A Race Whose Route You Plot Yourself

When about 25,000 runners take off in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 1, Paul Bisset won't be among them. A vice-president at Bankers Trust in White Plains, N.Y., Bisset enjoys competitive running but prefers the clean air of forests and parklands to grungy city streets. And instead of jogging mindlessly from start to finish, he likes to pursue a more circuitous course. Bisset's pastime is orienteering -- what adherents call "the thinking person's sport."

Runners in an orienteering race carry three items: scorecard, compass, and topographical map of several acres of woodland. Colorful map symbols identify such features as steep slopes, fences, ponds, and ditches. Circles indicate checkpoints -- marked by a flag nailed to a tree or half-hidden in the brush -- where runners put a distinctive stamp on the scorecard to prove they were there. The goal is to plot a path that reaches all the checkpoints in the shortest time without encountering an uncrossable stream or a towering cliff -- or getting lost.

FAMILY FUN. Hugely popular in Australia, Britain, and Sweden, the sport reached the U.S. in the 1970s. Some 65 local clubs of the U.S. Orienteering Federation (P. O. Box 1444, Forest Park, Ga. 30051) arrange weekend meets in which entire families can participate. While Bisset, for example, scampers along a tricky 14-kilometer course, his wife walks a shorter route in a less hilly area with their three-year-old son.

The outdoor exercise and mental challenge appeal to "people who like to pay attention to details," says Wayne Chase, a systems manager at CIGNA International in Philadelphia. Tired of the loneliness of long-distance running seven years ago, he took up orienteering. He enjoys the apres-race camaraderie so much that he joined a weekend meet on a recent business trip to Brussels.

Some orienteers compete in major events -- such as the World Cup Festival Oct. 10 and 11 in Nottingham, N.H. But most participate for dual pleasures: They get to enjoy the woods on their own, then relax with others and laugh about nearly getting lost. Sometimes it's more than nearly. Noting that his 12-year-old daughter promptly quit the sport after spending a few hours wandering in the brush, Chase says orienteer need more than a compass and map. "They must have convidence they'll be back in time for dinner."

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