Keith Elliott at Large / Orienteering: Cross-country with brains: 'Those who have heard of the sport now think of it as a cub-scout activity. We need to glamorise it'

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SPORTS stars who spend their time running in circles or swimming up and down aren't too good when it comes to giving directions. Arranging a meeting with them can be fraught with uncertainty. I got lost recently trying to find the speed skater, Wilf O'Reilly, because he told me to turn off at the roundabout before the big roundabout (think about it).

I had no such troubles with Yvette Hague. Directions to her tiny terraced house near Keele were exact as a small-scale Ordnance Survey map. But then, such precision is no more than you would expect from a woman who can belt round a featureless Swedish forest and find a dozen control points in the dark.

Hague is the world No 2 in orienteering, and the only British woman to defeat the Scandinavians at their home sport. Started by the Swedish army in 1888, it is cross-country with brains, a sport that combines running and map-reading. At Hague's level, it is like trying to decipher a British Rail timetable in Polish while running for the train. But it doesn't have to be that hard. There are courses so simple that it's merely jogging made interesting. No wonder the British Orienteering Federation organised more than 1,500 events last year.

You won't see Hague on many of these. She enjoys nothing more than racing full pelt through a misty Scandinavian wood, where visibility may be just a few yards, with just a compass fitted to her thumb for company. Although there are nearly 250 permanent orienteering courses in the United Kingdom, they are not 'technical' enough for the British champion.

It sounds easy. But the map you collect as you start, detailing a dozen or more checkpoints and usually drawn to a scale of 1:15000 (about an inch to 500 metres), does not have cosy features such as a church, lake or mountain. More common features are gullies, a ruined fence or a rock. At the highest level, a map may contain little more than thick forest and contour lines, making it look like those first pictures that doting parents stick on the fridge.

'You need a natural aptitude for reading maps,' Hague said. 'A straight line isn't usually the quickest way. You don't want to go down a hill and all the way back up again. Contour lines are all very well - but they are not marked on the ground, and trees get in the way. The hardest courses are where there are no paths to follow. You rely on the compass, but it is very hard to follow a compass exactly, even over open moorland.'

Hague, 25, has been competing internationally since she was 13. Sixth in the Under-21 European championships aged 14, she has raced in the world championships, which is limited to just 80 women, since she was 16. Last year, she won one of the eight World Cup races and finished third overall despite a serious leg injury. 'I'm sure that I can win it this year,' she said.

And yes, even top orienteers sometimes lose their bearings. 'Once I was lost for 30 minutes in Sweden,' Hague recalls. 'There was just nothing for me to refind myself within two kilometres. At club level, you would ask someone else the way. But I couldn't do that. It would have been too embarrassing.'

Hague is tall and slim, which is probably an advantage when evading trees, and cheerful, which is probably an advantage when hitting them. She looks as if a strong wind would blow her away, but she's tough as the last wheelnut on a punctured tyre. Despite a shin injury that has kept her from training for five months, she battled into 13th place in the final event of last year's World Cup. 'I've got weak shins,' she admits. 'That's why I can't run on roads.'

Top runners don't look at the ground. But travelling at near-marathon pace through woods, where low branches, rocks and brambles await the unwary orienteer, isn't exactly the stuff to look after your shanks. There can be other hazards. 'For the first few days of the world championships in Australia, I didn't look at my map. I was going through knee-high grass and I was convinced that there was a snake under every footstep. And in Sweden, a friend of mine got hit by an elk. She couldn't run for three months.'

At Hague's level, you also need to be pretty swift and fit. An international course is about 12 kilometres and the winner's time will be around 70 minutes. She said: 'I haven't run in the national cross-country championships, but I reckon I would be about 50th. The trouble is, I find cross-country too boring.'

To avoid a cavalry charge, start times are staggered. Since the sport likes to label itself 'cunning running', it would seem logical to follow the person in front of you. But this is frowned upon. 'Men are more inclined to follow, but it is basically cheating,' Hague said. So is stamping the marker controls out of numerical order. 'I haven't known anyone to cheat in an international race, but I've known it in national competitions. Men over 45 seem most sneaky about this.' There goes another winning strategy.

Hague is finishing an MSc in computing with earth sciences after completing a geology degree, and hopes to get a job with an oil company. Her main problem will be finding an amenable employer who will put up with her disappearing almost a quarter of the year for training and racing. 'I don't want to work in London. It's not very good for orienteering.'

Nor is a lot of recent adverse publicity. Over the past three years, eight orienteers from the Dalalven region of Sweden have died from a mysterious virus. The Swedish national federation, with 175,000 members, has banned its top athletes from training until further notice after tests discovered that of 100 top runners tested since December, 40 have displayed heart- muscle abnormalities. Dr Christer Johansson, the team's doctor, says: 'We strongly believe that it contaminates from person to person.'

Closer to home, the British federation has grudgingly accepted sharply higher charges from the Forestry Commission, on whose land about 75 per cent of orienteering takes place. The fee for an international competition has risen from pounds 86 to pounds 700.

Orienteers just want to get on with their game of hide and seek, but they now face pressure from environmentalists, who claim that hundreds of people careering through a forest causes untold harm. Only last month, the staid Ramblers' Association accused orienteers, along with mountain biking and horse riding, of putting pressure on the New Forest.

And even within the sport, its leading exponents are unhappy at the national federation's emphasis on orienteering as a family activity, with simple 2km courses for the unfit, very young and very old. They feel that the serious side has suffered as a result. 'The sport is becoming a victim of its own success,' Hague said. 'A small local race in the south can now attract 1,000 people.

'I tell most people that I'm a runner rather than an orienteer. Those who have heard of the sport now think of it as a cub-scout activity. We need to glamorise it.' And so saying, she headed off for a run through muddy woods.

(Photograph omitted)