The Thinking Sport

GIS, spatiotemporal analysis, and critical thinking combine to help West Point’s nationally recognized orienteering team shine


Nicholas Ives and Jett DiPalma appeared suddenly over the hill, their cleated athletic shoes swishing quickly through a thick layer of fallen leaves. They spied the cloth bag and transponder tied to a spindly young oak. First Ives, then DiPalma keyed into the transponder, sending a signal to a computer a half-mile away that they had reached control point 19, the last on the 7.1–kilometer “red” course.

Then they raced down the hill, slipping and sliding until they reached the finish point of the orienteering competition at Occoquan Regional Park near Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Both scored for the United States Military Academy at West Point in its 150-70 win December 6 over the U.S. Naval Academy—the first time the two academies had ever faced off in orienteering.

Col. Mark Read is a physical geography instructor at West Point in his second stretch as officer in charge of the academy’s orienteering team. During his first term, from 2002 to 2005, Read led the team in the beginning of its current 13-year run as U.S. Intercollegiate Orienteering Champions.

“We had some success before that, but there had been a couple of years when we [unfortunately] did not,” Read said. “There are certain sports that Army should dominate, and this is one of them.”

Orienteering is built on a geospatial foundation of place, direction, and time. At the beginning of the competition, athletes are handed paper maps of 5-meter terrain contour with plotted control points. Using only a compass, athletes navigate a path from one control point to the next, which must be negotiated in order. The path, however, is up to the individual competitor, who must apply speed and mental acuity to make the fewest mistakes possible.

West Point’s orienteering team defeated the U.S. Naval Academy in a 150-70 win December 6 at Occoquan Regional Park in Lorton, Va. Photo Credit: West Point

“I don’t get too caught up in winning,” said DiPalma, a third classman and intercollegiate orienteering champion in the M-20 (male under 20-years-old) division. “I want to run a perfect course. Win or lose, if I made a mistake, I’m a little upset with myself.”

DiPalma is a GIS major at West Point who gravitated to the orienteering team after discovering he was good at land navigation during summer training. Rachel Wolfe, also a GIS major, took up orienteering for the opposite reason.

“I was really bad at land nav, and I thought I should be better at it,” she said.

Pre- and Post-Race Training

As GIS students, DiPalma and Wolfe helped create the training course maps the West Point orienteering team uses to train over the rugged terrain of the Hudson River Valley.

West Point orienteers also participate in a post-competition process created by retired Col. Mike Hendricks, who led the Orienteering Team in between Read’s two terms. Now with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geospatial Surveys, Hendricks introduced biomechanics into orienteering while at West Point, where he taught GIS and conducted research in spatiotemporal analysis.

“We would record our track over the course every second [using a GPS watch],” said Lt. Hannah Culbert, a former West Point orienteer who is now an engineer assigned to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Culbert was the first woman from West Point to earn a spot on the U.S. Senior Foot Orienteering Team, which represents the country at international orienteering competitions.

“You throw that track on your map to note time and place,” Culbert said. “You can color code your speed and say, ‘Here’s a place where I hesitated. Here’s where I was uncertain. Here’s where I made a mistake, where I went someplace instead of where I was supposed to go.’”

A heart-rate layer, also captured by the watch, can be added as well.

“You can say, ‘Oh yes, I made a huge mistake here where my heart rate spiked over 180. I know that’s where I need to dial it back. I can’t think spatially when my heart is at 180,’” Culbert added.

Mistakes can be limited by gaining control over racing heartbeats and other factors that may cloud judgment.

In competitive Orienteering, athletes must quickly navigate a path from one control point to the next using only a compass and a terrain contour map with plotted control points. Photo Credit: Charles Okal

“It’s about managing how fast you can go vs. the decision you need to make,” DiPalma said. “When you can figure out what you did wrong, and what you can do better, it really helps you improve.”

West Point’s USGIF-accredited GIS program, which is part of the academy’s Geography and Environmental Engineering Department, helps contribute toward the orienteers’ success.

“All of the GIS instructors are willing to help me if I have a question on orienteering,” DiPalma said. “We’ve been adopted by the GIS program and the geography program in general.”

Army vs. Navy

The GIS instructors also pushed for West Point to challenge the Naval Academy in orienteering as part of Army-Navy week 2015. The challenge was relayed through Dan O’Connor, a West Point cadet assigned to the Naval Academy for a semester.

The Naval Academy has neither a GIS academic program nor an orienteering team, so an email was sent to its mountaineering club, said O’Connor, who competed for West Point at Occoquan.

Jack Gasper, a second classman and aspiring Marine, was among the midshipmen who answered West Point’s challenge. “I want to learn land navigation,” he said. “We don’t have it at the academy (save for a course taught in the last semester of the fourth year to future Marines).”

Gasper finished an advanced, 5.6-kilometer “green” course in 57 minutes and 21 seconds—close to the 10 minutes-per-kilometer threshold that marks a competitor ready for more difficult courses, according to Lt. Col. Victoria Campbell, a West Point grad who coaches the Armed Forces Orienteering Team.

“Orienteering is a thinking sport,” Read said. “You can be the best marathon runner in the world, but if you can’t think while you’re out there … it doesn’t matter how fast you run if you’re lost.”

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