Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Ben Blankenship Takes Steps Toward Worlds

"It's kind of my favorite event," says Ben Blankenship.  He's talking about the 3K, the race he will run this weekend in Boston at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix meet that has a loaded field of US and foreign talent all aiming for one thing, to run fast.

Some, Blankenship among them, are looking for qualifying times for this year's only major international competition, the IAAF Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland on March 7-9.  Others simply want to run fast, test their fitness, see where they are at this point in the season, how all the winter training has set them up for the run up to Sopot.

For Blankenship and his Gopher teammate, Hassan Mead, the race will have more significance, Blankenship notes,  as it will be the first time the friends have raced each other on the track since high school.  Mead has gone through a transformation to a 5K/10K runner.  Blankenship has stayed with the mile, though he figures "if and when my career permits" he might move up to 5K.  But this indoor season, he says, "I've put all of my eggs in one basket," aiming for a race that only really gets attention indoors, the 3K.

Noting that middle distance, and more often now in the longer events as well, "everybody at the pro level can run a 51-52(final 400 meters) close."  The 3K though is an event that the middle distance as well and the "long" distance track racers can meet on something of equal terms.  It's a combination of strength and speed.  A test of endurance and that ability to "close." Both Blankenship's high school coach at Stillwater, Scott Christensen, and college coach at the U of M, Steve Plasencia would run Ben in the four by 400 relay because of his competitiveness.

Though he might not have the raw speed of those he might be running against, Blankenship could always be counted on to put everything into the event.  Run down the speedier quarter milers with a combination of strength and speed.  Get the most out of what he had, give it his all.  Blankenship doesn't back down from a challenge.  Last year was a challenge for Ben as he was coming back from a year away from the sport.  He had to rebuild himself.  Get back to basics and pretty much take his lumps.

Along with Mead he joined the Oregon Track Club Elite program.  Worked under former UK steeplechaser now coach Mark Rowland.  And, he says, "pretty much got my ass kicked" in every workout.  Fitness comes back slowly, not all at once, and it was frustrating, knowing he was ultimately capable of running faster, just not yet.  Toward the end of the year, all the hard work began to pay off.

Ben Blankenship running the semis of the 1500 at the 2013 USATF
Championships in Des Moines. Photo by Gene Niemi
He set PRs in the 1500 and 3K racing in Europe last summer.  He won some road miles in the US.  At home and on the track life was good.  He moved in with his "girlfriend and two dogs."  He began to prepare for the upcoming track season.  Instead of training with a group, he decided to stay in Eugene.  "Right now I'm the lone wolf," he said.  Aside from a couple of weeks in December when his OTC teammates Andrew Wheating and Jordan McNamara were also in town, Blankenship has trained on his own, putting in 70 to 80 miles a week, working on his strength.

Trying to stay consistent, lay the foundation for the upcoming season.  Talking to him this week, you can hear a contentment and optimism in his voice.  He ran a 3K at the University of Washington in mid January to get a sense of where he was at.  Finished second to Canadian Luc Bruchet, who ran 7:54.47 to Blankenship's 7:55.04.  At first, he said, he was disappointed with the result, but as he broke the performance down later he saw a silver lining.  He'd taken the pace during the race, pushed it.  The strength work was accomplishing what was intended.  He wasn't aiming for peak performance in the first race. The speed would come later.

"The number one goal," said Blankenship,  "Is always to make a team"  This year that team being the US squad for Indoor Worlds.  The challenge is significant. Only two US athletes in the 3K will go to Sopot.  Two of the hottest runners on the indoor circuit this year have been Galen Rupp and Bernard Lagat, who both will probably be running the 3K at the USATF Indoor Championships, where the US team will be selected, in Albuquerque later this month.

Most likely it will be a deep and talented field.  Ben plans to go to Albuquerque ten days prior to the meet to get acclimated.  He's acclimated well in the past to training in the oxygen-thin air, he says, and hopes that he's able to again.  He's using the Boston race as a test run to get into a fast race with a similarly deep field.  He's not tapering for the Boston, saving the peak for later.  His parents will be flying out to Boston to watch.

"I'm excited," he says.  He's healthy.  Life is good.  The training has gone well.  And after resisting until now, "I'm now on Twitter," he says, chuckling.  "I'm an analog man living in a digital world."  Don't expect a lot of chatter from Ben.  "I'll probably post about once a year," he says, but he likes the information flow.  Maybe, if Saturday's race goes really well, he'll share his thoughts in 140 characters or less.

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