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Skinny Skis and Map Skills

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Some people cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, and then there are individuals like Anna Voegele and Greg Walker. They can skate ski at a lung-zapping cadence while reading a map and charting a complex route through a tangle of ski trails.

Those skills have qualified the Truckee ski orienteers for elite international competition, and both will fly to Kazakhstan in late February to represent the United States as part of a six-member team in a global meeting of the world’s best multitasking, quick-thinking, map-reading cross-country skiers. The competition begins on March 3.

This will be Voegele’s first World Ski Orienteering Championships. The former University of Nevada, Reno cross-country ski racer grew up orienteering as a child in Sweden, where the sport is very competitive.

Walker has competed in six World Championships, which is remarkable when you consider he did not strap on Nordic skis until nine years ago.

“I’ve got the orienteering down, but I am not that fast of a skier,” said Walker. “[The Europeans] all started skiing at age 2, and I started at 22.”

Walker has a wry sense of humor. He calls ski orienteering “a niche within a niche” and says, “Anybody who is outdoorsy will recognize orienteering from Boy Scouts. It usually has a negative vibe to it.”

But Voegele and Walker are taking their training for the World Ski Orienteering Championships seriously. Their high-altitude Sierra Nevada training ground gives them certain endurance advantages against competitors who train near sea level. After ski training at nearly 7,000 feet elevation, they will compete in a venue several thousand feet lower in elevation in Kazakhstan.

Much of ski orienteering’s allure comes from its mix of physical and mental challenges. Fifteen seconds before the race begins, competitors receive a topographical map that charts the points they have to check in to during the race. Those 15 seconds are usually spent fumbling the map into a chest-mounted map holder. Racers leave the starting line at top speed, with their eyes pointed downward at their maps.

“You are skiing along trying to look at the map, trying to not run into trees or other racers,” said Walker.

Races range from sprint lengths to ultra long. But Voegele and Walker both said that even the longest courses only take a couple hours to complete, and require much more high-intensity skiing than people imagine when they first hear about ski orienteering. In the fast-paced race, competitors rarely take a wrong turn and get hopelessly lost. Instead, the winning skill is to execute a strategy that has you skiing the fastest possible route through the course.

While at the World Championships the U.S. team is unlikely to upset any of the Scandinavian or Northern European powerhouses in the sport, the women’s team has strong skiers and could turn in an impressive showing, according to Voegele.

Locally, the sport is growing in popularity. The Tahoe/Truckee area recently hosted competitions, and Walker is even interested in starting a local orienteering club. Voegele said a single simple introduction to the sport is all that most people need to become life-long orienteers.

“Orienteering is one of those sports — if you start it and do it, you are hooked,” she said.

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February 14, 2019