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Interview: Ben Thomas on Racing the Marathon World Championships

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Feature by Steve Walker

My brother in law runs marathons. He trains all the time and is so obsessed with his running schedule that, when out on a training run, a dog coming from the opposite direction decided to clamp its teeth around his arm and yet, to everyone’s amazement, he carried on in his quest of pounding the pavement (with a dog hanging off his arm). F in mental.

Personally I’ve never quite seen the attraction in doing exercise for more than a couple of hours tops. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive fan of XC racing and cyclocross, but that’s all done and dusted in under a couple of hours. So when my editor (James McKnight) asked me to do an interview with Ben Thomas regarding the MTB World Marathon Championships that took place recently in Austria, I looked at him as though I had a dog hanging off my arm…

Ben Thomas with his trusty van from team sponsor Vauxhall Motors.

Ben Thomas with his trusty van from team sponsor Vauxhall Motors.

Steve Walker: Hi Ben, a 95 kilometre mountain race, you must be a bit mental?

Ben Thomas: The marathon distance lets you see a bit more of the place you’re racing in, when you’re travelling long distances to get to these amazing venues it seems a shame to just rotate around a tiny 6 kilometre circuit. Most of the time you’re wrestling with the handlebars and staring at the rear wheel of the rider in front but when you do have the opportunity to look around at a marathon event there can be some spectacular views. At Worlds we raced up the Hahnenkamm mountain in Austria, which is famous for its World Cup Downhill Ski run, there aren’t many people who can say they’ve done a mountain bike race that spectacular! I’ve been lucky enough to race in some pretty special places but my fondest memories are probably from South Africa where last year I raced the Cape Epic and this year the Joberg2c, which is a 900 kilometre 9 day race from Johannesburg to Durban.

SW: Is doing a race like this more of a mental thing than a physical one?

BT: This is a hard question to answer as both are extremely important; without the mental strength I wouldn’t have made it up the first mountain at this year’s Worlds, however you have to be so physically strong as once you’ve made it up the first 1000 metre climb you then have three more to go! Mentally it’s a lot easier if the race is going well and you’re having fun, a mechanical or a crash can be hard to get over, everyone experiences misfortune at certain points and sometimes when you’ve worked so hard it can get too much.

SW: Do you get any pre-race jitters?

BT: A few years ago I would get really nervous at every race I entered but now the nerves only tend to appear on a bigger days like a World Marathon Series race or World Champs. After racing elite for the last five years I’ve got a good routine going and I am pretty well prepared, this certainly helps keep me calm as I know everything’s under control. Having a good support team around you also helps.

The big warm up for one hell of a big race.

The big warm up for one hell of a big race.

SW: When your tongue’s licking the floor and you feel like your brain’s going to explode, but you’re only at the 50k mark, how do you overcome this?

BT: If you’re well prepared and know how to race the distance required then hopefully you’re not going to be a dribbling mess half way through the event! At Worlds this year I paced myself almost perfectly, on the last of the four mountains I passed almost 10 people. I’d ridden a tempo I knew I could sustain on the middle two mountains and then upped the pace on the last climb as I still felt great and knew from the top only the last downhill to the arena remained.

SW: What’s your motivation?

BT: My biggest motivation is the love of riding fantastic trails in amazing places, however I’m also pretty competitive so being able to race and be successful is why I keep training so hard.

SW: I recently did a five-hour ‘non-stop’ XC ride and, much to my amazement, really enjoyed it. What advice can you give regarding mountain bike marathon racing?

BT: Nutrition plays a big part in marathon racing; the most important thing is to identify what your body can cope with and also to use high quality products. We are lucky enough to be supported by USN so use their CytoPower isotonic energy drink or Epic Pro protein/ carb mix drink depending on the distance of the race. Don’t be afraid to play with the strength of the drink mix and then decide whether gels or bars best suit your stomach. We normally just use the USN Vooma gels, it’s hard to digest an energy bar during a fast pace race.

SW: How does your training differ from a world cup XC racer as their races are done and dusted under the two-hour mark?

BT: Whenever we get a weekend at home you can almost guarantee that we’ll be doing an epic 6 or 7-hour mountain bike ride, there’s a good group of us who often ride together. Apart from these rides the majority of our training isn’t all that different to a World Cup XC rider: my week day rides are normally about 3 hours long but crammed full of intervals or tempo workouts.

Off to a fast start but there's plenty of slow technical riding to come!

Off to a fast start but there’s plenty of slow technical riding to come!

SW: Do you actually have fun doing the training?

BT: The workouts are really hard work but the reward is being able to see how much progress you are making, either via the numbers from the power metre or via the results on race day. I often do my intervals and then do a few cheeky trails on the way home. When we go out on our long Sunday rides we ride some fantastic trails, days like these leave you with a big smile, which hopefully lasts until the next big ride.

SW: I’m a newborn into the world of XC racing and I must say it’s given me a new lease of life! However at every race I always say (after I’ve crossed the finish line) never again, only to find that two hours later I’m on the net entering the next one! Is this the case with marathon type racing?

BT: Marathon racing is just as infectious! People keep returning to events because you miss the buzz from the atmosphere, the chance to visit amazing places, the need to fulfil your competitiveness, etc.

SW: You were the only male representing team G.B. How come?

BT: In the UK there aren’t many athletes specialising in marathon distance races, many cyclists do both and many concentrate purely on XC. The Mountain Trax – Vauxhall Motors Cycling Team, which I run, specialises in marathons so it’s something a little different. Out in Europe there are plenty of marathon teams but this is because the scene out there is so much bigger. In 2012 my now-teammate Tim Dunford and myself were selected for the GB team, and this year I was the only male to meet the selection criteria with a top 20 World Cup finish earlier this season.

SW: 51st is a stella result. Did you have one afterwards (a Stella that is)?

BT: I didn’t have a beer but did treat myself to a hot chocolate and cake that afternoon. Oh and some Milka the following day, it was a long drive home from Austria so I needed something!

On the finish line. Finally.

On the finish line. Finally.

SW: Is there any way you can improve on that result, or is it about the ‘form’ on the day?

BT: Following Worlds we’ve been discussing the best way to make progress ahead of next year’s event, racing more rounds of the UCI World Marathon Series will certainly help and is part of the plan for 2014. What I need is more time riding mountain climbs (there aren’t many of those in the southern England…) and more time racing at World level. Whether this is realistic financially though is yet to be seen, the costs are pretty high so it depends on what sponsorship support the team has next year.

SW: How did the team GB girls do?

BT: The GB girls are super strong at marathon racing and all specialise in this distance. Sally Bigham, Rachel Fenton, Jane Nussli, and Cath Williamson put on a fantastic showing at this year’s Worlds, with 3 of them placing in the top 20. Sally rode a sensational race finishing a well-deserved 2nd; her silver medal is the first women’s senior medal Great Britain has ever won at a Marathon World Championships!

SW: What was the course like?

BT: The course covered four mountain climbs with 4400 metres of ascent! The descents were pretty crazy in places. The final downhill was the 7-kilometre Flekalm trail, before the race all the videos I could find of this trail were of people riding this trail in full-face helmets, body armour and on downhill bikes! Here’s my video from practise on my Scott Scale 900 SL cross-country hardtail:

SW: Are there enough MTB marathon races in the UK?

BT: The XC scene in the UK is really healthy with a big calendar of events, unfortunately the same can’t be said for marathon races. A few years ago there was a National Marathon Series, if this were reintroduced I think it could be a real success as many riders would much rather travel for a longer length race having sat in the car for hours and spent hundreds of pounds on petrol.

This year’s National Marathon Champs was hosted on a single lap route, with some improved signage and a few extra kilometres the race could be made into a World-class event. Kielder 100 is another event that has inspired many over the last few years, unfortunately this event looks like it may have come to an end with its cancellation for 2013. Hopefully it’s not the last time we get to race these trails. Another event I’d raced numerous times is the Gorrick 100, it’s a multi lap event but has a great atmosphere and the trails are normally fast and fun.

So there are some fantastic events out there, just not enough of them!

SW: Are you planning on racing the Marathon Worlds next year? Which country is it in? Can I get a lift?

BT: Worlds are the pinnacle of the sporting year so it’s great to be a part of it. Plans for next year are currently a little unknown but if the budget allows I’ll certainly be aiming to race Marathon Worlds again, each year hopefully progressing a few places. Next year is the first year Worlds has taken place outside of Europe; hopefully Worlds will be my 2014 South African trip.

Other big goals for next year will be the European Marathon Champs, which take place in Ireland, the National Marathon Champs title – which has evaded me thus far – and possibly the Commonwealth Games if I can gain selection!

SW: I hate reading ‘thank you’ lists, but I kind of figure you’ve earned it! Here you go Ben, thank away.

BT: Without the sponsors and supporters of Mountain Trax – Vauxhall Motors Cycling Team none of our racing adventures and success would be possible. So a very special thanks to Chris and Dan at Mountain Trax, John at Vermont Images, the marketing team at Vauxhall Motors, and Chris at Little Knocks Wokingham for believing in us. Also thank you to Scott Bikes, Hope Technology, Mojo Suspension, Champion Systems Clothing, Sapim, Lezyne, USN, Schwalbe, Exposure Lights, Minoura, Fenwicks, Syncros and Bont Shoes.

  1. xc neil

    Great interview butch, agree totally with Ben in regards to racing the uci world series. This will be a big help in respect of upping the game, depending of budget of course good luck. Love bikes !

  2. Steven Hardwick

    I think big future in marathon , us old farts with the cash can ride at a steady pace for hours but this cyclocross and MTb CX is just too hectic. Steve lets do a marathon team thing or a 24hour race.i see you have a rather speacial loaner at the mo on long term test. Ill ride my 93′ orange P7.

  3. James McKnight

    Inspiring stuff. “..when you’re travelling long distances to get to these amazing venues it seems a shame to just rotate around a tiny 6 kilometre circuit” – good words sir.

  4. Rich Rothwell

    Great write up Ben. For anyone looking for a marathon distance event to focus on in 2014, I can thoroughly recommend the Manx 100 which I competed in last weekend. 100 miles of incredible all natural epic mountain biking. http://www.manxmtb.com/home/articles/406-manx-100.html

    1. James McKnight

      Should have a write up from the Manx 100 coming this week Rich.

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