We jogged into the woods like two eagle scouts, armed with map and compass, ready to employ our entire stock of cunning and finesse to conquer the fiendish course.
We emerged from the forest about 90 minutes later, with clothes ripped, sweat dripping and bits of tree limbs tangled in our hair. After finesse failed us and cunning was abandoned in the thorn bushes, we decided on the direct approach. We plotted the line between checkpoints by compass, then charged through the woods like deer escaping dogs.
"Sometimes you just have to put your head down and run," said Ed Hillmann, my 12-year-old guide to the sport of orienteering.
Sunday afternoon, in a chill drizzle that was consistently miserable, about 60 members of the Quantico Orienteering Club raced each other through woods on the Marine Corps Reservation here.
The idea of the race was simple enough. Using a map, compass and foot speed, the runners were to check in at a dozen predetermined sites in the woods, then race back to the starting point. But navigating a course from start to finish, over steep and unfamiliar territory, soggy streams and thick tangles of thorns was even harder than it sounds.
"We don't plan on getting lost, but sometimes it happens," said Fred Hillmann, with a laugh. He is the father of Ed and vice president of the Quantico club, oldest such club in the country.
Some orienteers liken their sport to a road rally on foot. Others say it combines the best aspects of cross-country running and kiddie treasure hunts. Hillmann, who admits he has something of a fetish about reading maps, says this sport gives running some purpose.
"It's a lot more interesting than just jogging. It really puts a premium on using your head," said Hillmann, just before pulling his knit cap over his head and jogging off into the mist.
The art of orienteering is older than Hannibal and his trip across the Alps. It was developed by armies of various countries. It evolved into a sport about 60 years ago in Europe, where its best practitioners still reign.
"In countries like Norway and Sweden, it is a national sport," said Bob McKinless, 55, a retired civil engineer from Alexandria, who wore a blue nylon running suit, Finnish orienteering shoes and a dentist's magnifying glasses for map reading.
The Quantico club was started here in 1967. At that time the club was made up exclusively of marines who traveled to Canada and Europe to compete against the world's best. Don Davis, 40, a marine major, was a member of that team. It was disbanded because of budget cuts in 1975. Davis is now one of the few noncivilian club members.
A few of the Quantico orienteers, such as Ron Pontius, are ranked among the top 15 competitors in the country. Pontius, 25, is tall, dark-haired and competed for the U.S. University orienteering team in Czechoslovakia last August. Sunday he sprinted from the start in a clean red, white and blue outfit with U.S.A. printed on the back. When he sprinted back about 65 minutes later, after completing a course that measured 6.9 kilometers as the crow flies, he was soaking wet and had what looked like pine bark sticking to his forehead.
Not all club members are that competitive. Speed is important, but a 50-year-old woods-smart runner can usually beat a much younger sprinter who hasn't learned to see the forest for the trees.
"It's not just some kind of wild dash. You don't have to be a 25-year-old to do it," said Marit Beecraft, the president of the club, who has college-age children competing in the sport. Beecraft now lives in Reston, but she was born in Norway where orienteering was part of the public school curriculum.
She had been in this country 20 years before she discovered the Quantico club and she only discovered it after following its trail through a thick wood.
"I was driving through Prince William Forest one day when I saw these markers. Somewhere in my distant memory I knew what they were," said Beecraft, a tall woman with a pleasant trace of Scandinavia in her speech. "I followed the markers and found the marines."
If you have ever been lost in winter woods, with the sun setting and panic beginning to overtake embarrassment, the value of orienteering needs no explanation. But club members find it more difficult to explain the joy of the sport to strangers. It has something to do with accomplishment, problem solving and the crunch of a forest floor under fleet feet.
"If you like the outdoors and finding your way in the woods, this is a sport that combines that with a little more vigorous exercise," said McKinless. "It's too bad the day isn't better. But then you don't just get lost in the woods on nice days."