X Marks the Spot
Stephanie Powell races through the woods on a high-speed scavenger hunt.
Standing in a boulder field in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, I turn my compass in circles in my palm. According to my map, I'm supposed to see a cliff face due west and a dirt road just north. But everywhere I turn, all I can make out are rocks — no sign of the orange and white flag that marks my destination. I jog frantically from one side to the other until I'm almost out of breath. I am officially lost.
I knew this could happen. But it's sort of why I'm here. Bored with my hiking and cycling routine, I became interested in orienteering the moment my friend described it as a mind-bending scavenger hunt. The challenge: Using a topographic map and a compass, you race against other men and women, sometimes in teams, through gorgeous forests or parks to find a series of hidden flags. The person who reaches them all in order the fastest wins. Today, I'm up against 15 of the 113 competitors on the intermediate course, which includes nine flags (the expert level has 12), each about half a mile apart. Forty-five minutes into the race, I've already hit four.
Clueless where to go next, I decide to backtrack, marching downhill a quarter mile and recrossing a dry riverbed. Scanning my map, a skill I learned in a map-reading class at a Denver REI store, I realize that the skinny trail in the distance will lead me in the right direction. (Staying lost wouldn't be such a big deal, though; in a briefing before the race, organizers assured us that search parties would be sent for anyone who didn't cross the finish line.) As soon as I'm back on course, I start to run — my favorite part!
As I jog along the edge of a stream, I debate whether to veer off course and head for a patch of 4-foot-high brush — a shortcut, according to my map. Pushing my way through is slow going. Too slow. I stuff my compass and map in a pocket and crawl along the ground where there are fewer branches.
A few minutes later, I emerge from the thicket and am surrounded by rocks again. I pick thorns out of my hair and quickly get my bearings. If I'm on the right track, that cliff face in front of me is due west and I'm near my next target. I spot the bright orange and white flag tucked near the base of a 4-foot boulder. Attached to it is a hole puncher I use to mark my control card — proof that I've tagged checkpoint five. (Each flag has a different puncher so you can't cheat.) Only four more to go!
Making my way around a marsh, I practically ram into a guy hunting for the same flag. I apologize and study my map, which tells me to head toward a small hill. When he's not looking, I bolt in that direction. No way he's piggybacking on my find! I instantly discover the flag, punch my card, and duck out of sight.
Searching for the final checkpoint, I see a woman running through a field in my direction about 50 yards away. My heart jumps and kicks me into turbo gear. Nearly 2 hours into the race, my quads are burning, blisters are forming, and I'm more focused than ever on finding my victory flag. When I see a tinge of orange and white hanging from an aspen tree in the distance, I "book" it — and finish a strong second, about 13 minutes behind a guy named Bruce.
Winning would be nice, but it's thinking my way out of the woods that thrills me more than anything. With a compass and a map, I now feel like I can go anywhere and find anything. Hell, I may never set foot on a marked trail again.
[This story originally appeared in Women's Health magazine.]