NEW YORK – Barb Campbell, 52, regularly chooses to hike through ponds and forests and around cliffs for 24 hours straight. Using a map and a compass, her aim is to find checkpoints, called “controls,” that are typically around one mile apart and may be separated by steep hills or rivers. Each control is worth a certain number of points. The most points wins.
The contest is called a Rogaine, a relatively new adventure sport that is growing in popularity around North America. There are annual events in Quebec, New York and Ohio, with new races popping up this year in North Dakota and Indiana.
Although the sport is still less well known than the hair growth stimulant of the same name, the number of events in the United States has hit a peak of 31 this year, including the FRIGID race in Nashville, Ind., and the Snowgaine in Williamstown, N.Y. There are even urban contests called Metrogaines. And next year, the 12th World Rogaining Championships will be held in South Dakota, the first time it has been in North America in a decade.
“It has both physical and mental challenges,” explained Campbell, who along with three partners has won three North American championships since she first picked up the sport in 2004. “It’s like a treasure hunt for grown-ups.”
Traditional, or championship level, Rogaines last for 24 hours, and are favored by endurance athletes. But in recent years, shorter events, ranging in length from three or four hours to 16 hours, have become more popular. Larsson Omberg, 35, who started competing four years ago, said that many participants are wary of navigating through the wild in the dark. “I think a lot of people who like being outdoors would imagine orienteering for six or 12 hours but would not consider going for 24 hours,” he said.
The sport was invented in Australia in the 1970s. One of the first events was organized by Rod, Gail and Neil Phillips, whose names together form the word “RoGaiNe.” The name has also been re-engineered into an acronym for “Rugged Outdoor Group Activity Involving Navigation and Endurance.” It was first brought to North America in the late 1980s.
The map for a 24-hour race covers between 60 and 100 square miles and may have 60 controls. Visiting all of them would cover a whopping 80 miles. Teams of two to five members receive their maps on the day of the event along with a separate clue sheet providing hints as to the location of the checkpoints, like “south tip of pond.” Each checkpoint is assigned a point value, with the harder to reach ones usually worth more.
Few teams can reach all the checkpoints in the time allowed so part of the skill is to pick the route that earns the maximum number of points while getting back to the starting line before the clock runs out. In an urban Rogaine, participants might be given a street map without street names, and instead of locating physical controls, they might have to answer trivia questions about things at the control locations, such as the middle name of the person whose statue is there.
The challenge of dealing with the unpredictable is what keeps many endurance athletes coming back. Teams may have to troubleshoot challenges such as blisters, fatigue, wild animals and, during winter Rogaines, their water bottles freezing. Campbell was in the middle of a race in central New York in 2011 when Hurricane Irene landed. “I will always remember making a beeline to the finish line and seeing trees falling down, and looking at my partner and both of us just laughing at how stupid this was,” she recalled.
But the hardships are often balanced by natural wonders. Eric Smith, 69, who has been competing for 25 years, recalled one bitterly cold night in the Arizona desert. The frigid temperature was “compensated for by one of the most spectacular starlight skies being enhanced by the Hale-Bopp comet in full view for hours,” he said.
Veteran competitors are quick to point out that the sport is not just for hardcore endurance athletes - families can also participate. Bob Reddick, 78, said that one of the best parts of the sport are the evening gatherings around a campfire at the Hash House (base camp) with other teams. “At the classic 24-hour Rogaines, maybe 90 percent of all teams return to the Hash House in the evening, have a big meal, and rest for many hours before returning to the course,” he said.
At the end of the day, how hard you want to push yourself is a personal choice. As a self-employed IT consultant and freelance writer, Barb Campbell is able to work trail running and navigation practice into her schedule. Her husband, a dentist, who sometimes competes alongside her, commutes to his office almost entirely by trail - including snowshoeing or biking. But even if you just like doing long hikes, Campbell said, you would be fine. “People think you’ve got to be a varsity athlete to try this, but it’s not like that at all,” she said. “You can go out and do it at whatever level you want. You’re choosing your own adventure.”