December 2018 - ATHLETE PROFILE
banner image: Frank and Micaela at Ausable Chasm.
By Tom O’Grady
Family: Wife, Micaela (50); Son, Keenan (21)
Occupation: Cancer Epidemiologist at NYS Department of Health
Primary Sport: Orienteering
Secondary Sport: Running
For much of the eight years that I’ve known Frank Boscoe, he has dropped hints that I should give orienteering a try. Last fall I took the bait and met Frank for a local Empire Orienteering (EMPO) event at Thacher State Park. In orienteering a participant must find a series of controls which are placed with varying degrees of difficulty throughout areas such as state parks and forest preserves. For the uninitiated, a control is an orange and white flag that is put in place with an electronic time stamp to verify an individual has in fact visited a specific checkpoint on the map. The standard format for orienteering is to sequentially find as many controls as possible in a specific time period. Participants typically have anywhere from one to four hours to find these controls. Frank won the more advanced red 5.3K course. My two sons and I were promptly disqualified for following the incorrect format after completing the easier 1.7K white course.
Many of our previous discussions about orienteering surrounded Frank’s involvement in “rogaine” events. Unlike the standard format, the primary difference in Rogaine events is that controls can be found in any order. This adds an additional element of strategy to the sport. The rogaine format also typically involves events ranging from six to 24 hours in duration. People may make a connection here to rogain’s similarity to ultra-distance running events. The event at Thacher served as a great primer to the sport.
I met Frank once again in January 2018 at the Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area in Berne for a snow orienteering event. It was brutally cold for this outing and there was fresh snow and ice on the course. Frank was the top finisher during this outing in the boot category. Participants were allowed four hours to find as many of the controls as possible and had the option to compete with skis. The elements proved to be too much for my kids and our team packed it in after 40 minutes and finding a single control. The first two outings may not have been fruitful for me from a competitive standpoint but the events got me outside in the wilderness with my children, gave me additional respect for Frank and his competitive pursuits, and piqued my interest in the sport of orienteering.
Frank’s background in geography may have provided a priming for competition in a sport that requires evaluating maps on the fly but it was not the motivating factor. Frank explains that he moved to the area in 1999 when he started a position at the NYS Cancer Registry. He first picked up running as a way to stay in shape. It was during this time that Frank diligently followed training plans geared towards improving his running times. Frank competed in popular area road races in the early 2000s. Several years of following training plans did not improve his times in events such as the 5K by more than 10-15 seconds.
It was then around 2007 that he began to look for alternative sports and stumbled upon orienteering. After taking part in several events Frank realized that orienteering was a good fit. Frank has not looked back since making the switch and I was surprised to hear him say he has not participated in an organized road race since 2010. Orienteering utilizes a person’s skills in many areas beyond fitness including navigation, strategy, time management, outdoor awareness, organization and more. Frank realized that he could build expertise in each of these skills over time, allowing him to compete at a high level, and gain mastery in a variety of areas.
This part of the conversation deserves additional highlighting. Frank was a perfect candidate for orienteering but discovered it later in life through trial and error. Running was fun and he still runs frequently during the week to stay in shape and prepare for events. Frank also runs as a social outlet outside of orienteering. Frank regularly meets weekly with a group of triathletes for a morning run. This helps Frank stay well rounded from a fitness standpoint. However, where running offered diminishing returns in other areas Frank saw unlimited potential in orienteering.
I ask why more people do not participate in orienteering. Frank notes that many of the people involved in orienteering are in the process of aging out. Orienteering enjoys its greatest popularity in Australia, Russia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Orienteering events are actually televised in these countries. A fact that is made easier now by the use of drones. Frank speculates that in the US individuals come to events like the ones I attended and simply fail to see all of the potential positive aspects of orienteering.
There can be little argument that orienteering offers a great workout. To complete a competition a participant must complete between two and five kilometers “as the crow flies.” This means they will actually be covering greater distances. Controls are often off the beaten path and individuals routinely walk by them and need to backtrack. In the rogaine events, which are Frank’s favorite, the distances covered can be considerable. Frank notes the furthest distance he has covered during one of these events over the course of 24 hours is 100K (62 miles). It’s not hard to imagine how covering this type of distance over varying terrain in the wilderness could keep you physical fit and be incredibly rewarding.
Frank notes the recovery time for these events is much quicker than for long-distance running. The distance is covered at an easier pace and is not on punishing concrete the way road races are staged. Another thing Frank enjoys is wandering for long periods of time with virtually no feedback on how he is doing until the very end. This aspect starkly contrasts with running as an individual has an eye on their competition for the entire race. Frank finds this aspect of orienteering surprisingly satisfying because, “you are simply doing your best until the finish.”
Many events that Frank participates in require travel. The larger regional events that he focuses on are in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In addition to competing in over forty rogaine events in the US, he has also competed in orienteering events in Canada, Estonia and Italy. Frank mentions that although he did travel to New Zealand a few years ago he did not make it to Australia where orienteering perhaps enjoys the most popularity. Sometimes he’s found an event that lined up with a family vacation, but most of the time he traveled alone or with a teammate. When his son Keenan went to Siena, Italy for a semester, he traveled with him to get settled and then found a race in the area the next day. Frank points out that he has incorporated orienteering into these travel plans because the adventures offer a different perspective of the place he is visiting.
His wife Micaela doesn’t participate in orienteering, however when Keenan was a teenager, he occasionally would accompany Frank but he would insist on bringing his camera. While they were never competitive, the sport took them to places few people have seen because they are off-trail, including waterfalls, cliffs, cemeteries and interesting ruins.
We discussed the individual aspect of the sport, but also note than many events allow for team competitions or groups. Several of the longer events Frank has done are team events. Partners provide an additional element of safety for those with concerns about being in the wilderness for long periods of time without contact with the outside world. The two events I participated in allowed me to form a beginner team with my two sons. Frank notes that the events he participates in are not cancelled for any reason including inclement weather. As a result Frank has participated in all types of weather.
The worst Frank remembers is an event that took place in the northeast during Hurricane Irene. Although the event was not cancelled almost everyone decided at some point to come back to base camp due to the weather. He remembers the weather being so bad that trees were literally collapsing around him in the woods and he’ll never subject himself to those elements again. Orienteering reminds me of Boy Scouts and Frank agrees, saying it enjoys popularity among scouts as it lives up to the motto of always being prepared. Individuals learn about fitness, the wilderness, navigating, communicating with a team member, outdoorsman ship, camping, sound safety judgement, and a multitude of other skills. Orienteering is also popular among the US military. The US Military Academy in West Point has an official club sport for orienteering, and Frank notes that their teams are often very good. I ask about the popularity among other service academies and Frank notes he has seen other club teams, including the US Coast Guard, compete at events.
We discuss the type of gear that is necessary to participate. Basic gear includes a compass, map, and outdoor athletic attire. Much of the same gear individuals who run or hike already have. Many events rent out compasses and sell a course map for a nominal cost. Appropriate gear can be accumulated over time.
Frank and I also discuss his future goals, which include working on his skills and maintaining fitness. In longer events with the appropriate teammate, he could combine his skill with their fitness, and place well as a team. I have the perfect partner if I’d like to learn more. Frank’s favorite trip was the August 2016 Rogaine XII event held by Central New York Orienteering at Letchworth State Park. This is the most prestigious orienteering event that he’s won to date. His adventure could take up its own article so I encourage readers to ask Frank about it.
Frank mentions that most people probably use similar excuses for orienteering that they use for learning a language or instrument. Something along the lines of, “Well I’ve never done it and I am not good at it, so I guess it’s just not something for me.” Frank encourages everyone to try it. For those interested in learning more about orienteering, a good local group to explore is Empire Orienteering. A website offering extensive information on the sport is Orienteering USA (orienteeringusa.org).
Tom O’Grady, PhD, MPH (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Slingerlands is an avid runner, hiker and lover of the outdoors. He is an epidemiologist with NYS Dept of Health. With a lifetime of racing experience, he’s a NYS Dept of Education Coaching License Level I and Jack Daniels certified coach for distance runners and endurance athletes.