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Fooling Around in the Dark – The 2009 Mendon Ponds Night-O Race

The following is a race report from November of 2009.  Hopefully this will satisfy your lust for reading about our team until we get our Non-Race reports up…

On the evening of November 7th, my son Austin and I decided to compete in the annual Night-O put on by the Rochester Orienteering Club at Mendon Ponds Park in Mendon, NY.  This was our first attempt at night orienteering and we learned much from the experience and had a blast.  Before the race started, the rules were explained and the maps were handed out.  You had 5 minutes to look the map over and plan your race.  Then there was a shotgun start and all 44 teams took off running into the darkness with their headlamps bouncing up and down (it was quite a site).

Mendon Ponds Night-Orienteering Race

There was a train of headlamps through the first 4 points, hence no navigation was needed for the first four points unless you were leading the pack (and we were not), because you could see people bunching up near the Control Points punching their cards.

Here is how the event basically worked:  The course started with 4 mandatory control points (CPs), 1 through 4, and ended with 4 mandatory CPs, 5 through 8.  If you only completed these 8 points you were ranked in the White Course division based on your time.  If you wanted to challenge yourself and test your night navigation skills, there was a “rogaine” section between the mandatory legs of the race that you could complete in any order.

There were a total of 22 Optional Control Points (OCPs) and you could choose how many to visit.  If you bagged 3 Optional Control Points (OCPs) you were ranked in the Yellow course, 6 you were ranked in the Orange, 9 the Brown, 12 the Green, 15 the Red, and 18 put you in the most difficult course…the Blue Course.

However, there were a couple of caveats.  The first one was, you were ranked in your course based solely on time and an additional OCP did not help you in the rankings.  This forced you to manage your time and decide if you should head back or try to bag another 3 OCPs.  The other thing to keep in mind, was that you lost 1 OCP for every minute that you came in over the 90 minute time limit.  This made time management critical as it was extremely costly if you were even a couple of minutes late.

Austin and I spent our 5 minutes looking over the map and discussing our game plan.  By the end of the five minutes we thought we could get 9 OCP’s and compete in the Brown Course. It was time for the race to start.  Everybody bunched around the starting line with their headlights on waiting for the start of the race.  A quick count down and the race started.  Everybody took off at their own pace.  We decided Austin would be the pace setter and map guy for the race.   He set a fast pace out of the gate to avoid a possible bottle neck at any of the first 4 CP’s.   We followed the train of traffic through the first 4 CP’s.  Then we made the first of two errors that cost us some time.

Night Orienteering at Mendon Ponds

Austin getting one of the first four Checkpoints

Austin was looking for a specific CP and asked my opinion of the direction we needed to travel.  He showed me the map and I looked at it quickly and decided that I thought it was the trail to the left.  Austin said OK and we took off.  We found the CP but it wasn’t the one we were looking for.  Since you can get them in any order we punched our card and got out our map.  We quickly located our position and decided our best plan of action was to head back to where we came from and follow our original plan.  The good thing was that since we located a OCP we had not planned on getting, we could skip another OCP on our route somewhere along the way.

Austin at the Mendon Ponds, NY Night-O Race

Austin getting yet another CP at the Mendon Ponds Night-O

After the race concluded, Austin and I discussed what happened and the mistake became clear.  When Austin showed me the map I “assumed” that it was oriented and north on the map was in fact pointing north.  It was my assumption, my mistake.  I should have taken out my compass and figured it out myself, but I was in a hurry and assumed he keeps the map oriented as I always try to do.  If I move I try to keep north, north as much as possible and my thumb where I think I am.

After the race, Austin told me that he thought that I was taking us in the wrong direction.  I asked him why he didn’t speak up and correct me.  His answer was because I am the father and am supposed to be more experienced and know what I am doing.  I answered that while on the course, yes I am still his father and he is still my son, but we are also teammates.  We are equals.  His opinion counts just as much as mine.  I stated that I had final say regarding safety and things of that nature, but as far as game plan or direction of travel, we had equal say.   He said it was hard to speak up because I am his Dad.  I asked him to speak up in the future and express his opinion when he thinks I am wrong.  He told me that he would and our father-son relationship evolved forward a little bit thanks to this race.

The rest of the race went pretty smoothly and was a blast.  You couldn’t have really asked for better weather or a clearer night this time of year.  I was wearing shorts and a thin long-sleeve hoodie.  It was a nice, cool, clear evening, perfect for racing around the woods in the dark.

Our other misstep occurred when we came upon a trail junction.  We assumed that the trail intersecting our current trail was in fact the one we believed it to be on the map.  It looked like it was since it was the first trail to cross the trail we were on and was marked well with reflective markers.  However, we soon found out that we were on the wrong trail and had lost where we were on the map.  Based on our observations we found a couple of spots on the map where we could be and continued walking to find a distinct feature to pin point our location.

Luck was on our side and we saw a group of headlights up ahead (we assumed punching their cards).  We headed in their direction and using the newly acquired “sweep and peep” technique (headlamp on high and sweep your head back and forth to locate the reflective CP) we located an OCP and once again knew where we were based on the OCP number.  We found all the other points relatively easily and were on point the rest of the race.

Another memory from the race was seeing Austin slip on his way down a large hill and “butt sledding” down the rest of the way.  I caught a picture of him just before the slip and another as he was coming to a stop.

Night Navigation at the Mendon Ponds Night-O Race

Coming down the hill before "butt sledding"

Austin Having Fun Orienteering at Night

Smiling after "butt sledding" - It must have been fun

Another incident occurred in the final stretch when we were heading in to the finish.  Austin asked me to set the pace and push us a bit to ensure that we finished on time.  We were moving along pretty quickly and were passing the walkers as we headed towards the finish line.  Up ahead there was a tree across the trail ahead and I hurdled it no problem and kept on running.  I stopped when I heard a loud grunt and a splat.

It was Austin, who had hung his shin on the tree and had found himself flat out on his stomach in the mud and grass.  He quickly got up but had to walk for a while due to a sore shin.  I am proud that he attempted the hurdle even if he didn’t quite clear it.  A younger Austin would have gone around or climbed over.  He’ll clear it next time.   Austin told me to leave him behind and go ahead in order to beat the cut off (“Save yourself… Leave me… I’m no good to you…”).  I told him we were a team and we’d finish together on time or late, it didn’t matter.  He sucked it up, pushed through the pain and we were able to push it a little bit the last half mile or so.  This was good because we were getting close to the cut off time and had we not run at this point, we might not have finished on time.

We crossed the finish line before the cut off with a time of 86 minutes and 30 seconds.  This placed us 4th out of 6 teams in the Brown course (see the official results right here).  After the race the Rochester Oreinteering Club put out a nice spread of snacks and beverages (like they do after every race) and the two of us gladly sampled some of the delicious treats.  We really enjoyed ourselves and grew not only as O-racers but closer together as Father and Son.

Some things I learned:

  1. Always orient the map and make no assumptions.  Point North, North.  A couple of extra seconds to ensure you are headed in the correct direction are well spent and can save many minutes and lots of frustration.
  2. The “Sweep and Peep” technique of looking for a reflective CP in the dark by using a powerful headlamp (I recommend the Apex by PrincetonTec).
  3. Make sure you know where you are on the map at all times.  Keep your thumb where you are and move it as you are moving.  Keep north on the map pointing north at all times (This is worth repeating).
  4. Never assume the trail you find is on the map or a trail on the map is still around.  Many maps are old and outdated, and new trails pop up sometimes as olds ones fade away.  Use other definitive landmarks to locate your position on the map and identify all trails by multiple features when possible.
  5. Night orienteering is challenging and land features look different and are sometimes harder to see or identify in the dark.  Practice will improve my night navigation ability.
  6. My son is growing into a respectful and responsible young man, and I cherish the times we spend doing these types of activities together.  We are making memories that I will always look back on fondly and hope Austin will as well.
Father and son, Casey and Austin after a successful night orienteering race

Father and Son

If you get a chance to do some Night Orienteering I recommend you give it a shot.  Although challenging and a bit different than Day-time Orienteering, it really challenges you and improves your overall map skills.  If you can find your way in the darkness, day time navigation becomes easier.  So, grab a bright headlamp, a compass, a map case, a map, and head out to the woods for some great times and great memories.

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Posted on January 4, 2010, in Race Reports and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “My son is growing into a respectful and responsible young man, and I cherish the times we spend doing these types of activities together. We are making memories that I will always look back on fondly and hope Austin will as well.”

    That’s what it’s all about, dude. I can’t wait til my nephews are old enough to do this stuff.

  2. Absolutely. I hope you have similar experiences with your nephews. Keep us posted.

  3. Good stuff indeed. My oldest, Lydia, asked me a couple of weeks ago, “Will you take me orienteering sometime?” I almost cried.

    As soon as it gets warmer again, we will be out in the woods together.

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