At 73, former Ironman Sharon Crawford is a legend in the unusual sport of orienteering

Courtesy of Sharon Crawford

Sharon Crawford, during an orienteering multi-day event in Switzerland at the foot of the Matterhorn.

As a Girl Scout, Sharon Crawford never left a trail. It was always safety first.

Then she took up orienteering.

With a map in one hand and a compass in the other, for decades Crawford has cut her own routes over hills, marshes and through thick woods. She loves getting her feet wet and muddy.

"To do that now is just so fun," she says. "Wading through streams and crossing and doing all these things, jumping down little cliffs."

Crawford, 73, is a lot of things: former Ironman triathlete; retired software engineer; resident of Frisco, Colorado; hiker, skier and mountain climber. But at the top of the list is orienteer. Since giving it a try in 1974, it has been her primary passion.

Essentially, the sport is getting from Point A to Point B in the fastest and most efficient way possible, while also finding and checking in at the flags (called controls) placed along the way. It's a little bit like cross-country running, but without a defined route and over all types of terrain.

Courtesy of Sharon Crawford

Sharon Crawford in the woods, with map and compass at a "control" site, one of the stations on a course where participants have to find designated flags.

Competitors are sent off in a staggered start, minutes apart and have to forge their own way using a topographic map and compass. There are short, medium and long courses, night races, urban routes, 24-hour team contests and bike and cross-country ski orienteering events. The sport began in Sweden, spread across Europe and to the U.S. and now has competitions across the globe.

Last year, Crawford won bronze medals in sprint and long-distance orienteering races in her age group at the World Masters Orienteering Championships in New Zealand. The sport has taken her around the U.S. and to about 25 nations. She has hiked through Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, run past reindeer in northern Finland, experienced the red desert of central Australia and walked around World War I trenches in northern Italy. She has spent days following courses near the Matterhorn in Switzerland and around towering sandstone formations in the Czech Republic.

She has won 15 medals at World Masters Orienteering Championships and was part of the first women's contingent on the U.S. team at the World Orienteering Championships in 1976 -- the first of 10 times she was part of Team USA. Three times -- in 2011, 2013 and 2016 -- she has received honorable mention for Orienteer of the Year in the U.S., an accomplishment considering the award usually goes to the younger, elite national-team athletes.

Over the course of 44 years, Crawford is a "phenomenon" of the sport, says Kris Beecroft, the president of Orienteering USA.

"You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who orienteers at a national level in the U.S. who doesn't know her," Beecroft says. "In addition, when I've traveled overseas for competitions and have met orienteers in other countries, oftentimes one of their first questions is, 'Do you know Sharon Crawford?' She is quite a force."

Sports opportunities for girls were sparse when Crawford was growing up. She was in the school band, played a little recreational softball and enjoyed camping and hiking as a Girl Scout. But after college she started jogging and hit the roads of New England to take off some weight and get some exercise. When she read about orienteering and learned the New England Orienteering Club was hosting a competition in 1974, she tried it and immediately was hooked. It was like going on a mini-adventure, and she could put her jogging experience to use.

In most orienteering events, she runs as much as she can, often over courses of 6 to 9 kilometers (3.7 to 5.6 miles).

"I'm not a fast runner," she says. "I'm strong and I can go, but put me in a 10K race with my orienteering competitors, most of them would probably beat me in a 5 or 10K road race. But in the woods, you run, but you've got to pick your feet up and over and have to go up hills, down hills, jump streams. Some people are very good road runners and have this long stride, a very efficient road stride. But you put them in the woods and they're not nearly as fast as you think they might be."

Orienteering, she says, is a mix of the physical and mental. Faster runners who can't read a map as well can be beaten by slower runners with fine map skills.

"It's map reading, it's decision-making, it's distance estimation," she says.

The maps used are specially designed for orienteering, and are about twice as detailed as usual U.S. Geological Service maps, with contour lines and color coding (green for thick woods, yellow for open fields, black for roads, trails, walls and rock features, and blue for water).

Sometimes she gets lost, of course, but then she'll get back to a point on the map and start again. Over the course of any event, too, she'll adjust depending on weather or fatigue. Sometimes the most direct route isn't the best.

"Sometimes you say, 'It's late in the course, I'm tired, it's starting to rain, I'm going to take a safer route.' It will take me an extra minute, but I won't lose five minutes wandering around finding it."

When she began orienteering in the 1970s, each control point would have a unique hole punch. Racers would use it to punch a card they carried that listed each control, so judges would know who got to the control point first. Now competitors carry a small device with a computer chip that picks up a signal from a battery-operated box at the control site. When racers finish, they turn in their device and officials get a full readout of their splits between controls.

Crawford has no scientific method of training. Essentially, she trains every day -- and has for decades -- by doing what she loves. That may be going for a run or bike ride, doing a hike or going backpacking in the mountains around Frisco or going cross-country skiing in the winter. If there is bad weather outside, she'll run on a treadmill indoors.

Aside from orienteering, she's on a quest to climb all the highest peaks in Colorado (she has just one more 14,000-footer to go to check them all off) and climb the highest points in several states, including California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. She's always on the move.

"That's what keeps me going," she says.

Her training is much more varied than in her earlier years, when she would train for a triathlon while still working.

"It ate up your whole summer," she says. "It's so much more fun to go hiking, backpacking and mountain climbing."

Or orienteering. It's far more to her than just competing. The World Masters Orienteering Championships are like reunions. "It's fun to have friends from all over the world," Crawford says.

Beecroft, who has known her for 40 years, says Crawford is respected in every event she enters.

"For many people, Sharon is still the benchmark for a successful run. 'Did I beat Sharon?'"

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