Keith Dawson. The name may sound unfamiliar to most readers, but everyone in the MTB Orienteering family knows him. Keith's enthusiasm and expertise make him a reference, both inside and outside the forest. To meet this true Master of the Masters, we dive deep into the MTB orienteering world, in a fascinating and enriching journey.
You've been participating in most of the MTB Orienteering events in the last seasons and we could see you attending 14 out of 15 World Masters Series stages this year. At the age of 58, where do you find the motivation to keep on competing so regularly?
Keith Dawson (K. D.) - I have learnt through some very tough times in Life that Life is not a dress rehearsal! “If in doubt do it - you will always regret more what you don't do than what you do”! These are two of my Life memes, true whether you're setting up businesses in the “Wild East” in Ukraine and Cuba or competing/organising in MTBO! I have had two major knee constructions in the last four years and missed the TransRockies 6 day race, with my son, this summer through a shoulder injury - so absence makes the heart grow hungrier! That is motivation enough but meeting the great MTBO community and searching for that elusive “Perfect Run” are important too. In 42 years of FootO I only managed it twice and never in MTBO - not yet!
Is this passion for bikes and MTBO a recent story?
K. D. - I constantly thank my two teachers, Dave and Mike, who introduced me to Orienteering back in 1975! I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like without this treasure of friends, landscapes, races and travel that Orienteering has gifted me. I took up MTB in 1995 after a succession of FootO ankle injuries and have been fortunate to travel the world. Andes, New Zealand and Costa Rica the highlights. My first ever MTBO was the World Masters near Gdansk in 2010 and from the first race I was hooked!
What do you see in MTBO that makes it so special?
K. D. - The blend of speed, problem solving and technical riding is unique. The return of speed would be an exciting aspect for Masters FootO competitors if they tried it! Particularly those with “bad” knees! The MTBO community is also very special and quite unlike that in most sports. Solving the problems, at speed, set by our hard working planners and mappers in new landscapes at speed is a legal “high”.
What kind of “family” is the MTBO one?
K. D. - As I say a uniquely friendly and inclusive one and of course global! There is also the good aspect of hard but friendly competition whether in Elite or Masters. I have had a unique opportunity this year with my 63 MTBO races in 15 countries to savour this delight to the full! Riders such as Jean-Charles Lalevee, Wolf Eberle and Charlie Somers-Cocks give all of us, Masters, something to admire and aspire too!
We all appreciate your enthusiasm and dedication in keeping us well-informed about the MTBO events, sharing maps, results and pictures, sometimes even before the official releases. How big is your concern about the communication subject?
K. D. - Thank you! Communication is important in any aspect of Life and I've been pleased with the positive feedback. This helps to bring our community closer together. Even if you couldn't attend the race you can ask that great old question “Which way would I have gone?” Fix your map board to the turbo this winter! We need more communication, not less!
Talking about the MTBO in general, are we going in the right way?
K. D. - I would say we are generally heading in the right direction. Sandor [Talas] has ably guided us within the IOF framework and with HJ [Hans-Jørgen Kvåle] now as an IOF marketing manager the sport is moving forward with more events and rising standards.
There are a few areas I would comment on: MTBO should be a race not an “eye test”. The use of the correct scale, especially for Masters, is critical for full enjoyment. If in doubt use the larger scale option - we all know how to fold if necessary :). Some otherwise excellent races have been rather spoilt by use of the wrong scale. Masters expend a lot of income when they come to races both within our MTBO community and beyond, their needs need to be catered for too. I have also seen situations where not breaking a circle or covering a vital path have spoilt an otherwise great course. I would implore planners to consider these issues more carefully going forward.
We need to increase the number of women in our Sport and a “buddy” system could help. If all women brought a “buddy” along to an event and guided them this would increase numbers and quality of competition. It is a wonderful Sport! I think we also need to be slightly more inclusive with older age group classes and recognise that a five year age increase post 60 is different to post 50 and even more marked post 70. The last thing we need to do is to discourage older competitors, they are an inspiration to us all and also do a lot of organising! We can't afford to lose them.
Finally I would say that, in the light of recent independent press and also official reports, together with IOF Olympic aspirations, we need to increase our monitoring and out of competition testing of prohibited substances. Glib denial is not the way forward. All houses need to be put in order. We must show that we are, and will remain, a prohibited substance free Sport which is fair for ALL high level competitors. Not least we need to safeguard the long term health and freedom of these same competitors.
When I read “World Masters Series”, your name immediately comes to my mind. How close is your relation with the WMS?
K. D. - Whilst it is true the initial concept was mine, Sandor has been highly supportive and WMS now belongs to the whole Masters MTBO community. Tamas Janko has been brilliant putting in a great deal of dedication to calculate the results, often under pressure, as in Lithuania. I have been delighted with the positive feedback and constructive comment and the rising standards it has undoubtedly engendered. My class M55 is almost as competitive as Elite! We have two good sponsors in Continental Farmers and Havana Energy who help produce the rather nice medals! Now in its third year I believe it will go from strength to strength with Masters Relays again in France and the new M/W35+ class to bridge the gap from Elite and avoid competitors leaving the sport at that point. It's great that organisers are now competing to have their events included in WMS. The format would be easily applicable to Ski-O and even Foot-O.”
How did you see the WMS along the season?
K. D. - It was disappointing that more competitors did not race in Cappadocia in the first races, as all who did agreed it was indeed very special. The series went well, with both rising numbers and standards. The five year age classes have been very popular, especially in 60+. Many of the medals went down to “the wire” in Lithuania and so did many “mini competitions” between individuals within the classes. The WMS is a Marathon not a Sprint and a good season long strategy is crucial as well as within races. One mispunch or mechanical can lose a lot of points and places if the season strategy is not optimised. Organisers have realised hosting a WMS race increases numbers, so now in its third year, organisers are competing to be included and several offers for 2018 are already in, as well as a very exciting 2017 in prospect. July will be an MTBO Festival with races in Pilsen, Vienna and culminating in a season “finale” in Orleans. This has encouraged more racers from south of the equator to compete. The aim of the WMS was to increase standards for Masters competition, help development in outlying countries and to increase the Fun! I think it has been successful on all counts thus far.
In the meanwhile, the World Masters Series 2017 has already started (!). Apart the earthquake, would you like to share your thoughts about the event in New Zealand?
K. D. - Yes, despite the difficulties caused by the quake, numbers and standards of competition were high and all aspects of world class standard. The area used for the North Island Champs the week before the WMS races, “Marquita's Garden” is my all time favourite MTBO area. The WMS/NZ races near Rotorua were outstanding and the Sprint race was particularly high quality. I really hope NZ can host the World Championships in due course. So much great riding, a wonderful country and such a welcome! I hope more NZ and Australian competitors will head North for our exciting summer this year.
You were a privileged spectator of the MTBO Elite season and I would ask you to highlight some of the strongest moments in 2016?
K. D. - At the risk of (wrongly) being accused of bias I would choose Emily Benham's Two World Champs Golds in Portugal and her exciting World Cup win. This edges other excellent performances, as it has sadly been achieved without National Federation support or within a squad, but solely by individual determination and motivation, with a little help from HJ of course :) A great example to the whole Orienteering Family, not just MTBO. In the Masters I would select Jean-Charles Lalevee's triumph in the WMS this year in a very competitive class and after a disappointing injury robbed him last season. True Gallic Grit!
Contrary to the last season, we didn't have either MTBO courses or MTBO achievements suggested or nominated for the World of O's polls this year. So, I'm going to ask you to pick up the best course and the best achievement of the MTBO season.
K. D. - Yes, that lack of nominations was disappointing. This is a very difficult task with so many worthy candidates! I will allow myself three - Sprint, Middle and Long. So many great courses. So for a purely personal view: The Sprint was the NZ/WMS race in Rotorua, a fantastic mix of three terrain types including a tricky university campus with covered walkways. The Middle from Cappodocia in March, a privilege to race amongst the complex rock pillars and caves of a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Although the “Ironworks” race was a close second, illustrating the wide variety of terrain we enjoy! The Long from Portugal, again with a mixture of terrains and with the temperature a truly Long tough Challenge. Special mention too to the Middle in Lithuania with putting a capital O in MTBO for the quality of map and course planning. I'm very much looking forward to Vilnius!
How is it going to be the winter season? How hard it will be staying away from the bikes and the events' atmosphere for so long?
K. D. - A great trip to NZ with 6 fine races helps! Thankfully my great physio Dagmar, two great Drs in Ireland and lots of physio exercises mean I can avoid a planned major shoulder operation this winter, and I can plan for M60 in 2018! The prospect of so many great races and a new season of WMS in 2017 will keep the winter “blues” at bay! Fortunately the biking trails in Vienna, Scotland and Ireland, where I split my time, are never too snowbound, so I can get my regular “fix” on the bike. I do miss FootO though :(
What are you goals for 2017?
K. D. - To continue to play my small part in building the success of WMS and Masters MTBO in general and also to play my role in the MTBO Commission, where I have recently been appointed. Oh and maybe push for a Masters Relay medal for GB again in France :) and “to fill each hour with sixty minutes well run!”
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
K. D. - Just to wish ALL the MTBO Community a Happy Festive Season and everything they wish for themselves and their loved ones in 2017. Remember, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.”