Ben Stern is a former resident of Bethesda, Maryland and a former athlete from Georgetown Day School. He was the last high schooler from Maryland to qualify for the Footlocker national championship race back in 2001. He went on to compete in the Ivy League for Princeton University, and now as a graduate student finds himself running cross country for the legendary Oregon Ducks. Interviewer Dave Warren asks Stern about his journey through high school and college, what it is like running with some of the best coaches and athletes in the country, and what it's like hanging out with all of his big-name teammates.
MoCoRunning: Thanks for doing this interview, Ben.
Stern: It's my pleasure.
MoCoRunning: My first question has to be how did you land a gig running out in Eugene? It ranks up there with Boulder and Eldoret.
Stern: Well last year I realized I would have some eligibility left when I graduated so I started thinking about where I would like to use it. Oregon was at the top of that list so I called up the assistant coach Andy Powell and pretty soon it was a done deal. And yes, Eugene certainly ranks with the best running cities in the world.
MoCoRunning: Your team is blessed with one of the greatest recruiting classes ever with Acosta, Harbor, Klotz, both Mercados. You have Galen Rupp who has some great potential and a lot of pressure. Both Trujillos, and a stud transfer Shadrock Kiptoo-Biwott who is already an all American. What is it like training with and racing with these people who gather headlines on a daily basis?
Stern: It's an honor and a privilege. In addition to being fantastic runners these guys are also a great group to hang around. I look forward to practice everyday because I know it's gonna be a pretty fun time. Training and racing with these guys also forces me to be aggressive and commit to doing my best. You can't ever feel sorry for yourself around this group or you will get dropped.
MoCoRunning: Do you ever feel like an old man being a grad student and having all these puppy dogs on your team?
Stern: Ha ha people ask me that all the time. But no, it almost never occurs to me. But now that I think about it I was in college when some of these guys were in middle school.
MoCoRunning: Have you experienced AJ's Army? For those that don't know, AJ Acosta, one of the great preps last year, has a legion of fans that follow him to all of his races.
Stern: Yup, and I'm a card carrying member of the AJ nation. That guy's got charisma coming out the ass. Women want him and men want to be him. Hell, even the letsrun.com guys endorse him and those guys hate on nearly everything.
MoCoRunning: Is Galen Rupp the next great American distance runner?
Stern: Not only that, he might also be America's next great pastry chef.
MoCoRunning: What does Rupp bake that makes you say that?
Stern: Ha ha sorry but first rule of Rupp pastries is you don't talk about Rupp pastries.
MoCoRunning: The Ducks have been climbing the polls all season long. Where do you feel your team is now, and what kind of goals has the team set for the championships ahead?
Stern: The team is in a good place right now. Everyone is in good spirits and preparations are going well. The first goal we have for the championship portion of the season is to have a strong showing at the PAC 10's. What that means for us is how well we execute the plan that Vin gives us. If we do a good job of that then we'll have had a good meet and the rest will work itself out.
MoCoRunning: I am a big fan of tradition and history. When you put that jersey on and step to the line, do you feel a bit of pressure to live up to ghosts of the past like Chapa, Centro, Salazar, Pre, and the other 82 all - Americans? Do the guys on your team talk about the 100 year history of the program?
Stern: Definitely. It's hard not to be aware of the history of this place when you practice everyday at Hayward field, meet in the Bowerman building and run on Pre's trail. Everyone seems to really embrace that tradition so when you put on the jersey you want to do your best for both your current teammates and for the great ducks of the past. I, for one, do get chills when I put the jersey on.
MoCoRunning: How does it feel to be able to contribute on this team?
Stern: It feels great and really vindicates my decision to come out here. As a fifth year senior, if I wasn't able to help the team this season then I wouldn't be having a real tangible effect on the team. I'm sure I add some interesting things to practice time but the reality is that I feel more like a contributing member of the team training with the top guys, pushing them to get better and hopefully being a scorer in the remaining meets.
MoCoRunning: Whenever you have great runners, you're bound to find some great coaches. Oregon had Hayward, Bowerman, and Dellinger, now you have Lananna. Briefly describe for the fans what its like to work with, run for and learn from one of the best coaches maybe in the world.
Stern: The experience is everything I'd hoped it would be and more. Lananna has created an environment here where everyone really strives for excellence. Honestly, it's a hard thing to describe. His coaching and leadership have instilled some kind of innate confidence in everyone who's around the program. And that kind of positive attitude becomes contagious. Which is when great things start to happen.
MoCoRunning: You started off in our backyard at Georgetown Day, and went off to Princeton, now at Oregon. You had a huge showing at Foot Locker when you were a bit younger and you had great success on the east coast. How would you define your trip and what advice would give to youngsters with similar plans of wanting to shine at foot locker, college or even post grad?
Stern: It's been an incredible journey and one that I would never have imagined when I was younger. Every step of the way... HS, college, post grad... I've been in a situation that I've really enjoyed.
After all this time I don't really know what advice I could give to a younger version of myself or any current young runners, but I do know that every step of the way you have to set a goal and do whatever it takes to be satisfied that you've done your best. For example, in HS my goal was to make footlocker. So to accomplish that I felt it was necessary to prove to myself how badly I wanted to make it. So I started running every morning before school at 6AM as more of a display of dedication than smart training. I don't think I missed a day for nearly 2 years and that made me a mentally stronger runner. Even if I hadn't made it to footlocker, I would have proven to myself that I really did all I could.
MoCoRunning: You had an injury during a track season at Princeton forcing you out for the year. Hopefully if the NCAA grants you another season, what kind of personal goals will you have when you step onto the track in good health?
Stern: My personal records are all getting a bit old now so I think I can take some large chunks of time off of them. I'd like to run under 14 minutes for 5k and under 3:45 for 1500. And hopefully if training continues to go well I can get significantly under both of those times.
MoCoRunning: What did you study at Princeton, and what are you studying now, post grad at Oregon?
Stern: At Princeton I majored in European history. Now I'm in a one year certificate program which will allow me to jump into the business school next year.
MoCoRunning: What are your plans for the future?
Stern: Well it will take at least another 2 years to get my MBA so until then I'm here in Eugene. After that I don't really have much of an idea. Hopefully between now and then some great opportunity will present itself.
MoCoRunning: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Stern: I like doing karaoke and going mini golfing. But most of my free time is spent hanging with guys on the team not doing much of anything. And of course there is also thefacebook, but that's more of an addiction really and not something that I necessarily enjoy.
MoCoRunning: What is your best Karaoke song?
Stern: Humm...best song. Well you know it's really more fun if you find songs that you kinda suck at which is never a problem for me.
MoCoRunning: Have you done a duet with Nicole Blood or Liisa Heinonen, and if you haven't, you're smart enough to plan one for the future, right?
Stern: Ha ha well I think there are couple of guys out there who would have a bit of an issue with that. But yes I'm in full agreement with you.