By Jonathan Gault
March 15, 2016
Just over three years ago, Ben True made his half marathon debut. To say that it went poorly would be an understatement. It was the Aramco Houston Half Marathon, January 2013. True was coming off a few weeks of warm-weather training in nearby Austin and ready to take his first crack at the distance.
“We (True and then-coach Mark Coogan) didn’t really didn’t change anything major on my training,” True said. “We just saw it as a good benchmark thing to go run, try something new and use it as something to look forward to with all the winter training. I was excited for it.”
Race day was unusually cold and windy for Houston, with temperatures in the 40s, and by the time True got to the course, it was raining. But True, a Maine native who trains in New Hampshire, is no stranger to foul weather, so he simply added a few extra layers under his singlet for the race.
That proved to be a bad decision. True’s clothes quickly became soaked through, and after making a left turn on the course, True was met with a driving headwind. The combination of wind and wet clothing caused True’s body temperature to lower and he started shivering. He began to slow down and eventually dropped out — the first and, to this point, only time he has failed to finish a race in his career.
“It was one of those things [where] I was probably running 7-minute pace when I dropped out, just shaking uncontrollably,” True said. “I’m probably one of the few people who have gotten hypothermia in Houston, Texas.”
On Sunday, for the first time since that day in the Lone Star State, True hopes to take another crack at the 13.1-mile distance at the United Airlines NYC Half against a field that includes 59:15 man Wilson Chebet, road racer extraordinaire Stephen Sambu and Americans Diego Estrada and Sam Chelanga (Editor’s Update: True has withdrawn from the race due to injury). For the past three years, True has run and won the U.S. 15K Championships in Jacksonville in March, but he wanted a new challenge in 2016. World Indoors is in the United States this year, but that was never an option for True.
“I don’t like running on the indoor track at all just because the few times I run on it up here in Leverone [Field House in his training base of Hanover, N.H.], I tend to pick up injuries,” said True, who only did one year of indoor track in college (and he didn’t even run conference that year) as he was a cross country skiier in the winter. “So I try to avoid the indoor track at all cost.”
True was already bumping up the volume of his workouts, from 14 miles to 16 or 17 (including warmup/cooldown), in an effort to get stronger on the track. A move up in racing distance was natural and the timing of the NYC Half made for an obvious fit. While True said that he definitely plans to run a marathon at some point in his career, Sunday’s race does not represent the beginning of a transition away from the track.
“This is not an indication that I’m planning on doing a marathon anytime soon,” True said. “I’d like to do multiple halves before I ever attempt to move up to the full, so that’s a ways away … I think it’s going to be one of those things where [I’m going to focus on the track] until I feel that I can’t get any faster with the speed. I still feel like I’m just starting to tap into what I need to run some really fast 5ks.”
2015 was the best season of True’s career, as he qualified for the World Championships in both the 5,000 and the 10,000, ultimately taking sixth in the 5,000 final in Beijing. He also broke the U.S. road 5k record (13:22) became the first American man to win a Diamond League 5,000 and earned the top spot in LetsRun.com’s U.S. 5,000 rankings. That success brought a change in mindset.
“In years past, I’ve tried to run for a certain time or gone after things that way but last year it was to try to just run competitively, not care at all about time and just try to be in the race and learn how to still be in the race at the end when it mattered,” True said.
After True’s season wrapped up, he traveled to Chicago to watch his wife Sarah, a professional triathlete, compete (Sarah, who finished fourth in the 2012 Olympics, has already secured her spot in Rio this summer). The couple’s racing and training schedules mean that they don’t get to spend as much time with each other as they’d like during the season. So they took advantage of the downtime last fall to relax and make some improvements to their West Lebanon, N.H., home, which overlooks the practice fields that True has trained on since he was an undergraduate at Dartmouth. They oversaw the installation of a new roof, painted some walls and planted flower gardens.
Once he was done with his housework, True began laying the groundwork for his 2016 season. His winter training began smoothly with a stint in Athens, Ga., and he was feeling good about his chances in New York until the injury bug bit a month ago.
“I still don’t know exactly what happened but basically I messed up something in my sacrum, some of the muscles around there, and that has led to a chain reaction down the left leg,” True said.
He was forced to take more than a week off from running and since then his training regimen has included a lot of time spent on the AlterG, stationary bike and ElliptiGO. True hopes all that cross-training will allow him to maintain the fitness he spent this winter building, but his race status for Sunday remains up in the air; last week he did his first running workout in three weeks.
“To be honest, we’re still trying to struggle to get me to the starting line,” True said.
True’s coach Tim Broe will oversee True’s final workout on Tuesday, after which the two will make a decision about whether to race or not.
“If it’s something we feel like I’m not going to do more damage to myself by running the half [then I’ll run it],” True said. “Unfortunate timing, but I guess it’s better to hopefully get those injuries out of the way earlier in the year than later on. I just want to make sure I’m fully over it this year and I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks with setting back my preparations for the long-term goals.”
For 2016, True’s only goal is to place as highly as possible at the Olympics and said a medal is possible in a “perfect situation.” After missing out on Team USA in 2012 (12th 10k, 6th 5k) and 2013 (4th 10k, 4th 5k), True has shifted his focus from merely making the team to performing his best on the global stage. Though True recognizes that USAs is still important, he said that he will head into the Olympic Trials with far less pressure than in years past knowing that he made the team at two distances last year. As of now, True said the plan is to run both the 5k and the 10k at the Trials (he already has the Olympic standard in both), though he won’t make a final decision for a few months.
True is a firm believer that speed comes through strength, and to accomplish his goal, he has upped his workout volume. Some may look at True’s modest 3:40.07 1500 pb — positively glacial for a world-class 5,000 runner (though he rarely races the distance) — and assume that he needs more short speed sessions to improve his top-end speed. However True believes that he already possesses the speed to close with the world’s best; it’s simply a matter of being able to use it at the end of a race.
“I’m trying to get strong enough that no matter how the race plays out in the first 90% of the race that I’m ready to really race for that last 10%,” True said.
True ended his last half marathon by running 7:00/mile pace; if he can get to the starting line in one piece on Sunday, his strength-based approach should allow him to finish much, much faster than that in New York.
Editor’s note: We also spoke to True, an outspoken critic of doping, about his views on the current state of drugs in the sport. He had plenty of interesting things to say, which we’ll address in a separate article next week.