CLOSING IN ON the finish line with victory secured, Harvard’s Graham Blanks saluted the crowd, then took a personal moment, bowing his head and pressing his hands to the H on his chest.
It wasn’t the prettiest picture as he was a bit lathered up with the vigorous effort of his 2:42 closing kilometer, but it was a definitive picture as Blanks admitted he won his first NCAA title with his heart.
The first Ivy League man to win a NCAA Cross title said, “I wanted to be the smartest runner today, but I ran like a dumbass, and ended up being the runner with the most heart.” (In 2013 Dartmouth’s Abbey D’Agostino became the first Ivy Leaguer to claim an NCAA XC crown.)
“It’s a big moment for Graham,” veteran Harvard coach Alex Gibby said. “It’s a really hard championship to win, arguably the hardest championship in our sport at the NCAA level.”
At 21, Banks is the youngest NCAA cross champion since 20-year-old Dathan Ritzenhein in 2003, even with his gap year after graduating from Athens Academy (Georgia). With a year of altitude training, he ran 13:27.39 before taking a class, and while at Harvard he has put together a PR line of 3:56.63, 7:44.76, 13:18.45, and 28:15.90, with a 6th-place finish in last year’s cross nationals and a 2nd/6th showing in the 5K/10K on the track.
Racing among a half-dozen proven contenders including Stanford’s Ky Robinson who won both the NCAA 5 & 10,000 last June, Blanks was committed to cover every move, starting with the opening 2:29 kilometer.
“Last year when the NAU guys went off the front, I think a lot of people regretted not going with them,” he said. “So, I was really trying to let no one go, I didn’t want to regret anything from this race.”
The dumbass part came as Blanks realized he had been overreacting to some early moves: “There were a few surges that I was the only one covering them, when I could’ve just sat in the pack. I’m not sure if it has physical consequences, but it is just in my head so I was just trying to quiet the mind down and just relax and get to the 5K mark.”
After chilling for a few kilometers, Blanks had to dig deep to cover Robinson’s strong move at 7K that pared the lead group to four. Blanks agreed, “8K was a really dark spot, windy and hilly and these guys certainly weren’t making it easy on me and I was just trying to persevere.”
As the pace eased a bit heading back into the wind, Blanks recovered enough to move on to a more ambitious strategy: “Ever since I saw the course map a couple of weeks ago, I was planning to go from the 1K-to-go mark. That was what I was thinking about during the race, to get to 9K, and maybe I’ll give it a shot.”
“I don’t really bet on myself for like a 200-meter kick, that would leave a lot of it to luck, so I was hoping to get some separation. Having to muster up the courage to take it from 1K out, that is what I am most proud of today.”
Blanks quickly pulled even with New Mexico’s frosh phenom Habtom Samuel —away from Robinson and focused on the win.
“I noticed that there is a little bit of a divot about 800 meters out, that would be a perfect spot to throw in a move,” he recalled.
Hitting that dip, Blanks lit out for the finish line, pumping his arms to kick up the pace and quickly forging a 5-meter lead. Banks kept pouring it on in a full-body sprint, driven by anxiety and adrenaline.
“I run with a lot of fear,” Blanks admitted. “I don’t really enjoy the last 400 of races, people might think it’s like a victory lap, but honestly, it’s just a bunch of fear that I’m going to get passed any moment.”
Watching it unfold, Gibby assessed, “It was a terrifically executed race plan. Every time I saw him, he looked better, he looked more composed, more controlled. At 9K. I am thinking. I think he’s got it and then once he gets separation, he puts you away.”
Blanks offered, “I know there’s people that are going to be able to race better than me and I know there’s people that are training better than me, but if I can be pretty good at both, I’m going to be pretty hard to beat.”
True to his word, Blanks proved it all fall, finishing undefeated in five races. “I got to see a lot of amazing courses this year. I get to go to Nuttycombe in Madison, the Ivy League (Heps) Championships at Franklin Park, Regions at Van Cortlandt and this course here.”
The curly-haired junior concluded, “It was a great season, pretty much perfect for me from start to end, and it is amazing to finally get a NCAA win. It’s one of those big stages and I hope to keep winning big stuff.”