The Outdoor City in March: wind, rain, mud and 500 people running around Netherthorpe with maps.
“Traditionally you’d be in forests, moorland and mountain areas,” said Bill Hanley of South Yorkshire Orienteers, as the rain lashed onto a Zest Community Centre full of happy navigators.
“But over the last few years, urban orienteering has become very popular.”
On Saturday, athletes aged from seven to their late 80s were hurtling up and down the alleyways of Netherthorpe and through the Ponderosa swamps, seeking out fifty flapping orange ‘control points’ cunningly spaced out by course designer Colin Drury. Colin and team had spent four hours tying the controls to bushes and road signs watched by bemused locals.
“On an urban course, it can be bewildering to suddenly see all these people running up and down your alleys, but around here no-one was that bothered,” he observed. Sheffield is clearly used to this kind of thing.
The optimistically titled ‘Spring in Sheffield’ races organised by South Yorkshire Orienteers were part of this month’s Festival of the Outdoors, and included nine courses for orienteers ranging from elite sprinters to newcomers to the sport, which originated in Scandinavia more than half a century ago.
Orienteers from as far away as London and Fife joined in the fun, which saw a series of runners set off into the wilds of Netherthorpe and Upperthorpe clutching their maps and electronic ‘dibbers’ with a steely determination in their eyes.
“I’d recommend orienteering to anyone who enjoys the outside and likes maps,” said Lynden Hartmann.
“And a lot of people do like maps,” she insisted.
The competitors had to visit a series of control points in order, marked on a special map with no wording but a series of numbers and baffling symbols. Once located, runners wave their dibber at the control to register they’ve passed by, in the modern version of punching a piece of cardboard.
“It’s a pocket adventure,” said veteran orienteer Lynden.
“Even old ladies will feel they’ve been up against it, they’ve been off the track, fighting their way through the woods, down slippery slopes and streets, then they can go home, have a cup of tea and look at their map and say: ‘Yes, that’s living!’"
The navigational challenge means the sport is attractive to all ages, she added. “You don’t have to be super fit, but you do have to concentrate. You always have to be thinking about where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.”
Sheffield suits orienteering both urban and traditional, said Bill Hanley. “The city is blessed with lots of variety, which is fantastic,” he said.
“We have a mixture of parkland near urban areas, along with hills and moorland unlike other parts of the country which might just have flat grid-iron forests.”
South Yorkshire Orienteers is one of the largest orienteering clubs in the UK, with over 250 members, and is seeing a growth in interest sparked by the club’s very successful local schools league run every few weeks in city parks.
“It’s been going for nearly four years now,” said Pete Tryner who organises the league with his wife Pauline.
“We started with 40 kids and now we often have 400 taking part.”
Once the non-orienteering parents see how much fun their kids are having in the woods of Norfolk Park and the mud of Shirebrook, they often end up taking part too, he added. (There are courses for parents and younger kids at the schools events).
“It’s actually good for a child’s education,” said parent Mark Chapman while drying out with his daughters Hannah and Charlotte.
“It helps them learn to make decisions quickly, in exams for example.
When they’re in competitive mode on a course they can’t scratch their head and say: ’What do I do now?’”
“Every decision is critical,” agreed Bill Hanley, before taking off his coat and stepping out into the swirling wind and rain ready for the over 65s race. “You never retire from orienteering.”
Urban Night Orienteering taster at Kelham Island 6.45pm tonight (14th) See www.southyorkshireorienteers.org.uk for more information.
See Telegraph walks, page 42.