For the first time, we return to ask questions from an athlete that has already been featured as IOF Athlete of the Month! We are doing this for a good reason: in April 2011 Emily Benham (GBR) was a promising young athlete who had started her MTB orienteering career a few years earlier. Now, she is the overall World Cup winner, and one of the biggest names in MTB orienteering. Also, her name is the one that keeps coming up when we ask for suggestions for Athlete of the Month. So, please read here what has changed since 2011 – it is a lot! – and what Emily thinks about the MTB orienteering world now.
Name: Emily Benham
Country: Great Britain
Discipline: MTB Orienteering
Career highlights: World MTB Orienteering Championships: Long Distance 4th (2013), Middle Distance 2nd (2014, 2013), Sprint 2nd (2012), 3rd (2014); European MTB Orienteering Championships: Middle Distance 1st (2013), Sprint 4th (2013); Junior World MTB Orienteering Championships: Long Distance 4th (2008), Middle Distance 6th (2009), Sprint 4th (2009); World Cup – winner overall 2014, 4th in 2013.
IOF World Ranking position: 2nd (as at 28 August 2014)
Three years ago, the IOF’s Athlete of the Month was just starting and Emily Benham was the first MTB orienteer to be interviewed. So much has changed in the last three years, and most of the things she wrote back then don’t apply any more. Now that “Athlete of the Month” has become fully established within the IOF we know that, like many of us, Emily reads the latest interview first thing in the morning on the 1st of each month. “There have been so many talented athletes recently, and it feels quite a privilege to be amongst them”, she says.
Emily Benham came to MTBO when she had just turned 18. She felt that she needed a break from her FootO activity and she was looking for something different to running. So she 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. She came 6th in a race where Helen Winskill, Janine Inman, Karen Poole and Heather Monro were racing. “I think I was about 10 minutes behind them, but I loved it”, she remembers. Emily has kept her love for MTBO ever since then: “I love riding my bike and it’s a genuine pleasure to be out riding and exploring new trails every day”. She is now satisfied and happy with her life “but also obsessed about bikes and MTBO”, she says, adding that “there is rarely a moment when I’m not thinking about an upcoming race, training, techniques, building a bike or the season ahead! Sometimes I wish I could chill out, but 6 weeks out from a race and I can guarantee I won’t be thinking of much else.”
“A 2nd place finisher”
Back to April 2011 and to the Athlete of the Month column – http://orienteering.org/april2011/ – we can read that “this season the 21-year-old athlete wants to finish in the top six in both World Cup and World Championships races. A fifth place has so far been her best individual result.” Three years later and so many things have happened, namely two silver medals in World Championships and the gold one in the Middle Distance at the Europeans last year. Medals and performances that mean a lot to Emily Benham. So far, she confesses to be most proud of her 4th place in the WOC Long Distance last year, and she explains why: “It was a good race, I rode hard from start to finish. Although I made a few small mistakes through (what I now deem unnecessary) risk-taking, that position marked something I hadn’t planned on doing until at the earliest this year: targeting the Long race too.” Emily has a new attitude since then: “That result made me realise that everything I did in preparation for my ‘target’ races wasn’t the whole reason for my medals. I understood that I had trained enough to become one of the fastest women in MTBO, and that has driven my desire for greater speed this season”, she says.
“The two silver medals are great, but they only reinforce all my previous results”, says Emily, admitting to be “a 2nd place finisher.” She had rarely won major events, but the European Championships changed all that: “I probably shouldn’t have won that race as I was so mentally jittery before I started warming up, but I understood the map really well and what was required of me to successfully complete the course”, she notes. She also mentions something very important: “In reality, winning medals doesn’t come down to luck on the day. It’s the end result of hard work in training, both physically and mentally. We get out of sport what we put in, and results at major races are just the consequence of either good or bad training/preparation”, she believes.
The right steps
In 2012 Emily was given a ‘taper plan’. Not the normal ‘one or two weeks reduced volume before a major race’ tapering-off plan, but something that she defines as “a real one, a plan that had been tried and tested in other sports and was proven to work.” It made sense to her. Having never understood how to formulate a taper plan, Emily saw it as a step in the right direction. She tried it for WOC in 2012, and it worked. With that result she grew in confidence in her own ability, and she started believing rather than just hoping. Each year, Emily has taken an increasingly professional approach to the sport: “For now, I’m seeking big fitness and speed gains through physical, mental and technical training. In some years I will reach the point where making minimal gains through diet and tyre choice will become relevant”.
At the end of each season, Emily analyses her target races critically: “I seek out all my weaknesses and then set a plan that will turn them into strengths”, she explains. Last year, for example, she realised that her technical riding skills “were somewhat lacking”, so this year a lot of her training has been around developing confidence and bike handling through technical sections. Emily wants to make sure that her training plan evolves each year: “If I kept it the same, I would be in denial of the things that need improving. My strengths and weaknesses will change year on year, and the advantage of an evolving plan is that I can really target my weaknesses and this improves my overall performance.” Emily is conscious that “there is still a lot of work to be done in the area but I now have a solid base to build on”.
- Is there a special moment that you would choose during the last three years?
“It’s difficult to choose a precise sporting moment in the last three years, but the best moment and pivotal point in my life was starting a relationship with Hans Jørgen [Kvåle]. Without him, I am confident that I wouldn’t be in the position I am in today. Secondly, moving to Norway was another important moment. It enabled me to live in an environment where I could see how elite athletes trained.”
A busy daily routine
Asked about her typical training week, Emily accepted to share with us the principles of a busy daily routine: “Each week tends to vary in terms of the sessions I do, but the core parts such as intervals (three sessions), max strength, skill training and MTBO remain the same. The nature of the intervals and strength sessions change in the summer months to focus more on speed rather than endurance.” Emily works to a progressive training load in three-week periods, “where each week has a heavier load than the last, this year averaging 20 hours a week”, she explains. Emily’s recovery week is typically just 12 hours and she take about 10 rest days a year, but she tries to keep the training volume high all year, with the exception of the taper periods.
The athlete’s yearly training is based around four months’ cross-country skiing in the winter, and the rest mountain biking. Emily prefers to train outdoors so rarely uses an indoor trainer, unless it’s really wet or cold. In the winter she also likes to ride “my fat bike”, in her words “surprisingly hard work, in part because it weighs 14.5 kg! This winter, however, I’m getting a carbon fat bike which will weigh 11 kg.” At the moment, all Emily’s training is based on heart rate zones: “I’d love to use a power meter to get a more accurate measure of intensity, but when it comes down to spending £2000 on a power meter or on a new set of wheels, I’m going to choose the wheels”, she avers.
A challenge called Athletes’ Commission
It’s really good to have people so committed to orienteering, and Emily is an example to us all. At the beginning of August she was appointed as a new member of the IOF’s Athletes’ Commission, and now that she has just joined the team, there are already a lot of good ideas to present, that’s for sure. “You’re right, I have lots of ideas already. Mainly about developing the sport. But they are just ideas at the moment. Some may work, others not”, she starts. Being the centre of many discussions and close to important changes, Emily knows what to expect; “The biggest factor in developing MTBO will be the resistance and willingness of the MTBO community and the wider orienteering community. At the moment, our sports are very much in the dark ages in terms of media coverage and ‘star’ athletes”, she says. Emily’s opinion is that “the sports tend to work towards their own goals, rather than working together”, adding that “the proposed World Cup plan for FootO is good, but it only looks at FootO. MTBO and SkiO also struggle to have high-quality races and professional organisers. I think any future plan needs to encompass all the disciplines”.
With her, we sit at the Commission’s table, listening to what she has to say, mostly about media facilities and opportunities: “At the moment, the media efforts are solely confined to FootO and in part SkiO. Very little has translated across, unfortunately, but these things take time. Cycling is really big at the moment, so there must be a significant portion of the population that would have an interest in watching a cycling-based sport on TV. The same in Scandinavia with skiing. In addition, disability and precision sports are really growing since London 2012, and it’s a real opportunity for TempO and PreO to promote themselves to an increasingly interested public. There are so many media opportunities surrounding orienteering, but it needs a good plan and a bit of financial backing to get started.” Interestingly, Emily notes that “the Tour de France is boring in comparison to watching that little GPS dot in real time go off-track, and trying to shout it back to the right route choice!” And she concludes: “There are advantages and disadvantages regarding TV production for all the sports, but in an age where sport is increasingly watched on TV or followed on social media, orienteering can’t afford to get left behind.”
Variety and popularity
Emily’s brain seems to be an endless source of ideas and she thinks about developing the formats in MTBO too. “We have Sprint, Middle, Long, Relay and Mixed Relay or Sprint Relay and, once a year, we have a mass-start race which is great fun. I would like to see more development of these formats, such as eliminator, chasing start, ultra-sprint”, she says. Also about the World Cup, she would like to see the re-introduction of winner medals and IOF diplomas and a return to four rounds, “but in the absence of that, make the current rounds longer, five races rather than three”. To her, “the more variety we have, the more exciting the sport will be.”
Still another interesting idea: “I would also like to see, for all the formats, World Champion and World Cup leader jerseys. The rainbow jersey is iconic, and I would love to see an equivalent in orienteering. Wear the jersey for a year, keep the ‘colours’ on your sleeve for life.” These kinds of things make sense, don’t they? It would certainly allow the World Champions to be more visible at events such as O-Ringen, where everyone comes together. Emily emphasises how important it is to show off the best orienteers in the world: “If we want orienteering to develop with more media interest and spectators, we need to have stars in the sport, people who are instantly recognisable”, she concludes.
- A lot of things have changed in MTBO in recent years. Can you mention the most important?
“There have been many changes in the last few years, but I think the most important ones are yet to come. Recently we introduced an ‘orange’ group into the start list for the 11-20 ranked athletes, to ensure more consistency in the start field. It provides a good goal for new athletes and first-year elites to target, and prevents the ‘red’ group start block being such a big advantage or disadvantage. Additionally, starting next year, MTBO will have a European Junior Championships. This is a big step for us, as MTBO doesn’t have the same number of major international or multi-day races that FootO has, so it’s important to provide a competition with a ‘title’ for the junior athletes who will be preparing for JWOC. Having come from the junior ranks myself, I understand the importance of this as it will allow the juniors to compete internationally on a more regular basis.”
Emily Benham is part of the working group on the development of MTBO Sprint guidelines. About this subject, she recalls the major steps: “They have morphed into an examination of the whole mapping standard. I think we have found some nice mapping developments that will help the sport to improve by allowing more consistent mapping. We are just in the final stages of putting together a draft for testing.”
“Bicycle bicycle bicycle… bicycle race”
At this time of our conversation, Emily seems to be a bit ‘coy’. I realise that she wants to say something more. We’ve talked about her medals and methods, confidence and ideas, past and future but… we haven’t talked, yet, about her race bike. And we all know how much status and commitment she puts on her race bike! Will it be the reason why she seems to be, let’s say, impatient? “Yes, I want to talk about my race bike!”, she shoots. Good, good, good! Let’s put the sound on loud. Listen… “You say black I say white | You say bark I say bite | (…) I want to ride my bicycle bicycle bicycle”. And Emily starts to talk about her race bike: “I’m proud of what I achieved this spring when I built myself a race bike. I wasn’t satisfied with my 29′er last year as it felt too big, so I decided to buy a small frame and work from there. I already knew I wanted XX1 and had Rockshox World Cup forks and Stans Race Gold wheels already, so sourcing the parts wasn’t such a problem.” The goal was to build a sub-8kg bike, which she just succeeded in doing: “7.98kg with pedals and bottle cage”, she says proudly. In her opinion, “the frame is still a little heavy for my liking, so I shall get a new one for 2015 which will save 350 g.” But “the bike is amazing to ride: fast, comfortable, responsive.”
Suddenly, Emily discovered that there was a lot more to building a bike than she thought; so many little parts needed for the whole thing to come together. She learnt much about bike maintenance, and tasks like fixing gears/brake alignment/tubeless tyres etc. are no longer challenging: “I am regularly found calmly tweaking something on my set-up before the start”, she reveals. Even when she is sleeping, bikes are there: “Of course! I seldom dream of winning, but occasionally of getting lost. Those are the worst; getting lost and having a panic attack in a dream!”
Second-hand bikes and mushroom helmets
I ask Emily to “rewind the movie”, back to the time of her first bike. “I guess I was the normal age when I learnt to ride a bike”, she starts by saying, a sort of nostalgia in her words and look. “I distinctly remember being in our garden and Dad saying he was going to hold on to the bike, and then letting go!” But the reminiscence changes unexpectedly: “I actually hated bikes for many years until I was about 16. My parents have many pictures of us out on family bike rides, and me in strop! I think my attitude changed when I started mountain biking for training for FootO in 2006. Taking long solitary rides around the New Forest was always enjoyable.” Now that “my very first bike is long gone, and the mushroom helmet too (fortunately)”, Emily had a few second-hand bikes and actually rode her first MTBO races on a battered Giant Boulder. When she took an interest in MTBO, her parents got her a red Merida Matts TFS 800 for her 18th birthday. “I rode that bike for a few years as a training bike, and it’s now used by my Mum”, she says.
- As MTBO’s results depend on a successful ‘Athlete/Bike’ duo relationship, how do you relate to your machine? Do you say some kind of ‘prayer’ before the race, hoping that everything goes OK with the machine?
“No prayers. I work on my bike myself and have full confidence that it will work. If I’m not happy while I’m fixing it, I won’t stop until it’s perfect. It’s the unforeseen things that can cause problems; sticks and wheels don’t mix.”
“The right people”
Good athletes are – and always will be – the perfect ambassadors for the sport. Emily knows that, and attentively follows the MTBO movement all over the world. But what to do to spread MTBO to other countries? And I remember Brazil, where some faltering progress has been made in recent months. “I am not sure what the track network is like in the rain-forest, but I imagine it would be hard work (!)”, says Emily, adding that “you mention Brazil which is interesting, as MTBO is possibly going to be part of the Urban Games in Rio in 2016, taking place after the Olympics. This is a fantastic opportunity to promote the sport to a wider audience, and introduce it to a whole new region: South America.”
Emily argues that “there are so many countries that have the possibility to hold MTBO competitions, it’s really a matter of sending the right people to get it started”. And gives an example: “The Netherlands has little in the way of FootO as they are not allowed off paths by law. MTBO therefore has great potential: a cycling country, combined with the strict need to stay on-track.” And what about countries not having good terrain for MTBO? No problem, according her: “If we can develop additional disciplines in MTBO, such as eliminator formats, then the need to have a forest-based race is diminished in new nations which have atypical terrain. Sprints, sprint relays, sprint mass start, eliminators, would all be exciting to watch in urban areas, and as a result there is little excuse not to have MTBO in new countries.”
I’ve mentioned Brazil, Emily speaks about the Netherlands, but we have Great Britain as well. Next year’s FootO World Championships will be held at Inverness, but it would be nice to have, also, a MTBO World Championships there. The athlete doesn’t avoid the issue: “There is a lot of work to be done before a MTBO WOC can be held in Great Britain, but there are certainly excellent terrains that can challenge athletes in all distances. The forests around Camberley and Dorking in the south of England are perfect for MTBO. Technical, hilly, full of single tracks, and plenty of sponsorship/media opportunities. Just wait and see.”
Three questions, three answers
- Talking about security, are we doing everything that’s possible to ensure athlete safety?
“MTBO is, in its nature, an action sport. The speed is high, and on narrow single tracks, there is no left or right side to bike on. Accidents are inevitable, but course planning needs to try to avoid these as much as possible, by reducing the need to turn at the controls for example. Given the high density of athletes in the forest at any one time, we actually don’t experience many problems. MTBO often has small organising teams and there has to be a compromise. Maps, control placement and fair races are of the utmost importance, but unfortunately there isn’t always the manpower to provide manned crossing points of roads and railways.”
- Was it a good idea to implement the rules that allowed the athletes to ride off the tracks?
“Riding off tracks doesn’t make MTBO turn into FootO. The addition of short-cutting can really make some route choices hard, and getting direction right with a bike is much harder. I think it tests a really important skill in orienteering; knowing where to go without following a line feature. Riding on a track isn’t hard, but having lots of junctions at high speed, and planning a route to the next control, is hard. Allowing off-track riding adds a new variable to the decision making, with the need to calculate whether the short-cut is faster or slower than riding around the track.”
- How can we get more participants to MTBO?
“More participants will come as the organisation of the events becomes more professional. Prize money and prizes often tend to attract larger crowds. In addition, more publicity of the sport outside orienteering circles will only increase the interest. Regular TV features will increase the visibility of the sport.”
Challenging Hans Jørgen
Let’s now talk about the current season. Last year, Emily Benham found herself in a position to challenge for medals in most of the major races. She had four top-6 results out of six, and saw that she had found what she calls “a good consistency”. She confesses to be inspired by Cecilia Thomasson, “who apart from the final race, was top-6 in all her major events, and took four medals. I wanted to try to replicate that achievement this year, getting into the top 6 in all races.” But she lies a little bit there: “My target was actually top 3 in all races, but to set such a goal would have been stupid as in the early season I wasn’t so confident of my shape, and it would be too disappointing to not be on the podium.”
A pause, fluttering thoughts… something important to share. She approaches and whispers in my ear: “Hans Jørgen and I have found a great way to compete against each other. Each summer I must try to top his winter season, and vice versa. Last year I was 4th in the World Cup overall; he then went better and took 2nd in SkiO. My target this year was to equal his 2nd, or win if I was able to be stable at the top.” Furthermore, through extensive testing in MTBO and in MTB time trials, Emily knows that she should be 10% behind Hans Jørgen: “While we can’t directly compete against each other, if I am within 10% behind, it’s a good sign”, she says, adding that “we also tend to use the ‘first to the finish’ rule in training rather than the fastest time. This challenges me to ride faster to stay ahead, and him to ride faster to catch me.”
“All the top 10 have the potential to win”
- How do you evaluate your performances until now?
“If I’m honest, a little disappointing in round 1 of the World Cup in Denmark – but then it all came right in Sweden (3 races, 3 wins)! My physical shape is good right now, but I have still been making some mistakes in each race. Some years ago, less than two minutes of mistakes throughout the whole course (including hesitations) was classed as a good race. Now, I typically make less than 45 seconds, but it’s no longer classed as a good race. I find myself craving perfect races and anything less just isn’t good enough. I probably shouldn’t be so harsh on myself, but if I win, I want it to be deserved by having had a perfect race.”
Emily is not sure about an improvement in the competitive level in recent years. Is it harder to win now than last year for example, I would like to know. She looks to the past and checks that “the last four years have seen dramatic changes to the top 10 ranked athletes, and quite possibly we have seen a lot more new names being World Champions than we did before 2010”. In fact, prior to 2010, it was really, in her words, “a two-horse race for the gold”, with occasionally a few others able to win. Nowadays, the competition field feels more open, with “all the top 10 having the potential to win”, she asserts. Emily has no doubts: “This goes to show the level of training these athletes are all putting in, and it’s impossible to predict who will win”.
So how about the recent World Championships in Poland? Well, the result was – still no World Championship gold for Emily. Bronze in the Sprint, silver at Middle Distance (just as last year) – and 9th in the Long, the result of quite a big mistake out on the course. About the Middle Distance, her best result of the week: “I had a good race; clean and stable. I finished feeling happy. I couldn’t have done much more. While I was out racing, I never felt that I was biking fast but I was unable to actually go faster. It was a strange situation. I was able to stay in control. No mistakes, apart from a questionable route choice to the second control. So from that respect it was a good, solid race”.
But one outcome at least was positive – overall victory in the MTBO World Cup, with 15 points more than Marika Hara. A result which I’m sure she will be out to equal in a year’s time.
Athletes’ questions and answers
The question from Martin Jullum, the Athlete of the Month in August: “What would you say is the most difficult challenge for MTBO to become a more recognised and popular sport, with more competitions and competitors around the world?”
And Emily’s answer: “Congratulations on your World Championship gold, and thank you for the really tough question! At the moment MTBO faces most difficulty within the orienteering community. There seems to be a lack of willingness from other athletes to try, and many preconceptions around the sport. I have heard many arguments: the navigation is too slow, it’s too hard to read the map, and everything comes up so quickly. Outside of the orienteering community, we face the same challenges as FootO: lack of media interest/coverage and a preconception of orienteering that involves mud, rain and a school football field. We all know the reality is far more exciting (although mud and rain are usually involved!). At the moment, MTBO is still very young. A teenager in comparison to the grandpa of orienteering: FootO! As a result many future mappers, planners and organisers are competing and in the midst of their sporting careers. Until more athletes decide to retire and invest in the sport through organising, we will naturally struggle to promote ourselves to new countries. Currently, the biggest barrier is lack of visibility outside orienteering circles. Getting the word out is important, but the MTBO community has to work together. Athlete blogs, a WorldofO equivalent, YouTube videos, newspaper articles, Instagram and Twitter feeds, a RedBullTV type platform, and above all TV coverage of all major events. In an age where the internet is used for everything, and social media sites are checked by many people every day, this is the perfect platform to promote the sport.”
Finally, the question from Emily Benham to Svetlana Mironova, Athlete of the Month in October: “Congratulations on your FootO World Championship gold! 2014 could be described as your breakthrough season in FootO. How did your training and race preparation change in order for you to get such outstanding results?”
Text: Joaquim Margarido
Photo: Donatas Lazauskas Sports Photography
[See the original article at http://orienteering.org/world-cup-winner-featured-for-the-second-time-in-athlete-of-the-month/. Published with permission from the International Orienteering Federation]