I have seen the Hunger Games films, so this situation worries me. Dozens of people in uniform stand in a wide circle in a woodland clearing, before a man in a cape blows an ancient hunting horn and they sprint in every direction into the trees. Within the next 75 minutes I will have to fire an arrow, climb a high rope and (no, really) catapult three onions through a hole. This is orienteering, Red Bull style, and it’s enormous fun.
The drinks company better known for pouring its considerable sponsorship money into Formula 1, cutting edge music and all manner of dangerous action sports, has just put on its first orienteering race for 150 people. It’s not necessarily a sport that you’d expect them to get into, and it’s not a sport I expected to get into either, if I’m honest.
As a runner of half marathons, 10ks and the occasional marathon, orienteering only existed in my peripheral vision as a pastime with a set of arcane rules and traditions that I was vaguely aware was going on somewhere, but nowhere near me – like Morris dancing. It’s big in its Swedish birthplace, but has not tipped into the mainstream here. It has never been part of the Olympic Games, being hard to film for starters, so hasn’t had the exposure of some other niche sports.
So I’m exactly the kind of naive bystander that Red Bull wants to attract. Come for the free stew and beer, wacky extra challenges and Medieval characters (there’s Robin Hood himself starting the race, the Sherriff of Nottingham yelling at everyone, and a grimy peasant trying to persuade people to taste his bucket of brown slop), stay for a race that taxes your legs and your brain.
At the start I am given a “dibber”, a plastic stick that you strap to your finger and insert into an electronic box at each checkpoint, and some brief advice. Try to run with your thumb on your position on the map. And wear long trousers. I bought a compass, but didn’t practise using it. Nothing prepares me for the overwhelming confusion of opening an extravagantly detailed A3 map 30 seconds before the start, and watching my rivals scatter.
An orienteering map, on a 1:10,000 scale with the landscape divided in myriad ways, doesn’t look normal. Forest sections alone are split into colours for “run”, “slow run”, “walk” and “fight”, which prompts my Hunger Games nightmare again. There are 36 checkpoints to find in any order and earn 10 points, six of which are extra challenges with 30 points on offer. They’re worth prioritising, and are easier to find as they are staffed, but also slow you down. You also lose 10 points for every minute after the 75 that you arrive at the finish. There’s a huge amount to think about.
Following someone with experience seems like a good plan. A couple of times, spotting a green shirt deep in the undergrowth helps me to find a flag, but they’ve invariably vanished again by the time I’ve dibbed my dibber. I experience feelings of great triumph when I find several controls in quick succession, and also deep frustration when I wander for 15 minutes without a sausage.
My strategy of locating a first flag at random, then moving on to the next nearest from there, is all wrong. At 65 minutes I realise I’ve been finding controls near the finish at the beginning and am now at the far end of the woods, leaving me with a 12 minute sprint and a 20 point penalty at the close.
Among other mistakes: I wore long trousers but short socks, leaving my ankles exposed to brutal brambles. There’s so much blood I look like I’ve been marching on a chain gang.
I usually run to switch off and feel free, often not even wearing a watch, so I don’t enjoy having to carry things, or the frequent headscratching pauses. But I love sprinting down the narrow trails and that sudden glorious glimpse of a flag behind the leaves. This feels like an attractive next step from standard running when I don’t have the time for ultra distances, don’t want to buy all the gear for a triathlon, and don’t feel like being electrocuted on a Tough Mudder.
Ralph Street, who runs for Team GB but is based in Sweden, wins with 380 points. I am 69th with 170, having found just 13 controls. A detailed printout at the finish allows me immediately to analyse my many failings.
“The Red Bull Robin Hood concept is really exciting for orienteering, and I think it’s definitely given it a new platform to appeal to a wider audience,” says the victor afterwards. It appealed to me, and I’ll definitely be back, just as soon as my ankles heal and I buy some long stripey socks like his.