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This column was NEVER published in Runner’s World Magazine

Finding Your Way
The Shortest Distances isn't always a straight line.

Some of the best parts of being a runner have nothing to do with running. As one who got active later in life I keep finding new and interesting challenges that I would have never even considered before I became a runner. Knowing how difficult is was to overcome the inertia of my early life, and knowing that I did, has
given me the courage to try almost anything.

This is by way of explaining how it was that I found myself tromping around a forest with a compass around my neck looking for orange and white flags. I was at an Orienteering Meet, an "O" meet to the aficionados of the sport. I was, in fact, somewhere in the middle an "O" meet when it occurred to me that I had once again let my mouth get ahead of my brain.

An "O" meet, to the uninitiated, looks something like this: A bunch of people speaking several languages converge on a picnic table on which a map is laid out. Each person or team then tries to copy the location of the checkpoints from the big map to their own little maps. [the checkpoints are where the orange and white flags are. the goal is to find all of them on the course]

After a few very intense moments of what looks very much like too many cooks spoiling the brew, the individuals or teams take off into the woods armed with nothing more than their compasses, in search of the marks they've just put on their maps. Not understanding the level of accuracy required, I put marks on MY
map that were in the general area of the marks on the big map. This, is turns out, was a mistake.

My first inkling that Orienteering was not an exact science came when I found myself being passed by teams running in both directions down a single path. I wasn't standing at an intersection of paths. Nope, these were people who had either: 1] discovered they were going the wrong way or 2] were about to discover
that they were going the wrong way.

My second moment of awareness came when my teammate Jenny Hadfield held up her compass and proclaimed that the checkpoint was "that way". That way pointed to a swamp that was easily 100 yards across and filled chest deep with water. "That way" didn't seem like "the ONLY way" and I wondered out loud why we couldn't go up to the path [like everyone else was doing] and cross the swamp THAT way.

It turns out you can. It turns out that there isn't necessarily a right way. There are lots of right ways and the right way for you depends on where you are. Often, the right way isn't the shortest way, but the path of least resistance. In orienteering, it doesn’t matter how you find the checkpoints, only that you do.

In the spirit of true Penguinism, we finished in about twice the time that the leaders did. But we found all the checkpoints, managed to be completely lost less than half the time, and only backtracked once.

As I thought about it, I couldn't help comparing what I had learned about orienteering to what I had learned about running. There isn't a right way. There isn't a single path that everyone has to take. There isn't a method or a program or a book that has all the answers. Ultimately, we have to find our own way.

There was great comfort in that thought. Over the years I've seen many other new runners come into the sport and discover that they had great talent. These are the runners who qualify for Boston at their first marathon. I used to worry that maybe their success meant that I was on the wrong path. I worried that my path was taking too long, or that I would never find my way.

But I learned out there in the forest that in orienteering and running, and life I suppose, it's more important to know where you are than where you're going.

Waddle On, friends.

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