that I found confusing as a would-be orienteer was the role that clubs play. Like, I suspect, many people in my situation, I did not understand that the club in effect is the event: I had maybe thought it was somehow possible to just go and “do orienteering” in the same way that you can just go for a walk. What I hadn’t grasped is how very thoroughly an orienteering event needs to be set up and managed, and what structures need to be behind this. Anyway, I did join a club, but it didn’t really work out (mea culpa), and after a year I was again clubless until I came across Happy Herts. My first nervous email enquiry to the club was again a bit of a make-or-break moment but I am delighted to report that it was met with a charming and encouraging reply and this has been the pattern for my dealings with this club henceforth. I did my first Happy Herts event at Chipperfield Common in May 2005 and have not, metaphorically anyway, looked back since.

When I think about the last few years it really does give me a great deal of pleasure that at my age it is possible to find a new (to me) sport which is such an incredibly good fit with what I needed. I do know that it’s unlikely that I’m going to burn my way up through the rankings and make the national team lose sleep, but the great thing is that I just don’t mind. The level at which I compete with myself is that I would, in a perfect world, quite like to not be last, and anything else is pretty much a bonus. Having said that, I do remember coming back from a WAOC event at Ampthill and saying “I have had a fantastic run, that was a lovely park, great fun etc etc” and guess what, I did indeed come last in that one. The nice thing is that this didn’t make me feel bad, and didn’t have the power to detract from the great day that I had already had: this is a characteristic of orienteering which is almost magical to me. As a general rule I lurk somewhere around the bottom quarter of most events and I am pretty happy there. I did manage last year to come first on a Light Green course in Norfolk but this seems to have been a bizarre fluke, or perhaps just straightforward computer error, and any tendency to move in this direction has in any case been thoroughly countered by my deciding to concentrate on Green as a rule. I still make horrendous, jaw-dropping mistakes and it is not unknown for me to take more time over one control than the fastest competitor has over the entire course. I remember one event last year at which I got so unbelievably lost that eventually, having nearly given up, I was very surprised indeed to almost stumble over the start, which did not seem to be where I had left it. As you might imagine, though, this did get me relocated rather well!

One thing I have had to learn is to tolerate mistakes and to cope with them productively rather than just getting angry and frustrated, which unfortunately is my natural tendency. Since that first event I have never yet given up and walked away, although it has been pretty close once or twice – when it’s all going wrong I do sometimes have to make a conscious effort to fight off a depressed and defeatist attitude that can try to flood in but, you know what, I have always been glad, ten minutes later, that I managed to fight it off. The fact that I’ve kept on coming to events and struggling with my, er, abilities has had a great deal to do with the kindness and encouragement that I have had from HH officers and members. Whether this is deliberate development policy or just that people are naturally nice I am not sure, but it’s working fine anyway: a club’s behaviour towards strangers, visitors and wandering incompetents like myself is the best possible advert for it. People who are already at home in an environment, be it a sporting event or an orchestral rehearsal, may not realise how confidence-sapping it can be to be a newbie/visitor type. Encouraging the non-gung-ho, and paying attention to the unsporty wimps as well as the superheroes is a strategy which I believe does pay dividends. I’ve also had superb support from all my family, who have been incredibly kind and encouraging and even – to my delight – come along sometimes, despite having had to listen to all my panics and crises as well as my wildly exciting control-by-control accounts of, ahem, dramatic woodland action, illustrated by much map-brandishing.

Other things I would regard as milestones in my orienteering “career” thus far are buying my own dibber (thanks Adam and Miranda!) and eventually getting round to having some proper shoes: this latter after an inordinately wet and muddy (but fun) Saxons event at Eridge which I swore was the last ever I would do in trainers, having spent a somewhat difficult morning with remarkably little control over where my feet were going. (Actually, I could write a whole separate article about the phenomenon of Equipment Buildup.) Another way I have branched out recently is trying a couple of Night Orienteering events, starting with our own one at Whippendell Wood: I had previously dismissed the very idea of night-O as being only for diehard nutters, but I had such a completely fantastic time that I have been forced to reassess them, or perhaps myself. Even though I just plod round very safely on a short course, I love it, and I find there’s something very healthy about being forced to rethink things at an age when you perhaps thought all was set and solid. I’ve now also helped on an event, in a very minor capacity, and it was such fun that I have volunteered again for a couple more. Just over a week ago I ran in LOK’s splendid Boxing Day event, a score event and mass start (two things that not long ago I would have done anything to avoid) and was more than rewarded for my dire navigation round the depths of Trent Park with mulled wine.

I don’t really have any serious ambitions about orienteering, just to go on enjoying it. Sure, I would like to get a bit fitter and faster (yes, and thinner) and improve my confidence and competence, but to be honest even if I do not accomplish these goals I will go on having a perfectly good time anyway. This is one of the things I find hard to explain to friends and colleagues who know me only as a fat slob: it’s a sport which I enjoy just fine in my own way and I do not need to aspire to Olympic levels of skill and fitness to do so. Another nice thing, and I guess it is realistic to acknowledge that there may perhaps be an important development issue hovering somewhere here, is that through me, quite a few other people have now tried orienteering who might not have – both family members and friends. I am aware that, in development terms, as a nearly-fifty-year-old bloke I don’t exactly represent exciting new blood, but my kids and my nieces and nephews and a little network of friends and colleagues may be a bit more significant in the longer term. I often find myself proselytising about the sport and I am amazed both by how little most people know about it, and how interested they often are in the idea when they start to understand what I am rambling on about.

If, in conclusion, I can just preach for a minute: I know it’s unlikely but if someone is by any chance reading this who feels a bit like I did and who has not yet tried orienteering, please please come along and give it a go. It took me some effort to get over the initial hump of getting started but I am so pleased that I did. Seriously, I very nearly didn’t do orienteering because it “wasn’t for me” but I now see that really there’s very, very few people whom it’s “not for”. Because it is an unusual, nay unique, sport you have to experience it to understand what goes on and how it feels – if you are wondering, please take it from me and give it a try: you won’t regret it.

1 comment:

Lottie said...

As always, your writing is excellent. You should do more article-type "excerpts from my life" posts like this one - I really enjoy reading them. (And I'm sure that if you had more readers they'd enjoy them too!)