NIH'er Fifth in World in Finding Way Around
By Rich McManus
If you think the name Rogaine applies exclusively to a drug that encourages hair growth, you may be clueless as well as hairless. The ungainly term originated in Australia as an acronym for a sport: Rough Outdoor Group Activity Involving Navigation and Endurance. NINDS biologist Patricia Zerfas and her partner, Keg Good, recently placed fifth among women participating in the 3rd ROGAINE World Championships held in British Columbia. Like the drug used most commonly by men, ROGAINE participants are mostly male. There simply aren't that many women who enjoy spending 24 hours covering 240 square kilometers on foot as they try to read maps directing them to checkpoints worth a certain score. At the World Championships in August, daytime highs were 104, nighttime lows were in the 50's, and the bugs were so bad that Zerfas estimates that, at any given moment, she was contending with 30-40 mosquitos. "It was the worst I've encountered in my life," said the outdoorswoman.
Racers carry a compass, whistle, water and some food and clothes to compete in the races, which typically include thick forest, streams and steep ascents. Brainwork is as essential as endurance -- winners pick the sites on the map that garner them the most points within the shortest time; the sport requires the ruggedness of a jackrabbit and the ingenuity of a chess master. Some participants in the championship didn't sleep at all during the 24-hour contest held at Douglas Lake Ranch; Zerfas and her partner crashed for only an hour and a half. Though she downed some 20 liters of water during the contest, which covered about 50 miles, she shed 5 pounds.
Reared in Reading, Mass., north of Boston, Zerfas is new to both NIH and rogaineing. She has worked in the Laboratory of Neurobiology for the past 2 ½ years, and only began rogaineing recently when her times in racewalking and roadrunning events were subpar for world-level competition.
A hiker, biker and swimmer all her life, Zerfas took up running near the end of college, simply to lose weight. "Then I got all hooked into competing," she explains. Working out 6 days a week, she trimmed her 10,000-meter run time to 37 minutes, which still left her a few minutes away from the elite level. She then turned to racewalking, but again was a tad slow. She met Keg Good, a cartographer (mapmaker) with 20 years of orienteering experience, at a road race. "Keg drafted me," recalls Zerfas. "She said my speed was right for the national orienteering team."
Zerfas learned orienteering at dozens of local meets, many sponsored by the Quantico Orienteering Club, to which she belongs. Meets typically last a little over an hour and involve color-coded courses of varying difficulty. Racers stagger-start and wend their way over the terrain following a map that they are handed -- upside down -- just moments before the race begins. Wearing a compass on her left thumb and carrying the map in her right hand, Zerfas sets out in running shoes, rip-stop lightweight pants (over which she fastens soccer-style shinguards), singlet and hat to "hang the control" as often as possible. "Controls" are orange-and-white triangular boxes that are the grails of orienteering/rogaineing. They contain a hole-punch with a unique mark; racers insert a card into the punch, which leaves proof that they were there. Easy controls are worth a mere 20 points; hard ones count for as much as 100.
"You just hustle between points as fast as you can," Zerfas explains. "Sometimes the woods are so thick you can't run. Sometimes you have to go around lakes or swamps. If the terrain is really steep, you can't even run."
Zerfas quickly built up her skills from the white courses, which are the easiest -- chiefly traversing marked trails -- through yellow and orange, which are more difficult off-trail runs that are still replete with obvious clues. Green, red and blue courses are long and hard. "There may be no clues to catch you if you make a mistake" on these courses, she says.
Zerfas and Good warmed up for the world championships by competing in July in a ROGAINE in central New York, where they placed first among women. "There were 45 stops on the New York course (versus 60 in the championships); no one gets to all of them," Zerfas said. "On a well designed course, which can take years to make, it's impossible to reach all the controls."
They got their map an hour before the race in New York, and 4 hours before the worlds began. A period of intense scrutiny commences during which the racers weigh, "What can we get?" Since it was so hot at the world championships, Good and Zerfas plotted a course that took them quickly to the cover of the woods. It was a sensible strategy -- they not only survived to finish fifth among all women entrants (some 300 competitors from 10 countries participated), but also had enough energy left to compete in the U.S. championships just days later, both in a solo event (running alone, Zerfas finished "near the bottom" as Good placed second) and a pairs relay (she and Good finished 13th out of 26 teams).
Back home now, Zerfas contents herself with weekend orienteering events, grueling daily workouts, and dreams of a high finish at the 2000 World ROGAINE Championships in New Zealand. In case you are interested, she's looking for a new partner. One rugged enough to scramble unflustered through the hairiest terrain.
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