A Place Beyond The Pines….interview with Emily Benham

I was once told by a respected triathlon coach that if I wanted to know how cognitive aptitude was affected by athletic performance, then try to do some simple multiplication when you are pushing really hard.  I did and failed miserably.  It could be argued that this is more indicative of my poor ability to perform maths problems; I won’t deny this is true. I have also lost count of the amount of times I have lost count of the number of laps I have completed when racing a solo endurance event.  Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be an endurance event, “Is this my third or fourth lap?” The nature of these events dictates that the blood and energy is required elsewhere, the legs, the lungs, the heart, relax the shoulders, attack the climb and, “Where’s the arrow? Left or right? Oh there it is”,  then dive into the singletrack.

Now picture yourself in a similar scenario, but racing a course you have never seen before where you’re not allowed to inspect beforehand and there are no arrows or markers to guide you, just a large map positioned forward facing on the cockpit of your bike.  That’s what Emily Benham does.  She competes at the highest world level in mountain bike orienteering, a sport where the map is your lifeline and the ability to digest what you see before you when performing at peak intensity is critical, split second decisions coming at you in ever-increasing numbers, gear changes refuelling…. it all adds up.

In your own word tell us who your are and where you are going

My sport is Mountain Bike Orienteering (MTBO) with a dash of XCO racing. I have a passion for bikes (mainly the off road kind) and maps. Actually, I’m a map and bike geek. I was recently laughed at on the start line of an XC race for asking another competitor about how she found her carbon rims to ride!

I train full-time, and this winter was mostly made up of XC skiing and fatbiking, along with a healthy measure of core stability and the all important daily stretch. In the summer, training is mountain biking or MTBO training. I live in Norway as the opportunities to live the elite athlete lifestyle are better. The forest and singletracks/ski tracks are just 100m from the front door.

I have two part time jobs in order to fund my passion (addiction?) for my sport. With so much snow in the winter, I am unable to work as a surveyor and cartographer of maps for foot orienteering, so this job is summer and autumn only. This is work I love, being outside in the middle of a remote forest, drawing the features I find and creating a map from a blank sheet of paper. I won’t tell you about the wolf I met one day …
My other job is a bike mechanic. Which only fuels my addiction to lightweight bike parts!

For the last 3 years, being World Champion in MTBO has been tantalizingly close; three silver medals over three years. I won the World Cup overall last year, taking 3 victories in the process. Unfortunately those wins weren’t at the World Champs, but I had remarkable consistency throughout the season and was only outside the top three once. This year, the competition terrains are Hillier with more technical riding, so I’ve been working on these areas over the winter. Already my form a bit better than last year when I had my best physical shape, so I’m working on making this year better than the last.

What was your first competitive race

The first moment I was actually competitive in a race and fighting for medals was only in the summer of 2012 at the World Champs. Something clicked that summer and I had some great training, which really paid off with a silver medal at the end of it. I’ve been racing MTBO since 2007, and ran Foot Orienteering competitions nationally and internationally from the age of 14.

In XCO, I had a nightmare in the first races I did. At the time still under 20, (but a successful junior in MTBO), it was hard to take my epic failures. I overestimated myself and my speed/fitness and suffered through a Gorrick Autumn Classic in 2008 and then two BUCS XC races over the coming years. It wasn’t until the winter of 2013 that I reached a fitness level where I could be challenging for the win, and finally was able to enjoy these races.

When did you realise you want to pursue racing full time

Since about the age of 14. I was really into FootO and the top UK athletes were really inspiring. It wasn’t until 2012 that I was able to understand the demands of full-time training. I was only able to gain this understanding through being in the right environment in Norway. Up until then, I thought 450 training hours a year was full-time!

Unfortunately MTBO is entirely self funded, which makes being a full-time athlete rather enough to fund my sport. Which means buying bikes, kit, travel, race entries etc. Rest is crucial as an athlete, and it’s so hard to find that balance between having enough money to race, and being too tired to train.

What have been the biggest obstacles in your way

When I was at Uni and then working in the UK (until 2012), the biggest obstacle was myself. I thought I was training as an elite athlete. I thought I was doing everything right. My results stopped improving and even went backwards. It was a real wake up call when I met my boyfriend (a top XC skier) and saw how training should be done.

Now, it’s definitely the money side of things. We have a house, and so have a big commitment there. MTBO drains roughly £10,000 (per person) just on bikes and major races per year. Then there’s several training camps and minor races on top of that, plus travel to the UK 2-3 times a year to get my XCO fix. I’m probably looking at around £15,000 a year spent on sport. Actually, I only have one set of bike shoes and don’t use energy drinks or gels (expect for 8 races a year) purely due to the cost of those products. I’m only able to attend two training camps per year, 5 days in April in Denmark and 7 days before each World Champs, as the cost of training camps early in the season for warm weather training would just see my financial situation spiral out of control.

When did you first read a map with complete confidence

Always. I’m not a natural athlete, nor naturally fast or powerful. But I’ve always been great with maps.

When did you first get lost

I prefer the term ‘temporarily misplaced’. I’ve never been lost. But there have been occasions where the map doesn’t fit with the terrain, but I still know I’m within a 100x100m area on the map. It’s just the exact location that can sometimes be unknown!

Was it the love of maps or bikes that led you into MTBO

It was a love of maps. I started with FootO in 2001, and MTBO in 2007 after running no longer inspired me. From 2013, I’ve become so much more knowledgeable about bikes and the passion for bikes has only grown in recent years.

How is the orienteering scene in the UK

For MTBO, it’s bad at moment. Firstly, mountain biking is only allowed on bridleways, by-ways and public roads. MTBO is very different to MBO/Trailquests or Trailtrax type events. MTBO uses 1:10000 or 1:15000 maps which are highly detailed with every track or path on the map. The riding speed and technicality is graded from fast to difficult. These maps are specially drawn for competitions. Because MTB’ing isn’t allowed on footpaths or private land, we have to get special permission to hold races. Some landowners charge excessive fees. Others refuse straight away because they ‘don’t want to encourage bikes in the forest off the public routes’.
Secondly, due to these permission issues, we aren’t able to host many events, and those that do go ahead often only happen at the last-minute. With such uncertainty, numbers of competitors can be low, which rarely covers the land access fees.

With MBO score events, riders can only use legal rights of way. With events of 3 hours + and OS maps (which everyone knows and understands), the permission issues disappear. Plus the navigation side is less high intensity, which makes it more favourable to less confident map readers and those who want to ride fast without thinking all the time!

The two sports are very different. MTBO is high-speed and high intensity map reading of distances up to 40km (2 hr winning time). The course is linear, eg, must visit controls in the order they are drawn on map, and the maps are highly detailed. In MBO Score races, the competitor is free to choose the order of controls visited. The times are three to six hours and cover vast distances on familiar maps.

You have recently competed and won a number of UK XC events tell us more about these & have you got any plans to expand.

My speed and skill on the bike is improving quickly now. I’ve done enough races to ride with a tactical plan, even if I’m unfamiliar with the competitors on the start line. I love this kind of hard and fast racing, and feel it does my body so much good. It really helps to stay focus on riding fast and enduring the pain in MTBO too.

I would love to race the National MTB series, but sadly, finances dictate this just isn’t possible right now. This year I am planning to race a Norwegian Cup event near Oslo and the Norwegian Champs. Until I decide to move away from MTBO towards XCO, there are only so many races I can attend.

Have you noticed the recent rise in interest in adventure off road activities in the UK & beyond.

It’s a hard trend to miss! I’m not sure why these long distance races are so popular, but I imagine it’s appeals to people with a sense of adventure and a desire to explore what’s around the next corner. Multisport races are popular too. I did a few adventure races some years ago, and even though I avoid running like it’s a plague, I actually really enjoyed being able to run, bike and kayak. I took my boyfriend to Exmoor for a 2 day race, and it happened to be the wettest April on record! He’s never forgiven me for that one …

Would you ever consider racing the Highland Trail 550 or Tour Divide for eg.

I’m really eager to do some stage races. First up on my ‘plan’ (if I can call it a plan) are races like Andalucia Bike Race, Cyprus Sunshine Cup, Costa Blanc bike race, Trans Hajar, and Trans Alps. I’m not really a part of the UK XC race scene, I just show up every now and again, so I’d find it hard to get a partner of a similar level to me. Having never done a stage race, I don’t really know how my body would react; I can also get very emotional over the smallest things when tired, so finding someone to partner up who was prepared to deal with me for several days might be a challenge in itself!!!

Races like the Highland Trail 550 would present a challenge on a grand scale. Self supported from start to finish. I’m not quite there yet! An idea I’ve been toying with over the winter is one of a south to north Tour of Norway. In winter. On a fatbike. It would be semi supported eg, no camping, but carrying my own kit. The temperatures can be as low as -40°C and the speed varies so much on the snow conditions. I would attempt it all by ski trails, but it would be necessary to wait until Feb/March, when the conditions are good with solid snow and excellent piste tracks. Fresh snow is a pain to bike on/in as the bike just sinks and slides around.
I haven’t really thought it through properly! I’ve just had a lot of training rides to think about some possible ideas for bike related fun. Maybe I’ll start with Oslo-Trondheim (about 1/3 of the Halden-Tromsø distance) 🙂

I have noticed you still mention 26″ wheels as an option, why is this when everybody else in MTB is either 29 or 27.5 ?

When I first got a 29’er I took my 26 back to the UK and left it there. It saved about £120 in special baggage fees for the twice yearly visits. Any XC races I did were then on this bike! I didn’t really appreciate the difference between 26 and 29 until I rode the SPAM Salisbury Plain Challenge before New Year. I was riding after the half way mark with a group of guys on 29’ers. And I only had 1×10 gearing, so I was pedalling my little legs off, while they cruised away. Of course, this was a marathon type race, but on narrow twisty singletrack, I still think a 26’er has huge benefits. Getting round corners faster and tighter for one thing!

Are your bikes set up any different from a straight forward XC rig

Same set up. The only difference is we have a map board attached to the handlebars.

How do you avoid hitting trees with the maps placed in such a precious position

The widest map board is just 30cmx30cm so fits nicely in the centre of the handlebars. No problems avoiding trees!

Are you every tempted to just follow the person in front of you instead of the map

We have individual starts, like a time trial on the road. In a sprint, 1 minute intervals. For a long, 3 minutes. Sometimes I catch a rider ahead, but it’s usually easy to pass as to catch them, they are riding slower anyway.
We also have protected start groups. The top 10 in the world are always the ten last starters, and numbers 11-20 are the next last starters. This avoids catching the athlete ahead as the riding speeds within the groups can be similar.

How do you train for what you do, do u practice map or terrain reading ?

Most of my training is based around easy riding. Sometimes it’s more singletrack based, other rides are hilly, while some are technical skill training. Two to four sessions are intervals or races each week. Then there’s daily core stability and stretching. Technical skill training typically involves learning to choose a line instantly having never ridden a trail before. In MTBO we never see the trails we must ride before we are there, racing. Quick decision making is vital.

The winter is just about skiing or fatbiking. I like to take a break from map reading and just be training. From April through to September, two to three sessions a week are map based. Usually combined with intervals to practise riding fast under pressure. I try to ride on maps that are really technical (lots of paths) so that when I get to a competition, I have more time to think under pressure and get used to making instant decisions.

MTBO becomes increasingly hard as the speed and heart rate increase. With higher speed, junctions come up sooner which means less time to plan ahead and think. With a higher heart rate … well, have you ever tried to work out 7×9 when at the top of your maximum HR zone?! MTBO is like this. As less oxygen makes it to the brain, the orienteering suffers. Much of training is based around improving my decision making when riding at my maximum. I’ll often spend a full 90 minute race above 95% of my max HR. Very little time is spent below this, so I have to train for it and learn how to maximise my brain function. There’s no chance for recovery in a race either, as the starts are individual (like a TT) so one has no idea how competitors are racing or their times. It’s just to go full speed from start to finish and make as few mistakes as possible.

What has been your best race so far

The Gorrick Spring Series final this year was a really strong race. I had no idea who I was lining up on the start line with, and started off with the front of the pack. As the race progressed, rider after rider dropped back, until it was just me. I felt really strong that day both physically on the steep climbs and mentally.

I also had a great MTBO race last week. On the 6th day after getting sick with a cold, I was finally well enough to actually race (an international training camp race). I didn’t make any mistakes. Just always biking as hard as I could. The race was over far too quickly, and after 45 minutes of racing I had only lost 36 seconds (I can’t always have the fastest split time to each control!). It was another race where I felt incredibly in control of everything. From my physical, to technical and mental control.

Would you race a Fat Bike

Done it. Twice. Each year just 10 mins from my house is the Unofficial Norwegian Fatbike Champs in January. In 2014 we had crazy powder snow conditions. It almost wasn’t possible to bike. This year, a snowstorm broke 10 minutes before the start, but luckily it was fairly cold so the snowflakes were small and hard. It meant a singletrack for fatbikes opened up around the ski tracks. We had about 30cm snow in 1 hour. Leaving the singletrack just resulted in huge crashes. Unfortunately I was caught up in a lot of these as I was lapped by the leading guys just a lap from the end (6 lap race).  It’s an amazing experience and completely different to normal MTB racing. Crashing is often unexpected and entirely out of control, but at least it’s a soft landing!

Where is your favourite place to race

Israel. We went there for the World Champs in 2009, and the terrain was incredible. Amazing singletrack everywhere. Dry, dusty trails. Hills and awesome descents. Rocks and fast trails. It was a great mix of everything. The maps were technical too, with so many trails criss-crossing the map it was hard to choose a good route.

What’s worse doping or using a GPS with maps
Using a GPS with a map is the same as doping! Both are cheating, and both gain an advantage over others. Fortunately, the technology to allow cheating with a GPS is not yet available. It would currently take too long to programme the GPS based on the paper map information (we don’t get or see the map before the start time) to find the controls and calculate the fastest route. There are too many variables. So although it is currently possible, the time taken to do it would be better spent just pedalling fast in the right direction! (We also have rules to prevent the use of GPS devices with a map or breadcrumb display).

When in the middle of race have you ever discovered a section of singletrack you had to cut short to get to your control but really wanted to carry on riding

Over the last couple of years, having started XC racing and enjoying it, I’ve found I love singeltracks! I hate to find some great singletrack in a race, because it’s so hard to leave it at the end. Last year we had some races in Denmark, and the course took us along some great trails. Twisty and roots, but fast. Sometimes its a nice distraction, to enjoy the riding and have fun. But it’s important to pay attention to the task in hand: orienteering and the race.

OS maps in the UK are regarded as the best in the world do you find yourself critiquing others countries maps when you are readings them

MTBO has it’s own international symbol set. We have different demands to the information provided on a standard OS map. For MTBO it’s important all the trails in the forest are drawn on the map, and that their speed/technicality is shown. We have two widths to show the difference between a track and path. And four speeds of riding: fast, medium, slow and difficult. This forms the base of our route choice decision-making process. Should I take a longer route that’s all fast tracks? Or a difficult to ride path? What is on that path? Could it be rocks, mud, crazy roots? Will I be able to ride it? So many decisions are made from the map information, but some of it is down to past experience in similar terrain. In Sweden I would always avoid something marked as difficult, because it’s likely to be a rock filled nightmare that is unreliable. But in Poland, it’s probably just a narrow overgrown, grassy trail

Please tell us about the wolf !

The wolf … It’s a funny story;

I was all alone in a Norwegian forest in the mountains, several kilometers from the nearest gravel road. It was hunting season for the moose so there were hunters around, but I was wearing red and not in the area for hunting that day. I was minding my own business in some thick forest looking at some contour details, when a wolf appeared from behind a tree. It was as startled by me as I was by it. There had been a wolf in the area in the summer, but it’s far west of their normal territory. It came over and started jumping up at me. Around its neck was a GPS collar that they use to track the wolves. My heart was pounding and I was in total fear. Frozen to the spot. I considered throwing my lunch and legging it, but thought that might provoke it. I stroked it. It wandered around, seemingly not too fussed by my presence. I slowly started to head in the direction of the nearest road, but it followed me. Eventually o made my escape to an open area. My boyfriend wasn’t answering his phone. So I phoned Dad. Some thousand km’s away. He was panicking. I was panicking. I slowly calmed down and hung up the phone. When I turned around the wolf was there. Watching me from a hill-top. At this point I lost it and got the hell out of there. But it was always following me.

I did manage to take a picture. When I got home I showed my boyfriend, just happy to be safe and alive. I thought he’d be impressed, but instead he said ‘oh, you met a hunting dog.

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