Is Ben True America’s Next Running Hero?
The 29-year-old phenom shares his uncensored opinions on doping in his sport
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As we await the outcome of recent doping allegations against Alberto Salazar and his long-time protégé, Galen Rupp, fans of American distance running are left without a distance running hero. Rupp has been the national standard-bearer for the sport since 2012, when he took silver in the 10,000 meters at the London Olympics. Though he may be vindicated of any wrongdoing, the current situation highlights the dearth of top-tier talent in the U.S. Meb Keflezighi and Bernard Lagat are now in their 40s, and though both have proven that they can still compete with the best in the world, their fastest days are behind them. Ryan Hall, once poised to be an Olympic medal-caliber road racer, has been in a funk in recent years, as demonstrated by his drop-out performance at the L.A. Marathon last March.
But there is another American runner worth rooting for, one who has demonstrated an ability to win against some of the best East African runners: Ben True.
Last Saturday, True won the 5,000 meter race of the prestigious 2015 Adidas Grand Prix in New York, becoming the first American ever to win the 5,000 at a Diamond League event. In March, True, a self-described “homebody” from North Yarmouth, Maine, set an American 5K road record when he ousted Kenya’s Steven Sambu in the final meters of the B.A.A. 5K in Boston. Just over a month later, True outkicked Sambu again to win the Healthy Kidney 10K in New York, taking first in a field that included former marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang, and two-time NYC Marathon winner Geoffrey Mutai.
True is truly poised to be the next great hope for American distance running. We caught up with him as he prepares for the USATF Outdoor Championships to learn more about the former Nordic skier, and his outspoken thoughts on drug cheats.
OUTSIDE: You have a reputation for having a “lone wolf” approach. Is that true? If so, what are some pros and cons of training alone?
TRUE: I do currently train completely by myself. Last year, I had a training partner, Sam Chelanga, but he has since moved to Tucson. The biggest ‘pro’ in my opinion is that I run exactly according to how my body feels; I’m not constrained by any schedule or somebody else’s training plan. As soon as I graduated from Dartmouth, I ran for the Oregon Track Club out in Eugene and I would run with somebody every single day and never felt that I was specifically doing what I needed. [Ed note: True left the OTC in 2010.] So training by yourself really allows you to do what you body needs. As for the negative side, it’s a lot harder to run a really tough workout by yourself. It makes you mentally stronger, but it definitely takes a lot more out of you. When Sam was here, workouts felt so much easier than they do now.
As an East-Coast-based runner, you’re sort of an anomaly among distance runners in this country. It feels like so many professional runners live and train out West. Do you think that’s the case?
Training out West is something you can do year-round more easily than in New England, and you also do have the chances of going to altitude, which you don’t in New England. But, yeah, I grew up in Maine, I travelled three hours west to New Hampshire for college and I’ve been here ever since. I’m one of the biggest homebodies you’ll ever meet. My wife makes fun of me all the time. She says that if I’m outside of Maine-New Hampshire-Vermont for more than two days you can see a visible change in me and I start getting the itch of wanting to go home.
“When you know you’re clean, it’s just a sweeter victory to come out and beat someone who has been proven to have doped.”
In college, you were an all-American Nordic skier. What’s your background with that sport?
Growing up in Maine, my family always went cross-country skiing behind our house. In high school, Nordic skiing was one of the major sports that everybody did, so that’s really where I got the bug for it. Running was something that I did because I’d had success with it, and I knew that it could help me get into college, but Nordic skiing was definitely my love and the sport that I was most into.
I chose Dartmouth, because it was the only D1 school that allowed me to do both sports. Actually, I took a semester off from Dartmouth and went out to Idaho to join a professional ski club. But that was when I realized that I really missed running. I realized that after I stripped away all the pressure to run, it was something that I was really meant to do, because it seemed so effortless to me. Even though I loved skiing more, skiing was something that I felt I had to constantly think about while doing, it wasn’t second nature for me. When I came back to graduate from Dartmouth, I decided to go full on into running.
As my coach now, Tim Broe, always says, “You don’t pick running, running picks you.” It’s one of those scenarios. I tried to get away from the sport as best I could, but it’s sucked me back in and now I couldn’t imagine not running.
Obviously, there is a lot of controversy now in your sport with the recent allegations directed at Salazar and the Oregon Project. That must be quite a distraction when you need to focus on racing?
All that stuff fascinates me. But, as you say, when it comes down to me being on the starting line racing people, I can’t think about it. You have to look at doing the best you can do, and race. When you toe the line, you can’t think about which person standing next to you has failed a doping test, or has served a suspension, or is under a cloud of rumors. You just have to forget about all that and race. When you know you’re clean, it’s just a sweeter victory to come out and beat someone who has been proven to have doped.
When you say ‘all that stuff fascinates’ you, what do you mean?
One of the big things with doping in this sport is that it’s so hard to police and regulate. And even when the policing and regulating works, banned athletes come back. Just look at Justin Gatlin, who’s really in the spotlight right now. He’s failed two tests. He has served suspensions. And now, he’s the number one-ranked sprinter in the world.
Things like that fascinate me, because I don’t see how that’s possible. Not that people cheat, but that we, as a sport, allow that. If you look at the legal side, then, sure, Justin Gatlin has every right to be competing, but ethically I don’t think so. Ethically, I think that lifetime bans are something we should enforce. But, with the whole process behind it, it’s tough. One of the big things with the London Olympics was that they wanted to ban all former cheats from being able to compete, but then all these lawsuits came about. I think LaShawn Merritt was one of the major headliners on it. He said “I served my legal ban, so by the laws of our sport I should be able to compete.” And he won his case and was able to compete.
It fascinates me that there have been proven scientific studies that show that the effects of certain drugs and doping can last for decades. And why we as a society allow that, and why we aren’t harsher and more penalizing–I’m going off on a rant here, sorry, but I think it’s ridiculous. And those are just the people who have already tested positive. As the whole thing with Lance showed us, and now with the Salazar allegations, if any of that turns out to be true, it shows us that people can very easily get around the tests and never test positive.
It’s interesting that you mention Gatlin since he’s doing so well right now and many people expect him to beat Usain Bolt at the World Championships this year.
I’m actually secretly hoping that Gatlin breaks Bolt’s world record because that will force people to wake up and talk about someone who has had a doping suspension, a positive test, and then been allowed to come back and compete and break a world record. It would be interesting to see if that record would be ratified and accepted.