Over the River and Through the Woods...

 

By Gerry Boyle '78
 

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Samantha Saeger '04
Samantha Saeger '04 doesn't just run. She dashes through woods and brush, leaps stone walls, sprints through fields, and finishes races spattered with mud, her shins scratched by branches and thorns. "Sometimes you're running through a marsh up to your knees," Saeger said.

And another thing. She does all this while reading a map.

Saeger is an elite competitor in orienteering, a grueling sport that is a sort of extreme cross-country race combined with the ability to navigate unfamiliar terrain by map and compass. Orienteering is most popular in Scandinavia, whose competitors traditionally top the field at international competitions. Yet Saeger, who lives in Newton, Mass., bested many of the world's top orienteers at the world championships in Denmark in August. Her 29th place finish in the sprint event was the best performance by an American woman since 1985, when another American came in 29th. "My dream goal was top thirty," Saeger said.

She has been dreaming about orienteering since she was in grade school, when her parents, Judy Karpinski and Jeff Saeger, introduced her to the sport they had enjoyed for years. Saeger's younger sister Hillary also competes internationally, turning world championships into family affairs.

Requiring stamina, agility, and the ability to make strategic route decisions on the fly, the sport would seem to be a natural for fitness-crazed Americans. Yet it remains relatively unknown outside the circle of fervent competitors, family, friends, and fans. "It's hard to be a spectator when people are running through the woods," Saeger said.

The sport calls for competitors to find their way to several ordered points or "controls" marked on a specially made orienteering map that shows types of vegetation, water bodies, stone walls. Using compasses to orient their maps, competitors set off after a staggered start, taking routes that may vary according to their skills, preferences, and judgment. Saeger said she's gotten good at running over rough terrain and looking at maps at the same  time"no small feat. "Orienteers joke that they bring a book when they go running on roads," she said.

Road running may seem tame, but it's part of the training regimen for running courses that typically range from six to eight kilometers in length, though the actual distance traveled depends on the route chosen"and whether an orienteer becomes disoriented, a.k.a. lost. Saeger said she runs 10-minute kilometers, which might seem slow but isn't, considering the terrain and the need to read a map en route.
Saeger said she loves running through the woods but also enjoys a sport that simultaneously engages her body and uses her brain.

She was to begin a graduate program in special education at Wheelock College, beginning in September. But orienteering was also on the horizon: Saeger is one of five women on the A squad of the U.S. National Senior Orienteering Team, a group that planned to compete in the North American championships in Ontario in October. She said that at 24, she hasn't peaked and still is learning the sport. "I can get so much better than I am now," Saeger said.