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Rogaine Orienteering Race

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We were chest deep in swamp water, feet sinking in muck, when my teammate, Todd Peterson, yelled from behind: “Is this gonna be a swim?”

I was hoping not. On my map the swamp, a hatch-marked smudge west of Anodanta Lake, had materialized as a shortcut route through the forest. We were looking for an orange-and-white nylon marker — control flag No. 5 — heading due west in an orienteering race that’d been bouncing us through the woods all day.

It was 2:30 p.m., five hours into the Minnesota Orienteering Club’s annual Rogaine event, a map-and-compass race held in the Chequamegon National Forest of northwest Wisconsin. Peterson and I were among the 30 teams that’d set out that morning in search of two-dozen flags scattered throughout the forest.

Topo maps with pre-marked flag locations and a compass are your sole navigational tools on a Rogaine — no GPS allowed.

“Sinking!” I yelled back in warning, water now at my chin. Cattails on the far bank were fading from sight. I held my backpack high and lurched on.

The sport of rogaining, an Australian offshoot of orienteering invented in the 1970s, puts teams of two to four people on a choose-your-own-adventure course in wilderness dotted with flags. (Rogaining has no connection to Rogaine, an anti-baldness drug made by Pfizer Inc.; it is a combination of Rod, Gail and Neil, three Australian athletes credited with popularizing the sport.)

Topographical maps are pre-marked with flag locations; a compass serves as your sole navigational tool, no GPS allowed. You chart a course and tag the control flags in any order, imprinting a punch card at each flag to prove you were there.

The team with the most punched points in the end wins.

But finding the flags — most placed far off trail in little woodsy nooks, on spurs or subtle creek bends, and in deep ravines choked with brush — is only one crux of the sport.

Indeed, rogaining requires teams to plan course strategy, navigate while running on trails or in the woods, and maintain a steady fast-hiking or jogging pace for six to 24 hours straight, the common range of rogaine events.

Wilderness savvy helps, too: On our race, Peterson and I — called “Team Gear Junkie & O Monkey” — hydrated with water from a stream, which we purified on the go; shouldered small packs with gear and food; and ran nearly 20 miles through all type of terrain, leaping logs, crashing through thorns, ducking limbs, crossing creeks — bushwhacking constantly at high speed, at least when we weren’t swimming through a swamp.

Racers ran mostly offtrail in the MNOC Rogaine, though gravel roads were open as route choices.

“The muck is getting deeper,” Peterson yelled, halfway across the wetland channel near Anodanta Lake. I was out on the far side, standing in cattails and dripping from teeth to trail-running shoes.

As Peterson wallowed, I coached: “Keep your pack high, jump, now grab that grass to pull yourself up,” I instructed.

Out of the water, the race entailed less chaos. We held maps always in hand, calling out terrain features on the move — “There’s that ridge!”; “Clearing ahead!” — and gauging contours and position on the folded page. Compass needles spun to north. Feet paced distance, hundreds of steps counted en route through trees.

Branches whipped when we ran the legs between flags, some a half-mile apart in trail-less forest. Wrong turns twice landed us lost, wandering to find land features to match our place on map.

My blood jumped at the sight of each flag. “Bingo!” I’d shout at first glimpse of orange fabric flittering through leaves, running in a burst the final few meters to punch our card.

Like most racers, we saw few competing teams during the day, running alone and pushing ourselves only against the clock. It was, for the most part, a day of solitude in the Chequamegon National Forest, all ferns and moss, exposed stone, and leaf-filtered light.

“I felt like I saw the whole woods, not just the woods from a trail,” said Dave Peterson, a first-time rogaine racer from Minneapolis who competed on Team Axis of Evildoers Doing Evil. “I saw a pileated woodpecker and several grouse,” Peterson added.

Sections of the Rogaine put competitors a half-mile or more into the trail-less woods, on their own to find their way back out.

He also got stung by a bee. And poked in the eye with a twig. And stuck in muck up to his thighs. “My teammate had to pull me out,” Peterson said, smiling. “It was a blast.”

Natalya Myers and Denitza Batanova, the newbies on the four-person, all women Team Energizer, got lost driving north from Minneapolis to the race start. “It was not a good sign,” Batanova said.

But the women, who signed up for the six-hour event on a whim, pulled off a respectable finish, finding 12 flags throughout the day. “Six hours didn’t seem too long,” said Myers.

At the 3:30 p.m. cutoff, when teams were required to be back at the start, racers ran in to add their final score. Peterson and I finished a couple minutes early, coming in from control No. 7, a flag on a saddle to the west.

“Teams coming through,” shouted Mike Carlson, the race director, a pack of eight runners tromping toward his table.

After a day alone in the woods the crush of sweaty, thorn-pricked racers running to finish created a fervor. “Nice work,” people yelled out, or “Here they come.” “How’d you fare?” they asked, slapping backs.

I caught my breath, then counted the stamped imprints on our score card, which totaled 23 points. Despite the swamp swimming, Peterson and I pulled off a good race, finding enough flags to land Team Gear Junkie & O Monkey in second place.

My shoes squished with water as I walked toward Peterson to tell him the news. He was on the ground, dripping wet and glassy eyed, a map clutched still in hand.

“Nice race,” he said, looking up. “But I was ready to be done.”

(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)

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