SOTY 2015: Lost in the woods: Hong Kong orienteering star Harmony Lam tells us about the terror and triumphs of her sport

By Ben Pang

Heading into the woods with only a map and a compass sounds scary, but for orienteering star Harmony Lam, it's an adventure

By Ben Pang |

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Harmony Lam says her sport isn’t just a walk in the park.

To learn more about the sport of orienteering, we went to an expert: last year’s SCMP Student of the Year (Sportsperson) winner Harmony Lam Cho-yu. She explains that the sport puts you in a random place, where you have to find several checkpoints. The first athlete to find them, and reach the final destination, wins.

“That’s all there is to it,” says the 19-year-old student from the University of Hong Kong. “In this sport, it’s just you, a compass, and a map to find the checkpoints.”

But Harmony told Young Post that the sport takes more than just map-reading skills. It requires observation, stamina, planning and courage. It also takes a great deal of physical strength, something Harmony says many people don’t realise.

“Don’t forget, the winner is the one who arrives at the final checkpoint first, so you have to be very fast,” she says. “Running plays a significant role in my training, as it boosts my leg muscles, my agility, and my endurance.”

And to make things even more challenging, you’re not competing on the athletic track – this race takes place in the wild. Athletes need to run on uneven terrain and through unpredictable weather.

“You can’t escape running uphill, which is the most exhausting part,” says Harmony. “Another issue is the weather. It can be windy and cold, but suddenly it becomes hot and humid. Other than being physically tough, you need to be resilient when you encounter anything unexpected.”

Whenever she begins a race, the first thing Harmony does is use her compass and a map to navigate a particular route.

“But it’s not always the right way,” she says. “What happens if you take the wrong path? Don’t stop. Keep running. Look for some landmarks around you, such as mountains, rivers, valleys – or even stones. Match these features with the map so you can discover another trail. If you stop, you won’t see these landmarks and you’ll waste time finding your way.”

Harmony herself got lost while taking part in the 2015 Junior World Orienteering Championship (middle distance) final in Norway. She described the place as a “no man’s land” with no one around. Loneliness and emptiness filled her heart, but she tried not to let it overwhelm her.

“Crying was not going to help me anyway,” Harmony explains. “I had to stay calm and continue running until I found some familiar trails, which led me to the endpoint.” She finished 11th in the race, but the experience taught her how to tackle difficulties and get through rough times.

After the race in Norway, Harmony went straight to Engadin Scuol, in Switzerland, to prepare for this year’s Junior World Orienteering Championship.

“The environments of both Switzerland and Norway are very different from Hong Kong,” she says. “These European countries are mostly mountainous and cold, so training in these areas could improve my tenacity and breathing.”

The alpine training paid off, as Harmony finished ninth in this year’s middle distance.

Now she’s set her sights on the top five, when she competes in the Annual Orienteering Championships 2016 at Black Hill, Hong Kong, from December 25-27. She hopes she can reach the level of local orienteering athlete and runner Yu Wing-hay, who has been an inspiration for Harmony.

“Yu taught us not to stop when we stumble,” she says.

“If you keep noticing everything around you, it’s always possible to find your way out.”

Edited by Sam Gusway