It was a cool, but sunny July morning in the Swiss Alps. Richard
DeWitt left the ski village and headed to meet about 5,000 fellow competitors to be sent on cable cars, ski lifts and gondolas to their specific starting points for the upcoming competition.
At 10,000 feet, glacial terrain made it seem as though the race was about to take place on the moon. After a 45-minute ride to the top of the glacier with snow caps scattered all over, DeWitt prepared to embark on his orienteering competition.
On a daily basis, Fairfield’s Dr. Richard DeWitt, professor of philosophy, experiences a very different environment than that of his office in Donnarumma Hall.
“Through my experience in Professor Dewitt’s class, he definitely seems like a guy to have a competitive nature and be into sports,” explained DeWitt’s former student, Ryan Plourde ’14. “He always had healthy snacks and his Nalgene bottle nearby.”
To orient is to locate something in relation to the points of a compass. The sport of orienteering, popular in Europe, does just that.
Orienteers are separated by age group and given a specific map to follow. Because there is no predetermined course, racers have to figure out the best way to get to all of the points, or “controls,” on their map. They then must check in at their locations by pointing sensors over the controls.
Participants are staggered about every two minutes on the starting line. As soon as the race begins, DeWitt can view his map for the first time. Compass in hand and racing against the clock, DeWitt’s first priority is to locate the first control.
“You have to keep ahead of the game,” explained DeWitt in a recent interview in his Fairfield office. “You’re problem-solving sometime ahead and figuring out the most efficient route to run 10 minutes from now.”
DeWitt reaches about 12 to 18 controls throughout the race. With a pace of about 10 minutes per kilometer, he runs through trails and up hills, constantly bushwhacking along the way. “You think you’re doing things right,” he said, “but you might get someplace and realize, ‘this doesn’t look right anymore.’”
The pace can seem misleading because it is based on the most accurate way to get from one point to another; however, competitors often run more than the assumed mileage. “The courses are designed so that the straight line is almost never the optimal one,” explained DeWitt.
Friend and colleague Dr. Joy Gordon of the philosophy department connected DeWitt’s personality in the workplace to his competitiveness on the course. “He’s someone who is thorough, articulate and has high standards of integrity in everything he does,” she said.
For most races, the competitors are not allowed to follow each other. While their paths may intersect, it would be inefficient to follow someone because they could be looking for different controls.
While novice competitors can add minutes to their overall time by making navigational mistakes, the more experienced runners can plan their route more accurately.
When DeWitt and his wife first discovered orienteering, they called their local club and were quickly hooked. Now, DeWitt is the president of the Western Connecticut orienteering group. “If it’s the sort of thing that grabs you, there is nothing more fun,” DeWitt said.
Almost every summer, he travels overseas to compete in more populated internationally sanctioned events. “The ones in Europe are by far the most fun!” commented DeWitt. “They have fantastic terrain.”
When he was about 40 years old, DeWitt set a goal of ranking as high as he could nationally. “That took an incredible amount of focus and training,” explained DeWitt. Although he did not qualify for the U.S. team, DeWitt was near the top 50 competitors in the country.
“Orienteering can be kind of cruel in the sense that you train really hard for something and then you might just completely blow a race,” reminisced DeWitt. “That can happen where you just have a really horrible mistake and take yourself out of the running.”
DeWitt still tries to keep in shape. He has run over 10 marathons and an Ironman triathlon. Some people would rather not go against him. “I wouldn’t challenge him to any races anytime soon,” joked Plourde. “He seems like he’d definitely beat me in a race.”
There is one kind of training that has remained close to his heart throughout the past 20 years: hash running. On Thursday nights, DeWitt and his buddies run about six to nine miles on a course marked by baking flour. “It’s our chance to just put work behind us and go act like children,” DeWitt said. “God knows how many miles I’ve run with them!”
Although most of the time it’s fun and games with his hash running group, sometimes things don’t go according to plan.
The sun was slowly setting when DeWitt and his friends decided to play Frisbee after a fun run. Although his wife repeatedly warned him to be careful, DeWitt lost his footing amid the playing and laughing and took a hard fall. Rupturing all the ligaments in his right shoulder and breaking his collarbone, DeWitt’s fun-filled evening quickly took a turn for the worse. “We were having a blast, but it was one of those things where it’s a lot of fun until someone gets hurt,” he said.
While no athlete wants to be injured, DeWitt recognizes that it is all part of the sport, saying, “As you get more experience, you get more patient with things. With injuries, you realize that it will take a period of months to get better, and it’s just something you have to deal with.”
Not only has orienteering provided DeWitt with a physical outlet, he also discovered another way that it can be mentally stimulating and satisfying: creating maps.
“It gives you a way of dissipating some energy,” explained DeWitt. This very time-consuming aspect of orienteering has become a relaxing part of the sport for DeWitt. With so few mapmakers in the United States, it is truly an art.
When creating a map of an area not far from campus, DeWitt would walk through trails and map every inch of the terrain. Because one map can take up to 300 hours to create, he explained that sometimes it takes years to complete his hourly dedication to one specific map.
DeWitt joked saying that mapping is like a second career – or rather, an alternative to his career. “Some people do meditation, some people do yoga, and I do mapping,” he said.
Over the past 20 years, orienteering has played a large role in DeWitt’s life, whether through his training runs, competitions or mapping. “Running and competing has become a part of who I am,” explained DeWitt. Similar to most athletes, it was difficult for DeWitt to convey the significance and impact of orienteering on his life – simply because it is his life.