I ran three orienteering races last weekend as part of the Big Blues Ramble orienteering meet outside Chicago, a nationally-ranked A-Meet that attracted backwoods sprinters from around the nation. Collectively, I ran about 20 kilometers of courses, including two long runs and a sprint.
But in orienteering -- a sport that puts you in search of hidden flags scattered through a forest, a map and compass your only guides -- that 20 kilometers feels twice as long. You jump logs, duck trees, crawl through brush, and claw your way from flag to flag.
The map from last Saturday's 5.9KM course, a 1:10,000 scale view of a preserve near O'Hare Airport in Chicago.
I'm an average orienteer, sometimes squeaking off a top finish in my home state at the local meets. But at this race I was just embarrassing, missing flags, then circling back, getting lost, tripping on logs, and running ragged as the clock ticked on.
Indeed, on Saturday, when I ran a 5.9KM course, the winner finished in about 35 minutes; I took more than an hour and a half. (I did better on the sprint that day, pulling a mid-pack finish with a time of about 20 minutes on the 2KM course.)
Close-up of the map from Saturday's meet.
But all the running around outdoors did give me a chance to test some gear. As reported in this race pre-lim, I used some unorthodox stuff, including the Asics GEL Dirt Dog 2 track shoes and Brave Soldier foot lube. Here's a quick run-down on what gear performed well, and what did not. . .
Asics GEL Dirt Dog 2
I had planned to use these 5.7-ounce spiked track shoes just in the sprint events. But I decided to give them the full test and wear 'em all weekend. The cross-country racers gripped great on all type of terrain. They felt so light as to be unnoticeable. But after a couple miles pounding through the woods my feet and lower legs became somewhat fatigued. There is essentially no support with these shoes, just a thin plastic sole on a bed of spikes. Further, there is no grip on the mid-foot on back, meaning that if you step on a tree root or log on your heel, you can slip. The shoes' mesh is no good for sandy areas, as dirt and grit works through. Finally, the tongue, which sticks out and creates an open fold on top of the foot, attracts grit and sticks. I will employ gaiters next time I wear these shoes in the woods. And for anything over 5KM long, I'll wear more-supportive shoes. ($75, http://www.asicsamerica.com)
Brave Soldier foot lube
I liberally applied this lube on my toes and heels before Sunday's 10.9KM race. It felt slippery on my toes, as it should, while I ran off. (See my full description of the lube here: http://thegearjunkie.com/orienteering-gear-for-a-meet.) Then, it became unnoticeable, quietly doing its job down there to keep my toes rubbing smoothly together in my socks, staving off blisters. This wasn't a race where my feet were wet for long periods, so I didn't get to test this lube's water repellency. After running for three hours -- yes, that's how long the course took me! -- I removed my socks to inspect the lube's resiliency to friction and wear. It was pretty much rubbed off or absorbed into my skin at that point, which was a little disappointing. I like a foot lube to be tacky and slippery still after several hours of running or racing. This was my first try using this product. I'm a huge fan of a competing product, Hydropel (click here for that review). But watch for more Brave Soldier coverage as I test the lube further this fall. . . . ($16 for 2.5oz tube, www.bravesoldier.com)
Rail Riders Eco-Mesh pants
Do not use these pants in thorny woods. I repeat: Do not use Rail Riders Eco-Mesh pants in bushwhacking situations in thick woods. These pants, which I love for general trekking, are made to be light and airy in hot climes. They are the pants I wore during the 10 day Primal Quest race in Utah, when temps hit 120 degrees F one day. But in the woods -- as my legs can now attest -- they are the wrong product for the job. The thin and breathable fabric does very little to protect your skin from thorns. I have red stripes, punctures, rips and thorn-slivers embedded in my flesh to prove it. In sum, nothing against this product. Just make sure to use it in the intended-for situation. ($69, www.railriders.com)
Suunto Arrow 1 Thumb
This thumb compass has been a longtime trustworthy tool in the woods. (See my full description of it here: http://thegearjunkie.com/orienteering-gear-for-a-meet.) At the Big Blues, the compass did the same. It stayed on tight to the thumb even when I was on my hands and knees at one point crawling through thick brush. It's there always, securely, and unnoticeable until you need to glance down and take a quick reading on the earth's electromagnetic pulse. ($45, www.suuntousa.com)