What are Sprint, Middle, and Long Courses?
In the late twentieth century, most orienteering events in the U.S. (including almost all A–meets) had “standard” courses. That is, a Green course at one meet was supposed to be the “same” as a Green course at another meet. This sameness is officially expressed in terms of “expected winning time” (EWT). For example, a Green course was supposed to have an expected winning time of 50–55 minutes. There are also guidelines in terms of distance and climb, but given the tremendous variability possible in terrain types, the ultimate definition is in terms of expected winning time. By the way, expected winning time does not mean the time of the person who comes in first on that particular day. Rather, it means the time you would expect it to take for a runner who had a ranking of exactly 100 points in the OUSA ranking system.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, orienteering has diversified. New types of orienteering have been defined. These changes are still under way, so you will still find some conflicts in terminology. Sometimes the Sprint, Middle, and (now almost obsolete) Short course designations are confused. But things are getting better.
Expected winning times are now only part of the story! Each discipline is also supposed to have a distinct navigational flavor.
Here is the current state of things:¹
- Expected winning time of 12–15 minutes. The Sprint course is designed especially for urban environments (parks and college campus). It should emphasize fast running and fast decision making, and provide for good spectator opportunities. It utilizes a special map standard (ISSOM), which includes map scales of 1:4000 or 1:5000, and an emphasis on showing impassible features like fences, walls, or buildings. (Note that the rules forbid crossing objects shown on the map as “impassible”, even if it's physically possible to cross.)
- The International Specification for Sprint Orienteering Maps (ISSOM) that is in effect through December 31, 2019 can be found in this document (PDF/285KB). A new edition of the Sprint Specification (ISSprOM) will take effect January 1, 2020. (The new file on the IOF website is "huge"; a reasonably-sized copy is available here (PDF/1.9MB).)
Middle (formerly known as “Short”)
- Expected winning time is 60% of the EWT for Classic courses. Middle-distance courses occur on standard orienteering maps, but they are intended to specifically test technical map reading at high speeds in difficult terrain. This format is generally considered to be the most intense navigational challenge.
- This is the traditional OUSA distance. Expected winning times range from 45–50 minutes for Brown, to 75–80 minutes for Blue. It challenges the whole mix of orienteering skills: route choice, terrain running, and technical map reading.
- This course is essentially the same as Classic, but it is lengthened slightly to correspond with the international designations for elite competition. A Long Blue course should have an EWT of 90–100 minutes.
Ultra Long (formerly known as “Long”)
- These are ultra endurance events, with expected winning times that exceed that for Long courses. Unlike other courses, these are often mass-start events where following is allowed.
¹ The course descriptions above were written in August 2008.