Ben True has been thinking about the starting line at historic Hayward Field, where the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials begin later this week in Eugene, Oregon.
At 35, True remains fiercely competitive, and a spot on Team USA is the one item missing from a stellar resumé that includes being the only American runner to win the Beach to Beacon 10K road race, in 2016.
The trials will be the North Yarmouth native’s third, and possibly last, attempt at making the Olympics. He’s doing so as an expectant father who lost his salaried job over the winter, but feeling rejuvenated after gaining a new training partner.
He’s also feeling conflicted. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the Tokyo Games are scheduled to run for July 24 to Aug. 8 after a year’s postponement. The U.S. Department of State cautions Americans to “reconsider travel” plans to Japan, citing “a high level of COVID-19” in the country.
“I will say I am quite hesitant to agree that the Olympics should take place this year,” True said by phone from his home in Hanover, New Hampshire. “I’m trying to make an Olympic team but at the same time I’m like, it really shouldn’t happen.”
The pandemic helped to bring priorities into focus for millions of people, and True, who is fully vaccinated, is no exception.
“Racing,” he said, “is very low on the importance list. We really have so many other things that need to be taken care of first.”
Still, this is what he does. He is a professional runner, and this is an Olympic year.
As he did at the 2012 and 2016 U.S. trials, True plans to race at both 5,000 and 10,000 meters. The longer event is on Friday, the opening night of the meet. Preliminaries for the 5,000 are scheduled for June 24 with the finals on June 27. To make the U.S. Olympic team, he needs to finish among the top three in either race.
In his two previous attempts at the U.S. trials, True placed sixth and fifth in the 5,000 meters and 12th and 11th in the 10,000. Entering this year’s trials, he ranks ninth among American men in the 5,000 meters. His best shot appears to be in the 10,000, where he ranks fourth.
When asked about True’s chances of making Team USA, the editor and publisher of Race Results Weekly, David Monti, pegged them at 50-50.
“These other athletes are very good and it’s going to be very tough,” Monti said, “but experience counts more than anything else in the trials, and Ben has so much experience, at both a global level and a national level.”
Growing up in North Yarmouth, True starred at Cumberland’s Greely High in both running and cross-country skiing. He earned all-America honors in both sports at Dartmouth College. After his graduation in 2009, he became a professional runner.
Something of a lone wolf in the world of distance running, True has remained in northern New England rather than join one of the professional training groups sprinkled around the country. His coach, Providence, Rhode Island-based Ray Treacy, has never watched him work out, and only occasionally sees him in meets. They correspond by telephone and email.
True’s wife, the former Sarah Groff, is a two-time Olympic triathlete who competed in the London Games in 2012 and Rio Games in 2016. She’s also in her third trimester with a baby expected to arrive on July 15.
Coronavirus restrictions prompted the couple to stay home in New Hampshire instead of traveling the world for races. Of course, no races meant no prize money. Furthermore, at the end of 2020, the footwear and apparel company Saucony decided to end a nine-year sponsorship of True that included not only gear but also performance bonuses and a salary.
“I know it was devastating for him to come up short in 2016,” said Monti, pointing out that True missed an Olympic berth by less than half a second in a race that came down to a final-lap sprint. “He focused heavily on the 5,000 and put his eggs in that basket. Then along comes the pandemic and big (Olympics) delay and loss of sponsorship and everybody is retooling themselves and their lives.”
Losing his shoe deal with Saucony means that True is free to lace up any brand he chooses for the Olympic trials at a time when technological breakthroughs have shaken up the industry.
At a February meet in Southern California, True ran his first race since 2019 and surprised many by lopping 27 seconds off his previous best time in the 10,000. Only seven American men have run faster than True’s time of 27 minutes, 14.95 seconds, and two of them were in that race.
A long pandemic-forced block of uninterrupted training as well as sufficient time to heal from a nagging Achilles injury undoubtedly contributed to that effort, as did perfect pacing that allowed True, for the first time, to make it through the race’s halfway mark in less than 14 minutes. Another factor was the new spikes he wore.
As True explains it, there are actually two distinct technological advances in what some observers are calling “magic shoes” or “super spikes.”
For road racing, a carbon-plated shoe such as Saucony’s Endorphin Pro or Nike’s Alphafly returns energy after each foot fall.
“Those, without a doubt, make you faster,” True said. “You can feel a pogo stick spring effect pushing you forward. I can put those on and do a workout and all my splits are a few seconds faster than they should be. You’re just like, wow, these are definitely game-changing.”
On the track, he said, the newest spikes have a different effect. A layer of cushioning foam absorbs much of the trauma True would experience throughout his lower legs during a race.
He said he loved his old Saucony racing spikes, “but they were basically socks that had a hard plastic plate on the bottom of them. I would run a 5K in them and not be able to walk afterwards because my ankles, my feet, my calves were just so beat up because of how much impact I would take on them.”
Wearing the new spikes (Nike Dragonfly) in California allowed his legs and feet to feel fresher longer.
“There has to be some benefit that in the last two laps of that 10K, where before your feet were on fire because they hurt so much, now they weren’t,” he said. “It has to make you be able to go slightly faster, right?”
In an acknowledgment of currently unsettled technological waters, shoe companies such as Brooks and On are allowing sponsored athletes competing at the U.S. trials to wear whatever they feel gives them their best chance at Olympic qualification. Other shoe companies are insisting athletes adhere to their contracts.
“There’s a lot of innovation and not everybody is on the same playing field,” True said. “At the same time, it’s kind of nice to have an income.”
One of the reasons True continued to race in 2019 despite his Achilles issue was so he could maintain a Top 20 worldwide ranking. Without it, he would lose the health insurance plan provided to elite athletes by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. He ended that year 18th at 5,000 meters, and World Athletics froze its rankings throughout the pandemic in 2020 so True was able to maintain his health coverage.
At the tail end of last summer, True incurred another expense when he hired fellow Mainer Dan Curts to move to New Hampshire and be a training partner. Curts, 25, grew up in Ellsworth, continued his running career at Iowa State (where he won the Big 12 title at 5,000 meters) and won the Maine men’s division of the 2019 Beach to Beacon in a time (29:26) second only to the record (29:10) True established a decade earlier.
The gig pays $20,000 annually and both men sound happy with the arrangement. While at Ellsworth High, Curts had been interested in Dartmouth, emailed True to ask his opinion and received a long thoughtful response.
Last summer, after hearing through the running grapevine about True’s standing offer for a training partner willing to relocate to New Hampshire’s western border with Vermont, Curts sent another query. He had moved to Seattle after college to train for a possible Olympic steeplechase bid but COVID-19 concerns prompted a return to Maine.
A long weekend spent in Hanover sealed the deal and Curts found an apartment in nearby Lebanon. For the first time since Sam Chelanga moved away more than six years ago, True has someone who can (mostly) keep up with him.
“It makes a huge difference,” True said. “When you’re training over 100 miles a week by yourself constantly, the fun of it kind of diminishes, getting out the door gets harder and harder.”
For track workouts, Curts pushes True to work harder while also allowing him to conserve energy by, say, tucking in behind the younger runner and simply following in his wake. Years of training on his own wore on True more than he realized and sapped his love of the sport. A few years back, he considered retirement.
“But I’m happy now, especially because I have a training partner,” said True, adding that he used to believe he would walk away from the sport completely when his competitive career ended.
“Now I think I would like to give back and do coaching and help other people with running,” he said. “I realize how much help it is to have a team with you and a support structure around you.”
Curts remembered the trait True stressed most in his long-ago message to an aspiring high school runner: consistency. Training with True over the past nine months has only reinforced that impression.
“He’s very methodical,” Curts said. “He’s been training alone for very long and nobody at his level does that, period.”
With the Dartmouth track unavailable for long stretches because of COVID-19 concerns, True and Curts have bounced around to different tracks in the area. A recent workout at Colby-Sawyer College in New London involved multiple 2,000-meter repeats (five for True, four for Curts) followed by True running a fast 600 and Curts doing 400 meters four times, the last of them coinciding with the first lap of True’s 600.
“I’m not at a point where I can do the whole thing with him, usually,” Curts said. “So it’s figuring out how I can be of help to him and get a good workout in for myself as well.”
In addition to his February 10,000, True has raced twice more at 5,000 meters, once in California in early May and again in Attleboro, Massachusetts, in late May, the same month as his two COVID-19 vaccinations. He didn’t win either race, nor were his times particularly impressive, but each helped him get back into racing mode.
“He’s in a good place, I think,” said Treacy, his coach, in a thick Irish brogue. “He feels the 10,000 is his best shot and I do, too.”
Whether or not True earns a ticket to Tokyo, he plans to run his first marathon this fall. He’s not yet saying where, or even if there will be another.
“Marathoning is one of those events that, after you do one, you either love it or you hate it,” he said. “So we’ll see.”
For now, marathons and fatherhood can wait. The Olympic trials begin on Friday. He plans to be singularly focused on the race at hand.
“When I’m on the starting line, nothing changes,” he said. “I want to win. I want to do my best and run fast. Whether or not I should even be on a starting line, or whether there should be a starting line, is a completely different topic.”