By Nick with Lizzie Ingham

Lizzie in action. Photo credit to Erik Bork. Image from

So that’s the Olympics over! Time to move away from the television (or Olympic Stadium in my case*) and back to the offices and labs. In my Olympic piece a couple of weeks ago I mentioned our department’s very own Lizzie Ingham, world championship orienteer and PhD student in paleomagnetism. Well OnCirculation has been on the case, tracking down the elusive Miss Ingham, and pestering her mercilessly until she agreed to an interview.

Lizzie will be the International Orienteering Federation’s athlete of the month in September but before you get to read her interview there, you can read ours here  – yes OnCirculation beat them to the interview you’ve all been after!

So what is life like for someone who manages to be an elite athlete and do a PhD at the same time?

What makes you interested in geology and paleomagnetism?
I’m an outdoors person. After coming through undergrad and honours Maths and Physics, I came to the realisation that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a lab or infront of a computer. So I turned to geophysics. Now I get to do the whole range; field work, lab work and modelling. Perfect really! Plus my parents are both geophysicists… so maybe I subconsciously took on all those dinner table conversations that I tried to block out at the time!
What’s so great about Orienteering?
Where to start?! At a competitive level I love the fact that it’s not just about physical strength and running speed, but also technical ability and mental strength. It’s a fine balance of knowing just how far you can push yourself physically without losing contact with the map and getting lost, or making navigational mistakes! It’s a sport that you can continue with til you’re 100, anyone can enjoy it, whether you’re walking or full on racing, and it’s highly addictive. Every orienteer is drawn back again and again, striving for that perfect race. Plus you get to see such beautiful and often remote areas that you’d never otherwise visit… like Dubbo (junior world champs 2007)
How did you get involved in Orienteering and at what point did you realise you were good?
Another one to blame my parents for! They got into orienteering after moving to NZ, so there was no way I was ever going to escape! I was taken along to my first event on the way home from hospital at 3 days old. I’m sure someone will claim they saw my potential that day… but no it’s taken me a bit longer. Probably when I was around 15 and first represented NZ schools I realised I could do well within NZ and Aus. But it wasn’t until last year when I came top 20 at world champs that I proved to myself that I could compete with, and have a chance to be considered one of the top elite female orienteers internationally.
How much training do you do per week?
Not enough and too much! I’m out running or orienteering 6 days a week. Plus strength and conditioning work every day. Plus this year I’ve returned to playing premier league soccer. Mainly just for my enjoyment and sanity, but it also provides some good cross training. All up it averages out to about 16-17 hours a week.
How do you find the time?
Learning to sleep while running helps… Nah, it is possible, but I literally just eat, sleep, work and train!
What are the downsides and sacrifices to dealing with the workloads of high performance sport and high performance science?
I hate it, but you have to be pretty selfish to perform at an elite level in sport. You have to have an extremely understanding and supportive group of friends and family (and supervisor!), who understand and accept that you’re not in a position to put the time and energy into the relationships that they deserve. I’m very lucky to have such an awesome group of friends and ever supportive family, but it is tough, knowing that you’re selling them short.
As many of you will know, I’m also constantly tired, complaining bout being sore, and pretty much have to say goodbye to any semblance of a social life when I’m in full training! Any rest from training is taken up with full time work and vice versa.

Any benefits?

Oh for sure! All the sacrifices are worth it when you pull off the kind of result you’ve been aiming for all year. I’ve found with big races I’m too tired and shattered to comprehend what I’ve achieved until well after the race. But seeing the excitement on my friends and supporters’ faces is worth every second of pain and effort that went into the training and racing! I’m constantly astounded and humbled at just how many people are watching out for my results and are proud of what I’ve achieved. It’s not just me that makes the sacrifices needed for me to perform, so to pay back the faith and support everyone’s shown me, it’s worth everything. Man that sounds so cliched, but it’s so true!
Why should Orienteering be an olympic sport?
Well it’s pretty much the ultimate sport isn’t it**?! I think the balance of physical, technical and mental strength required for orienteering makes it ideal for the olympics. Luck never determines who wins, there’s no subjective judging, it simply comes down to who’s faster, technically better, and mentally stronger on the day. And it has to be one of the cleanest sports around – there’s no point doping because if you’re running faster than you can read the map you’re screwed! What’s limiting us from making the olympics is spectator interest, but that’s coming now, with cameras set up around the map in big events, and live gps tracking of competitors in big races. It’s a big step forward for our sport, even if it does mean that people back home know I’m making a mistake before I know myself out in the forest!
If you could go pro in orienteering would you ditch the geology? Forever or would you return?
In a second. Definitely not forever, but if the opportunity came up to make a living from orienteering, or even scrape a living, I’d be there. Most of the top orienteers in the world do it full time. It’s very hard to try and match the top girls when you only have 50% of your time to commit, while they’re living and breathing the sport. Hopefully within the next 3-4 years I’ll have the opportunity to move to Europe and orienteer full time, we’ll see! Whatever happens though, there’s life other than sport, and geophysics is a passion I’ll always return to. Plus there’s not exactly many full time orienteering coaching jobs out there for retired elites…

Thanks Lizzie,

* Men’s 200m final! Oh yeah.

** More ultimate than ultimate?