An American at Venta de Baños! 🇺🇸🇪🇸
For the past few years, I have yelling at all of you about how more American distance runners should head over to Spain to compete in the World Athletics Cross Country Tour. With 10 of the races on the calendar in La Piel de Toro and a healthy dedication to participation by the local clubs, it'd be a good life and cultural experience. And while many of the races have a fascinating history behind them, the best reason to go is the opportunity.
And that’s not just because you can race against studs like Abdessamad Oukhelfen of Spain and Edinah Jebitok of Kenya, who won the event, because wait, there’s more!
While probably a short-lived and relatively dumb experiment, athletes are currently able to qualify for the Olympic 10,000m through cross country races. This is especially important this year as the standard is 30:40 – a mark that only 13 women have achieved so far, globally. Considering that seven of those are set by Ethiopians, technically there are only nine spots that are currently filled in the 27 person field. And only one American, Alicia Monson, has achieved it.
“The top 8 from the World Cross Country Ranking not directly qualified through entry standard or World 10,000m Ranking, will be considered as having achieved the entry standard.”
Katie Izzo finished second in Austin at Cross Champs, and third at Venta de Baños, both Gold Label events. If she does one more, then she’ll be eligible, as it takes three performances in the 18 month qualifying period. The US and World Cross Country Championships are other natural chances. Good luck explaining how qualification works to your work buddy that you dragged to Eugene to watch the Olympic Trials with you!
For a country that does not have three athletes with the standard, this is the backdoor in. Although it depends on the federation as we saw last year many did not enter their athletes who fairly qualified for the World Championships.
Here are the current rankings and the methodology. Team GB will totally respect this, right?
Joining the peloton: Rai Benjamin 🚴
We all know Rai Benjamin from the many global medals, but this interview is not about any of that. This fall I saw that the Mt. Vernon native had taken up a new activity, one that is most usually reserved for retired distance runners like myself. We caught up last week because I was intrigued to hear more about how and why the American record holder at the 400m hurdles had become such a serious cyclist during the off-season.
You added a new training partner. How's having Fred [Kerley] around?
At first it was exciting. I mean, it still is exciting. Fred and I did a workout together last week, actually. So that was a lot of fun. But the reality is that he's running the 100 and I'm running the 400 hurdles and very rarely do we come together. But I think as the workouts progress throughout the year and we step down to get that speed in, we'll get together here a little bit.
This offseason I saw a guy pop up on my Strava feed who I would not expect to be there at all, doing an activity I would not expect him to be doing. But Chris told me that you shared at Pre that there was a big purchase on the horizon. Walk me through why and how getting a bike came about.
I've always wanted a bike, to be honest with you. And my agent’s always just like, “you're not getting on a bike. Just go sit down.” And he cycles quite a bit. Taking trips back and forth to Germany, I ended up walking through Munich and saw this bike shop. And I was like, “dude, I'm going to buy a bike.” And he was like, “wait till after you get done this year. See how things go and see how you feel from there.” So fast forward and I still have this little bike bug so I finally got the go ahead. And Coach said it was cool so I went ahead and bought the bike. I ended up going to Rapha down in Santa Monica to get it because they sell bike bibs and jerseys.
Did anyone recognize you?
No, there are so many celebrities and athletes who live out here – it's hard to tell who's who and gain that recognition as opposed to living in a small town. But I walked into Rapha and I was like, “hey, man, like looking to get some cycling gear” and I told him that I've never cycled before and that this is just an offseason thing for me as I run track professionally. There was a guy there who ran track at UCLA and cycles now named Jelaani Davis and we chopped it up a bit. At this point my bike was getting assembled at Specialized.
Also… you did not get an entry-level bike.
Yeah, definitely. When I told them I got an S-Works SL8 they were just like, ‘wait, what? You literally started cycling and got the Ferrari of all bikes.’ I didn't really think of it that way, but I got a pretty fast bike.
Did you fall clipping in on the first ride?
This is what happened – it was so funny. I'm riding on San Vicente, and at this point I'm telling everyone like, “yo I am not going to fall, like I'm an athlete. I know how to clip in.” So I'm trying to be cool and I'm trying to do like an indoor stance, like without clipping out at a red light in Brentwood. This other guy is right next to me and I frickin’ lost balance and just went down in the middle of the street.
I got up and I wasn't embarrassed about what it looked like because I'll never see these people ever again. And as I'm riding, the dude's asking me like, “hey are you okay?” And then on top of that, he goes “aren’t you Rai Benjamin?” What the hell! But yeah, I fell trying to be cool in front of everyone. And then that week I met Justin and Cory [Williams].
I was going to ask how you linked up with the L39GION guys. For track fans, they’re the top U.S. crit team and the Williams brothers probably make the coolest content in cycling on YouTube.
My friend Jelaani, who I mentioned earlier, is cool with Justin so he invited me out for a coffee ride. Super cool guy. Met a couple of the other guys who ride for the Miami Blazers, which is another great team. And we just mobbed PCH [the Pacific Coast Highway], man, like we rode from Santa Monica all the way past Pepperdine and just kept going and turned around at a gas station and came right back. I think we ended up doing about 50 miles that day.
And that was my first ride ever, like a real ride, and I just cranked out 50 miles. And everyone said that I did better than they thought I would for my first time really being on a bike. But it was great because I got to learn something different and do something different. Sometimes the sport gets monotonous, you know, and it gets kind of boring. Challenging myself down a different alley, down a different avenue was just a blessing in disguise to kind of just get away from the running and whatnot. And also just finding a hobby. Whenever people ask me what I do outside of track, like, do I do anything for fun? – my answer was always “no, not really… I get home and play War Zone.” After a while it gets kind of weird telling other people that I just go home and play video games.
Now you’ve got something!
It's more guarded now. I can’t just get on the bike. But I can ask my coach if it makes sense for me to ride the bike this week. And if it does I'll go and do a short 30 minute ride, but not the long rides like I was doing in the offseason.
I have so many questions. First off, that's really cool about the L39ION guys – they have a huge diversity initiative in what they do. I don't know if you want to speak to that, but you don’t see a lot of Black guys out riding bikes for 3 hours – that's a unique aspect – and especially doing it as a sprinter.
I got a comment on my Instagram asking how it makes sense to ride on your bike for that amount of miles. It's not that you're not necessarily doing it to get better. You're not riding that bike for that long… neurologically, like, it's just not going to work. It's an entirely different energy system, muscle grouping, and just positioning on the bike. Riding a bike for X amount of hours does not equate to running fast because realistically, you're only working in zone two, zone three, especially when you're going on those very, very long rides – you're just working that endurance zone. It was more a staying in shape kind of thing, so you’re not sitting there for six weeks, not doing anything and then coming back feeling sore.
But pivoting back to your question about their whole initiative. I mean, most of the guys that I ride with – they are Black. But there are not a lot of Black cyclists that ride, obviously. Justin's whole thing is about getting more Black people on bikes and just people on bikes in general. It was awesome because I've never met those guys before and they knew nothing about me and it was completely welcoming and friendly. It's a great community. Everyone wants to help out. Everyone wants to invite you to these social rides. You're not just addicted to riding but more being in a setting with those people.
It's totally different from running because you can stop for a coffee, get back on the bike, you can stop for a beer and a pizza and get back on the bike. It's not about exercise necessarily.
Definitely. They're in their offseason now, so they're doing the longer rides, but when they start doing intervals… My friend Jelaani was doing a workout and I tried to stay on his wheel. You think you're a good runner, but when you get on that bike, it's a completely different beast and a completely different energy system. It takes a lot to be a great cyclist.
So could you be if you wanted?
I think if I took it seriously for the next three years, I could probably be really, really good on the bike. Like I rode with Colleen one time...
Colleen Quigley?! Yes, tell me.
Colleen dropped me on Mandeville Hill and it was supposed to be an easy ride. I felt confident and was way ahead of the group. And they catch up to me, and they're just like, “oh, so you want to actually ride?” I stayed on Colleen’s wheel for like, four or five minutes and then she was just out of sight. Colleen's a really good climber on the bike, especially given she's just transitioning to that.
But I think if I took it seriously in the next two to three years and actually rode every day, I think I'd be good at it.
Do you think like, velodrome-style sprinting? Did that convert, as you could get around a 400 meter track pretty well.
That's a different beast – putting out 1,000 to 1,200 watts for 15 to 30 seconds. That's a lot of power! And I'm tall. I'm not really built for the Velodrome but I can ride for 70 to 80 miles on a bike.
Well, then the natural follow up question is if this would convert in any way to a potential 800 at some point.
Most 400 guys wouldn't be able to, at least in my mind, ride like that.
Most people wouldn’t. But for me it's just the 800… if I really wanted to… I think if I seriously ran it I could probably run 1:44. But I mean, that's not going to win anything today.
You could win the California State meet or something for sure.
Yeah, I mean there's no 800 in my future. It's just the training. I've seen the training for it and it's just not fun. So I popped in with Isaiah [Jewett] on a couple of workouts and it's a different level of lactate threshold.
It seems like you really got into the data side of cycling. You're talking zones, you're talking power. Is that an intriguing part of it? You probably don't get that type of feedback every day in practice.
Yeah you don't. It's not a statistics game with track.
In cycling you can measure heart rate, certain zones, the amount of wattage that you're outputting, your weight to wattage ratio, all that stuff is important. How airy you are on the bike. And I think that all comes down to equipment that we don't use in track.
Maybe in the near future, our shoes will be able to tell us exactly what we're doing. But it's a completely different dynamic than putting power down into a pedal, how you climb, and your positioning on a bike – you know how you're distributing power.
My favorite thing to talk with you about is the big picture for the sport. You had an opportunity to dive into another sport a little bit, and talked to some of the top guys. Any major takeaways of what track could learn from cycling?
I know everyone loves to complain about the state of track and field, but we are in a better position. To be honest with you, it kind of gave me some perspective and made me grateful.
It’s crazy because crit racing is so exciting. You're on a closed circuit and you're having however many people zoom by you going 25 to 30 miles an hour on a bike and you never know who might eat shit going into a turn. There's alcohol, there's food, there's music. And it's not like you're on the tour where you just see the peloton once and now they're down the road ten miles and that's it. You're consistently seeing them come through and you're seeing the race set up and you seeing people take lead outs and trying to break away using strategy. I think it would make a great Olympic sport, though it kind of falls on the same issues that we have.
The cycling community is huge like the track community. But no one wants to put any capital into it because what’s the return? After talking to Justin, I hear his frustrations and see the change that he's bringing to racing and seeing the things that he's trying to implement. It's funny because he will say certain things and in my head I'm just like, “dude, I understand, man.” You can have all these great ideas, but sometimes it just feels like it falls on deaf ears. It's one of those things where things aren't going to change tomorrow, but over time it's progressing and getting better.
Did any of the guys text you anything about biking? Is Fred getting a bike next?
Fred has called me a few times while I was on the bike – he told me to get off the bike. I tried to get Michael [Norman] to get a bike.
It's addictive. It's like… like, I'm actually thinking about buying a second bike. To be honest with you.
Soon enough you put in your two or three years and you prove yourself out!
I've already decided that when I am done I am getting on the crit.
I feel like just having this conversation now, you're like going out tomorrow.
Going out on Christmas Day!