Monday, September 17, 2012

Emily Benham: "I just got it right on the day"

She opened her participation in the WOC MTBO 2012 with a historic result. Emily Benham, our guest today, tells us about this sport so special, setting its challenges and drawing some future projects. And she also talks about a silver medal that, finally, did not represent more than “a job well done.”

I know that you started by doing Foot-Orienteering at the age of 11 and then came the MTB Orienteering. How did it happen?

Emily Benham (E. B. ) - I came to MTBO when I had just turned 18, and I started because over the winter of 2006/2007 I had overtrained and done too much running. I needed a break and time to do something different from running. I jumped on a 5 a.m. train, travelled for two hours, biked to the event, raced on a battered old giant with spoke protector and chain guard and then went home. I came 6th in a race where Helen Winskill, Janine Inman, Karen Poole and Heather Monro were racing. I think I was about 10 mins behind them, but I loved it. I loved the speed of navigation and the different challenges the sport presented, and I was lucky to be selected to go to Italy off the back of my first race.

What do you see in this sport that is so special?

E. B. - The combination of mental, physical, technical and bike repair skills! With MTBO you need to be fast and have very good bike handling skills - whether it's biking up steep hills, down steep hills, across roots and rocks. When you move faster, the track junctions come up quicker so your decisions have to be spot on. Then there's the added dimension of needing to be able to repair a bike in the heat of a race, which is made harder by a heart rate of 190 as you panic it's race over!

This year in Veszprém, you've won a historic medal for yourself and for the MTB Orienteering in Great Britain. How did you live these moments?

E. B. - First, I was overwhelmed. I finished with a two minute lead so I knew I had had a good race. I carried out my post-race routine, calmed myself down and waited to see the final result. Then I went back to the accommodation and ate. I didn't do anything special as I had other races to think about. I always imagined winning a medal would feel different and more special. But in reality, it just felt like a job well done.

It was a great achievement, especially after two seasons of a relative “eclipse”. Which was the secret of “to come, see and (almost) conquer”?

E. B. - I think the Ski-Orienteers would call it the “love factor”! I wasn't aiming for a medal, it hadn't really crossed my mind. The two months prior to WOC were very hectic and busy. I spent a month travelling Scandinavia, then a month map making in Norway. Finally I was coaching Foot-Orienteering in Scotland for two weeks. Over the winter/spring I was only 'training' when I felt like it (when it wasn't raining, which wasn't very often!). I started doing some training for WOC in early June. There isn't a secret though. I just got it right on the day - although I think all the foot-O helped!

You won the medal in what is precisely a distance unloved by many. Sprint is really your speciality?

E. B. - I've always enjoyed sprint races. Historically, I'm a “forest” sprinter. I find the zone much more easily and understand the nature of forest sprints. I've never had good results in urban sprint races, so I thought I would perform better in Hungary. The Sprint is an “all-or-nothing” event. You have to commit 110% to every route choice and be on the ball with your navigation for the entire course. There are no down times where you can just bike fast. You always have to think hard. I think this throws a lot of people as one mistake will cost you many places, but if you get it right, the sprint always rewards you.

And what about this WOC MTBO 2012, in general?

E. B. - Well, the World Championships in Hungary have finished. Normally, by this stage, there have been several comments about areas of the organisation or maps or transport. WOC this year passed by without anyone batting an eyelid and I guess this is a sign the organisers did a fantastic job, making it the best WOC I've attended. Their 'olympic village' worked well and the pizzeria across the road enjoyed feeding hungry athletes! The maps were excellent and courses well planned. The areas were chosen to give the athletes a range of terrain to compete on, which added an extra dimension to the week. Even the quarantine zones were kept short and sweet. The bulletins were published in plenty of time and even the admin process was uncomplicated and stress free. Well done to the organising team (when can you organise the next one?!).

I know that you're living in Sweden and this is one of the countries that are now starting to turn to the MTB Orienteering. May we have, in the next years, a strong MTB Orienteering team in Sweden as it is in Foot Orienteering?

E. B. - The Swedish team already have two strong athletes: Cecilia Thomasson and Linus Karlsson Mood, both of whom have potential to get great results. Swedish MTBO is growing, but I think it will take some years for it to catch up to Finland MTBO in terms of elite riders. They have events on every month now, mostly around Stockholm and up to 4 hours away from the capital, so there are plenty of opportunities. It will take time to develop strength in depth.

Overall, how do you evaluate the evolution of the sport? What did you think of the latest changes to the rules, in particular about to move off the tracks?

E. B. - I like the direction the sport is heading. I would like to see more head-to-head races over long distances but they must be properly gaffled (the Hungarian system of 2009/2010 worked really well). I would also like to see more mixed sprint relay events similar to ski-o. The sport has to develop to be more spectator friendly and head-to-head races and sprint relays are possibly the way forwards. I like events where there is an option to shortcut through the forest. The maps have to be properly made, especially in areas where shortcutting is likely. I don't think it would work on every area, but in Hungary it certainly added an extra navigational challenge. MTBO to the control circle. Then orienteer properly to the control.

However, I think in the future the carrying of personal GPS devices should be permitted (well done to the Hungarians for permitting devices without a map - finally a step forward). It would take me far longer to programme my GPS with where I wanted to go in a race, than it would to use my brain to get there. GPS units could be declared before the event with the make and model. Organisers could carry out random (not at the start) checks on those that have map capability to check there are no orienteering maps on the device, and “GPS” could be written after athletes names in the results so everyone knows who rides with their device. I use my GPS to collect my HR and speed data, but I have no information on any major events, which would be interesting to see for training purposes. So many athletes now own GPS units, but I can't imagine anyone would gain much time by cheating given that it would be obvious to other competitors - an athlete riding along solely looking at their watch ...

And now? Did you started working for the gold in 2013?

E. B. - For now I'm settling into life in Sweden. Learning my local trails, and trying to love roots and rocks! I'm not going to make the same mistakes I've made in previous years, what I did this year works for me. I've been persuaded to go to Estonia recently, and I'm looking forward to experiencing the maps and terrain there in preparation for WOC next year. As for gold in 2013 - we'll have to wait and see, you can never expect medals. My main goal for now is not to finish last in a ski-o race this winter!!! :-)

Joaquim Margarido

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