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.