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Benji Durden — April, 2015
Benji Durden was a member of the 1980 United States Olympic team in the marathon which did not compete due to President Carter’s decision to boycott the Moscow Olympics. He finished second in the Olympic Trials Marathon behind Tony Sandoval with a personal best at that time by over three minutes of 2:10:40. At the 1983 Boston Marathon Durden led through the Newton hills until a huge blood blister caused him to slowly fade to third place in his all-time PR of 2:09:57. Benji’s ten marathon victories include 1981 Nike-OTC (2:12:12), 1982 Houston (2:11:12) and 1982 Montreal (2:13:22). He was overall champion of the 1991 Atlanta Marathon as a Master in 2:25:53. With victories at the 1977 Carolina Marathon and 2013 Nutmeg State Marathon, Benji’s 36 plus year span is the longest known duration between first and last marathon wins. The prolific racer ran 25 sub-2:20 marathons. He and his wife, Amie, completed the ‘50 State Marathon Club’ in 2013, and he is the only Olympic marathoner and sub-2:10 marathoner to do so. Benji completed his 100th marathon at Estes Park in 2014. He is a 1973 graduate of the University of Georgia where he ran a 4:15 mile and a graduate of Jesup High School (GA), where his 4:36 mile is still a county record. Benji was inducted into the RRCA Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Colorado Running HOF in 2009. His personal best times include: 880 yards - 1:56.6; Mile - 4:13.2; 5,000 meters (track) 14:10; 5,000m (downhill road) 13:20; 10,000m road - 28:36; 15k - 43:28; half marathon – 1:03:11 and marathon – 2:09:57. Benji and Amie reside in Boulder, Colorado, where they own a race timing and scoring company. He was very kind to spend one and a half hours on the telephone for this interview.
GCR:It’s hard to believe that it’s been thirty-five years since 1980 when you finished in third place in the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon with a big personal best time. Describe the different emotions of qualifying to represent the U.S. in the Moscow Olympics but the disappointment in knowing you wouldn’t be going because of President Jimmy Carter’s decision that the U.S. would boycott the Games?
BDThough I knew we wouldn’t be going to Moscow, it was still exciting. But the big PR was real exciting. It was major excitement. It was definitely a high any time you have a good marathon. You get excited.
GCR:Was there some hope among the athletes that there could be a diplomatic solution that could possibly send an Olympic team to Moscow or was it a foregone conclusion that the top three would not be going?
BDNo, I think at that point we were pretty much accepting that we weren’t going to go to Moscow.
GCR:President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Olympics because of Russian involvement in Afghanistan. How ironic is this when presently the United States has been involved in military operations in Afghanistan for a decade?
BDIt is amazing that Afghanistan keeps coming back to haunt us.
GCR:How tough was it running the Olympic Trials Marathon since it was only five weeks after you ran the Boston Marathon?
BDWell, we didn’t know that we weren’t supposed to run marathons relatively close to each other. I ran Boston on a Monday and came back the next Saturday and raced a 10-miler. I was recovered by the Wednesday after Boston. It was a hot race day in Boston so we weren’t able to run as hard or as all out as we normally would because we had to hold back due to the heat. Although I was a little slow for the 10-miler, I won that one. Then I ran the Midland 15k the following weekend. Then I ran against a 25k relay the next weekend and ran the entire 25k solo. And finally the weekend before the Olympic Trials Marathon I ran a whole bunch of repeat eight minute runs on a treadmill for Nike. I think it was five minute mile pace and I ran 14 of them in the space of two days. We were fit and I’m not talking about just me. Almost everybody I ran against raced frequently and raced hard.
GCR:It is interesting that you mentioned the marathons close together, because I was a mid-2:20s guy with a best of 2:22, but in late 1982 I ran 2:28 at Marine Corps and five weeks later ran a 2:23 at Rocket City in Huntsville. So, I know where you are coming from – we didn’t really know any better and another interesting thing is how many top runners, including Bill Rodgers and you, seemed to train through so many races.
BDUnless it was a marathon it wasn’t that important. The Midland 15k race was pretty important and I rested up a little bit. I ran maybe ten percent fewer miles that week.
GCR:These days most runners race sparingly. What do you think about the pros and cons of that versus how it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s when so many runners raced very often and ‘trained through’ shorter races during marathon preparation?
BDI think the way we did it was better. Racing is a skill in addition to something you do because you’re fit. If you don’t have the skill set, if you don’t know what to do when you’re feeling a little rocky or you don’t know what to do when someone does something and you need to respond – you need to have a sense of what to do. It isn’t just about running fast times. You have to be able to respond to people, to respond to the situation. If you don’t have the experience you aren’t going to get it by doing things in training.
GCR:Nowadays in a five year block someone may run fifty races while you may have raced 125 to 150 times, so you had a lot more experience.
BDI raced about thirty to thirty-five times each year so I did have a lot more experience. Five years and 150 races was not unusual.
GCR:Speaking of all of those races, who were some of your favorite racing adversaries due to their toughness and competitiveness and possibly where you were friends before and after racing, but really duked it out?
BDBill Rodgers is always a nice guy before and after the race, but he was brutal during races. Billy and I see each other and are still friends, but I remember a couple of times where we’d be pushing in a race – I was pushing and he was pushing – and he’d look over at me and growl. Through the New York Marathon in 1979 Kirk Pfeffer and I were chasing some Tanzanians across the bridge until five miles. At the five mile point we were in the low 23s. I thought, ‘Oh crap, we’ve gone out too fast.’ So Kirk looks over at me and says, ‘I think we went out stupid. What should we do?’ I said, ‘We should slow down, but we’ve got to do it gradually or we’ll tighten up.’ So Kirk takes off which was exactly opposite of what I said we should do. I never saw Kirk again. He just disappeared into the horizon. I caught all the Tanzanians and I was in second place for a long time. Coming up the Queensboro Bridge, Billy finally caught up to me and we were running together. I knew from years of racing with him that if you don’t surge back on him when he surges you are done because he got strength out of that. So, we went back and forth all the way down the avenue until finally around 21 miles Billy looks over at me and says, ‘We are leading, aren’t we?’ And I said, ‘No, Kirk Pfeffer’s up there somewhere.’ He just takes off. The surge wasn’t even close to what he had been doing. He was just gone. I had to just think, ‘Okay, fine. I’m done.’ I ended up getting passed by a bunch of people and I finished about fifth. I was wasted at the finish from running so hard.
GCR:Let’s go back and talk about the 1980 Olympic Trials Marathon race, since it was a big breakthrough race and PR for you. First, what was your strategy coming into the race as far as tactics and second, where did you realistically think you could place if you ran a great race?
BDI had no idea that I could make the top three. I was going for it, obviously, but I had no clue. I had had several 2:13 type performances in the past year and they were all based on trying to run 2:10 when I wasn’t ready to run 2:10. I knew I was fit, but you don’t know how fit until you run the race. I had run a lot of races in the past few months. I think I raced 18 weekends in a row going into the Trials and I’d run well in all of them. They weren’t blazing times, but I ran strong. I trained hard at ninety plus miles a week through all of them. So I was in good shape, but my strategy was the same I always had. I tried to go out at a pace that I thought I could maintain and not get caught up in the insanity of the first few miles.
GCR:How did the race develop early on?
BDAt the mile I was last. I went out in 5:05 and with two hundred something guys in the race I was last at 5:05. Over the next four miles I eased into the front pack. I ran five minute pace and by five miles I was running with the lead pack. Essentially my strategy was to run with the leaders as long as I could and to respond accordingly and try to run how I felt I could run. I had a hamstring cramp around 15k and I ran through it until it finally eased up.
GCR:Just after 19 miles you made a strong move and built a 75 yard lead in the next three miles. Why did you make a move at that point?
BDAround 30k it dawned on me that almost everyone in the front pack of eight or nine guys all had better 10k times than I did, so I figured I would try to run the last seven or eight miles faster than they could.
GCR:Were you surprised no one went with you, was this a move for the win or to limit who might be able to catch you or were you trying to figure out how best to place in the top three at that point?
BDYes and no because I really took off. I ran a 4:40 mile. I was going for it. With a 4:40 mile a lot of them had to look around at each other and think, ‘You know, either he’s going to hold that, which we can’t, or he’s going to blow up.’ They took a calculated risk
GCR:Attrition left just Kyle Heffner and Tony Sandoval in pursuit of you after 22 miles. Were you aware of what was happening behind you?
BDNo, I had no clue what was going on behind me. I was going for it and in the ‘race to the finish’ mode. I was also on the red line all of the way to the finish.
GCR:Tony Sandoval did what you did a few miles earlier and really dropped the hammer with a 4:40 mile to catch you around 23 miles. Was Tony just too strong to stay with and were you also glancing back to see if anyone was gaining on you?
BDTony realized that I wasn’t going to come back and did that. He came by me and I tried to respond. I was able to respond slightly but he went by me at about 23 miles. We had a left turn and a right turn in those final miles where we pulled away from everyone else. But during that stretch between the two turns I thought I heard heavy breathing. I thought, ‘Oh crap, someone else is coming on me.’ I didn’t look over my shoulder, but as I made the right turn I looked back and there was no one visible for a long ways. Then it dawned on me that I was hearing myself breathing. That’s how close I was to the edge.
GCR:Did you have much left as you approached the finish, or were you pretty much maxed out?
BDThere’s a little downhill coming to the finish and I was almost out of it. My upper body was numb and I was afraid my singlet strap had fallen off. I kept tapping to see if my number was still there because I thought if my number wasn’t visible I wouldn’t count. That‘s probably as close to the edge as I’ve ever been.
GCR:Even though the runners knew the boycott meant no Olympic Games, how exciting was it to cross the finish line in second place in a personal best time by over three minutes?
BDIt was really exciting. I didn’t sleep that night. And I hadn’t slept much the night before, just sporadically. I had trouble getting to sleep.
GCR:Despite the boycott, the Trials field was very strong with only Garry Bjorkland, Bill Rodgers and Don Kardong absent out of the top runners. Did their absence taint the top finishers’ placings at all?
BDRodgers and Bjorkland felt like it was a pointless effort. Don couldn’t get there because he was stuck in Spokane due to the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption.
GCR:People can speculate all they want, but that 1980 Olympic Trials Marathon is the only one until 2012 where the top three all broke 2:11. What does that say about your achievement and how it has stood the test of time?
BDYou know it has. Part of it is because we had a dip in the quality of marathoners for a while as well as quantity. Quality has improved at the very top, but our quantity hasn’t. I think if you don’t have two hundred plus guys running under 2:20, it’s hard to push the front guys. They will go as fast as they need to, but no faster.
GCR:Why do you think there are a few great American marathoner racers, but not the depth that we once had? I know when I got out of college in 1979 as a 30:28 10k guy I was decent, but anyone who ran from 29 minutes to 34 minutes all became road racers and marathon runners. Out of that group we all seemed to push each other, whether we ran in the upper 2:20s, lower 2:20s, into the upper teens or lower teens there were so many of us out there and I don’t see that today.
BDPart of it is that back then if you were a good local runner you got free shoes. If you got a little bit better you got some trips paid for. Then when you were faster yet you got a little appearance money and more trips. This tiered structure got people to do road racing and encouraged people to improve. Now you’ve got to be almost Galen Rupp to get any shoes. If you aren’t close to or better than 2:13 you don’t get any support whatsoever. Also, since now running is a career, if guys aren’t making money they think, ‘Why should I bother with this. I can go and do something else.’ I made money – I made living, but that wasn’t why we did it. We were doing it for different reasons. People were willing to make sacrifices and not make a living, but to find ways to survive just so they could run. We wanted that glory or something – I’m not sure why we did it. Now since it is a career, if people aren’t succeeding at a certain level, they just quit doing it or quit doing it as hard. They must think, ‘What’s the point? Why bother?’
GCR:There is probably a generational reason also as our parents went through the Great Depression and World War II, pushed us baby boomers to succeed and we were really competitive to get out there and do it for the sake of doing it. We also had a push from the 1972 Olympics – I know that inspired me to start running.
BDThat got me excited. My first role models were Peter Snell and Jim Ryun. I thought I was going to be a miler. But I didn’t have quite the tools or coaching to do well.
GCR:Leading up to the 1983 Boston Marathon you were very consistent and scored some big wins in September 1981 with Nike-OTC (2:12:12) and in early 1982 at Houston (2:11:11) and Montreal (2:13:22). Had you reached a point where your training and experience had you prepared for peak performances nearly every time you toed the line in a marathon?
BDI think there was some of that there. I was very confident in my running. I won a lot of races from behind which takes a lot of confidence as you have to let people go which doesn’t seem to be the right thing to do. I was pretty much clicking and was in that sweet spot.
GCR:I find it amazing how well you raced in hot conditions. Despite living in the deep south, you were well-known for running in many layers of clothing, even in the heat of summer. How much did this prepare you, both mentally and physically and did you experience many dehydration issues due to the extra clothing?
BDI started off gradually and increased. Basically the first time I did it was in preparing for a race in Puerto Rico. My first Boston Marathon was hot, I ran crappy and I didn’t want to have that happen in Puerto Rico because I knew it was going to be hot. I knew that Ron Daws had had success preparing for heat by wearing extra clothing. I guess he heard about it from Buddy Edelen, but I didn’t know that at the time. So anyway I put on long sleeve t-shirts first and eventually sweats and went to the race in Puerto Rico and won the race. It was a hot, hot day – real hot. Then I quit wearing the layers of clothing and I started slowing down in my other races. I had done well in the buildup to Puerto Rico and it dawned on me that I was running faster in races when I wore the extra clothing in training. So I went back to it and based on anecdotal evidence noted that my races were better. Also, when talking to exercise physiologist Dave Martin he basically pointed out it was very similar in effect to the benefits of altitude training. Since I was training in Atlanta there was no altitude, but the layers of clothing reduced the amount of oxygen the blood could carry and increased the capillarization at the surface of the skin so I could shed heat better when I wasn’t wearing extra layers. My heart rate was higher at a slower running speed so there was more cardiovascular stress with less pounding. It worked for me.
GCR:There was a race we shared – I was back in the pack in the low 2:30s – at the 1982 Montreal Marathon - and I remember when we were heading to the start on a bridge seeing a sign that it was 30 degrees Celsius. I knew that was 86 degrees Fahrenheit and the race hadn’t even started. Can you describe that racing day, how it transpired and the attrition of everybody as you ended up alone at 2:13 at the finish line?
BDWe started off and, though the Africans weren’t quite as dominant as they are now, you still had to pay attention to them. A couple of them took off. I was running along with Jerome Drayton, the great Canadian runner, and I said, ‘We need to go after them.’ He looked at me like I was nuts as we were already running pretty fast. So I left and ran after them. I caught them and started surging on them. I would do two minutes on and two minutes off. I got down to where I was running 2:11 pace. Then we hit the Isle of Man and ran through the Grand Prix course. I lost all of that speed because of all of the turns. They just wore me down. They told me later that I was still pulling away and added time to my lead even though I was slowing down due to the many turns. It was a really warm day, but I never felt that uncomfortable heat-wise. The turns were what got me the most.
GCR:Let’s talk about the 1983 Boston Marathon. There was an extremely strong field and I recall it well because I was there. It was the first day to qualify for the 1984 Olympic Trials and it seemed that everybody was at the race. What was your training like coming into the race?
BDI knew I was really fit though I had a stomach bug two weeks out. I recovered from it well. I did a really brutal test training run about ten days out. It was about twenty miles of running, most of which was sub-five minute mile pace. I did a three mile warm up. There was a 10k of ins and outs on the track where I did one kilometer steady, then a 200 meters fast, another kilo, then 200 meters fast, and so on until it added up to 10k which I did in 29:50. Then I eased back for a mile. Then I did a five-mile in 24:50. Then I did a three mile warm down. So I had done a lot of running and I felt good. I knew I was really fit and my coach at the time, Mike Caldwell, was convinced that we were on to something. I showed up in Boston and the Boston newspapers didn’t even have me picked in the top ten. So I was very motivated because I didn’t think there were ten guys in America who could beat me. In fact, I didn’t think there were three. At that time there probably weren’t but three that could run with me.
GCR:What was your race strategy and how good were you feeling in the first half of the race?
BDSo my plan was to run my race as usual and see if there was anybody left at the end that could hang on with me. The first mile was ridiculous – about 4:14 – that downhill is crazy. I don’t know if the mile split was at the right place, but we were out fast. I was in the top ten, but Arega Abraha was out front wearing his headphones. He was out in 4:10. The tailwind made a difference – I don’t know how much – but I was hitting PRs from about 15k onward. The splits I would hear were PRs for the distance, but I didn’t worry about it. I just ran because I was feeling good.
GCR:When you took the lead was it a similar circumstance where you thought the other contenders had better 10k times so you needed to take off early?
BDNo, I just drifted to the front and nobody went with me. I didn’t even pick it up. I just kept running along at the clip I was running and no one stayed with me.
GCR:In the middle of the Newton Hills you had blister issues which led to your inability to stay with Greg Meyer when he caught you. How badly did this affect you?
BDThey were bad. It was one big blood blister on my right foot that took up most of the ball of the foot. It went from the big toe across the arch to almost the last toe and was one huge blood blister. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I came off of Heartbreak Hill where it exploded and from that point on there was this pain. I went from running 4:50s to running 5:20s.
GCR:How disappointing was it to have that blister issue prevent you from a faster time and possibly contending for the win?
BDIn the moment you think that you can run through it and be okay. The disappointment was afterward when I would think ‘If not for that blister I would have been a factor until the end.’ But you don’t know. It could have been something else. But it was a struggle from the top of Heartbreak all the way to the finish. Although it was nice to turn the corner and to see the clock way, way down the street reading ‘2:07.’
GCR:When I interviewed Greg Meyer several years ago he was telling me that when he was out in the lead he wasn’t focused on time but was enjoying the fact that he was winning and didn’t even push the last few miles as much as he could have. I think you experienced that people ran to win rather than now when everything is so time-focused.
BDYes, I was running along in the Houston Marathon when I won in 1982 and I talked to guys on the press truck for the last eight miles because I had won the race.
GCR:That was an interesting race because you had Bill Rodgers and Dick Beardsley to contend with for quite a ways until you put the hammer down on both of them.
BDBill Rodgers started surging at eight miles and I thought that was uncalled for. It was so early in the race. I knew we had to respond to him, but it kind of pissed me off. I said to Dick that we had to push Bill to make him hurt so he doesn’t do this the whole race. So Dick and I took turns. They had a lead vehicle with a clock on it so our drill was that every two minutes we would take the lead. It was a two lap course so we did this all of the way from eight miles to halfway. Billy was struggling at that point to hang onto us. His future wife Gail yelled, ‘Come on Billy, you can get them.’ And I yelled back at her, ‘You want to bet?’ We went another five miles doing this and when Dick didn’t come up for his turn in the two minute cycles I knew the race was over. I just gradually pulled away. I didn’t push it hard, but slowly pulled away without hammering it hard.
GCR:Who knows how fast you could have run that day?
BDI know I would have broken 2:11 because I was having a conversation for eight miles. At that point they told me I was running at 2:08 pace. But time was not important. It was all about performance and who you beat. We sought out races where there were other good competitors rather than races that were fast.
GCR:Speaking of the focus on times, in recent years there have been many runners who are 5k and 10k guys on the track who have moved up to the marathon versus in your day when marathon runners were much more distance guys. But it is amazing how many guys are running 2:03s to 2:06s and who knows what it means because the drug testing hasn’t been uniform in many countries. What is your opinion on this topic?
BDWell, I have a lot of misgivings. We didn’t know about performance enhancing drugs in my day. It was happening, but we didn’t know about it in our generation. In hindsight I have been told that there were a few guys I raced against that were on drugs and that is probably why they ran as well as they did. But it was not pervasive. We didn’t know about it and it wasn’t everybody. A lot of the guys I raced against I know were clean. Today, we don’t know if anybody is clean. There are so many ways to beat the tests. I know people who were incredible performers back in the past and how much it took out of them to run what they ran. Today these guys don’t seem to have any difficulty running fast times over and over and over. Their bodies don’t seem to be taking any incredible tolls from running these fast times. It makes it hard to fathom that in a marathon I am a mile and a half slower in terms of distance.
GCR:You are right as there hasn’t been a significant improvement in training.
BDI raced against Kenyans and Ethiopians and they weren’t super humans. I would beat them occasionally and they would beat me. But they were normal runners and now they don’t seem to be any more.
GCR:I want to go back and talk a bit about the aftermath of that 1983 Boston Marathon. You got some plantar fasciitis issues and other injuries as a result of that race affected your running from that point onward and you never regained your great form of the 1980 to 1983 period.
BDThat was basically my swan song. I had one good performance after that.
GCR:When did you realize that your best racing days were behind you, the focus of your life had to change and how did that affect you?
BDI guess it was in 1984 or 1985 and I realized it wasn’t going to recover quickly. I kept wanting to improve, but it wasn’t improving in a time frame that seemed like any time soon. I continued to run races but I never got below 2:15 again or even below 2:18 again. It’s one of those things where you can’t just say, ‘Okay, I’m done,’ unless you really are. And I wasn’t ready to say that I wasn’t going to race anymore. I continued to race probably until the late 1980s. After the 1986 Goodwill Games I didn’t really do much seriously. I still raced locally and I still ran. I became a Master’s runner in the early 1990s and then I tore the other plantar area and decided it just wasn’t working any more. I quit running marathons for fourteen years.
GCR:Toward the end of that big break where you didn’t run marathons you had a bout with cancer in 2003. How did something negative rekindle your running and racing?
BDThe cancer scare and ‘cancer’ word is a scary word, even though in hindsight it really didn’t need to be as scary as it was. It’s been over eleven years now since I had my surgery in September of 2003. It’s been a long time and I’ve been cancer free ever since the surgery. It was scary enough that it made me reflect a bit on my life and reflect on where I was in my life and what I was doing. It dawned on me that I put too much energy into non-running activities. I was working more than I needed to work and running was lower on my list of priorities than it should be. I shifted things around and it made our lives better. I lost weight and, in general, I was happier. Now I’m struggling with the fact that I’m slowing down from age more than I’d like to. I see Ed Whitlock’s times peeking out on the horizon and I’m not anywhere close.
GCR:I can relate as I ran a 10k race this past weekend and it wasn’t even close to my old training pace on a slow run. I still was fourth in my age group though. How do you gear your focus now to fitness and health?
BDI have now officially run a marathon more than twice as slow as my best. It was a difficult marathon – 4:30 plus. 4:33 is my slowest, but that was the second day of a double marathon weekend where I ran one on Saturday and one on Sunday. So that kind of doesn’t count. In 2014 was the first time that I went longer than four hours for a marathon. It was not something I could wrap my thoughts around. I know age is there and I should accept this. Part of what makes us good runners when we were good runners is we don’t accept – we’re not easily satisfied. We know there is ‘better,’ and we strive for that ‘better.’
GCR:Well, now we all have personal worsts ahead of us.
BDOh yea, five hours is out there somewhere.
GCR:How exciting and fun has it been to refocus on running with your wife and completing a marathon in every state to join the ’50 State Marathon Club?
BDPart of it is exciting and part of it isn’t. There is the drudgery of having to fit in a marathon when we are timing a bunch of races that week. The logistics are a lot harder than the actual running of the marathons. Anybody that has done this will tell you that in trying to fit it into their life there are some people who don’t seem to have lives. I know an attorney who runs around 120 marathons a year. He runs marathon after marathon after marathon year in and year out. He doesn’t run them very fast but he’s getting there and he’s finishing them. I think he’s well off and can afford to do it, but it’s not trivial getting to all these races, fitting them into your schedule and still having enough income to do the other things in life you need to do – eat and sleep and pay bills.
GCR:What have been a few of the noteworthy marathons you have run in the past several years due to a scenic course, pre-race and post-race festivities or other prominent features?
BDOne of them that stands out because it set a record is that I won a marathon back in 2013. That is a World Record for the longest duration between first marathon win and last marathon win according to Ken Young. I doubt I’ll win another marathon. That’s probably my last win. We ran one marathon just outside Yellowstone National Park that had pretty nice views, although the last ten miles or so were just cornfields and wheat fields. The 50th state I got pretty carried away the last five miles and that was the last time I ran really good. We came down with a bug afterward and we’ve struggled ever since.
GCR:Can you tell us a bit about the 50th state that completed the U.S.?
BDIt was Illinois – Naperville, Illinois.
GCR:I’ve got a cousin in Naperville and have run on the rails-to-trails there. Was that a part of your marathon course?
BDYea, we ran on some of that. It was a good race and I really enjoyed that one. A lot of the marathons are blurring together in my mind since I’ve run 112 of them now.
GCR:Do any of the other marathons from your younger days have extra special meaning?
BDMy early marathons count too and the Nike-OTC Marathon goes down as my favorite marathon. I liked two loop courses because you had the second loop to figure out what to do after you’ve run it once. And that one was in the trees a lot. Also, finishing on Hayward Field is always special. Winning it was exciting and all of my wins kind of stick out in my mind. Winning in Atlanta in 1991 was special. Winning it as a Master’s runner was kind of exciting. The course ran along a lot of the running routes where I had trained over the years.
GCR:Of all the dozens of shorter races, mainly from 10k to 30k, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which are your favorites for interesting competition, scenic course or something else that strikes home?
BDThe Cascade Run-Off 15k was probably my favorite non-marathon race. It lasted for about ten years and then they couldn’t get the sponsorship to do what they wanted to be done. Peachtree was always special because Atlanta was my home town. But it was always hard and people ran very fast there. I never got better than sixth place at Peachtree. I ran 28:36th for sixth.
GCR:I recall the competition being very deep as my best at Peachtree of 30:29 in 1981 was only good for 63rd place.
BDYes, we’d all be thinking, ‘What do I got to do to move up farther in the pack?’ I ran as fast as I could run and everyone else was doing the same thing.
GCR:You mentioned Cascade, and it was one of several top-notch 15ks, along with Gasparilla and the Jacksonville River Run. Did you like that 15k distance?
BDIt was a very good distance for me. I could split frequently right at my PR for 10k and just keep right on going. My second fastest 10k was a split in a 15k.
GCR:I think it was at the 1983 Jacksonville River Run when I was running pretty well, in the 46s for 15k, and we started the race. Now remember, that this was before chip timing. We ran 50 or 100 yards and you were on the side of the road, having missed the start because you were taking a leak and you pretended you were hitchhiking. You had your thumb out and said something like, ‘Do you mind if I join you guys?’ Do you remember that?
BDNo, I don’t, but I can believe it. Sometimes they started the races before they said they were going to. People in general would just jump in. I remember at Falmouth one year I was in the top ten, then the top fifty, and then back in the top ten based on people who were jumping in during the first mile. There would be some slow guys, we’d get by them and then there would be some more slow guys. It was a different world.
GCR:It has changed so much since the smaller race fields that had a higher percentage of competitive runners. As it changed over the past few decades, has the emphasis on health and fitness taken away from the competitiveness near the top?
BDOur business for Amie and I is that we time races. It is like pulling teeth to get the good runners into a local race. If we see sub-16:00 at a local 5k it is bizarre. It’s just really strange to see that. There are guys who can run in the 13s, but they just don’t run races. Most of the people who run these days are either marathon collectors like Amie and I – ‘Marathon Maniacs’ or ’50 State’ Club runners. Most of those people are running as well as they can, but they aren’t going to do anything special to run them really fast. I guess I’m in that same boat because I’m not doing much in the way of speed work anymore. I’m afraid to get hurt and that’s my excuse. The other guys who are good enough to run fast save it for very few occasions and/or if they can make some money. I’m conflicted because I make a living off of the people that aren’t competitive, but I really would like to see more competition and deeper fields at the front. I don’t have a clue how to change that.
GCR:Let’s go back to when you got started running in high school where you were primarily a miler and ran a personal best 4:36 mile. How did you get started as a runner?
BDI started off as a pole vaulter. I lived in California, was a small person and very agile. I had gymnastic skills and we decided I should be a pole vaulter. This was before fiberglass poles were the norm. Fiberglass was just beginning to show up and poles made of steel or bamboo were predominant for vaulting. I was vaulting with a steel pole and I was probably 85 to 90 pounds as a seventh grader. I cleared about eight feet, which was pretty good. In California they had weight classes. I was C weight I wasn’t great, but I was competitive. Over the summer I grew, went up in weight class and I wasn’t as competitive. Also, now they had fiberglass poles. I was standing there in the early season and one of the kids was vaulting with a fiberglass pole. I had my pole over my shoulder watching him go down the runway and he plants. Early fiberglass was very brittle – if there were any nicks it broke. So he plants and the pole exploded and threw him in the air. He came down and broke an arm and a collarbone. That was back when we were landing in sawdust. At that point I decided I was a runner.
GCR:What did you do in training when you were getting started as a runner and what weekly mileage and intense training sessions did you do?
BDSo now I was in eighth grade and had become a runner. We ran 600 yards. It was like running a 440 yard race except there was a long dog leg to start. I got down to about 2:05 or 2:06 that first year. My freshman year I finally started clicking and had some decant coaching. I don’t remember exactly what I was doing, but I improved and they put me in the mile. I ran five flat in California as a freshman. This was my last year of Junior High School which was 7th, 8th and 9th grade out there. As a five flat miler I was fifth or sixth on my team. My parents moved from California to Georgia when my father retired from the Air Force and I wasn’t planning on running track. I had a choice between band or track and I was pretty decent in band. I wasn’t a great player, but I was okay in that when we got to Georgia I was first chair French horn.
GCR:What caused you to switch focus from band to running?
BDSomewhere in the mid-fall semester someone mentioned the school record in the mile was 5:05. I said, ‘Whoa! I can run that fast.’ So that spring I went out for the mile and I pushed the school record holder to 4:54 and I ran 4:55. That was my rebirth as a miler. Who knows what we did in training? There was occasional speed work. Mostly for me the training was racing. I would run the mile, the half mile, the two-mile and anchor the mile relay. And so by the end of the season I was in pretty good shape. If I had a twenty mile week it was an amazing week. I did a few ten mile runs, but for the most part, for some bizarre reason I thought I had to run six minute mile pace for everything. Training was stupid. Volume was stupid. I succeeded in spite of myself. But I didn’t succeed that well since I only got down to 4:36 for the mile, 2:04 for the 880. My endurance wasn’t quite there. I actually ran fifty flat more than once in the mile relay. A couple years later I ran a 49 point-something in college in a time trial so I did have decent speed. I just had terrible coaching.
GCR:At Georgia did you just walk on with your good, but not outstanding, high school times? Were you on the team or just running with the team?
BDI went there with no intention of running for the team. But I was there the summer beforehand and ran into a couple of distance runners who told me I should come out for the track team. I said, ‘No,’ because I hadn’t even made it to State in high school as I had some tendonitis in my ankle. But I was running with these guys and running okay with them without difficulty in training so they again said I should come out for the team. One of them finally convinced me to run so the coach gave me an old pair of Ked’s and within a week I was in the top seven for cross country. Then I got some real shoes. I got some Adidas Antelopes. I got better that first year. I ran 4:15, but don’t know the exact time as it was at the S.E.C. Championships and it was at the time when they didn’t record all of the times. My coach was timing our best guy who was behind me, got pissed off at him and stopped his stop watch. Incidentally, that was when John Parker won the S.E.C. mile. So John and I go back a long ways. I was fifth or sixth in that race – I’ve tried to find it online a few times without success. But sometimes after years of looking someone has posted results and they are out there. That was my best year as a miler for Georgia because the next year he just over trained me to death. I only ran 4:16.
GCR:Did you log your mileage or do you remember what were some of your top workouts?
BDOne of the guys who convinced me to come out for the team was Bill Alewine. When I ran for the University of Georgia I never got that good. I never broke fifteen minutes for three miles. I was okay, but the coach didn’t understand distance training. We did intervals four to five days a week and they were hard. It was sort of insane the workouts we did. That 4:16 my sophomore year was actually in training. He had us do a 1320 as a prelim to the last 440. So, I came through in 3:20 and then ran 56. And yet I couldn’t do anything in a race because I was always too tired. There were a couple issues my junior year and I quit. I had sprained my ankle really badly in a time trial and the coach called me a quitter. I said, ‘Fine. I’m a quitter and I quit.’ I didn’t want to run indoors on that badly sprained ankle on a flat twelve laps to the mile track. I came back briefly my senior year when all of the milers were scholastically ineligible and ran a 4:17 that year just to give them somebody to throw in the mile. Because I had no base I ran that 4:17 and then dropped off the face of the earth the next couple of meets. Finally they got some milers eligible. Then I just went back to fitness running. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but there was a track club and Bill Alewine convinced me that he could start training me. We started doing Lydiard-based training and I was doing decent mileage for a change. I was doing it a little too fast but I got fit enough that I won an intramural 2-mile run. Then I was suddenly running faster than the University guys and that was motivation. Doing the Lydiard approach instead of all of the intervals was sort of the eye opener.
GCR:After college you hit the roads and stepped up your training for marathon racing. How great was the mentoring by others, and in particular, Lee Fidler, as you learned how to train for and race the marathon distance?
BDLee and I worked together and it was very beneficial. Having a good training partner has always been a good thing for me. I moved into the Atlanta area from Athens, Georgia in 1974 or 1975. I did some racing, but mostly distance fitness. Bill only worked with me for a little while as he drifted off and went into the Air Force. Then I was back on my own. I hadn’t won a race since I was in high school back in 1969, until I won one in 1975. I went six years without winning a single race at any distance, except for that intramural run. In 1975 we were living in Lawrenceville, which is near Atlanta, when I ran a five-mile race at Stone Mountain and I won it. Suddenly, my focused changed again into thinking that maybe I could be a competitive runner. Shortly after that Lee moved into the area around 1978 and became a part of my training. We knew each other because he competed at Furman when I was at Georgia. Mike Caldwell was also one of our competitors as he went to school with Lee at Furman. We all kind of worked together and got a foundation that helped us all.
GCR:Your running almost ended forever when you had a serious accident in Europe in 1977 that severely damaged your knee. What were the mental and physical ups and downs as you attempted to run regularly again and what did you learn from your comeback training?
BDInitially they told me I would never run again. The people at the hospital in Switzerland said I was done running and would walk with a limp the rest of my life. I’m a bit stubborn… my wife, Amie, just laughed in the background… I came home in a full leg cast. I had a doctor friend cut it off so I could get back to running. I ran through the fall and I ran some races okay – not great – but okay. It was August, when I had first got home, and now in November I kept having pain. I realized I just had to take a break and do some kind of rehab to get it back. And so I quit running for about a three week period. I ran one day and the next day it hurt so I didn’t run. The following day it didn’t hurt so I ran. And so I was running off and on every other day. I gradually built up to where I was running two hours every other day and nothing in between. By the next February in 1978 I was running two to two-and-a-half hours every other day and I started adding back half hour runs on the days in between. The Atlanta Track Club had a series of races and I went and ran one of them. I had done nothing except running – no speed work. I came in second in a seven mile race. Distances were all over the map back then. You start and finish at the same place, and distances were distances. It occurred to me that what I was doing got me really fit because I had never placed as high as second in this race beforehand. I’m not necessarily a slow learner, but once I learn something I remember it. So that became the basis of my training. Over the next few weeks I kept training that way, but gradually slipped in races and speed work. Then I had a four minute PR at the 1978 Boston Marathon.
GCR:Was that surprising to not only get a PR, but to do it at Boston, which isn’t always a good place to PR, though you had some good performances there?
BDLee and I weren’t training together yet, because I remember in the race Lee passing me. The front pack had moved away and I was in the ozone. I was thinking, ‘I can’t let Lee beat me.’ I ended up going back by him and was eleventh in 2:15. It was mostly Americans ahead of me. Nowadays, not too many Americans run that fast unless it was the year Meb won.
GCR:It’s interesting how you now started training with Lee Fidler and there was that period you mentioned where you were running about thirty races a year while running at least ninety miles a week. What did you feel was your optimum weekly mileage to get in your top form when you were training through races, doing 20-24 mile long runs and getting in your speed work?
BDIt was about 95 miles a week. My easy days were still very easy. I would do double runs on my hard days and single runs on my easy days. Easy days were about six miles each and I would have four of those. So that’s about 24 miles. Then I would do another 70 miles on the other three days.
GCR:So you were taking a ‘very hard’ and ‘very easy’ training approach?
BDYes, it was very much a Bowerman approach. My three hard days were a track day, a long run day and a race.
GCR:There was that one tough workout you talked about where you did 10k of ins and outs and the five mile pace run. What were some of your other favorite strength or speed sessions through the years?
BDThat tough workout was one I did very seldom – maybe twice in my life. Racing was my tempo running. I would go to races tired and run 10k in 30:00 to 30:30. That was good speed work for marathons. My standard track days were usually repeats of 800 meters or 1,000 meters. I hated 400s because I had done so many of them in college. Often I would do road workouts with ninety seconds on and thirty seconds off or I would run ten telephone poles hard and three telephone poles easy – sort of a fartlek. Occasionally when I was getting a little flat I would do some hill repeats for a few weeks and then go back and start doing the other stuff again. In July I would run Peachtree and then would just run steady through the month of August because it’s so hot that it’s hard to get motivated.
GCR:Did you run much on soft surfaces and how important is running on soft surfaces even when training primarily for road races?
BDOh yea, I had a trail that was a minute and a half from my house that only took about three minutes long to run. It was under the trees and had ups and downs. I ran down into a creek bed, out of the creek and up on the other end. It was sort of a broken oval. I did three hour runs on that loop at times. It was in the trees and you couldn’t really see much beyond twenty meters in front of you. There was nobody to bother me and I would just go in there and run.
GCR:At present day many runners go for time, but in your day most of us ran for distance and doing so many short loops like you did definitely wasn’t the norm.
BDI almost always ran for time back then and still do to this day. It didn’t matter as I wasn’t counting loops – I was just running for time. I went on autopilot and ran. There were some other places I ran often like on the power line roads that tended to be clay or trail. Those were usually real hilly so I’d do hill repeats on them. My long runs though when I ran with somebody were just on the streets of Atlanta, which were hilly streets as a rule.
GCR:Did you do any shorter repeats, like 30 or 40 second hill repeats or short fartlek bursts to keep your leg turnover since you already had so much endurance and stamina?
BDI didn’t do as much of that in hindsight as I probably should have. What I did do for hill work were usually hills of a minute or less. I did have one workout back in the early 1980s towards the end of my career that I’d do occasionally in Piedmont Park over to the left of where the Peachtree 10k finished. There was a culvert that had a bridge at two ends. It was a bowed culvert so one side was longer than the other. One side was about 180 meters and the other side was about 140 meters. I would do 180s hard, cross the bridge and jog back. One day I did forty of those. Lee did thirty of them.
GCR:That wasn’t quite the John Parker workout of sixty repeat quarter miles in his book, ‘Once a Runner.’
BDNo, but we were running fast, though it wasn’t all out. It was probably about ninety percent effort.
GCR:Earlier you mentioned briefly about your involvement in running through your timing services at races that you and your wife, Amie, provide. And, of course, with all the marathons you run you are out and about in the running community. Could you have ever imagined back in your twenties running being such an integral part of your life including the way you support yourself financially?
BDNo, and part of it was I wasn’t very forward looking. I remember one workout I had with Craig Virgin at the track and we were warming down together. He said, ‘What are you going to do when you are done running?’ I said, ‘Well, if I start thinking in those terms - I’m done running. I’ve got to think about now. I can’t even think about the future.’ So, I never thought about what I was going to do when I was done with this. And it just sort of never got done with.
GCR:Your running is keeping you at a certain level of fitness. Do you do other cross training like hitting the gym? What is your current health and fitness program as we get older and work to keep as much mobility as possible? And what are your future goals in this area and other areas in your life?
BDI want to run as long as I can. Dr. Weil talks about living a life where the quality of life is high, but there is a sudden and steep decline. I don’t want it to be a long, gradual decline. In terms of racing goals, I don’t really have any. I do want to get back to where I’m consistently under four hours again. It’s a matter of having better health this year. I don’t know that, but it’s what I believe. In general, I have got sort of a mini running streak going and I want it to continue as long as it can. I don’t want to get to the point where running is lower on my list of priorities than it should be. I do go to the gym, but not as much as I should. If I have work to do, that slips. Generally I’m just living day to day and month to month.
GCR:We talk about slowing down, but when I interviewed your 1980 Olympic marathon teammate, Kyle Heffner, a few years ago it was amazing that he was running 1:20s for the half marathon and in the 2:40s for the marathon and he was 57 or 58 years old. Is it almost unbelievable that one of your peers was able to race like that in his late fifties?
BDIt is a little bit disconcerting. Kyle is possibly a little bit more maniacal than I am. He is able to push himself in ways that I am not quite willing to do. I keep thinking in the back of my mind that I ought to be able to do that, but it’s not as much fun because I get hurt when I do a lot of speed work. I don’t want to be hurt, but the only way to run marathons like that is to do speed work and to race distances shorter than the marathon. You’ve got to focus on improving your speed. I’m running marathons month in and month out. Last year we ran sixteen. If you run that many marathons in a year, your pathway isn’t to improve your performance, it is just to run marathons.
GCR:With your running history and all the stories about running and racing, many that we didn’t even get to, do you think you’d like to have someone work with you on a book about your running life?
BDA lot of these stories may not be completely true because I can’t remember precise details. I remember when Kim Jones was doing her book and all the pain she went through to research everything, and I don’t want to do that. I don’t know if there’s that many of my stories that many people would want to spend money to read. My life was not as interesting as Kim’s.
GCR:As a wrap up, when you have to sum up your philosophy of running and life in a minute or so, what are the main points that you share with others and would like to convey to my readers?
BDWhen I used to sign autographs, and I still sign some occasionally, even this last year, I always sign, ‘Enjoy your running.’ To a degree that is my life’s philosophy. You should enjoy what it is you’re doing. If a lot of what you’re doing is not enjoyable, you should change things. If running is a chore, you’re not doing it right. I still call running a work out, but I don’t consider it a negative thing. Frequently when I get out I might feel lousy at the beginning of a run, but I always feel better at the end.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsI run races (laughing). I read a lot
Nicknames‘Benji’ is actually my nickname. My real name is ‘Benjamin’ but I’ve not gone by that ever. Occasionally someone will call me ‘Benjamin’ and I’ll wince
Favorite moviesI like ‘Blade Runner’ and the original ‘Star Wars’ movies. More recently I like the ‘Harry Potter’ series
Favorite TV shows‘NCIS’ currently and ‘M.A.S.H.’ back in the day
Favorite musicCrosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Joni Mitchell; I really like the song ‘After the Gold Rush,’ which is a Neil Young solo song. There is an A Cappella version by another group, ‘Prelude,’ of it that is real good and is my favorite song
Favorite booksOne of my favorite authors just died – Terry Pratchett. Another favorite author, and I’m going through his books, is Lawrence Block. It turns out he is an ultra-walker who has done a sub-5:00 marathon as a walker. He is a mystery writer and I really like his books
First carA 1969 VW bug
Current cars1997 Subaru Forrester and a 2007 Sprinter van which we live out of when we time races and travel to marathons
First JobsI had a lot of jobs. Babysitting was one of the very first things. I did a lot of manual labor through high school and college. I pitched hay, I harvested corn, I harvested peanuts, and I helped get tobacco from fields to the market because my grandfather raised tobacco. In college I was a brick mason’s assistant, which means I carried bricks. I delivered newspapers in college in my bug – I’d get out at midnight and deliver papers until 2:00 or 3:00, sleep until 9:30 or 10:00 and then go to class. It taught me the pain of hard work
FamilyI have a sister, Rebecca, who thought running was bizarre and still does. My parents were supportive, but not excessively so. At times they wondered why I was doing it. As far as I know I don’t think there is anybody else in my family, even cousins that have done much running. I’m the outlier. I’m not too close to my sister as she lives in Mexico and my mother is down there with her. We talk occasionally. My father died in 2006. He had prostate cancer too, but that wasn’t what got him. It was a combination of melanoma and Parkinson’s. We weren’t sure which ended up being the actual cause of death.
PetsI’ve been a cat person most of my life. I’ve had a few dogs, but at the moment six cats have me
Favorite breakfastEggs over hard with hash browns. I gave up red meat back in 2003. Occasionally I’ll have turkey sausage
Favorite mealAmie’s mac and cheese with black-eyed peas and tomatoes
Favorite beveragesPepsi with real sugar. I try not to drink sodas with high fructose corn syrup so that ‘real sugar Pepsi’ is my indulgence
First running memoriesI ran and played as a kid. I can remember doing the 600 yards and we would start on a dogleg as it was back when tracks sometimes had a 220 yard straightaway. I’d be thinking, ‘My God, I’ve got a long way to go before I start around the track. You ran a full 220 yard straightaway and then a full lap. That same year I also did a mile barefoot on the cinder track and it ate my feet up
Running heroesThe first memory I have is in elementary school when I was reading the Weekly Reader and Peter Snell had set the World Record, I think it was 3:54, for the mile. That excited me. I ran home from school which was about a mile and it was the first time I thought about running as a sport rather than something for self-preservation. In elementary school I ran away from people when they started getting aggressive. I was probably eight, nine or ten years old. The Weekly Reader did an interview with me right after the 1980 Olympic Trials where I talked about that
Greatest running momentsThe 1980 Olympic Trials was one of the greatest because it was such a surprising performance and it was so close to the edge. It’s not always the fastest race you run that is the most memorable. Obviously, that 1983 Boston Marathon was important. I wish in many ways I hadn’t blistered so I know what I could have done. That Houston Marathon where I just talked to the guys on the press truck and was so dominant
Worst running momentThe 1984 Olympic Trials where I wasn’t physically ready to run anyway. It was very disappointing because of the plantar fasciitis had taken away my ability to run on my toes. I was flat-footed, I just wasn’t there and my body wasn’t ready to go. That was a really disappointing performance. Another was the 1979 Honolulu Marathon. I’d finished second in 1978 and I was coming in in pretty good shape, but I had a little Achilles tendonitis before the race. Around 15 or 16 miles I dropped out. I was disappointed and my Achilles was bothering me. I let people down, let myself down and was really low. Then I went home, got healed and came back a month later to run well. It was a low point, but sometimes I think you have to have the low points to have the high points
Childhood dreamsFor a while I thought I was going to be in the band. I thought I’d grow up and be an orchestra member. But I also thought I was going to be a scientist. And I started down those paths, but I found out: one, I wasn’t as good a musician as I thought I was; I was a better runner than I ever was a musician. You laugh, but you don’t know this when you are starting out. I discovered that Science is a very political world as well as a search for truth. People in University science programs are always looking to improve their positions. They aren’t all like that, but there are enough of them. I’m not really suited for that environment very well so I left that and made my final move into running. I have an undergraduate degree in psychology. I am an ‘A.B.D.,’ which is ‘All But Dissertation.’ I did all the course work for a PhD in Biopsychology
Funny memoriesYou may have to ask Amie for that. There are many stories I tell and I use them for inspiration. I tell how I ran stupid one way and recovered and learned from it. I ran a marathon in France and didn’t eat well. Even though I won the race, I suffered, so I learned the value of good nutrition before the race. I was touring France and eating croissants as those were the only carbohydrates I could find. The week before the marathon I probably ate only a third of the normal amount of carbohydrates I should have eaten. The night before the race their pre-race meal was smoked mussels. Fifteen miles into the race my tank was empty. There was no readily available glycogen available anywhere and at that stage of my life I was pretty skinny. The funny thing is the body kept going. The brain was gone, I had trouble thinking, I had trouble formulating a sentence, and yet I kept running. There were two laps on the track, we went out on roads and we finished with two laps of the track. I took the lead at 200 meters and led the whole way. At 30k when I hit the wall I had a two minute lead. When I hit the track at the end, I had a two and a half minute lead. I didn’t believe I could win with that lead and two laps to go, but I ended up winning by about 2:40. I had a glucose tablet and I was fine. The moral of the story is to get out of the way of your body and it will do just fine. You learn the hard way over years and years of running what you can and can’t get away with. When I tell stories I emphasize we have to learn our limitations and not do stupid running. You learn from it… or you don’t
Favorite places to travelYellowstone – that’s the one. That’s easy. We can get there twelve hours door to door driving. We have run on most of the roads there. We like to run from Old Faithful to West Thumb which is about 14 miles, maybe 16 miles. It’s over a couple of passes and is a pretty run. We’ve run on trails too. One thing we would like to do is to run on all of the paved roads there. We’ve got a couple left to do. We haven’t run from Canyon to West Thumb through the Hayden Valley. It’s going to be kind of hard because there is so much wildlife there. That’s the one stretch we haven’t run