I entered The Barkley Marathon version of orienteering

I’d like to think that we all have watched The Barkley Marathon documentary. For those who haven’t, it can only be described as a trail event that is designed to destroy those who dare enter it. There is no set route, instead markers and you make your own way around to all of them. And no, you are not allowed a fancy GPS watch or support while on the course (only at base camp). Each lap is supposedly 20 miles, complete five laps within 60 hours and you will be classed as a finisher. Yeah fuck that.

With this in mind, I thought my blog title was rather fitting. I arrived at the Wendover Woods for an orienteering event, only to realise that this actually was the Regional Event that people had travelled all over the country for. Me? Well 5 miles down the road. Everyone was rather serious, so clearly I was the token idiot who was trying to have a laugh. Though no one ever laugh. Bastards. There was eight routes to choose from, starting at 1.4km through to 8km. Without much thought I paid my £16 fee and put my name down for the 8km. However the lovely chap who took my details did check that I had indeed meant to write 8km. Surely it can’t be that bad. Hahaha famous last words!

Fancy dabber thingy. Looking like a pro as per usual!

It began with a 1km walk to the start line. I say 1km but it was probably less, however it gave me time to complain to myself about having to walk to far in freezing temperatures. Somethings I will never learn. The start line is rather strange. We line up in single file according to the course we had chosen. Yet again I was asked ‘Oh 8km? Are you sure?’ Yes I’m fucking sure! I’m a professional at doing stupid shit. I just didn’t realise how stupid this idea was just yet. We were sent off in 15 second waves, however there was no one yet doing the 8km route so I went off without stalling.

The first check is down there… Somewhere. Fuck knows where.

I picked up the map and instantly knew I had made a mistake. It was an A3 piece of paper with lines going everywhere and no major marker points as it’s a forest. And of course being a professional, I didn’t know how to use a compass. Yeah I’m pretty awesome I know! Somehow I found the first marker point which was about 1km away from the start. It was at the bottom of one of the steepest, muddiest and dangerous slopes I’ve ever seen. And that’s was just first one. Following this I weaved my way on and off the trails, making my own path for most of the run. The first 14 check points were approximately 300m – 400m apart. What also made it difficult was that some of the checkpoints didn’t have a flag on them and were also very low to the ground. Each checkpoint had a specific number, so you did need to check this to make sure you have the right one.

I should have scribbled ‘stupid’ on this sign.

While I was certainly enjoying my time in the woods, what I realised is that it’s a different type of running. I have a love of trail running of all types. Whether it be short or long distances, running events or just with friends, I love it all. Something I’ve always found encouraging is that trail runners ALWAYS say hello to one another. Today I learnt that isn’t the case in orienteering. The only negative from today is that I ran past/along side over 20 people on route. Of course I said hello to everyone and asked a few how they were going. However I was ignored by every sign person except one (who simply asked where on the map we were). I understand that this was a serious Regional event (I do now), but a simple ‘hello mate!’ certainly goes a long way.

There goes my career as a leg model

After checkpoint 14 I had the task of the hardest checkpoint to find. It was literally on the other side of the woods, about 2km away and of course no path led you to it. Up and over many hills, crawling under branches, it was here I realised my legs were being cut up. Everyone was wearing these fancy leg guard things, except me of course. I would run through thick bushes and yelp in pain along with multiple swear words. James would be so proud that I didn’t type, fuck this fucking shit, fucking bullshit, not a fucking again, my legs aren’t fucking volunteering as fucking tribute! The thorns had bad intentions for my legs. It’s been 10 hours since the event and they feel on fire. Similar to the Kings of Leon song.

My emoji face of:
‘I fucked up again’

With all of that in mind, the zero human interaction, being completely out of my depth, legs cut up to pieces and simply exhausted, I did enjoy myself. The final eight checkpoints were very close together yet hidden down various valleys and steep ascents. After finding the final check point, I threw my arms in the air and let out a rather big sigh. A rather slow jog was taken to the finish line where I collected my sense of achievement. There was no medal, instead we were given instructions of ‘the car park is up that steep hill. Be careful, it’s muddy’. He wasn’t joking.

I should let you know that not all orienteering events are like this, just as not every running event is like The Barkley Marathon. This was my fourth event and I truly do enjoy them. Previous events have been through easy to navigate park lands with my son. I knew this event was going to be tough, but I simply underestimated it. For me it’s all part of the fun and adventure. So here is some ‘wisdom’ that I shall provide with you before orienteering calls your name:

  • Start with the shorter distances. This is so you can learn about how orienteering works and this is the best time to make mistakes
  • Learn how to use a compass. Don’t ask me why or how. I saw lots of people using them so it must be good for something. Maybe I should as well
  • Why go around it, when you can go through it? The route distance is ‘as the crow flies’ so a 5km route is going to be much longer… unless you create your own path
  • Have fun! Don’t forget this is what it’s all about. Smile, laugh, get lost and enjoy being outside
  • Ask the staff loads of questions, they usually are super nice and helpful to newbies
  • Click this button… Orienteering events It will take you to the British Orienteering site so you can search for events in your local area. Gosh I’m bloody good at this blogging thing

At the top of the mammoth hill, my hottie of a fiancé was waiting for me. We went over to the download tent. This is where they confirm you went to every checkpoint. If you miss one, well I’m not sure what happens, but it’s like a DNF. Thankfully and equally surprisingly I didn’t! I came 47th out of 51 with a time of 2:33, the longest 11.5km of my life. Would I do another event? I would indeed. While at times it did feel lonely out there, it was wonderful to mix things up and challenge myself in a new way. I would love to do it with friends next time or try an easier course and try push for a speedy time. If for whatever reason you are inspired by my ramblings to do to an orienteering event, make sure you have loads of time. It’s an incredible way to get your kids involved as well, my son and I call it our Treasure Hunting. Don’t forget that when you do go orienteering, say hello to the other runners! And if I see you there, I’ll wave and smile. Of course I will tell you, my name is Andy and I wish you a great orienteering race!

They said this was the map. I didn’t find any treasure at the check points though. Maybe next time!

2 thoughts on “I entered The Barkley Marathon version of orienteering

  1. Sounds awesome. We have been doing Rogaining with the family and it’s heaps of fun. You should see if they have any events over there.
    Great recap as always 😊


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