“I WAKE UP EVERY MORNING and remind myself: ‘I don’t have to do this, I get to do this.’” So reads the pinned tweet atop miler Ben Blankenship’s Twitter feed from August ’18. Talk with the 32-year-old Rio Olympian as he readies for another run at the rings and his sincerity in that sentiment comes through, even-keel and firmly directed toward the Olympic Trials in June.
Viz his gratitude for his hardworking life as an elite runner, Blankenship put his money where his mouth is in January. He sponsored an indoor 8-lapper held at the American Track League II meet and it went off as the Ben Blankenship Women’s Mile. Can you think — off-hand — of another active athlete doing something like that?
Blankenship just felt it was high time one should. “I have a lot of opportunities and made a lot of good decisions, I think, in my athletic career and I was fortunate enough to be able to sponsor it,” he says. “I look at track & field — and I think it’s easy and I’ve done it probably more than anybody — to criticize the sport publicly and privately. And something that really resonated with me is what Wallace Spearmon said.
“He said, ‘You know, if you’re not doing anything positive, what are you doing?’ I fortunately had the ability to call up [ATL series director] Paul Doyle and say, ‘What can I do? What can I do to help?’ And really the easiest thing is money. Money makes these events better. So we came to an agreement and I was super excited about being able to sponsor the meet and kind of get things rolling and make people kind of think, you know, ‘If Ben Blankenship can do it, who else could do it?’”
Honoring his craft through his contribution, Blankenship — who germinated his plan while watching ATL I just a week beforehand — used 45 seconds of meet broadcast time on a brief, beautiful video celebration of “the beauty of track & field.” He teamed up with Oregon track alum Travis Thompson, and Thompson’s Elevation 0m digital production company to film his atmospheric paean at nearby Mt. Pisgah, a favored training venue just outside Eugene. (Continued below)
Says Blankenship, “Travis had like a 12-hour turnaround for it and he was able to put it all together. It’s just incredible work. So hats off to Travis for putting that together.”
Third at the ’16 OT after leading at the bell — and 8th in the Rio final — Blankenship was the fastest non-qualifier in the semis at the ’19 World Champs. Lest you think Blankenship, who has trained steadily with coach Mark Rowland and the Eugene-based Nike OTC squad since ’13, may have signaled a move upward in distance when he wrapped ’20 with his first-ever track 10,000, guess again.
“I definitely am, for sure thinking about the 15,” the ’12 Minnesota grad assures. “I’m a man of the mile, a guy that really likes the 15. I take to it really well, but there’s a lot of events that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s hard to fit a 10K into a schedule. It takes a long time to recover from it and it’s a tough race. And the off year gave me that opportunity to get on the track and try something new.”
Twenty-five laps in the end-of-August Sunset Tour II last summer was new, indeed, to Blankenship’s range on the oval, and he churned through it in 28:08.20 for 5th behind winner Edward Cheserek’s 27:42.53.
“I was a bit excited about how it went just to try some over-distance,” he says. “I was probably a little bit more cautious than maybe I could have been. But you know, you learn from experiences.”
As a veteran miler, Blankenship has opted during the as yet fraught with COVID concerns winter of the Olympic year to eschew travel and racing, “I’m pretty at home,” he says of his routine. “Big training blocks and I love to find myself in big volume weeks and kind of high intensity on the track, and figuring out what the season will look like. Obviously there’s a lot going on right now, a lot of great opportunities are happening. I’m kind of looking down the road a little bit and kind of seeing what happens.”
Blankenship says he meets with Rowland and the OTC group, which includes Rio 5000 finalist Hassan Mead, “twice a week and kind of mix in a little bit. I think our group has done a really good job of isolating, and Eugene is a good mix in the community where you go out on the trails and if you time it right, you might only see one or two people. So I think your risk is a little bit lower than if you lived in Seattle or maybe Portland, where you’re going to pass so many more people out on the trail. So jogging from my house I feel pretty confident that my risk level is a little bit lower — just not seeing anybody not wearing some type of mask now.”
With his 3:34.26 PR from ’16 and 3:52.51 mile best set in the ’19 Pre meet, what advantages does Blankenship feel he’ll bring to the Trials? “Oh, man, I don’t know. Maybe experience at this point,” says the miler, who’s easily IDed in a crowded field by his ubiquitous headband. “I’d like to be able to say that I’ve watched a lot of iterations of U.S. Championships and I’ve found myself in a lot of different races.
“I’ve been a guy that’s kind of gone through almost two totally different championship styles [on the international stage]. You know, you get back to how Asbel Kiprop used to run. It was a lot more, quote unquote ‘championship style’ where it’d be a long, slow buildup. And now a guy like Timothy Cheruiyot who’s kind of changing it all up where it’s kind of survival of the fittest, really. So I went through really two iterations. So it’s just kind of prepping to kind of figure out what will this year hold and what will be the challenges for us as we go through rounds.”
At this year’s Trials, Blankenship says, “I think the thing that will be different, presumably — I’m just guessing here — is that if there’s no crowd in the stadium and you’re standing on that line for the final and you look around and it’s whisper quiet, I think that’ll be a little bit tough for some people.”
Blankenship doesn’t see himself as one of them. “You know, I’m at home by myself, I am oftentimes doing sessions by myself, and I don’t mind it at all,” he says. “I don’t mind showing up to the track and being the only one.
“And I don’t mind getting thrown in the gauntlet [in championship rounds] once in a while. I have always said, I’d rather run the hardest race right away than pick my way through it. I’ve always kinda liked to run those gauntlets and kind of find myself in the harder heats if possible.”