T&FN Interview — Rai Benjamin

Rai Benjamin hasn’t lost a 400H race to an American since June of ’17. (GLADYS CHAI/ASVOM AGENCY)

IN LATE APRIL Rai Benjamin, who last summer became the fourth man in history to crack the 47-second barrier in the 400 hurdles, sat down for the phone talk that follows. The circumstances were anomalous in the almost-50-year history of the T&FN Interview. Not since distance star Craig Virgin sat for interview No. 69 in the series for the May ’80 issue has so much uncertainty hung over one of these dialogs. For Virgin the Olympic boycott, not at the time a fait accompli, created the moment’s incertitude. Over this interview, COVID-19 and track’s current holding pattern are the looming clouds.

So rather than talk about an Olympic season Benjamin began with a Millrose 300 win, an Olympic season shifting into spring gear with the Mt. SAC Relays—where Benjamin’s outdoor opener last year was a 44.31 flat 400 PR—we covered training during a pandemic lockdown. But also broader topics like dialing in a perfect 400H stride pattern for the World Champs silver medalist and Benjamin’s life as a youth splitting time between his parents’ native Antigua and Mt. Vernon, New York, where he emerged as a prep star. (The U.S.-born Benjamin competed for Antigua in the ’13 World Youth Championships and ’15 World Relays but thereafter opted to represent the U.S. His transfer of allegiance went through in October of ’18.)

For Benjamin, the coronavirus’s strike is not his first jarring brush with a world-changing event. The plane flight he took at age 4 to live with relatives in Antigua for a few years departed New York on 9/11. The 9/11. He made it through that chaotic interruption of life’s normal rhythms and assures us he is rolling with this one stoically. Fortunately, Benjamin reports family and friends in New York have stayed safe during the massive spread of C19 in that state. He is weathering events with his LA training group, mostly fellow USC alums. (Continued below)

The first line of questioning, after initial pleasantries of course, was how the hurdles star is managing to train these days:

Benjamin: Still here. All locked down, but it isn’t too bad. We’re just taking the necessary precautions and trying to listen to as much information as we can and making the right decisions with that information. So it’s been a challenging month and some change but it’s been fine.

T&FN: Good. Glad you’re healthy and everything. To what extent are you able to train and what’s the routine through the week?

Benjamin: I mean, we have no access to tracks currently. It’s been like that for the past four or five weeks. So we’ve been actually training in some suburban areas where it isn’t so busy and we can run in the street. We go about three or four times a week, just trying to keep some level of fitness and it’s kind of hard in that we’re running on the street and not on the track.

T&FN: So you aren’t able to even find a grass field to train on?

Benjamin: Not really ’cause it’s kinda hard to find areas that are open that have a lot of grass. I mean, given that we’re in LA, it’s kind of hard to find those areas. It’s mostly a city and the major parks are closed here so we definitely don’t have access to much grass. So we’ve resorted to running on the streets, on the concrete so that’s been a reality for the past few weeks now. There’s a dead end street where it’s not that busy in the morning and it’s, I would say, about 400 meters long. So we’ve run on that street sometimes.

T&FN: Sprint training on the street, that’s different. Are you running hard or—what are you doing?

Benjamin: We’re doing 300s, 200s, whatever. You know, a few hills here and there on what’s also not a busy street. Our regular routine workouts that we’d have on the track we’re doing on the street.

T&FN: In training flats, obviously. Sprinting on streets must pound your legs.

Benjamin: Training shoes. Nike Epic Reacts. Those thankfully have a lot of cushion. It’s been kind of forgiving because we have those shoes, but at the same time it’s not good to be pounding on the concrete all the time cause there’s zero give from it, it’s not forgiving. So it’s been hard some days and other days it’s been, you know, whatever, we have to get this done. At this point we have no choice.

T&FN: You need to stay social-distanced but you’re able to train with a group?

Benjamin: So it’s me and Michael [Norman] and Kendall Ellis and Candace Hill. I mean definitely when we warm up we’re keeping that 6-feet-apart from each other, warming up in different areas. And even when we’re running sometimes we’ll run with each other but 6-feet-apart because the street kind of permits that. Or we’ll go one at a time depending on what the workout is.

We’ve definitely adapted. We did blocks today on a turf field that we found that was still open and we were very much 6-feet-apart from each other during those. So we’ve definitely been making necessary adjustments and trying to make do with what we have and also following the guidelines.

T&FN: It has to be strange starting out of blocks on turf, not a track.

Benjamin: It’s so weird. It’s been a few weeks since we’d been in blocks and it’s like we hit the reset button all over again because now you have to kind of relearn that feeling and that start and it takes a few weeks to get your block starts sharp again. To stop doing them and to jump back in and start doing it again, it’s kinda rough.

T&FN: It must also be weird not having a progression that you can plan for the season because you don’t know when the season will begin, if it’s going to begin.

Benjamin: Right, right. It’s a puzzle. Sometimes it feels like we’re just out there with no end in sight. But here and there we hear there’s going to be a meet in late August, Indonesia in July. But it’s kind of hard to know that for sure because you know every day this virus is changing and it’s affecting a lot of people and a lot of areas. And, you know, in all honesty, we don’t know the full severity of it and what that impact is. So it’s kind of hard to know that there’s daylight at the end of this and knowing that if they have meets it’s not going to be what people think it is. There’s not going to be hundreds of people gathered in one area at one time.

T&FN: Unfortunately it’s that way for everybody. You’ve been team-coached for the past several seasons. Which of your coaches are you able to get together with at this point?

Benjamin: All of them. Coach [Joanna] Hayes, Coach [Quincy] Watts and Coach Caryl [Smith Gilbert], they come out. Coach Watts, he’s been spearheading the whole thing. And I mean, they’ve all been working together just to figure out, all right, what we’re going to do and when we’re gonna do it, and how are we going to go about being safe and being as efficient as possible. So it’s been a good effort on everyone’s part in terms of getting us together and helping us keep the dream alive in some sense. It’s been pretty nice to have them along with us.

T&FN: Good to hear. I’ve seen on social media that Joanna Hayes has her hands full with her two daughters, juggling homeschooling with everything else. She’s shown a great sense of humor about it but I also know how tough it’s gotta be.

Benjamin: Yeah. I know those girls are very great girls and they could be a lot sometimes, I guess. But they’re pretty funny and they keep her on her toes. So I guess that’s a good thing for her.

T&FN: Besides the running, can you get into a weightroom or anything like that?

Benjamin: No, not at all actually. I’ve just been doing a lot of home workouts, upper body stuff at home. Nothing here is open at all so we’ve been doing full-body circuits and ordering stuff online—med balls and certain bands to do our prehab with and stuff like that. So it’s just been a home journey this entire time, using what we have to just make best with.

T&FN: How easy has it been for you to maintain a normal diet? Do you get a lot of to-go food or do you have kitchen skills?

Benjamin: I’ve been doing a little bit of both. I’m still trying to keep that healthy balance and I’ll go to Whole Foods probably once a week. Now that things have been restrictive I’ve been trying to minimize my trips to Whole Foods. Usually I’ll go twice or three times a week, but now I’ll go once a week and get stuff for the week and then prepare meals. I’m still just trying to do all the right things. So I haven’t really veered too far off the path, honestly. And I feel like once you established a healthy eating pattern, it’s kinda hard to break that.

T&FN: What are some of your go-to meals?

Benjamin: Well, I’ll do like a teriyaki chicken or just some spaghetti and you know, I did some garlic shrimps the other day and I’ll make steak. So it just all depends. I’ll look for a recipe that I like and then I’ll just get the ingredients and try to switch it up as much as possible.

T&FN: Have you taken up any new hobbies or expanded on previous ones while sheltering in place?

Benjamin: I’ve been reading a lot, listening to a lot of music. That’s pretty much it. Playing a little bit of Call of Duty in there, spicing it up.

T&FN: Is there anything on your reading list you would recommend?

Benjamin: Way Of A Peaceful Warrior. I thought that was pretty good.

T&FN: I was going to ask if you’re doing any all-out race simulation kinds of running, but since you’re training on the street I assume the answer is no.

Benjamin: Rarely. I think one or two days we’ve had that. Saturday we had an all-out 200 uphill. So there will be stuff like that just to keep the intensity up. But it’s not the same as being on the track and not the same as being in a race. I feel like, at the end of the day, you could do as much as you want at practice but being race sharp is an entirely different ballgame. It’s just something you can’t really get while at practice. You have to race.

Benjamin anchored Team USA to 4×4 gold in last year’s World Championships. (KEVIN MORRIS)

T&FN: Mentally speaking, to what extent are you training for a potential resumption of this season and how much are you in long-game mode?

Benjamin: I think I’m in long-game mode. I mean, I feel like everyone’s trying to be optimistic and trying to salvage the season out of this. But for me, I feel as though, “OK, let’s try to maintain this fitness and start over again when it’s time.” Realistically you could have meets, but it’s not going to be in comparison to a regular season. You’re not going to get the same feel, things are going to be different. It’s just going to be an entirely different ball game.

I understand the need to keep our sport relevant and to preserve certain things, but at the same time, I just don’t necessarily think that with what’s going on right now—I could be wrong, you know?

T&FN: We all hope you’re wrong but we all have to be realistic, we don’t know.

Benjamin: Yeah. At this very moment I think it’s important to be realistic about everything. And realistically moving forward, this is going to change a lot of things. It’s just like how 9/11 changed the way we all travel and whatnot. So it’s definitely gonna be a different ballgame moving forward. You want to have a profitable sport, you want to have a good turnout. You want to have the athletes feel important and entertain the fans. But then if you can’t do that when everyone’s being told to stay home or you can’t gather in large masses, it’s kinda hard to see meet promoters not being in the red when it comes to putting on meets. But I mean, that’s beyond my control, obviously.

But needless to say, if it’s time to compete, I know I’d be ready so I’m just doing what I can to stay fit and stay healthy and do all the right things just in case we get that call and we’re told, “OK, it’s time to go.”

T&FN: I imagine there’s not much you can do that resembles actually hurdling.

Benjamin: Yeah, I haven’t hurdled in months. I haven’t done anything hurdle-wise. (Continued below)

T&FN: In April of a normal year I’d ask if you’ve been working on anything new or different in terms of your stride pattern over the hurdles. You’re probably not thinking too much about that right now, but is there anything you can say about that right now?

Benjamin: When we first started this year that was very prominent, we were working on it a lot. I was definitely doing a lot more hurdle work than I had done in the previous few years, but you know, as soon as this thing hit it just kinda went out the door and I just kind of went into survival mode. So haven’t really hurdled at all since things started.

T&FN: I remember you taking 12 steps between two hurdles in your Pac-12 heat in 2018 and surprising yourself a little. What was your pattern, for example, in the Diamond League Final race last year? Is incorporating some 12-stepping into your rhythm part of your race pattern going forward?

Benjamin: I think it’s been our plan this season, or what was supposed to be this season, to incorporate it into the race plan. For instance, races like Zürich that 12-step pattern came up, I wasn’t comfortable enough to do it although I could do it. I just didn’t want to. There was one hurdle on the backstretch, I think it was hurdle 3, where that came up and I had to chop a little bit just to get back on that 13-stride length. So, I mean, it’s definitely there and it’s the same pattern that I ran at Pac-12s where I went 12 on the backstretch going to hurdle 5. It’s kind of reared its head a little bit as inevitable that it’s going to happen. So we kind of were working on being more confident with the left [lead leg] and trusting it more and just riding the pattern and taking whatever leg comes up. So that was kind of the focus. But I mean, initially I would have loved to stay 13s because I know I can run fast running 13s but just physically my body wants to do something else.

T&FN: I see. At this point, do you ever run 14s coming home or are you 13s all the way around?

Benjamin: Yeah, 13 is pretty much all the way around. A 14 is just something that I don’t ever want to do. I think at that point you’re just kinda in the red and you’re kind of playing with fire because going 14s lost me two big races, three big races actually. In my first Diamond League meet, Shanghai, going 14s on that last hurdle lost me that race to Samba. And even the Diamond League Final, where at that last hurdle going 14 lost me that race, as well, too. As well as the World Championships final. But [for that race] I wasn’t even in any kind of good shape at all following my injury. But small things like that will cost you a lot. And it definitely cost me, cause it’s like you get off hurdle 9 and you have to make this big adjustment and it’s either you slow down a little bit or you just full on take the hurdle. And I think I’ve lost those races because I went 14 and I was trying to make something happen out of nothing. But it’s something that I am definitely trying to avoid doing.

I think there was one race last year, that was Prefontaine, that was pretty great. I went 13 all the way. And you know, I think that’s a pattern that works for me. So even if I have to go 12 on the backstretch and 13s home then at present that’s a perfect scenario for me. (Continued below)

T&FN: Shifting gears here, what was it like for you growing up traveling back and forth between two countries? How do you feel that has shaped you as a competitor and shaped your view of the world?

Benjamin: Well I think it mostly shaped my view of the world because I’ve seen it through two different lenses. So I think because of that it has made me more accepting of a lot of things and more open to a lot of things because I know that just one way of thinking isn’t the right way of thinking. It’s not the resolute answer and there’s a lot of things that are going on out there in the world and there’s a lot of different cultural experiences and behavioral norms. So I think that pays in a way, giving me a very good perspective when traveling because I kinda know like to think deeply about certain things. You know, why is it that they do this and why do they think this way and how do they see other people?

And I think going to Doha was definitely an eye-opener because we were all kind of immersed in this new culture, new experience. And it wasn’t like we were gone to Europe where it’s more westernized and more, I would say, progressive, liberty progressive. It was a very conservative country and they have certain practices that they hold sacred. So it was really interesting to observe those things and see what it’s like living in a Middle Eastern country. So I mean I thought it was very, very cool. And it’s definitely not what you see in the movies, for sure.

I kinda liked it, I enjoyed being there, but what made it hard being there was the fact that every day was just a struggle just running and on whether or not we were going to compete. So I kind of had a hard first World Championships, but you know, I think that kind of built a lot of character between all of this and a lot of bonds and just prepared us for the future. I mean we all were going through things there. (Continued below)

T&FN: Your dad had a career as an elite cricketer and played professionally in England. I gather he finished as a player a couple of years before you were even born, but did you play the game at all as a kid?

Benjamin: Yeah, I definitely played as a kid growing up there. It’s a really big sport there so I definitely play all the time, but my dad never really forced me into taking it seriously. My dad was, was like, ‘Hey, anything you want to do, I’m supporting you.’

I played cricket, I’d say, 7 through maybe 10 or so, like two years. And then I moved to New York after that to live with my mom, so I wasn’t really overly exposed to it. And I was also playing other sports. I played soccer as well, so I played more soccer than I did cricket.

T&FN: During that brief cricket career what were your strengths in the game?

Benjamin: I’d say the same strength my dad had, bowling. Yeah, I think I was a very good bowler. And that’s pretty much it.

T&FN: That’s cool. So if you look at a cricket score, you can make sense of it.

Benjamin: Yeah, yeah, I definitely could make sense of it. I can follow the game and all that.

T&FN: Do you follow it at all now?

Benjamin: Not anymore. Because it’s not that prominent here. I definitely be watching all the football, specifically college football. So I think that’s my go-to. It doesn’t matter who’s playing, I just always wasn’t really enjoy watching college football.

T&FN: Did you compete in track & field in Antigua?

Benjamin: Yeah, I did but I wasn’t training seriously. We had like intrasquad and inter-school competitions and I’d just run at those events on short notice and do moderately well.

T&FN: Moderately? You weren’t a star? Granted, you were a pretty young kid.

Benjamin: Yeah. I wasn’t the biggest star. I mean I was there but I wasn’t the best, if you know what I mean. ’Cause I hadn’t been trained. Other guys were actually training to run track and for me it was just, “Hey, we have this next week. Are you going to be ready for it?” I’m just like, “Yeah, sure.” I mean, I was always that kid that was always fast, but I never really honed in my ability because I was just so distracted doing other things and playing other sports.

T&FN: Did you run just the sprints or did you branch out?

Benjamin: Yeah, I was strictly 100 and 200. I’d run a 400 here and there but it wasn’t that serious. But I mean I thought I was like the next Usain Bolt coming out of grade school. That’s like every kid, though. That’s like every person that runs track. You want to run the 100, you want to run the 200. And then you get to a certain point, you realize, ‘Maybe I’m better at the 4, and you get put in the 400 hurdles and realize, you know, maybe you’re better at this than that. But I think I’m well rounded in terms of all the events. I feel if I had to do an event, I could be some pretty serious competition.

T&FN: I remember Quincy Watts in ’18 saying you could run the 100 at a world-class level if you trained for it. That’s not too surprising, really. But was it in high school in Mt. Vernon that you started training for track?

Benjamin: Yeah, my 9th-grade year I got really serious about it and started to do some training for it. And my first year I did very well. I ran 54 as a freshman open and split like 50-point on that 4×4 within my first week of training. So that was like an eye-opener. And as the season progressed I was always around with the seniors and training and whatnot. And my sophomore year came around and that’s when things started to click. I started running 49s, a lot of 49s. And then my junior year is when I really had the breakthrough, I started running 47s and 46s

T&FN: When did you realize this could earn you a college scholarship?

Benjamin: It was at Arcadia that freshman year I realized it. I think it was 2012 and the kids out here in California were running extremely fast, and I realized that, Hey, honestly, if I really put my head down and really work at it, I could definitely do something with this sport. And my high school coach told me all the time that, “Hey man, you can get a full ride for this. This could pay for you to go to school.” I heard him and I understood it, but I just couldn’t conceptualize it at the time. And it wasn’t until my junior year that I was able to do that.

T&FN: Wow. So at Arcadia, you saw what other kids were running and you said, “I could do that. I can run that fast.” Or was it a matter of having your eyes opened to what “fast” meant?

Benjamin: I mean, it opened up my eyes to what I needed to do to get to that level. Because the kids here [in California] were running like 46s, 45-highs, and I knew that that’s what it would take to get to that collegiate level. So I knew as a freshman looking at that, I knew that’s where I needed to be.

T&FN: You traveled to Arcadia as a relay squad member in 9th grade?

Benjamin: We were there for the 4×4, we were there for the invitational section cause our 4×4 ran a 3:15 that year. So we were pretty good. I was just the alternate on there, of course, ’cause I was a freshman and I was on a team full of seniors at the time, juniors and seniors.

T&FN: Did you run at Arcadia or were you just spectating since you were the alternate?

Benjamin: I was just watching. I ended up not running because of course the senior guys kind of took over. So I went as an alternate on standby just in case. But you know, just sitting in the stands I think did more for me than being on the track. To watch them compete and watch them do well and know that this is what I have to do to get there on a team full of guys that are splitting like 48s and 47s. A 50-point freshman isn’t going to make it on the team.

T&FN: Your 46.98 race at the DL Final last year was phenomenal to watch, the first race ever with two—including Warholm at 46.92—under 47. What does your performance there tell you now that you’ve had some time to think about it?

Benjamin: It tells me a lot. I think my first [professional] year was really good. I think that I had a phenomenal season. I mean, I know I didn’t win gold necessarily in my event, but my event is deep. There are no slouches at all in my event. And three [currently active] guys to be under 47 seconds, like unheard of. I think I had a really good welcoming to what it’s like to be on that scene. So I have very high hopes for the future.

T&FN: Do you care to talk about time goals?

Benjamin: It’s not the type of thing I like to really discuss. I mean for me it’s more of a “let’s go out and compete” type of thing. I think last year the media kind of made it about the time and then there was that whole aspect of, “Are you going to break the record?” and whatnot. And sometimes I fed into it, but I mean for me it’s always been just competing and doing the best I can.

T&FN: Inevitably, as long as you, Warholm and Samba are around—and it looks like you’ll be around for a while—people are going to be talking about the World Record. Until one of you breaks it, anyway. So what do you do to shut that talk out? Put it in some little compartment in your mind and let other people talk about it and just answer the questions because you have to?

Benjamin: I just answered the questions as best I can. I mean it definitely is in my mind, but it’s at the back of my mind. And I understand the curiosity of the sport and that everyone’s excited, so it’s definitely understandable. But for me it’s just all about being aware of myself and knowing where I’m at and what I have to do in terms of my race. So that’s kind of been the thing with me, or for me.

T&FN: So you work on that. What’s it like to not have meets to look forward to in the next few weeks, and possibly months, as you would had this season gone off as usual?

Benjamin: It definitely is a heartbreaker sometimes because most days it’s just like, “Man, this sucks.” But then you have to realize that what’s going on right now is way more serious than not being able to compete at a meet. So it’s nice to look back and think what could be, but at the same time I’m grateful for my health and grateful that I’m still able to train. And it’s not going to be the end of the world if I can’t compete, but at the same time I would love to compete—but still keeping in respect what’s going on and keeping things in perspective.

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