By: John Cusick
We were able to talk to the 2018 10k National Champion (Ben Flanagan) for our very podcast episode!
Ben was able to speak over the phone with John Cusick to discuss everything from his racing tactics, the emotions of winning the title, and plenty more!
We can't thank Ben enough for his time and great answers!
You can click the picture above and listen to the episode on our Soundcloud account!
*volume may need to be adjusted for the interview portion*
It’s been six days since you won the national title. What’s the outreach and the coverage from the running community been like?
Oh, it’s been amazing. People have been just too kind, really. The amount of support and love over the las six days has been so humbling I’ve done everything I can to respond to every single message. If anyone hasn’t gotten a message back, message me again because that was my goal.
Has it been overwhelming?
Yeah, it’s been a lot for sure. In comparison to nothing I’ve ever had before, but it’s been exciting, and it’s been all good things, so I don’t feel like I’ve ever been overwhelmed just because I’m just very grateful that people have taken time out of their day to congratulate me. It’s been very thoughtful on their part so the least I can do is acknowledge it and send my gratitude back.
Has anyone big in the track community reached out to you? I saw Shalane Flanagan reached out to you.
Yeah, yeah that was a legendary tweet by Shalane Flanagan. I was so pumped about it. [Nick] Willis is a total legend too. I know him on a little bit more of a personal level because he’s the friendliest guy anyone will ever meet in their lives. He’s just in general way too kind. It’s always good to hear from him though. I’ve got a couple other messages from people. Some studs in the NCAA I’ve looked up to over the years. Craig Engels sent me a nice message. There’s been a lot of people. I haven’t held back, I’ve gone full fan boy on anybody like that. I have not kept my composure. I send them back with all caps, all exclamation points and you talk to some of those people they can attest to it.
What were your thoughts going into the regional weekend?
Going to Florida, I felt more prepared than I ever had going into a regional meet. That was really helpful because I think in the long run, going into regionals, there was such a heavy amount of pressure and focus on getting to Eugene, whereas this time around it was more of an expectation and I was a lot more confident in it happening. I still took it very seriously, ‘cause you can’t mess around with athletes at that level. It allowed for some area of mental energy to be conserved for the actual national meet itself. Getting to Eugene was an expectation and I could focus a lot more on what I wanted to do there as opposed to just getting there.
Did being ranked outside the top 70 give you any confidence going into the regional meet?
I didn’t pay too much attention to the national rankings. After my race at Big Tens I knew I was ready to go. I knew I was ready, I felt like I was ready to run under 29:00 whenever I needed to. I thought I was fresher than a lot of the other athletes just because I had a late start to the season just dealing with a couple injuries. I was pretty confident going into it. I’ve actually raced a lot of those guys on the top end. I was pretty familiar and am on pretty good terms with guys like Jacob Thomson, Johnathan Green, Collin Bennie, all those guys I know pretty well. I didn’t feel too intimidated going into it. I didn’t know what to expect from the famous Alabama trio, but once things started to get to the conclusion of the race that’s when I felt like I was ready to roll. The whole race felt pretty comfortable, so I was pumped with how it went essentially.
Tell us what went through your mind when the Alabama trio took off the first few laps in the race.
I went through the first 200 and it felt a little brisk and I looked at the clock and saw 31 point and I was probably sitting in 15th if not further back. I said ‘ok, we’re clipping here.’ And naturally what happens if anybody makes a big move like that, obviously the one concern that crosses your mind is ‘I really hope these guys come back.’ You don’t know, and guys that are that good you never really know. Fortunately, I was able to look at the clock enough to see that the pace was too hot. I was pretty sure [the gap would close]— [but] I didn’t know when the gap was going to close, and I was relying on somebody else to do it because I didn’t want to, to be completely honest. Fortunately, the NAU guys didn’t let it slip too long and once those guys went to the front I made a good priority to shadow them because I didn’t think they were going to come back. Once Tyler Day and Matt Baxter started to move up to try and catch those guys I just started to trail them because I figured they were going to go to the front and hammer.
What was your gameplan going into the final?
We talked a little about the East prelim. The one thing that I thought was incredibly valuable that I learned from that race was, most of the race I was just focused on being top 12 because that’s all you have to do, right? Coming in first doesn’t mean a ton besides bragging rights. I hit the bell and I was third and I felt great, this was at regionals still, and for a split second I was like ‘you know what I’m pumped right now I’m going to try to go for the win here.’ I hit 200 to go and tried to make a move around Kiprop and he just didn’t let me. I just ran the whole bend on the outside of him and when he hit the straightaway he started to accelerate and he never really stopped accelerating from 100 meters to go from the finish line. I chased those guys in but that was a good wake up call for me being like, ‘hey, this guy isn’t going to let you pass him at any point. If you find yourself competing with him at the end of this race you need to be the last guy to make a move.’ The gameplan was simply to be as patient as possible. Never really let the gap form. I wanted to be first team All-American, that was the main goal. I figured that there was going to be eight guys in the mix in the last mile anyways. I definitely didn’t want to let that group break off, then the idea was to reset and gauge the effort at that point in the race and if I feel like I’m in the mix to win it, then respond to moves accordingly. When it really came down to it, if I was challenging for the win I wanted to be the last guy to make the move. That was pretty much the whole gameplan and rarely do gameplans go according to plan, but that one pretty much went bang-on exactly with what we wanted to happen. It’s pretty wild in hindsight because that was the conversation I had with Sully. I talked to him about Kiprop and about how he didn’t let me through and how if I wanted to beat him I was going to have to be the last guy to make the move.
Tell us about the finish of that race.
I mean, just so you know, I‘ve never done that before. I’ve never really been known as a kicker. Especially a lap that late in a race. So, no. There was no point where I thought I had it in the bag. However, there was a point with 100 meters to go where I was like, this guy hasn’t run away from me yet and he’s still close enough that I can get him. So, all I needed to do was give myself a chance and at least accelerate to him and see what happens from there. That was the first step and luckily, I felt fantastic. When Kiprop went around Maggard, that was an aggressive move. He was going hard from pretty far out, so it made it easier to not try to challenge him early because I couldn’t because he was running so fast. That allowed me to do everything I could to stay on him. Then you notice there is like a two-meter gap that opens up at some point, and then when I accelerated to close that, Hayward just went absolutely nuts and that was pretty much a huge driving force to start bringing it in and all of a sudden, the crowd thought I had a chance and that motivated me to think that I did too. It was pretty awesome with five meters to go and I didn’t see anyone, just the finish line and then I couldn’t really contain my excitement at that point.
Explain your initial reaction to winning the national title?
There’s a really great gif that our media guy Kyle got. Kyle posted this really great gif that is a frame by frame picture series of the finish of the race. It’s so cool because it captures every emotion so well. There was just that ecstatic, over the top, genuine excitement that I’ve never really experience in a race before and how fast it changed to complete genuine shock is just mind blowing. It was like a moment of being a total badass to just not understanding what happened whatsoever. That’s the best way to describe it. It was emotionally overwhelming. I actually couldn’t believe it the moment was over.
Did Mason Ferlic or Ned Willig or any other U of M athletes reach out to you and give you any advice prior?
I had a great conversation with Mason. We went on a run together and we just chit chatted. It was pretty awesome. We kinda went through the whole thing, I was telling him about how confident I was feeling and how fit I was feeling. He was just kind of letting me do that. He was just talking me up and letting me ride the wave a little bit. Mason is a huge part of me improving my racing tactics. I’ve made some pretty decisive errors in racing throughout my collegiate career and most of it was just going too early and getting too excited, trying to win the race at 5k instead of 10k. Mason was a big part of telling me it’s just about feeling good at the bell. The guy who wins the race isn’t always the guy who taps into this system that is so deep that they gut it out. Most of the time it’s the guy who just feels the best when the bell starts ringing. I never really understood what he meant until two years ago when I was fit enough to kind of get a feeling like that at regionals. That was really helpful is learning that from Mason. And that’s something Sully has always told me because in his day he was told to never lead the race until he knew he was going to win.
Michigan has made tremendous improvements since Coach Sullivan joined the program, what has he brought to the table as a coach?
A crazy amount of experience is the most obvious one. Sully was a complete legend in college, and high school, in professional world. He was truly the top of every league he’s been a part of. That’s pretty awesome because it allows him to give great advice at every single level. Talking to the freshman who just entered college, talking about the guys who are transitioning from just being on the team to starting to score, and then all the way up the guys fighting for national titles and then the guys looking for post collegiate success. Sully is always a good resource because he’s been through it himself. So that’s step one. You’ve got to take every word as the gold standard because he’s been through it all and not only just been through it all, but been very successful through it all. He also is just a great coach. Having the experience is one thing, but you also need to just be a good communicator, you’ve got to be honest, you’ve got to be realistic, you have to ride that line of being a really good friend, a really good mentor and someone can push you every day too. I think Sully does a good job of balancing those characteristics. We’re all really close with him. Especially the older guys who have been around him for a while. He’s actually just a bro sometimes when were in between training time on trips we just get to hang out and enjoy each other’s company and when it comes time to focus, he’s the real deal and he’s a great coach. He instills this belief in his athletes that is just very motivating and makes you really feel like you can accomplish the things that you want and I’m very thankful for that. If you want it and you show it to him, he’s never going to hold you back. He’s going to do everything in his power to maximize your potential as an athlete.
What should we expect from Michigan going forward?
The program is in fantastic hands in terms of the coaching staff. Coach Clayton on the track side, his resume says it all. He’s coached multiple Olympians, multiple NCAA champions. The guys and girls that came in as five start recruits and the people who have walked on he’s made brilliant athletes. The entire coaching stuff does a great job. We’ve had some senior leadership for a while now because we’ve had six fifth year’s return over the past year, so I’d like to think we’ve had a positive influence on the guys. I guess that’s for them to decide, but we’ve taken our role as leaders and elders on the team very seriously to try and inspire the next generation. We want them to be better than we were, you know? We try to get that mindset in them early. It’s cool to look up to your teammates, but only if you can see yourself accomplishing those things as well if not more. So that’s the type of motivation we tried to instill in them. I‘ve got a lot of confidence in the number of guys that seem fully bought in and it seems like the culture is in a really great place. I’m going to be around Ann Arbor, I’m finishing my degree, at least through the fall. Mason is still in town so if they ever do feel like we are resourceful to them we’re not too far away. I’m always willing to give back to the program any way I can.
Four of the five distance events were won by BIG Ten athletes. Is this the most competitive you’ve seen the Big Ten since your career began at Michigan?
Yeah how cool is that? That was so much fun to watch. It was mind blowing. That’s the most competitive I’ve seen it at the national level. I’ve seen a lot of guys in the Big Ten perform studly, but I’ve never seen that type of performance all happen in the same weekend across so many guys. That was really cool to see. They’re all the real deal, right? Oliver Hoare is a phenomenal athlete. A 3:37 guy, he closed in 51 point at Big Tens. He won Big Ten cross, he kicked my ass actually in cross and then he goes on to win a 1500 national title. Total stud, great guy also. Isaiah Harris, everyone knows him around the block. He’s the most consistent racer anyone has ever seen. Obsa Ali is just a total gamer and when he’s on he’s on. He’s made huge improvements in the steeple and his consistency is very impressive. All those guys are so admirable in different ways and I’m just pumped to be a part of that group was able to perform that well on the weekend. You know, at Big Tens I want to beat those guys more than anything, but on a national level you want to see your conference succeed. You want to see those guys do well and they’re all great guys so it’s pretty hard to root against them. It was really cool to see the Big Ten represented so well at the national level.
Do you plan to go pro? Is there a particular racing group or brand that you would like to turn pro with?
I definitely do and that’s all in the works right so I wish I could give you more detail. But a few things I can tell you that I know is that I have a degree to finish up in the fall so I’ll be in Ann Arbor until then for sure. The thing I try to make as clear as possible to any resources I’ve been communicating with is that I am very open and I just want to find out all the options that are available. I want to stay open-minded and don’t want to shut down any options initially. I want to make a well-informed decision once I understand all the options that are available. So I’m in communication with different resources right now and kind of navigating that pathway, or those pathways. As soon as I have a decision I will be sure to communicate to anybody that wants to know about it. There’s a very nice track club, it’s Ronnie’s group, Ron Warhurst. That is who Willis is with and a few other guys. We have some independent guys like Ned Willig, who’s a 3:57 miler, Mason Ferlic whose name speaks for itself. Coach Sully is always open to keeping in touch with post collegiate guys so it’s a really good set up here so I’m in no rush to leave. I think it’s a great spot to be in at least for the near future and then, like I said, I’m not ruling out any options right now. The next goal is to find some presence on the international scene. I want to represent Canada at all the opportunities that make sense for me to do so. And then in terms of race distances, again I’ve been very open to where ever we see is the best fit, whether that be on the roads in the marathon or the half marathon, or the 10k or even the mile. So long story short, I’m keeping my options open, but as of right now I don’t have any very clear decisions made.