Nov. 19, 2009
By Larry Watts
Ben Blankenship is a throwback to the 1970s. With his shoulder-length hair and a free spirit attitude, the University of Minnesota junior seems like the reincarnation of Steve Prefontaine.
"I don't know if I fit in with the modern day runner; I don't seem to fit in with that vibe," the Stillwater, Minn. native says. "I'm more independent than a lot of the runners. I develop my own race plan and kind of want to do my own thing because who knows you better than you know yourself? I'll just take care of my business."
And he is very honest about his approach to his education, claiming he has yet to determine a future path after graduation.
"I finally decided on an American studies major, but I have been studying a lot of different things with a political focus," he says. "But I'll probably end up doing something unrelated. Maybe I'll teach seventh grade social science.
"When I was a kid, going to school was not something I wanted to be doing. I didn't have much interest in it and, at this point, I still don't. Going to three classes daily can be rough, but I think the teachers can make it interesting for the kids. I think it would be good to get involved in being part of the reform of getting students interested in showing up for class."
But don't think for once second Blankenship in a loner on the Golden Gophers' cross country and track squads. After transferring from Mississippi State following his freshman campaign, he pushed himself up to become Minnesota's No. 3 runner by the end of last fall and is now running No. 2 behind fellow junior Hassan Mead, one of the nation's top distance runners.
"It's nice to train with one of the top guys in the country," he says of Mead. "If I can hang with him, it gives me confidence in knowing good things will come my way. That's important during cross country season, where I'm out of my element, to have a training partner like that. He's a distance machine and has been almost unstoppable in the Big Ten since he came here."
A miler at heart, Blankenship has learned to build himself up for the strenuous 10K runs at the end of the season.
"It takes me awhile to get into the rhythm of running that distance, but by the end of October and beginning of November, I am usually able to hold my own," he says.
A two-time state high school champion in the 1600, Blankenship chose to head to Mississippi State after several schools backed off when he suffered a severe injury during his senior year of cross country.
"With about 600 meters remaining in the Section race (qualifier for the state meet), I broke the femur in my left leg," he says. "My coach was about 30 meters away and I jogged up to him and told him 'I have a huge problem.' He told me to just jog it in. I still won the race, but it was really painful and I could barely walk after the race.
"I had been feeling pain in my leg for about a week before the race, but I just thought it was due to the weather change and it wasn't a big deal. The doctor told me I probably had a stress fracture at that point. I was running an unbelievable race and feeling awesome until my leg snapped. I don't know if it was guts or stupidity, but our team needed the points to qualify for the state meet."
Doctors originally told him he would be out for a considerable amount of time and have to undergo physical therapy. But after two weeks on crutches and three months of rest, he was back on the track.
"But the injury hit right before the early signing period and many coaches who were recruiting me started to get cold feet," he says. "However, Mississippi State stayed with me and I signed."
Blankenship posted a successful rookie campaign at Mississippi State, highlighted by a 25th place finish in the regional meet. However, he missed qualifying for the NCAA Championship run by a couple of places.
"I really thought I had a chance to crack the top 10," he says. "But going from a miler to running the 10K with some of the top guys in the country overwhelmed me and I fizzled out. I was leading after 3K, but I was way over my head. I was in pretty good shape at the 8K mark, but that last 2K is brutal. As a freshman, I didn't understand the concept of hanging back and letting other people do the work."
Although he liked the coaches, Blankenship was ready to move on following the track season. "I just didn't think the training was bringing out the best of my abilities," he says. "I had a lot of friends back at the University of Minnesota and had remained in contact with them. I talked to Plaz (Minnesota head coach Steve Plascencia) and, luckily, he still had a scholarship open. It was a chance to move back closer to home and figure out my life."
It didn't take Blankenship long to establish himself as one of the Gophers' top five runners. He took 25th in the Big Ten meet and was named All-Midwest Region after placing 12th. When the Gophers finished 15th on the national stage, he was the team's third runner, crossing the line 100th overall.
But his biggest moment would come in the spring, when he advanced to the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 1500. He surprised the field in his heat by immediately taking the lead and holding it until the final 200 meters, when he was passed by four runners. He missed qualifying for the finals by two spots and .38 of a second.
"I was worried about my finishing speed," he says of his strategy. "I was in with some of the bigger names, so I thought I might as well make an honest race out of it. Maybe I could run away from a few people and get into the finals, but the cards did not fall my way.
"Looking back, I might have done it a bit differently. I could have sat back for a whole lap and figured out what was going on. But it still worked out well because I ran my personal best (3:42.47, fifth in Minnesota history)."
With his confidence growing in each race, Blankenship has set goals of cracking the top eight in the regional meet and reaching All-America status at the NCAA Championships. On the track, he wants to make the finals of the 1500 at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. He's even thinking of running more 5000 events.
"I took fourth in the 5K at the Big Ten meet last year right after finishing fourth in the 1500," he says. "I think a lot of guys were wondering why this miler was coming over to their race, but I surprised them. It was actually a very relaxing race until the last 1K, when we had to do an all-out burn.
"It would be nice to try the 5K a few more times and see what I can do, but that's a pretty deep field on the national level. And I don't want to lose all my speed for the 1500 because of it. I want to be factor in that race during the outdoor season."
The move back to Minnesota has also made things a lot easier for Blankenship's family. Between his parents and grandparents, he estimates they have only missed three of his meets since he started running.
"I'm an only child and they have been my biggest supporters," he says. "My grandparents even came out to one of my races in California when I was a freshman at Mississippi State and it didn't start until late, well past their bedtime. They are real troopers and have given me a ton of support through the years."
Blankenship says he still hasn't decided about post-collegiate running. But if his times continue to drop, there is a very good chance.
"As long as I keep putting up fresh times and keep people interested," he says. "One of the problems is I'm not a household running name. People recognize the Hassan Meads of the world, but I'm still not regarded as a high caliber runner.
"Maybe that's because I am a free spirit and not really engaged in this culture. But if I can shock people like I did at the NCAA track meet last year and keep improving this year, maybe Ben Blankenship will be a household name. As long as I still enjoy running, there is still a possibility I might be running after college."