WITH HIS SEASON OFF to a propitious start with a crisp pair of 400s, including a PR, Rai Benjamin, silver medalist in the 400H at the last three global championships, says, “It’s all perspective for me and I’m not putting any pressure on myself whatsoever.”
The perspective based on those two hurdle-less early April laps is bright. On April 1st at the Florida Relays Benjamin went sub-45 out of the gate with a 44.94 win. A week later, he topped that big time on his alma mater USC’s home track at the Allice Trojan Invitational. Looking sharp in lane 6 Benjamin strode through 200 in about 21.1 and brought it home in 44.21 to improve his PR from 2019 by 0.10. Wayde van Niekerk ran 0.04 faster a week earlier to take the world lead in Potchefstroom, South Africa, albeit with 1349m of altitude aid. Fast company for a hurdler in April.
As he prepares for another summer of vying for hurdles supremacy with Karsten Warholm, the No. 2 man on the all-time list is working on a self-improvement project.
“Personally for me, I’m trying to explore a new technique,” says Benjamin, who plans to race the 400H at the Mt. SAC Relays. “I’ve changed my step pattern and how I run the race. I think for me it’s going to be probably like a year project.
“Essentially I’m going to go 13 steps to 2, 12 to 3, 12 to 4, 13s the rest of the way. So that’s the pattern I’m working on now and slowly but surely getting it down. I’m excited to go out there and race confidently. I think last year was really, really tough. Last year I was just managing the race instead of confidently running my own race.”
How true that is — due to factors Benjamin kept under his hat throughout the ’22 campaign. If anything, it’s an understatement. The fact is he hurdled to the silver medal in Eugene last July clocking 46.89, history’s No. 10 all-time mark, with minimal fitness and one torn hamstring tendon partially detached from his pelvis.
The muscle, as he puts it, “was screaming at me,” a cacophony of pain it had unleashed with regularity since mid-May — when Benjamin was able to run at all last summer. Which is not to say often.
He can show you the images of the damaged tendon-to-bone anchorage, eventually healed through medical intervention and a 2-month post-Worlds rest period, a digital souvenir from an arduous year.
The tale of a season Benjamin was lucky to make it through in one piece is wince-provoking.
“At the beginning of the year,” Benjamin says, “I had a high hamstring issue, and I’ve had it before and it usually subsides, but as we got through the entire year it just didn’t go away.”
He opened his ’22 barriers season on May 08 in Tokyo and hurdled 48.60. The hamstring, he says, “was bothering me a bit, but it really flared up in Doha,” a 47.49 race in which Benjamin finished 0.25 down to Alison dos Santos as the Brazilian rolled into what would be an undefeated season. (Felled by a training accident, dos Santos isn’t expected to run this year.)
“I remember I was flying down the backstretch,” Benjamin says, “and it was really windy, so we had a headwind on the backstretch, and I remember getting to hurdle 5 and the pain just shot up.
“I was like, ‘Ah, man, what’s going on?’ So it was almost like if my hamstring could talk, it’d probably be like, ‘What are you doing, man?,’ honestly.
“Me actually racing and running with confidence turned into me just trying to manage the pain and not make it any worse. And to add insult to injury, I get on a plane the next day and come back home and get COVID for two weeks.
“Leg flares up really bad and I can’t see any doctors or see my trainer cuz now I have COVID, so I’m stuck in my house for like two weeks. And I had omicron, so it was really bad. It was actually really bad. I lost like 5 pounds. Any track athlete will tell you, if you don’t do anything for two weeks, it’s not good — especially in the middle of my season.”
Benjamin, hoping anti-inflammatories would calm down the leg pain, had to pull out of the Prefontaine Classic and then the New York Continental Tour meet.
“I just didn’t have the fitness,” he says. “And my coaches [Joanna Hayes and Quincy Watts] were taking it really slow with me coming back because a lot of athletes were having complications post COVID and they wanted to make sure I was actually fine.
“So in fact, it took me like 3, 3½ weeks to get back to doing actual workouts on the track. And by then it was just frustrating because not only you’re not fit, your leg hurts every time you step on the track. It got to a point where I went to Portland prior to USAs to see a doctor to see what was going on. It was that bad.”
Through an ultrasound at the office of sports med specialist Dr. Ryan Petering, Benjamin says, “They found that the tendon where my hamstring attaches to the glute had started to tear. So there were two black spots high in that tendon, and that was what was causing me all that pain.
“The options were either I get PRP [platelet-rich plasma treatment] or cortisone.” Receiving a second opinion, Benjamin first tried an anti-inflammatory for which a TUE (therapeutic use exemption) was required from USADA.
With PRP stem cells from the recipient’s stomach or centrifuged platelet-rich blood plasma are injected into the injured area. Benjamin now knows from experience, “It promotes healing significantly faster.” But there’s still athletic downtime involved. Benjamin had run out of time before the WC Trials in late June.
“I just didn’t know how I was gonna get through it,” he says. “I was literally running every round just hoping my leg doesn’t get worse. And that was kind of why I was being so conservative that first half of the race because I wasn’t fit enough to run the race how I wanted to. And also my leg was just screaming at me the entire way.
“I don’t know how I did it, but made it through USAs and immediately got in a car and drove to Portland to go get a PRP shot.”
Again, time was Benjamin’s foe. With less than 3 weeks before the 400H heats at the World Champs, the doctor could do no more than inject platelets near — not directly into — the injured area. “Because that would be an extra four weeks of recovery,” Benjamin explains.
“So I literally got PRP the day after USAs, got on a plane, came back to LA and for a week my workouts were just to walk the track. So Worlds was 2½ weeks away and my first week back is like walking and second week is a little bit of jogging. I did maybe one running workout. I didn’t hurdle, but even that was painful.
“And then I get to Eugene, pre-meet, and I can only get over two hurdles once at pre-meet and that was it. That was two days before the actual start of the race so that it could calm down. I was just banking on the adrenaline kicking in and kind of dulling the pain a little bit.
“But that first round was rough and it was just like, ‘Man, I’m actually tired right now.’ So it was doing that and just making it through all the rounds and then kind of, playing cat and mouse with everyone there in the media.
“Because I don’t really want to make excuses about why I’m not performing, but in hindsight there’s a lot that goes into it. Everyone’s playing into the rematch and it was post the Olympics, but people don’t really know what’s actually going on.
“Everyone, they just see me out on the track and everything looks fine. I’m putting on a brave face, but this was like, ‘Dude, I’m not in shape at all,’ and I haven’t hurdled [in training] since prior to USAs, I really haven’t hurdled since Doha.”
Benjamin’s rounds were tenuous and then… “I drew freaking lane 3 in the final. Being a tall person running the 400H in lane 3 when your hamstring’s hanging on by a thread, it’s just not fun. At all.”
The only thing that was “fun” about the final was the result:
“I remember the gun goes off and those guys are — it’s like they got shot out of a cannon and I’m just like, ‘Wow!’ It’s just like, ‘OK, we’re in it now.’ I remember getting up on hurdle 1 and [groans] I took it and it was like one of those where it just hurts so bad. You just gotta suck it up. At this point I’m already losing and I get off hurdle 2 and I’m looking at the field and Karsten’s just freaking gone.”
As he set up to take hurdle 3, Benjamin recalls, “I remember distinctly looking up and I was just like, ‘Man, you’re gonna lose this race, dude.’ I was probably in 5th or 6th at that point, not even in the middle at that point.
“And a lot of people saw it, but they didn’t know why I was back there. They just thought I was just like, ‘you know.’ But in reality my leg was screaming at me. When your body’s telling you to stop running and you have to mentally will yourself to push through that — cuz the body’s gonna do what it needs to do to protect itself — that’s what I was fighting with mid-race.
“Do I stop? Do I slow down? And it was like, ‘I’m not gonna stop. But also slowing down is not an option, but I’m running slow right now. And I’m actually losing this race right now.’
“Literally all this goes through my mind and the crowd starts chanting ‘USA!’ I just don’t know what it was about that, but it just got me going again and I went 12 [steps] to [hurdle] 4 because I was like, ‘If I stutter-step again to 4, I’m for sure out of this race.’
“After I got off 4, I was just like, ‘After you get off 5, man, you just gotta bring the hell out of this turn. And I just went lights-out; my mind just went blank.
“The sun was shining in my face and when I looked up again coming off 7, I was like, ‘Oh shit. Karsten’s right there.’ [laughs] I passed him and I was up on dos Santos and I was like, ‘Oh shoot, I can actually do this.’ I get off 8 and I was like, ‘Omigosh.’
“And that’s when the fitness part of things started kicking in. It was just like, ‘Dude, you don’t have the fitness for this,’ and I’m just trying to go. And then your leg’s bothering you and you don’t have the fitness and then you get off 9 and 10 and you’re just searching for something that’s not there.
“I already dug as deep as I could trying to run this last turn and I just had nothing. So I was just like, ‘Man, let’s just run this in and see what happens.’
“I was surprised I ran 46 to be honest with you. [He was clocked in 46.89, the No. 10 all-time performance] I wasn’t expecting to run that fast, [laughs] given the fact that I wasn’t working out and the opportunity that I did get to work out wasn’t great. It wasn’t anything substantial. I wasn’t doing any speedwork. I wasn’t doing any speed endurance or anything like that. It was just running off fumes and adrenaline.
“It was a huge relief to win a silver medal. That was probably the best outcome that I could have ever had in that situation.”
Benjamin withdrew from the 4×4, on which he had anchored Team USA to gold in Tokyo. “Realistically, could I have gone out there?” he asks rhetorically. “Yes. Could have. I could have run probably and probably given them a 45 and cost us a gold medal. That’s something that I just straight out will not do.”
Instead, he says, “I went back to the doctor and he did the procedure over again. He went in with the needle this time. He tapped the bone, scraped it to make sure it started bleeding and then he put in PRP.
“I got like 8 weeks off and I just took that time to heal up. Yeah, it was kind of weird seeing everyone still running.… I was hanging out, man. I was having fun. My birthday was a couple days after Worlds; went home, saw my dog, saw my family.”
After that nightmare season with its miraculous finish on the podium yet again, it’s no wonder Benjamin is emphasizing perspective.
“A lot of people who got 2nd at World Championships ran 48 in previous years — that’s very typical over a long period of time,” he points out. “But I’m getting 2nd running 46 [a mind-blowing 46.17 at the Olympics, in fact]. Any other year in time I would be walking on a freaking gold pedestal around the track. You know what I mean? I know what I’m capable of and I know what I have done, but we’re running fast. It’s not like I’m running slow.
“I compare it, for instance, to [Formula 1 auto racing]. These guys rejoice in placing 3rd-, 4th-, 5th-place. And in track we kind of neglect the people that have done well to get on the podium.
“Everyone knows what it takes to be a track athlete because as track fans, people have either run track or have been watching track all their lives. And yet a lot of people — and this is no disrespect to anyone — you’re not there.
“You’re not putting on a uniform and you’re not lining up on that track and you’re not running out there when the gun goes off at World Champs. You’re watching the race. You know, there’s a reason why you’re not there because you couldn’t cut it. But the people that did cut it and are there and are making the podium deserve so much respect.
“If it’s 1st through 8th, I don’t care if you make that final, you deserve so much respect because it takes a lot to get up every single day and do what you do. And it takes a lot of sacrifices.”
That said, after three silvers in a row — in Doha, Tokyo and Eugene — Benjamin trusts a hurdles gold can be his some day. Perhaps in Budapest this summer.
“At some point something has to give,” he says. “That’s my optimistic view on it. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither was any building that has ever stood. So you gotta lay the bricks, you gotta make some mistakes, you gotta recall the contractor to come back out and fix some more stuff and eventually the building will stand.
“So that’s my perspective. I’m still laying bricks right now and eventually the building will stand. So we’ll see what happens.”