Some people scream and some people shout. Some people, with the Clarkson
method, put more effort into making noise than they do the task at hand. I suppose when all you've got is a hammer, everything does indeed look like nails.
Other people are more measured. In the pantheon of mountain biking culture, they are true students of the craft. Learning and passionate for the sake of being passionate about learning. There's no end to that journey, and you won't get a Ph.D. or wear a mortarboard. Instead, you do it for the love, for the knowledge of yourself and where your boundaries lie. In the 21st century, the idea of self-exploration is of course not an original one, but that's not to say thinking of something to go out there and suffer for, if only to see if you can, isn't refreshing or inspiring.
With all that in mind, meet Ben Hildred. Animal. Wildman. The King Vertical Kilo-Meter Eater and possibly one of the gentlest souls you could ever hope to meet. However, beneath that affable demeanour is a man with a will of tungsten, a level of self effacement and humility we could all learn from... and the reason I'm laying it on so heavy? Well, because if you met Ben he would probably forget to mention he even rides at all and ask you how you
are feeling, what trails you've ridden recently, and if you need any pointers where you can find ethically sourced chickpeas.
Ben is refreshing not only because he does what a lot of us wish we could do but he's somebody that makes molehills out of mountains and is the opposite of an influencer. In an age of insta-grams of gratification and people pumping content like they're evacuating a cistern tank, it's just nice to see a normal bloke, helped by brands that believe in him, doing cool shit. It's as simple as that. He's a human, not a billboard. He's done Everests
, created the Olympus Mons
challenge, went sky high with his eyes set on the Stratosphere
but his latest efforts perhaps eclipse even those feats.
After 200 days of grueling riding, some minor eye surgery, and showering with his shoes on, I got to chat to Ben about what it means to climb a million feet of vertical in 200 hundred days
and what's around the corner.
So Ben, you've had many other challenges, there’s been the Olympus Mons, there's been Everest. Now, how does this challenge compare?
So I've done other similar elevation challenges, although with the million feet, it's over a much longer period of time. Although very similar in concept, it requires a lot more focus, planning, and commitment, figuring out what you're capable of on a daily basis and trying to sustain that effort for as long as possible. Unlike the other challenges, the million wasn’t one giant hoof of a push where you can rinse yourself. It also sounds pretty awesome too, a million is a big number to associate with a bicycle ride.
Yeah. Totally, man, because there's something quite romantic about an even million feet, isn’t there? Because you could do 900,000 feet, you could do 1,100,000 but there's something about the even million feet. What drew you towards it?
Yeah. You're right and 304,000 meters doesn't sound as good, does it?
It doesn't have the same ring to it.
No, it doesn't. It's a million feet, an almost unimaginable number. It's so big and out there.
Yeah. It's funny because a lot of the other things can seem like an exam. If you want to go to a mountain and hurt for a day, and you're unprepared and attempt a ride like an Everest, there's a chance you just might get through it. But a million feet, it's a bit more like coursework. You can't make it up on the night. You have to have put the miles in.
Yeah, totally, in that analogy, there's a lot of revising as well, but there's just lots of blank pieces of paper and a really big timer, and instead of a teacher pacing up and down, looking over your shoulder you have Strava and you've got to look busy.
That's it. Because there's the expectations of yourself and there's also the expectations of a lot of people who take a real keen interest in your riding. Now, how did it align with your own expectations? And from the external point of view, I think that you've smashed out the park in terms of other people's expectations. How does it feel now that you've done it? Do you think it lived up to, at least, your own preconceptions?
Ah, thank you. What wasn’t expected is how people viewing the progress became invested in the process. With smaller time scale challenges you just hand onlookers a big slab of activity and say “there you go, check that out, good eh?”. The million felt more about the building of the feat, and less about the conclusive imperial zeroes at the end.
Thinking back, honestly I don’t think I had any preconceptions as to what may happen or how it may feel. Unlike other challenges, the million would simply fill the gaps between life for however long it may take; I certainly wasn’t expectant of it becoming a wholly consuming thing in the later weeks and months.
Initially I never set out to do it in 200 days because the benchmark was a year and a year is massive as well. It's still like 800 vertical meters a day, every day for 365 days. At the start of the year I started with an aim of 1000m a day average to see how long I could maintain that during the warmer, longer days, it's only after I started to average more and more over a consistent time, I thought this looks achievable with a shorter time span.
When you know you’re in the long game, the body is aching and the mind works overtime to push on through, I'd tell myself “It's not that bad. It's only this today and I'll do that again tomorrow, it’s all good.” So when I finished, people would respond, "Holy smokes." I'm like, "No, it's not that bad," because I've been telling myself it's not that bad for so long and dulled everything down to cope, I have to step out of frame and view it differently. So it's a contradictory response, some people say, "Well done, that’s incredible!" I'm like, "Oh, yeah. It's all right.”
Yeah. It's funny, isn't it? Because endurance riding is this strange thing. And I imagine it's a bit like what Evil Knievel felt when he's thinking, it's only 13 buses or whatever, and he's telling himself that to try and reassure himself. And everybody else is going, "Bloody hell, it's 13 buses!" And he may well be saying “No, don't say that, it's only 13!” With endurance cycling you often think it's only a day. It's only six, eight, ten hours and someone else says, "Oh my God, I can't believe it." And sometimes it actually is incompatible with the way that you view your own riding.
That's totally it. I think we've mentioned this before, when we'd been chatting, an easy way to deal with it is to set yourself smaller, more manageable goals because if you start out on the first January and say, "Right. I'm going to do a million feet as fast as possible", that's like an overwhelming expectation and idea. It's just like, you can't even fathom that, but if you go out and say, "Look, today I'm going to do this and it's going to take this long, and I'm going to keep it up as much as I can." And if it works, it works and yeah, we'll just go from there. I think it's all about that. It's about setting smaller goals to achieve the bigger picture.
Coming back to basics, and thinking about core motivations and core beliefs. Are there any thoughts that you held onto that always helped you get out of the door? Any kind of maxims that you'd find yourself repeating to yourself when the motivation was really low? Or maybe the motivation was never low. Maybe that's unfair to even project that onto you, but were there any other ideas that you really clung to like a baby swaddles a blanket, when you needed just that extra bit of get up and go?
Well, the majority of my riding was done over winter here in New Zealand, so May, June, July, the conditions were grim. It wasn't so much a motivational thing as it was never an option not to ride a bike, just a few deep breaths. Here we go. It's got to be done.
When you take away the choice factor and accept that's just what was happening, and it's going to hurt some days, but there's no way around it, then it gets easier.
This all sounds very harrowing, but it’s just riding a bike, man, it’s never really a chore, although saying that, if you were in my company on those days I do like a good moan about numb fingers or a wet arse, or the weather of course, I’m British after all.
I’d often rely somewhat on my music, a playlist or podcast to occupy and distract the elements of a grim day, especially when riding alone.
Well, often, in the past, when we've ridden together, there's often been either an album that we're talking a lot about or a band that we're currently fixated on - for instance, I can never listen to Joy as an Act of Resistance without thinking of Skyline access road. What does the sound track, I know you love your music, what does the soundtrack to your one million feet look like? And in years to come, what songs when you hear, where you go, "That song was 800,000 feet and it gave me what I needed"?
Ah man, the soundtrack to the ride, I’d often be obsessed with a track and it would power me through a big day, genres as varied as the conditions, I made a playlist at the start of the year
that’d be my go to place for motivation, most tracks I can relate to a poignant day or milestone. Likewise, listening to the Idles album ‘Joy is an act of resistance’ takes me to the access road, funny how those associations are made.
Some weeks were solely heavy, you know the kind of heavy that will leave you trying to poke and pry the ringing out of your ears for the rest of the day, kinda heavy. Lots of Slipknot, QOTSA, Kyuss, SOAD. I’d say my go to era though would be 90’s grunge or a good amount of shoegaze, staring at your front wheel for hours at a time with a good Slowdive album on pretty quiet would be a treat.
Music is just the gift that keeps on giving, nothing better than finding a new sound, it’s crazy ability to pull you through a situation.
Something you said about choice I think is really interesting. Do you think that often the thing people struggle with is the anxiety around choice, when it comes to motivation? Whereas actually your best bet is to accept that, in some ways, you don't have any choice and that's okay. And once you can move past that struggling, suddenly riding your bike doesn't seem like the end of the world.
Yeah. Yeah. That's it. And I think you do have to embrace that to do something like this, you've got to accept that there's not going to be that choice. And some days, every day you've got to go and do it. And I think you've got to dismiss that as a factor quite early on. And it's weird now that I'm not in it, if somebody asks if I want to go for a bike ride, I can say, "Do you know what? I don't fancy it today." And also because that would... You would assume that that means that it was a chore and it's something that I didn't want to be doing, but 95% of the time you want to go out on your bike. And for the record, never turn down a bike ride, the answer is always yes!
Interestingly enough, you didn't have any rest days. How did you stay injury free? What kind of toll did it take on your body? And is there anything that was lingering through the period?
Yeah. So I rode every day. I think the smallest I did was only about 10km with 170 vertical meters, but it's still out on the bike and it just meant I had to do more the next days. That day I had to go out of town and have injections into my eyes. So they were numb and dilated once that was done, so I had to ride first thing in the morning, that happened once a month up until May. I got good with rolling and stretching, frankly because if I didn't then leg cramp would wake me up. I’d anticipated my legs and my joints to hurt more and was quite surprised when they didn't. I never really had any niggling issues with my body.
The only thing is my eyes, that was the only issue I had, they haven't been too good this year. But yeah, I was quite amazed that I've got through the 200 days without having any crashes or pulling anything or any big injuries that would stop me riding bikes.
So 200 days on a mountain bike is a long time, let alone when you can’t see! I hope your eyes are okay now. How much did your eyes affect your riding??
My eyesight was my only real issue. Six days in, on the 6th of January, I had a hemorrhage after developing what's called macular degeneration, this is where your eyes start to fail near where your central vision focus is. Macular degeneration generally occurs when you're pretty old, late 80s, early 90s, I've got that now unfortunately, so I woke up on the morning of the 6th of January and all my central vision on my right eye just disappeared. I rang the opticians and I was told to get to them ASAP. I was aware there was a bit of elevation gain to be had, careful not to increase my heart rate too much. I pedalled there with one eye closed, looking back, probably not the wisest move haha.
It's like a big gray dot in the middle of my vision. So I was a bit, well, I was very concerned. They got me in there as soon as possible because they thought that my retina had detached. After some scans, they realized it was blood in my eye distorting my vision. They got me to the hospital and since then I have been having injections in the eye every month of this challenge. So that's also been quite an issue because the days that I get those injections I have to pedal very early, they put eyedrops in and then they numb your eyes and then inject your eyeball.
I've gained some vision back, but now the center of my eye is like a really weird Instagram filter where I watch people's faces when I'm looking at them. So if I'm looking at you now and I close my left eye, your face shrinks into the point of your nose, so you look like a mouse or something. And then when I do that and open my left eye, it's sort of normal. But I guess, my mind's taught my left eye to lead and so everything looks normal until I close it.
Things can be difficult on trails because depth perception is quite significantly altered, so I stuck to trails that I knew, and I rode those for quite a while, until my vision slightly improved.
I'm sure there were plenty of low moments, is there anything that sticks out as comically so?
Ha, well the toughest times tell the best stories, one day after heavy rain on top of a week-long freeze I got home soaked to the bone, bitterly cold and smothered in mud, the kind of cold that makes you wheeze uncontrollably. With absolutely no dexterity in my fingers, removing my coat or shoes wasn’t happening, I had 20 minutes to get to work and needed to shower. The bathroom is two big paces across the carpet from the front door. I carefully threw a pair of sandals within pacing distance over the carpet and strode into the shower careful not to get crap everywhere. The only option was to shower with shoes and coat still on until I could use my hands again, sitting down using both thumbs to tug on my laces. I just about got to work that day.
God, I can see it now. I've also experienced the horror of the full-waterproof shower! Haha. What was your bike setup like? Did you kind of move towards any particular ideas about lightweight or comfort? Was there any ideology? Or was it just, as is, your normal bike?
That Hightower was just my normal bike. All I did was just use higher pressures. If you go out for a big day, the worst thing is a flat tire stopping your progress. Everything else is literally exactly the same, it’s a workhorse mid-travel trail bike that doesn't falter. It climbs as well as it descends. I didn't really feel the need to do anything else different to it at all, gear ratios remained the same, 34 tooth Chainring and SRAM 10-52 cassette meant ample range.
A few people have remarked and wondered why I didn’t use a more XC specific set-up, the Hightower was the choice due to the descents I’d be using most of the time, although my other bike (Tallboy) is more than capable, you know what it’s like on your fifth or sixth lap when line choice becomes sloppy or weight distribution tends to be lazy on technical sections, more forgiving geo and a little more travel can save you.
I ride flats all the time too, always have and love it, also, no chamois, just a good fitting saddle. Unlike road cyclists, rarely on a mountain bike are you sat in the same position for hours at a time, the seated position is more dynamic and no chamois is one less cycling specific item of clothing to faff over.
So was there something that maybe happened, for good or for bad, that you didn't necessarily expect and took you by surprise during the course of the challenge?
Initially setting out, for the first couple of months, it was peak New Zealand summertime, so I was never really going out to achieve and to climb the meters every day, It was just what I'd be doing anyway, It just kind of ticked over in the background and as long as I was keeping target, which I was quite easily, it was working.
Although, as time progressed, you're more and more conscious of how many days and hours you'd invested into the challenge. So come May, June, towards the end, it became all encompassing. Everything you did, every thought was processed about with the million feet in mind. So the worst thing I could think about is not completing it or not meeting goals, or doing something like having an accident or injuring myself. I was so heavily, emotionally invested in it that It did just mean everything at one point, which is crazy to think now haha.
And that only progressed through the days. It got more and more intense towards the end, just because it's so close and if anything unfortunate were to happen then it would put all those previous days in jeopardy and render my year thus far useless, which is a crazy thought because I had still been out riding my bike everyday, enjoying myself, but it's quite wild how much it takes a grip and takes hold
Also, I call them ‘E-Bike perverts’ I began to notice something that happened more and more often when passing someone climbing, you’d try make eye contact and say hello, although before looking at you their eyes would be locked onto the midriff of my bike, looking for a motor and the awkward air of silence will be held a little longer before a response as they listen out for a whirring motor… my eyes are up here.
Haha! Sometimes the things that we care most about, I think, especially when it comes to our passions and our pastimes, we're almost at risk of gripping them too tightly. How do you think that this has had an effect, not only because it's had its toll on your body and you've been able to manage that, how has the mental effect been as you apply so much pressure about something so dear to you?
Totally agree, and grip them to a near obsessive level, although maybe that’s what’s needed sometimes to pull you through these kinds of rides?
So physically you got used to it, it’d be easy to spin as web about the toil and pain of pushing your legs round and round, the truth of the matter is it became normal and knocking out a month of 2000m+ days felt okay on the body, sure it ached, a deep bone ache some days although it could be dealt with, with little issue.
What took the grunt of the beating was trying to cope and hold onto any sense of logical thinking and reality some days. That sounds dramatic but low days became real tough and I was thankful to be on my own sometimes. Those days did not have a soundtrack.
How did it relate to your mental health and how did it affect your mental health?
Yeah. What I found was, when you're on your own riding bikes for three or four hours a day, in that kind of environment where it's not a chore, but you've got to do it, even if you don't have to do it, but you do have to do it because you've put that pressure on yourself, good days are a really good, and it's easy to manifest a positive energy and work your way through it and keep smiling. But then it's almost like negative days were amplified. And especially when you're riding on your own and mountain biking is generally such a social sport and it's a very nice thing to do with friends, it amplified those bad days and they were pretty tough, some of them. Yeah. It's difficult. Some of the days, man. I just wasn't a very good person to be around.
Yeah. But you also were working full-time. If we put the work to one side because we all know what that means, to work full-time. What kind of hours were you pulling on the bike, routinely, do you think? Per week?
Looking at Strava, towards the end, where the real effort went in it was probably a 24hr a week average, although July had a 36 hour week on top of a very busy work schedule.
It's true what they say though, that the best fun you ever have is horrible while you're having it. Often, your brain has a way of really filtering out a lot of the uncomfortable parts and the parts where, maybe, you didn't want to ride a bike anymore, and you forget about that. And you only remember the really high points. Because for sure there were lots of highs, and lots of lows. When was the moment when it dawned on you that you actually had it in the bag and you were out of the woods? Was it the final day? Was it the final month?
It was the final week. The week beginning July 4th, I put in quite a big week. Well, it's the biggest week I did, which is over 21,000m vertical. So it's over 3000m a day. And I just thought I'd just go absolutely full-on that week. Every spare minute I was out riding my bike to try and get in as much as possible. And what that meant is that the week after, the last full week, I could ease off a bit and I only have to do 2000 average a day. After that week, that Sunday, I worked out my average for the next eight days, the remaining eight days of the challenge to get to 200 and I knew, "Man, that's it. 2000 a day, just keep on, keep safe."
It was weird because it's still 2000 vertical a day, but it felt like I could relax a bit. That was when I was excited to finish and then it was the second to last day, I did all but 800 meters.
Yeah. I was going to say, your riding resonates with a lot of people and why do you believe that is? Because there were a lot of pro athletes out there, and if you want to see Mathieu van der Poel or Wout Van Art or whatever there is that level of rider, they're on Instagram too, they're on Strava too. But I don't find them inspiring. It’s not that I don’t respect them, because I do but maybe the reason I don't particularly find them inspiring is because it's a job for them, it's a 9 to 5 gig. And it's not the same as doing it for the love of the thing. I think that's what resonates with me and that's why I find your stuff really inspiring.
What do you think it is?
It’s strange to be considered inspiring. I'm not a professional athlete, this isn't my job. I have a full-time job like most other people, but I'm just your average Joe, who just likes to pedal and set goals, it's probably a bit stupid in some people's eyes. And it's incredible to see people here in Queenstown. You bump into them and, now, what are you up to?
I remember there was a kid climbing up McNearly, which is this jump trail we've got here. And he just wanted to see how many times he could do it in a day, I think he set himself 10 or 15 and that was really cool to hear. And he'd done it because he'd seen the Olympus Mons and then there are people setting goals, and it's all about those incremental gains. And I think it's almost because I am just a guy who lives up the road or been on the internet with a... It seems more achievable, I guess, maybe. I'm not sure, but there's certainly... Yeah.
There's something my sister once said to me, actually. She said that sometimes the most inspiring people are not the people that can do crazy things that no one else can do. It's the people that don't give up because everybody can not give up. It's achievable to not give up and that's something we can all hold on to. I think that's why amateur endurance riding is just the ultimate - that's why it resonates with me.
So you've done the challenge. Day 201, one day back into normal life, civilian life, what was the first morning like and have you started looking into the future yet and consider what might be on the cards?
First morning off, I was at work at 7:30 in the morning. It was just a normal day. What did I do? Went to work in the morning and then went for a bike ride in the afternoon, would you believe it?
Would you believe it? You animal.
Yeah. Would you believe it? Just the same old. It wasn't really anything too extravagant I'm afraid, but it's nice just to ride at the minute, just for riding sake, but it's also, it's weird not having anything to be riding for or to set goals.
With the freedom to choose and having that choice again often feels like a reclamation of our own thing that we love and that got us started in the first place. To just do this solely for you, not for anything on a spreadsheet or Strava goals or whatever.
Is there anything that you've got your eye on, on the horizon, looking forward?
Yeah. I've got some things, some ideas, more than that soon.
I think like yourself, you know what it's like to set and achieve a big goal like that and you want that. It's just such an amazing feeling, you want to feel that again. It gives you something else from mountain biking. When you thought that you'd already got everything you could from going out on your bike and then whole new vistas open up.
Thanks for your time, Ben.