Alison Crocker races to top of foot-o

The modern sport of orienteering -- also called adventure running -- is a fast-paced, physically and mentally challenging endeavor that is growing in popularity and attracting a certain type of brainy participant.

Take Alison Crocker, for example.

By day, the 27-year-old astrophysicist, who recently earned a Ph.D. at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, can be found inside a lab in Amherst, Mass., analyzing data gathered from multi-million dollar telescopes pointing at galaxies far, far away. Outside of work, Crocker has forsaken the stars in favor of using a compass and map to guide her way to the top of her sport.

Orienteering athletes must be fast and sure-footed in unfamiliar, oftentimes densely wooded or rocky terrain. Participants have to be skilled map readers and quick navigators who make smart decisions, all while maintaining a fast running pace -- think a sub-six-minute mile pace for more than an hour in the longer races.

Crocker has navigated herself to the top foot orienteering in short order.

She has "truly burst onto the American and world orienteering scenes in the past year or two," said Glen Schorr, executive director of USA Orienteering (USAO), the governing body of the sport. For her efforts, Crocker was recognized by USAO as "Commet of the Year" in 2010. She and teammate Samantha Saeger -- currently the top-ranked female orienteer in the U.S. -- will fight for a spot on the national team at the team trials set for May 28 to 30 in Purchase, N.Y. Ten orienteers -- five men, five women -- are chosen annually to represent the U.S. in international competition.

Schorr describes the sport as "a wilderness race using navigation by map and compass to complete a course. It's a cross between the "Amazing Race," a 5K run and a nice day in the woods."

Crocker was drawn to it naturally, trying her hand at it in high school. A life-long endurance athlete, she was a cross-country skier at Dartmouth College who competed at NCAA championships all four years. She narrowly missed qualifying for the 2006 U.S. Olympic cross-country ski team and also competed in rowing at the NCAA and junior world levels. It was her rowing coach who steered her away from the extreme sport for fear of injury.

But Crocker rediscovered the sport in Oxford when, due to England's lack of skiable snow, she found herself running more frequently.

Now, she typically spends six to 11 hours per week training, with at least half that time concentrated on running. Endurance, speed and strength aside, sharpening her map-reading skills may be biggest challenge she'll face in her quest to become the best in the world. Most weekends she spends the bulk of her time either traveling to or from a meet or running around in the woods, as "the only way to get better at [orienteering] is to just do it."

The team trials present an exciting opportunity. Crocker will compete in three events: a sprint run of roughly 2.5K that's usually finished in 15 to 17 minutes, a middle-distance race that's usually completed in about 35 minutes and a long-distance event that should take about 70 minutes. She admits to having anxiety about the races, which determine the team for the world championships in Savoie, France, in August.

In a sport that is part physical, part mental and as varied as the changing terrain, nothing is guaranteed.

"You can mess up a race, but if you mess up all three of the races you're not going to come in with a good ranking. This is part of what's awesome about orienteering. There's always something that could have been a little better, somewhere you could have saved a little bit of climb or shaved off 10 seconds. There's really no such thing as having a perfect race. You're always shooting for something more."

For more information about orienteering or to find a club near you, visit www.orienteeringusa.org.