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PETALUMA — This summer, Erin Schirm will take 14 teenagers to Europe for two months and coach them in competitions that draw thousands of spectators and garner substantial media coverage. Then he will return to the United States, where he'll once again have to address the question: What is it you do again?

Schirm coaches the U.S. Junior National Team in the sport of orienteering, a discipline that combines speed and navigational skills. It's a time-honored activity in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. In America, orienteering has yet to find its way.

If that ever changes, it will be thanks to people like Schirm, 25, who is dedicated to growing the sport at the grass-roots level.

As a kid, Schirm was introduced to orienteering by a cross-country coach in Spring Valley, N.Y., about 40 miles northwest of New York City.

"I grew up playing in the woods," he said. "I had built the muscle movements and the patterns as a child of just moving through terrain. When it became the sport that I was doing, it was just this natural love for jumping over logs, you know, crashing through brush, hopping from rock to rock, running up and down hills."

By the time he was in eighth grade, Schirm and two friends were placing 1-2-3 in a national school championship. That result was partly explained by the lack of strong competition in orienteering, and partly by the kids' talent. Schirm was a strong distance runner who later ran the mile at Syracuse University.

He narrowly missed making the U.S. Senior National orienteering team as a Syracuse freshman, but focused on intercollegiate track and cross country after that. Schirm never stopped thinking about orienteering, though.

Many different ways to 'orienteer'

In October 2012, a year out of college, he accepted a full-time job as junior national coach, and at the same time relocated to Petaluma, where his sister had been living. It was a newly-created position, made possible by a grant from an anonymous donor. It doesn't pay a whole lot, but it does give Schirm the budget to travel the country and strategize with local orienteering clubs.

There are various offshoots of orienteering, including ski, mountain bike and canoe versions. The most popular are run on foot, and the basic concept remains consistent. Competitors use compasses to locate "controls" along a fixed route, and must visit each checkpoint in the correct order. (Their stops are generally punched electronically now.) First to finish wins. Courses are coded by color, ranging from novice to advanced and from short to long distance.

To help chart their way, runners carry elaborately crafted maps. Based on lidar data — lidar is a remote sensing technology that employs lasers — the orienteering sheets are sort of crosses between topographical maps and Google mapping, marked with landmarks like boulder fields, dense vegetation, wrecked cars and even individual trees.

Longer races are usually staged in wooded areas. Shorter sprints, introduced about 15 years ago, take place in city parks or on college campuses.

Racing and thinking simultaneously

It may sound like a glorified scavenger hunt, but the combination of physical and mental exertion can prove taxing. Elite orienteers might average eight-minute miles over 18 kilometers (the longest common distance), despite negotiating rugged terrain.

"As a runner, it's one thing to just push yourself and run," Schirm said. "But as an orienteer, you have to be able to run and think at the same time. You have to have a clear mind and just be able to build up a really strong relationship to what's around you."

The challenge is appealing to a lot of people, especially those who love the outdoors, but the tangible rewards are minimal in this country. Winning a U.S. championship might net $500 or $1,000. A few American orienteers draw shoe sponsorships. Competitors have to foot the bill for nearly all their expenses.

Contrast that with many European countries, where clubs tends to cover entry fees and basic transportation costs. Orienteering has a strong a tradition there. It began as a training exercise at the Swedish Military Academy in the 1880s, and soon spread to Finland, Switzerland, Russia and neighboring countries.

Other guys have an upper hand

Schirm got a rude awakening when he competed in Lithuania with the U.S. Junior National Team as a high schooler.

"Just realizing how undertrained we were," he said. "Like watching these guys and knowing they're not any faster than I am, but they just have the orienteering skills that I've never gotten a chance to develop. ... So it was always sitting in the back of my mind, like somehow I'd like to be able to get orienteering going in the United States."

Schirm knows that do so, he and others must attract more children to the sport. The hard part, he acknowledges, is marketing to parents. A lot of kids are thrown into soccer or basketball at an early age. Getting them to gravitate to an activity that carries no hope of a college scholarship is a tough sell.

The effort for awareness in the U.S.

For now, orienteering is wide open for practically anyone who gets serious about it. The governing body, Orienteering USA, held its national team trials at Mills College in Oakland in late March. Schirm competed in the Sprint event, but was admittedly off his game after months of administrating. More important, he learned the makeup of his Junior National Team — six males, six females and two alternates of each gender, from far corners of the country, all between the ages of 16 and 19.

They leave in June for training camps and exhibition races in Finland and Norway before proceeding to Bulgaria for the Junior World Orienteering Championships, which begin July 21 in the mountain resort of Borovets.

Sounds like an adventure — which is exactly how Schirm would like Americans to think of orienteering.

"If you watch a child develop, what they really need at a young age is kind of imaginative play, something that draws them," he said. "If you take something like tag, a kid will run for hours playing tag. But if you tell them to go train, they're exhausted."

In other words, don't think of orienteering as a race. Think of it as a good romp in the forest.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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