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Finished at the Finish
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Over the weekend my brother and I headed to the woods for an orienteering meet. It was sunny and seventy, yet as we drove through Hickory Run in the Poconos we noticed that the park had been pretty much left to the bears. There wasn't a single vehicle in the big parking lot by the lake. We were surprised that so few people would take advantage of such a perfect September day to get out and enjoy nature, particularly with colder weather only weeks away. At least the orienteers were out.

We were doing Orange again -- the "intermediate" course. Given my lack of practice and conditioning I'm no longer up to the "expert" courses I occasionally ran in the past. We registered and I cleared my e-punch, a finger-worn device about the size of a memory stick which contains a microship. At each control site, you insert the e-punch into a control unit, which records the control number and time. At the finish you download the data and receive an instant printout of your total time and the time you took on every "leg" between the various controls.

After these preliminaries, we walked to the start. The number of apparently devoted participants dressed in brighly colored nylon orienteering outfits did not bode well for any competitive ambitions we may have harbored. The line leading to the Orange start was long and consisted mostly of cadets from West Point, identifiable from the distinctive black and white gear they wore and the fact that they were all very young and incredibly fit looking.

"Don't expect us to place very high," I remarked to my brother.

West Point has an orienteering club and cadets often show up at O meets in the northeast. One nice thing about competing against cadets is that there's a great deal of satisfaction to be had from managing to beat one or two. Unfortunately on this day none of them broke a leg so we didn't. To be honest, a cadet with one broken leg would still be able to finish ahead of me. It would probably take two broken legs to even things up. I might, possibly, be able to outrun a cadet who had to crawl through the woods on his stomach, at least if he were losing blood.

As it turned out, although we finished behind all the cadets, we weren't beaten by anyone older than us. Among the other competitors on Orange we were only outpaced by youth. And let's face it, twelve year-old boys and fourteen year-old girls are really really fast! Talk about an unfair advantage! And we actually did finish ahead of a few people. I didn't see any of them since orienteering races have staggered starts, so I have no idea what kind of prosthetics they were wearing.

We did quite well I thought. We were never in any doubt about where we were, more or less. We overshot two flags. We passed within ten feet of the first. It was behind a bush. Who would expect that out in the woods?

Yes I admit I wasted time looking for a way to get across a swollen creek without getting my feet wet. I know that's against the whole ethos of the sport. I used to have orienteering shoes, which were plastic, for going through water and mud. But I figured I could better enjoy the challenges of navigation across rugged terrain if my feet were dry. As it turned out I could only find a spot where I might have leapt from one wet, uneven (and possibly slippery) rock to another. I put safety before comfort and sloshed across.

Towards the end my lack of conditioning started to catch up to me. (Why not? Everyone else had....) We trudged uphill through thick scrub growth which kept trying to knock my eyeglasses off. The ground was covered with rocks and undernourished mountain laurel that continually caught at our feet. I had to stop a few times. I thought the leg would never end. Thanks to the wonders of e-punch technology timing every leg I now know that "forever" is nineteen minutes and twenty-six seconds.

Finally we spotted light through the undergrowth and emerged onto the edge of the fields we had been aiming for. We were disconcerted to see how far we'd wandered from our compass bearing and how close we'd come to missing our target and plunging past into the woods.

By the finish I was finished. As I mentioned, orienteeering races have staggered starts and my races always have a staggering finish to match. But all in all we had a lot fun. It was, for us, a challenging course, and we did it slowly but not too badly for a team with so little recent practice. Now I need to be on the lookout for another meet to attend.

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