LtW Interview Series – Ben Rosario from the HOKA NAZ Elite Team
Ben Rosario is steeped in the sport of running. In his time he has competed in the US Olympic trails a couple of times, owned a specialty running store, has been an athletics meet director and now is one of the most highly regarded coaches in the sport. In charge of the HOKA NAZ Elite Team – based in Boulder, CO – Ben’s athletes include Stephanie Bruce, two-time national champion; Scott Fauble, first American finisher at the 2019 Boston Marathon; and Aliphine Tuliamuk, winner of the 2020 US Olympic Marathon trials (thereby becoming the team’s first Olympian).
We had the chance to talk to Ben about 2020 so far, his approach to coaching and how he – and his team of athletes – have adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic.
LTW: Ben, you have a background in racing yourself and now you are responsible for a team of speedsters. How true is it to say that racing has always been a big part of your life?
BR: Racing has been a part of my life since for as far back as I can remember. At recess on my elementary school playground, I was always the kid setting up races–to the fence and back, etc. I loved running, but more specifically I loved competing. That’s why coaching suits me so well; it affords me the opportunity to compete each and every time one of our athletes is racing. In fact, I see all of it–the races, the training, the marketing and promotion–as one giant competition.
LtW: What did you think when you first heard about Covid-19 and the impact it was having around the world before it really landed in the US?
BR: In retrospect, it’s somewhat embarrassing but I was like most people in the U.S. in that COVID-19 was not really on my radar at first. There have been epidemics in other parts of the world many times during my lifetime, that for whatever reason did not affect the U.S. in the same way. It was not until that Wednesday night, March 11, when the NBA canceled its games due to a player testing positive that the gravity of the situation really hit me. That’s when I realized this thing was the real deal.
LtW: Obviously Aliphene winning the marathon trials was a huge deal for the team, your sponsors and for you personally. How did you feel watching the race unfold?
BR: Watching the Olympic Trials was the high of highs. Externally, as a coach, I was trying to stay calm, but internally the adrenaline was flowing through my veins like never before. And it wasn’t nervousness or worry, per se, because I was supremely confident that day. I remember that feeling very clearly. But there were so many other emotions, I suppose because I cared so much about each of the six individuals racing.
The twelve weeks leading into the race had required such a collective focus that we were as close as a group of athletes and a coach can possibly be. So when things were unfolding, the emotions you normally would feel were heightened. When Sid Vaughn fell off the pack just past halfway, it was devastating. When Scott Smith, and then Scott Fauble, lost contact around 17 miles, it was crushing.
But those low moments, though deep, were fleeting because the women were doing so well. With each passing mile, that confidence I had from the beginning only grew. I remember being just past the 23-mile mark and seeing Aliphine come by with Molly Seidel on her shoulder and I knew she had it. Meaning I knew not only did she have the spot wrapped up, but I knew she would win. When Steph came by in sixth, I believed there was still a chance she could be top three. I screamed for her to, “keep pressing” at the very top of my lungs.
The one last low moment I had was seeing Kellyn come by in eighth and having her point to her leg. I knew her body, not her mind or her fitness, had failed her. That hurt. Somehow though, I got over to 25.5 miles and saw all three of them one more time and each of those moments, I will remember forever.
First, as Aliphine came by having pulled away, and a half a mile from certain victory, I just yelled, “Rip it, rip it, rip it.” I was so present in that instant. There was no time for reflection quite yet. When Steph came by this time I knew she was going to narrowly miss making the Team but I still wanted her to go as deep as possible and finish off the best marathon of her life. I also wanted her to know Aliphine was going to win as I hoped that would help make her final half mile that much more special. So I yelled, “Aliphine won, we’re having a great day.” And I yelled the same to Kellyn. I knew she was hurting, but I wanted her to know her teammate, her friend, had won. It was only long afterward that it all sank in – if it even has.
LTW: Did you have a sense even as the trials were happening that 2020 and the Olympics might now work out as expected? If so what did that feel like
BR: No. I had not thought much at all about COVID-19 going into the Trials. Our group was so locked in on the task at hand that I am not sure I thought about much of anything besides February 29.
When it became obvious that Covid-19 was going to wreck the racing schedule, certainly for this year and perhaps beyond, what were your initial thoughts?
My nine-year-old daughter got me hooked on Harry Potter these last couple of years and there’s a great quote from Rubeus Hagrid, one the series’ main characters, where he says, “What’s comin’ will come and we’ll meet it when it does.” I love that quote and it’s how I’ve tried to handle this whole situation. And I suppose in this case when “it” came, and I digested the gravity of it, my philosophy, which I shared with the team, was to play offense. It was that idea that these traditional opportunities are not going to be there, so let’s create opportunities for ourselves, let’s take matters into our own hands.
LtW: Assuming it is fair to say that the athletes you coach and manage as part of the team are motivated primarily by racing, how have you adapted your approach to their training given there have not been (many) races to compete in?
BR: I think there have been a couple of ways we’ve managed to stay motivated. One is that we’ve created non-traditional racing opportunities–from a time trial up Mt. Elden, to a 2-mile virtual race against a group in Boulder, to a small track meet in Utah, to an instraquad meet in Sedona–we’ve always had something on the schedule to look forward to. Creating certainty out of uncertainty is what I called it. The other thing was challenging the athletes in training with new workouts, we had never done before. That’s important anyway, to try new things in order to avoid staleness, but ever more so during this time.
LtW: What have you learned about your athletes and their motivation that has surprised or pleased you?
BR: I don’t know if it surprised me, but I was certainly pleased to see that our athletes have been mature about this situation from the beginning and they’ve been willing to train hard knowing that the ultimate question we’re each trying to answer is, “How good can I be?” and every time you head out the door you are getting closer to answering that question.
LtW: Who in the team has adapted the best to the changing environment?
BR: I think it would be difficult to select one person above the others who’s adapted best. I will say that Rory Linkletter, the youngest member of the team, really stepped up and became a leader during this time. His boundless energy and positivity was exactly what we needed and he brought it every single day.
LtW: What can other people learn from your athletes about motivation and ‘why we run’?
BR: To me, maybe getting away from the same old challenges can be a good thing. I know from my own experiences that some day, when you reflect on everything you’ve done as a runner, it likely won’t be a PB that stands out to you. Not from a feeling perspective anyway. Rather, if someone asks you to remember what it felt like during the race or accomplishment that you’re most proud of, you will remember winning the mind v. matter battle that we all go through when we’re running as hard as we can. You’ll remember having doubts, and then casting them aside and pushing through.
Perhaps a runner could learn from our athletes, and what we’ve done during this time, that that magical feeling may come when you least expect it. It may come in a very non-traditional challenge.
Take Stephanie Bruce, for example, who’s won multiple National Titles, has finished in the top ten at the Chicago, London, and New York City Marathon, and was sixth at the Olympic Trials – she said after running our team two-mile at hilly Buffalo Park at 7,000 feet, that it was the hardest thing she’d ever done. Think about that. It’s kind of crazy but physiologically it could actually be true. So don’t be afraid to tackle a new challenge and see if you can go deeper than ever before.
LtW: How do you see the future playing out as far as racing is concerned? And what will you continue to do / do differently in the future to help your athletes stay motivates and train effectively?
BR: I think racing at the professional level is going to come back gradually, albeit in very controlled environments. We’re already seeing that. However, while those opportunities continue to be few and far between, we will continue to create opportunities for ourselves. The combination of those traditional and non-traditional events will keep us focused and training as hard as ever.