Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Ben Blankenship Looking for His Breakthrough Moment

Ben Blankenship and Rob Finnerty at the USA Outdoor Track Championships
in Des Moines. Photo by Gene Niemi
Stillwater and Gopher grad Ben Blankenship has always been "part of the conversation" when people talk about who is a contender for this title, this race, or this championship. In high school Blankenship was part of at least one of the "Golden Ages" of distance running among the younger Minnesota runners.  Hassan Mead, Rob Finnerty, Elliott Heath, and other Minnesota high school running luminaries were pushing each other to record times; close, hard fought races, and championships.

Both Blankenship's high school coach Scott Christensen and college coach Steve Plasencia praise Ben's ability to put everything he had into whatever race he ran, whether it be an open 1600 or the 400 meter leg of a mile relay.  Blankenship would always pour his heart, soul, and maximum effort into each race.

That competitiveness and the talent Ben possessed made him a feared opponent and valued teammate.  From the simple world of high school and college athletics, Blankenship has taken the step up to try his hand at the professional running circuit.  It's a different atmosphere, part athletics, part business.  It's an unforgiving profession were one's mind and body are equally challenged to produce not only outstanding performances but marketable commodities that attract attention, fans, viewers for the product that is elite level athletes.  It's a crowded, highly competitive marketplace that operates on different rules than what most athletes have grown up with.

As a pro, Blankenship has to deal with the other competitors, all of whom have similar levels of talent and competitive drive.  To get attention, and perhaps more importantly for an athlete dipping his toes into the arena of big time athletics building his "brand," becoming an important commodity in the business of professional sports.  So Blankenship not only has to have the right coach, the right environment, the best atmosphere to develop and hone his athletic talent.  He has to have the help needed to get in the right races, to be able to earn a living at his sport, and ultimately to "break through,"  capture public attention and the eagerness of meet promoters to invite him to the events that can provide the stage for career defining moments.

New York City Marathon impresario, the late Fred Lebow, used to say that his event didn't need champions, it made champions.  It's a variation on the saying about New York City that if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.  For Blankenship the closest he has come to a breakthrough moment as a pro came at the Minnesota Mile in Duluth last Fall.  There he rode favorable weather to a win in an eye catching time of 3:52.  But Duluth is not New York.  It wasn't a national championship or a major event on the outdoor track circuit.

Building on that and other road mile wins last year, Blankenship set his sights on making the US team for the IAAF Indoor World Championships this winter, not in the 1500, but the 3K.  He didn't make it, but he ran a satisfying race, his best effort of the year, but "at the end of the day I didn't make the World team," said Blankenship.  "I wasn't winning races...maybe I have to work harder...I'm hoping to get back into it...(I feel like I'm) one race away from breaking through."

He has "total faith" in his coach with the Nike OTC Elite team, Mark Rowland, who was an Olympic medallist in the steeplechase for Great Britain and also coaches Hassan Mead.  After indoor nationals, he says, it was time to go back to the drawing board.  Develop a new formula, discover what it takes to make it to the "next level" in the sport.  While he had the formula in high school and college, he says, had figured out what he needed to do to be successful there, he is still searching for that mixture of rest, training, racing tactics, and even the event that will be his stepping stone to success as a professional runner. "You don't get to race into shape," Blankenship says of one of his old methods.  You have to put in the work and be ready when the opportunity comes to prove that you belong on the big stages in track and field.

"Any time you move to a different level, you have to adjust," says Blanksnship.  "Now (as a pro) the 'pond' has become the whole world."  It's not merely the State of Minnesota, or the US, now you face the best from everywhere, and you have to step up your game in all aspects, he's discovered.  Blankenship wanted to run races in the IAAF Diamond League circuit in Shanghai or in the Bowerman Mile at the Prefontaine Classic in his adopted hometown of Eugene, Oregon but those races are by invitation only.  The standards for admission are fast times, membership on US World Championship teams, a high World ranking, credentials that Blankenship hasn't yet earned.

For Blankenship the Medtronic TC Mile is a test event for how he is progressing in earning those credentials.  Along with Mead, Will Leer, and others who have already made the transition, Blankenship spent time training at altitude, putting in the work, "grinding on the track."  Now comes the test of that work.  Has it prepared him for that breakthrough win against a tough field in what has been his event?  Is the 1500 the event he should be running?  Are there elements missing in his training that he needs to work on?  Or changes to his race tactics?

"I like the roads because you have to be a tough SOB(to be successful)," Blankenship says.  Over the years Blankenship has proven that he is that sort of battler who likes this sort of challenge.  Thursday's race will provide him with answers to the questions that face him.  And, he's hoping, will add another breakthrough moment to his running resume for the climb to get accepted in that exclusive club of the best in the world.

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