ROAD TO RIO | 'Lone wolf' stays True to himself and his craft
Meet Ben True, American distance runner, Dartmouth grad, lone wolf, iconoclast, stickler for rules and former Nordic ski racing star.
In a gloomy Olympic run-up of relentlessly bad news and doping bombshells, Ben True is someone to root for.
He’s 6-2 and 165 pounds, but is no lightweight.
True, ranked world No. 6 at 5,000 meters in 2015 (best time: 13:02.74) and the national 5K road racing champion, needs to finish in the top three at the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials July 1-10 in Eugene, Oregon to qualify for Rio. He plans to run the 5K and 10K at trials.
Running in an international field in his first track meet of 2016, True ran a respectable 13:12 to place 11th in the 5K at Saturday’s Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon. He was the second American finisher behind Hassan Mead. Ethiopia’s Muktar Edris won in 12:59.43.
True doesn’t have an entourage.
True, 30, trains alone — no running group or even a partner. A few years back, True worked well with his last training partner, Liberty University four-time 10,000-meter NCAA champion Sam Chelanga, but the Kenyan-born Chelanga moved to train in Arizona.
“You’re always going to have somebody who’s feeling really good and you easily get lulled into going a lot harder than you really need,” he said in a phone interview. “For me…I had a hard time backing away.”
His nickname since college has been “The Lone Wolf.” True admits all those miles and the routine get lonely and can be mentally draining. No one to talk to. No one to share the workload. No one to pace you or make the miles come easier.
“The positive side of that is it does make me mentally very strong,” he said.
It appears to be working. Last year, he became the first American man to win a 5,000-meter Diamond League race, track’s premier international circuit.
He trains in Hanover, N.H., not exactly a hotbed for elite distance running.
Hanover is home to True’s alma mater, Dartmouth, and to miles of unpaved country roads and wooded trails.
“Hanover is a very active town,” True said. “There are a lot of runners out there constantly.”
His first love growing up in Maine was Nordic skiing. He was an NCAA All-American in skiing and running at Dartmouth.
“Every time Ben would wax his skis, he’d be singing,” said his mom, Kim.
After college, he quit running to turn pro in skiing and burned out. He rediscovered running during short, slow jogs a coach prescribed to help him recover.
Hanover’s not far from Maine, where Kim and dad Jeff still live, and is also home to True’s wife’s family — brother, wife and three kids. Her parents recently bought a house there and her sister is building.
Speaking of his wife …
She’s Sarah (Groff) True, the triathlete who took fourth in the 2012 London Games and who last year made the team for Rio, prompting a “tremendous sense of relief” in the True household, Sarah said.
“Once I had my spot, it took off some of the pressure we had as a couple,” she said. “We knew the next qualification was July.”
He has an absentee coach.
True’s coach, 2004 Olympian Tim Broe, lives two hours away in Boston and drives to Hanover once a week for a workout. Other than that, he texts and calls a few times a week to check in.
“He’s a challenge,” said Broe. “He’s very private and very stubborn. People like that, communication’s not their best skill. I basically call and bug him all the time.”
Broe admits he and True are still trying to figure out “the right formula” of training —moderate-effort, creative workouts to avoid exhaustion.
“He’s so stubborn he won’t tell you much,” Broe said. “You won’t find out until a few days later.”
He’s outspoken about doping.
True, who says transparency helps combat doping, recently took the unusual step among elite runners to post his training online on Strava, a mobile app.
“As far as I know he’s the only runner of his caliber where he is putting it up there,” said wife, Sarah. “His viewpoint is we’re all doing the same stuff … There’s no magic in what we’re doing. “
With the recent doping bombshells, True said it seems like clean athletes are fighting a losing battle. He said he sometimes gets depressed when he thinks about how doping has made “this entire sport almost seem like a farce, and it takes the legitimacy out of what everybody does,” even the clean athletes.
So how does he lace up his shoes every day?
“It does make it tough,” he said. “At the end of the day the only thing I can do is see what I can do myself. When I go out and train and try to run the best I can, I kind of have to forget about everybody else and see what I can get out of my body. If I go and I start comparing myself to others or…(if I) look at a results sheet and see my name and the other names I know are dopers on the same list, it gets really heartbreaking. The 'woulda-shoulda-coulda' or 'what if.' You have to think about what you can get out of yourself.”
Broe, who finished 11th in the 5K at the 2004 Games in Athens, said he feels True’s pain.
“I get frustrated for him because I know how hard he works,” Broe said. “It’s always gone on. From an athlete’s perspective you can’t sit around and boo-hoo about it … (You) have to use it as motivation to work harder and race harder and try to outsmart them.
“I just know how hard he works, I know how talented he is and I know he races hard. That’s why it would be a monumental disappointment if he somehow doesn’t make this team.”
Both Sarah and Broe say True is so committed to racing clean he doesn’t even like to use ibuprofen or innocuous diet supplements like the whey protein Sarah uses.
Still, in a dirty sport where the latest news has a Russian doping official saying he helped athletes in a government-led conspiracy to cover up positive tests, how do we know True is true?
“I just say look at his progression,” said Broe. “To me, that’s a telling sign — high school freshman, through college years and through his professional career, and does it make sense?”
The last Olympic Trials.
True didn’t make the 2012 Olympic team. Like he plans to this July, True ran the 5,000- and the 10,000-meter races, finishing sixth and 12th, respectively. In the 10K, he faded in such startling fashion Broe recalled thinking, “Oh man, I really screwed up.”
True didn’t tell him until two weeks later he had Lyme disease, the tick-borne, energy-sapping virus that can have life-altering neurological consequences.
“Kind of an important detail,” said Broe.
True doesn’t mention the disease as a reason for not making the team. He said it wasn’t something he believed he had earned yet.
“Four years ago was more of, well, I’m going to try to get myself in best shape as I can and hope for a break,” he said. “This time it’s seen more as not as big of a thing because I have bigger aspirations than just the trials. So it’s just seen as a steppingstone. There’s a higher confidence that I know how to get myself prepared properly.”
All the more reason to root for him to get to Rio.
Men’s eight survives Regatta of Death
Harvard’s Mike DiSanto and his U.S. rowing men’s eight teammates are Rio-bound after winning the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, the so-called Regatta of Death, on May 24.
Needing a top-two finish in their last chance to make the Olympic team, the U.S. boat was first across the line, but the winning margin was razor thin: The U.S. won in five minutes, 29.16 seconds, followed by Poland in 5:29.62. Italy, with a time of 5:29.98, failed to qualify.
The U.S. team, which has never failed to qualify the eight in 104 years of modern Olympic competition, was the only American crew of four to come out of Lucerne with an Olympic berth. Cornell alum Ken Jurkowski, a two-time Olympian, did not make the final in the single sculls. The men’s double sculls and quad sculls also failed to qualify.
DiSanto, 26, and Cornell alum Alex Karwoski qualify for their first Olympics. Princeton alum Glenn Ochal, 2012 bronze-medalist in the men’s four and Drexel’s Steve Kasprzyk, who helped the U.S. eight to fourth in London, return.
Others are coxswain Sam Ojserkis, Austin Hack, Rob Munn, Hans Struzyna and Sam Dommer.
"There is a little bit of a relief," said Ochal after the race. "I'm just trying to hold myself to my expectations and what I want to do with this crew. We want to do really well. We needed to well today, but we want to do well in Rio. We all have high expectations. That's why we're here."
Ithaca College’s Meghan Musnicki, with Eleanor Logan the only returning Olympians from the champion U.S. women’s eight, boosted her chances to again make the team with a World Rowing Cup II third place finish with Logan in the women’s pair Sunday in Lucerne.
The pair also was part of the women’s eight crew, which won World Cup gold Sunday. The Olympic team is expected to be named June 20. Musnicki is a candidate along with Princeton alum Heidi Robbins, Brown’s Tessa Gobbo and Colgate’s Lauren Schmetterling.
Single sculler and Princeton alum Gevvie Stone, who recently completed med school, finished second at the World Cup. She has already qualified for Rio.
USM’s Bowie wins at Prefontaine Classic
Southern Miss’s Tori Bowie, a converted NCAA champion long jumper, put herself in solid Olympic medal contention by winning the Prefontaine Classic 200-meter race Saturday against a topnotch field in Eugene, Ore., which will host the U.S. Track & Field Olympic trials July 1-10. She set a personal best (21.99 seconds) in beating world champion Daphne Schippers of the Netherlands.
East Carolina’s LaShawn Merritt, 2008 Olympic champion and 2009 world champion at 400 meters, continued his duel with Kirani James of Granada. James edged Merritt, 44.22 seconds to 44.38 this time.
Princeton’s Ashley Higginson was 11th in a surprisingly dramatic steeplechase, , 33 seconds off the winner, Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet, who edged Kenya’s Hyvin Kiyeng, 8:59.87 to 9:00.01. Emma Coburn set an American record (9:10.76) for third.
Above: Photos courtesy the True family