by Peter Amram
Originally appeared in the NEOC Times, Volume 35, No. 3, April/May, 2005
The most important control on any orienteering course is the first one. Experience has shown that problems on #1 often presage difficulties throughout the course, or at least until the orienteer has had time to "settle down" sufficiently to see the map and its scale clearly and to relate both to the surrounding terrain. Conversely, a secure approach to the first control is the foundation for a clean run with accuracy throughout.
Every map is different, and even experienced orienteers need to adjust to the reality of what they hold in their hand at the start. Maps vary in scale and amount of detail, and in use of color and contour lines and symbol selection. And of course there are differences in the actual terrain which each map attempts to represent.
The orienteer must be disciplined not to charge off down the nearest trail, or, far worse, on a compass bearing, upon hearing the command "Go." Rather, the orienteer should take time, standing still if necessary or walking slowly if possible, to examine the map itself and to look at the entire loop of controls, noting any special terrain or approach problems. (Because the mind works on problems unconsciously, a leg that looks difficult initially is often less so when you get to it. Many minutes late in the course can be saved in this fashion.)
"Contact" is the O-term for the relationship in your mind between what you see on the map and what you experience in the natural world around you. Solid contact is necessary at all stages of an orienteering course. Contact is a function of experience but also and mostly of concentration. Poor contact early normally results in a miss on #1. So slow down and nail the first one. You can always speed up later. Remember that for most people, a slower time is due far more often to errors than diminished foot speed. Smart is fast in this sport. And smart means secure.
Scale can be a particular problem. The most common error is to underestimate how quickly things go by at 1:10000 compared to 1:15000, and the result is overshooting controls, especially the first control. [Full disclosure: Last spring I ran at successive venues which by remarkable happenstance were on maps of decreasing scale: 1:15000 (Rocky Woods), 1:10000 (Boojum), 1:7500 (Needham), 1:5000 (Hammond), and 1:4000 (Peters Hill). The most difficult adjustment was at Needham, where I enthusiastically overran #2, an easy target near a strong linear feature (a stone wall). But I ignored obvious evidence because I wasn't used to the scale. And, predictably, I was shaky on some later controls.] And the reverse is true. At 1:15000 it seems to take forever to get to a target if your expectation is based on 1:10000 or less. In this case, the tendency is to stop short and look in vain for a control which lies further along the line of travel.
Another issue with the first control is deciding (assuming you have the choice on Orange and Advanced courses) whether to enter the woods directly or to run as much as possible on a trail. If the aim is to post a fast time, the early trail will be faster but, to be realistic, the time gained running for a few hundred meters is not likely to matter much. If, on the other hand, the idea of running local meets is to improve your O-skills, then I definitely recommend entering the woods as early as possible. Trail running is not orienteering; real orienteering takes place only in the woods. However, the basic point is to SLOW DOWN on #1 so as to NAIL IT securely and start your run off well.