Ben Flanagan of Kitchener, Ontario, at 29-years-old, is one of the country’s most exciting racers. Master of distances from 3,000 metres to the half marathon, last weekend Flanagan very probably punched his ticket to the Paris Olympics by running 13:04:62 in a 5,000 metre race in Boston. (The Olympic standard is 13:05, but if three Canadian men come under that time, the fastest three racers go to Paris—at this point, and most probably, it’s Ben). iRun spoke to Flanagan, who races in On (and offered tips), from Boston, where he was still on the runner’s high.
iRun: Congratulations, amazing work.
Ben Flanagan: I was nervous, but I also felt ready for it.
iRun: Can you explain?
BF: You’re trying to do something you’ve never done before, so you don’t know how your body will respond when the gun goes off, but we’ve been eying the standard for awhile and did solid preparation. I thought I was up for it.
iRun: Thirteen minutes isn’t a lot of time to be racing. A lot of readers will race closer to two hours, even more. Can you put us in your mindset for such sustained effort?
BF: The first half felt really good. I felt in control and confident, and when things got tough around 4K, I focused on keeping it together. I just wanted to close as hard as possible. I mean, I snuck in by less than a second.
iRun: Such a weird thing—to train for so long and so hard and then the Olympics coming down to less than a second. The edge between success and failure so slim. How do you keep that straight in your mind?
BF: Nerves? Well, Boston specifically—that track is so fast and sets you up with a good opportunity to run fast and hit the standard. But the nerves come in knowing there’s such a good opportunity on the table and you want to capitalize, but also not get too overwhelmed.
iRun: Exactly—it’s finding the perfect balance between engaged and freaked out.
BF: I try to focus on the things I can control and handle the situation and the race played out the way I thought it would. We got out fast right away and I was thinking: don’t make mistakes, don’t waste energy. When you put too much pressure on yourself, that doesn’t always help. So I just went into it with a healthy level of confidence. I understood the stakes.
iRun: OK, so take us back into your race.
BF: I was on pace at 3 and 4K and in good position. Then it just became, let’s seal the deal. With five laps to go I got a shot of motivation and dug deep. I knew with that much left I could take the pain.
iRun: And you took it and crossed the finish line and hit the standard. What happened next?
BF: Oh, man. I was so thrilled and had plenty of family and friends there and they went crazy. Really emotional experience.
iRun: What happens now?
BF: It sets up the rest of my season. With the last Olympic team I tried to make, and even with the Worlds last year, I had to dive into a lot of last minute races. Now, that’s not off the table. There’s a scenario in which other Canadians run fast and the group is so talented, but I feel confident. I’m happy that now I can focus on the training and prepare myself for the best day possible in Paris—not on how I get there.
iRun: Do you worry about an intensity letdown?
BF: I know how to keep my edge.
iRun: I imagine now you toe the line between getting faster and training hard, but also not hurting yourself. You need to be careful. You need to both push and preserve.
BF: My wife jokes that I should be in bubble wrap before a race because I get worried walking the dogs, but really I’m confident in my routine and can stay out of trouble. As for the training, I trust my coach and how we’re operating and we know each other well. We don’t have to be too aggressive. We know how to be aggressive—but not go over that line.
iRun: A lot of this is relatable. We all want to get faster and stronger, but not get hurt in the process.
BF: In our current program, we’ve added one full day off to let the body recover. All runners need to put a strong emphasis on recovery. It’s half the battle. (Also, don’t get too worried. You don’t want to overemphasize all this stuff at the risk of making your life not fun).
iRun: Love that, man. Last thoughts on your epic Olympic qualifying run?
BF: A race like Boston was so well paced that really it was an opportunity to turn the brain off and hop on the train. Just roll for as long as possible and use as little energy as possible—just follow the singlet in front of you. Then, in the last kilometre, it just turns into total battle mode.
iRun: Describe Total Battle Mode.
BF: Racing is a delicate balance between pushing yourself as much as possible while leaving a little left in the tank. That becomes more difficult when there’s a standard to hit—you’re not just beating the guy, but also the clock. In Boston, I found myself in a pack and we were all trying to do the same thing and it benefited all of us. It was intense and competitive, but then with one lap to go I just flipped the switch: I ran as hard as I possibly could and revved into my last gear.
iRun: Like a Ferrari.
BF: It’s a battle of self-doubt and self-confidence. You’re in that space and don’t know if you can do it, but you have to tell yourself: let’s give it a shot. Don’t let up. And then, with one lap to go—empty the tank. You don’t have to worry about collapsing. That’s the point: get to the finish line.
Photographs courtesy of Ben Flanagan. Probably taken by his mom.