Watching Olympic athletes compete it’s hard to imagine a time when they weren’t in peak condition. They seem born to compete! As runner Ben demonstrates, it takes a lot of hard work and unwavering commitment to make it to the top.
In his mid-twenties, after being inactive for five years, Ben put some unhealthy habits on the backburner to chase his dream and become an elite athlete. Ben now holds the Australian record for the 10,000m, has competed at the Olympics and has an impressive collection of national titles.
In between training sessions, Ben forms part of the 12WBT Support Crew, coaching members through the 12WBT program to help them achieve their health and fitness goals. I had a chat to Ben about his dramatic transformation from party hard uni student to Olympian, why he loves running and what advice he’d give to novice exercisers.
Madeleine: You left running for a few years, what was going on in that period of your life?
Ben: Basically I didn’t run at all in my early to mid-twenties. I was into the sport when I was a teenager then I went to university and decided to take a year off to have a social life and party. That year off turned into two, then three, then five years…
M: Were you running at all in that time?
B: No, not really. I probably ran about fifteen times in that five-year period!
M: What was your health like at the time, were you overweight?
B: I never really weighed myself back then. I wasn’t really interested in weight. But I am almost positive that I was about twenty kilos heavier that I am now. I was up around 80 kilos, anywhere between 80 and 85. And my gross weight now is about 63 to 64.
M: You started running training again in 2006, what prompted you to make a change?
B: I always had in my mind that at some point I was going to get back into it.
Every time New Year’s came around my resolution was always “Right, this year I am going to get back into my running” – and I think that resolution normally lasted a few days but then I would get stuck back into the drinking and partying!
The final catalyst was that I was just so unhealthy and felt so horrible. I decided to try to get healthy. I bought a bike and started riding and slowly started getting fit again. Then eventually I thought “Well, maybe I could get back into competitive running.”
I happened to be down in Melbourne for the Commonwealth Games in 2006 and there were some guys competing that I had run against when I was at school. I was with a close mate of mine and we were both really hungover. I said to him “I am going to see if I can get to the next Commonwealth Games.” He laughed at me and said “If you make it to the next Commonwealth Games I will come and watch you!”
He laughed because when at the time it really quite an unrealistic a goal. I was a long way off the Commonwealth Games but I thought I would see how close I could get. From that point on I started making some changes in my life and made some pretty good progress.
Four years later my friend was over in Delhi in the stands watching me race in the Commonwealth Games. Then he came to London and watched me compete in the Olympics in 2012!
M: What was it like getting back into training back when you hadn’t done any exercise for so long?
B: It was extremely tough. I really had lost a lot of my fitness. I did a bit of research online and wrote myself a training program. But I jumped into it above my head. The first time I went to try and do a hill session I think I got through about two or three of them and I was throwing up and had a migraine and had to go to bed for an hour or two.
Then I realised it was all about baby steps and every week trying to make small improvements and slowly but surely making progress. That is definitely a tip I would give to anyone else who is trying to get in to running but who hasn’t done much before.
No one session is going to make the difference. It is all about trying to get days on end turning into weeks, weeks turning into months then with steady progress you will really surprise yourself over a longer period of time.
M: How did you begin working towards the Commonwealth Games?
B: I started entering some smaller fun runs and tried to set my life up so I was surrounded by healthy people. I moved to Sydney and got a job in a running shoe store and got into the corporate health scene. The guy I moved in with in Sydney was a runner and he was doing fun runs. I would go along with him and slowly made some progress.
I joined with my current coach at the end of 2006 and we set a detailed program and some races to aim towards in 2007 which included the Australian Cross Country Championships and some of the more serious races. I finished in the top three in a couple of those and that showed me I was on the right track and I could probably make it to an elite level if I kept improving at the same rate.
In 2008 I made my first Australian team and went to race in Japan. It was a relay race and they take six people from each country and there were twelve or so countries competing. That was a really big eye opener and a good opportunity to go and race people well out of my league. It kind of fired me up to keep going.
Then in 2009 I made the team for the World Cross Country Championship in Scotland and… I got my arse kicked! So even though I had gotten to the level of making teams I was a long way away from being competitive at those sorts of championships.
That meet was kind of demoralising but at the same time it proved to me that I had to keep working and that I was a long way from being competitive.
I didn’t make a major team in 2009, which was a bit disappointing, but then in 2010 I qualified for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in two events.
M: When you get knocked back and don’t make a team or when a race doesn’t go as planned, how do you stay motivated?
B: I really use those situations as motivation to work harder rather than letting them get me angry or set me back. You just have got to try and spin it in a positive way. I could say “Why do I bother?” but I just think “Next time I will just put it beyond doubt and try to be an automatic qualifier.” If you run the A standard of a race or win or come top two at a trial then the selectors don’t have any say. You are automatically in. So since then I have just automatically qualified.
M: How much time a week do you spend training?
B: I run between 160 and 190 kilometres a week. I run twice a day everyday except for Sundays. Then I am in the gym three days a week as well and then sometimes in the pool up to two times and also do a bit of bike riding. Then there is all the stretching and the massage and that kind of thing. I haven’t tried to add up all the hours I dedicate to running, it’s a big commitment and you have got to love it to do it at an elite level – which I do!
M: You qualified to compete in the final of the 10,000m race at the 2012 London Olympic Games. How did you approach that event? What did you want to achieve?
I thought that if things went perfectly in preparation for that race, then on the night I could come top 10. In some sports, being top 10 might not sound like much of an achievement at all but it is in distance running because it is a really popular sport. Every country competes in it.
As it went, things didn’t quite go as I’d have hoped in preparation and I was in a bit of a form slump leading into London. I ended up coming twentieth and there were 35 in the race. That place was still good but a little bit disappointing.
Once again though that scenario fires me up to try and get back and achieve a better result. That goal is what I was picturing through all my hard training sessions, through the snow and hail and searing heat and all the days where things weren’t going well. You just sort of have to picture yourself lining up in the green and gold. I am going to keep at it and I still think getting in the top 10 is achievable for me on a good night.
M: What is it that you love about running?
B: There are a few things that I really love and one of them is racing. I love to line up against a field of guys from all around the world. It is a pretty primal thing to just try and run other guys into the ground. There is no better feeling then finishing a race and beating guys that you weren’t expected to beat, or winning a national championship or that sort of thing. It is just the biggest thrill.
There are also parts of the training that I love. I grew up in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales so I have an appreciation for nature and trails. Sometimes I will be out running and I will be in Saint Lawrence in Switzerland or Yosemite National Park in the United States and I just look around me. I feel the wonder of nature, your body is feeling great, and there is no place I would rather be.
It is those days that make it worthwhile. A lot of the time it is just a grind and it is hard work and you do it because you know your competitors are doing it and you have got to do it to stay fit and competitive. Those moments when you get a runner’s high – that’s why I continue chasing the dragon and making runs.
M: You are on the 12WBT Support Crew, is coaching something you see yourself doing in the future when you retire from competing?
B: Yes. For the last couple of years I have been helping people to achieve their goals, not just in running but in weight loss, and having been through a huge transformation myself it’s something I am really passionate about. Definitely in the future I see myself getting into beginner running coaching as well as helping people at a much higher level.
I have learnt a lot travelling around the world in the last couple of years and talking to other athletes and coaches and picking up bits and pieces where I can. So I would love to formulate all of that into my own coaching down the track and help other people.
12WBT has six running plans, from Learn to Run right through to Marathon. You’ll receive expert support from our running specialists like Ben, as well as Exercise Plans tailored specifically to running, weekly Meal Plans and access to more than 900 delicious recipes.
Find out more about how 12WBT will help you achieve your goals!