"Orienteering," I replied. "It's all about, um, route-finding. Perhaps you want to come along - they say they cater for all standards."
Much, much later, deep in bluebell woods, accompanied only by the chipring of spring birds, I slid from a small depression to a large depression, all brought on by O (as orienteering is known in the trade). I knew exactly where I was going, but half of the control points were hidden in dips of various sizes, listed as "depressions" on my sweatily clutched route description sheet.
Most of the other descriptors were more obviously geographical (earth banks, path junction), though some, such as "veg boundary" brought on premonitions of an early lunch washed down with copious quantities of, well, anything liquid - it's thirsty work, exacerbated by long leggings you have to wear, whatever the weather, to prevent your legs being lacerated by brambles.
What all the controls on an orienteering course have in common is the ability to be confused with similar-looking points on the map. Which is the whole idea: it's a workout for the thinking runner, if that's not a contradiction in terms.
But it's not just high-speed map reading. On a reasonable-sized course, the solitary splendour of running across open country makes it a very different experience to a massed-start cross country run. Good. The whole idea is not to be able to follow the herd, so staggered starts are used. Each individual finds their own way from one control to another, marking their control card with a needle punch. At the end of the course, the different punch patterns establish that you really did find all the controls.
Various courses, from easy to hard, generally share the same territory, giving rise to startling apparitions charging out of the undergrowth from where you least expect them. Otherwise it's a relatively peaceful experience: just you, your map and the rasping of your agonised breath as you toil up yet another hill. The Come Orienteering leaflet says the physical exertion goes almost unnoticed as you read your map and follow your route, but in other respects, it's quite accurate.
Having queued for a start time, map and punch card, you go to the false start where the timing begins and you sprint five yards to the master map to copy your control point locations. Then you start for real, working out a route as you go. Before this point, the only information you can study over a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich is the unmarked map, but at least it gives you the chance to work out which way north is, at your leisure, and perhaps even more critically, to distinguish fences from paths or contour lines or something called an uncrossable dyke.
For beginners, compass work and intricate map-reading are all a bit of a technicality: your route won't be very complicated, as it relies mostly on paths. You can easily see where you've got to go, if you have any map sense at all. Once you get competitive, it's a different story: your instantly planned route has to weight up the various options from point to point. The easiest way will be the longest, but the direct route might have almost impenetrable undergrowth. It's your choice. A serious map- or compass- reading error could lose you minutes and add to the distance travelled, particularly if an impassable obstacle is overlooked on the map.
Even on easy terrain, time pressure can induce mistakes in anyone with more enthusiasm than experience. You should aim for a level of exertion that still allows the brain to function and leaves you with enough co- ordination to clip your card at each control. Keeping moving, even slowly, is the key, getting your bearings as you go. At the highest levels, where long distances are covered in world-class running times, momentary indecision which costs just five or 10 seconds can be the difference between gold and also-ran. But unless you're representing your country or have a lot of money on the outcome, remember that orienteering - above all other sports - is not about arriving so much as how you get there. Besides, there's only orange squash and, inexplicably, results papers pinned up on washing lines to look forward to anyway.
getting your bearings
Contact the British Orienteering Federation, Riversdale, Dale Road North, Darley Dale, Matlock, Derbyshire DE4 2HX (01629 734042; www.cix.co.uk/bof; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). Send an A4 sae for a starter pack including details on local clubs, fixtures lists and what to do at your first event. Compass Sport (0181-892 9429; e-mail email@example.com) is Britain's national orienteering magazine, with extensive coverage of the national and international race scene and related events, such as mountain marathons and mountain bike orienteering.
No special clothing is needed to start orienteering, although tracksuit trousers and trainers are sensible. Competitive orienteers often wear studded shoes and gaiters over Lycra leggings. You need a rollerball pen for marking the course on your map, a compass and a clear polythene bag to use as a map case. The map and control card are supplied by the organisers, covered by a modest entry fee.
Orienteering takes place all over the country, but the bigger the terrain the better. This weekend, World Cup races are being held in the Lake District and in 1999 the World Championships come to Scotland, which has ideal conditions.
If you don't fancy jogging, the Trail Cyclists Association (01531 632650) arranges 70 mountain bike orienteering events a year in the UK; the Porelle/ Polaris Challenge (01246 240218) is a two-day off-road bike orienteering event held three time a year. Combining your skills, events such as the Salomon X-Mountain Adventure (01256 479555) offer biking, kayaking, hiking and orienteering over a two-day wilderness course. There are six held throughout Europe - the next one takes place in Scotland from 5-7 June.Reuse content