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Going For Jackpot: Interview With Ben Bruce

The 32-year-old is aiming for his fifth Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series victory of 2014 on Sunday night at Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas.

The 32-year-old is aiming for his fifth Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series victory of 2014 on Sunday night at Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas. 

Prior to February of this year, Ben Bruce had never raced a marathon. Now, nine months later, the 32-year-old from Flagstaff, Ariz., has four under his belt with a fifth one looming on Sunday night at Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas.

Oh, and he hasn’t lost a single one of them yet.

Bruce, an adidas-sponsored athlete and member of the Northern Arizona Elite training group, has posted four Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series victories in 2014, breaking the tape at Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans in February (2:21:56), the Suja Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon in June (2:23:50), the Rock ‘n’ Roll Oasis Montreal Marathon on Sept. 28 (2:22:38) and, most recently, the Rungevity Rock ‘n’ Roll St. Louis Marathon on Oct. 19 (2:27:32).

On Sunday night, he’ll try to make it five wins in five tries to close out a busy year that included joining a new training group and becoming a parent for the first time along with his wife, professional marathoner Stephanie [Rothstein] Bruce. We caught up with Bruce—a steeplechaser by trade—earlier this week to talk about what a fifth marathon win this year would mean to him, what he’s learned in transitioning to longer distances and to find out where his eyes are set heading toward the 2016 Olympic year.

Let’s start with Las Vegas. You’re going for your fifth Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series victory on Sunday night. What would it mean for you to be able to pull that off?

You know, I didn’t start off the year planning to run a ton of Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons but I did New Orleans to just get my nose in the marathon. I kind of put it off for a long time. I did San Diego because it’s my hometown and I wanted to win in front of the home crowd. And then in Montreal I put a good training cycle toward it, but unfortunately we had some pretty bad travel and weather there. So once I had those three under my belt, I was like, “Well, what can I do the rest of the year?” My other option was to go to the road circuit and run some shorter stuff but I knew going into next year’s track season that I wanted to build a big base this fall, so I thought, “Why don’t I just build a big base, put in a couple marathons that are probably going to be slightly off my best times I would hope, but it’s still a marathon so it’s a still a very big strength builder.” So once I had planted the seed by winning a couple [marathons] early in the year, my coach Ben Rosario and I kind of thought that five would be a fun number to set it to, something that people could appreciate. And even though I haven’t run any of them super fast, five of them within that range is no easy task in a year when I’ve also been running a ton of other distances along the way.

Looking at Sunday’s race, with it having such a late start time (Ed. note: The marathon starts at 4:30 PM), what will you do all day and how will you handle your nutrition?

It’s definitely a very different setup from the traditional morning start. I’ve run track races where you sit around all day and sometimes you waste a day of your life, but track is definitely fast and furious so it’s OK if the adrenaline kind of builds throughout the day. But with it being a marathon late in the day, I think I’ll just try to be bored and stay calm. It will be interesting running up and down The Strip as it gets dark. Nutrition is kind of a factor because for me, and most people, you’re just kind of used to getting up and having a bowl of cereal and some coffee and that’s all you really need to do because the race is in a couple hours. So from a nutritional standpoint, I will probably wait till have the afternoon to have caffeine and I’ll stick to foods that are very basic and I know sit well. For a marathon you need to be fueled so I can’t sit around and not eat all day. I’m not going to go and get pepperjack cheese and jalapeños on a burger but I’m probably going to eat something like rice with some chicken or a sandwich.

Touching on those other distances you mentioned earlier, you’ve done a little bit of track and some shorter road races from 5K to half marathon this year. For you, New Orleans in February was your first marathon and now you’ve got four of them under your belt. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in moving up to the longer distance?

Everyone says it, but there’s a lot of patience in marathons. And I kind of knew that, that the longer the race the more you have to have a plan and the more you have to be willing to stick to it. You have to really compromise sometimes. When I was fresh out of college, the first half marathon I did, I was like, “I can run five-minute pace” and every mile I looked at my watch and if it was 5:03, I’d be like, “Am I running too slow?” and mentally that’s a challenge. By the time I got to 10 miles I was fried and I ran terrible. And I think I had some of that in New Orleans. I had my time I was looking for to just get my feet wet in the event and I was sticking to that even though the weather was really bad and it was super humid. So I’ve just learned with each one that it’s hard not to look at other people’s times, but every course and every day for the marathon provides a different task that you have to run the distance itself rather than stick to one set plan. So I guess patience would be the big thing I’ve learned with the marathon.

You touched on the fact that these marathons you’ve run this year haven’t been as fast as you think you can go for the distance, but it’s still a marathon and you’re still putting in a solid effort. How has your recovery been from these marathons and what are some of the things you’ve done in between races to bounce back and get your legs under you again?

Well, the first one at New Orleans, I had a pretty big block of training going into the Houston Half Marathon [in January] where I ran 1:02, and that was a pretty big part of that training cycle, so the plan going into New Orleans was to get my feet wet. So after that race I took a full 10 days off, went to San Diego, went to the RunningUSA conference and just sort of eased back into the training. I think with each marathon I’ve had different things after it. In San Diego, my son was born two weeks after that race and then I also decided to get back on the track and run the USA Championships in the steeplechase. And that probably wasn’t the most ideal recovery—and I kind of got away with it there—but I was trying to challenge my body and see what I could do coming off running a marathon. But I’ve always made sure to respect the distance, even if it’s not an all-out sort of effort, it’s still 26 miles and it’s still going to beat up the legs. Like, St. Louis was a good example. I ran 2:27 on a very, very hilly course, so I took about four or five days of not running or just running super mellow [afterward]. I would just say don’t be afraid to take some days off. After each one, I would at least take the next day, or two days, or three days off. There’s been a lot of studies lately showing active recovery is good, so anything that gets the blood flowing but doesn’t necessarily pound the legs, stuff like that is great. And also appreciating and enjoying the effort because I think that helps the recovery by not looking to the next thing so quickly. Enjoy that you had a good race and if you didn’t have a good race, enjoy the lead up to it and take some time to pat yourself on the back and relax and not worry too much about sticking to a strict schedule.

And that’s a good place to go next: Mentally, having run four marathons this year and heading into your fifth this Sunday, does it get any more difficult to get excited for each one or has it been easier because you’ve been successful, you’re trying new things and you know you’re building a big base that will serve you well come next year?

I think each one has given me a little something to get excited about. New Orleans was the first one, San Diego is my hometown, Montreal didn’t go very well because of outside circumstances but I still won and St. Louis I knew that was the link to winning the five, so going into Vegas the excitement is to try and win the fifth one but there’s also a little bit of the finish line—and not so much just the finish line of that race, but because I’ve raced so much this year, it would be icing on the cake if I can win that fifth one and go into taking a couple weeks break knowing that I had a very different year. I became a father, I experimented with the marathon, I tried lots of different things and I think that’s exciting for me as a whole because I get a lot of excitement from running by doing new things. And this year running a bunch of marathons was my new thing and I learned a lot from it. I haven’t run a real fast one yet but I definitely learned a lot about the distance so that gets me excited for running it at the Olympic Trials in L.A. It could be a disaster but at least I’ve covered the distance plenty of times now and I can go into training for that when the time comes knowing, “Hey I’m just going to go out and see if I can run really fast” and at least knowing I can run the distance with the only mystery being, “How fast can I run it?”

Let’s look ahead to L.A. two years from now. The Olympic Trials Marathon is in February 2016 and the track trials are a few months later. Have you and [coach] Ben [Rosario] talked about how things will play out over the next two years? Are you going all-in on the marathon or do you still have burning desire to try and make the team in the steeplechase?

The steeplechase has always been my favorite event. I definitely respect times in the marathon and I know that at the trials in the marathon lots of stuff happens, and if you can stand on the line with a chance to make team, that’s great. Because when it comes down to it, there’s only a small handful of people that can actually stand on the Olympic Trials Marathon start line with a chance. That’s the reality of the sport. But I also look at the steeplechase and I was the alternate last time around so there’s definitely something there. I know as you age that track becomes harder to run but I also feel part of the steeplechase is that you can run it in so many different ways. You can be a great finisher or you can finish from three laps out and make it a very strong man’s race. So, from a numbers standpoint, I think my chance of making it in the steeplechase is better than the marathon, but I also kind of like that I can run a lot of different distances, so that gives me a few more chances. So to answer your initial question, what Ben [Rosario] and I have talked about in training is to get back to the track next year, try and make the world team in the steeplechase, see how that goes and pending on whether I’ve made the world team or not, that will determine the summer and fall plans. Then pretty much either way with the [marathon] trials being in February, I’ll put in a big marathon cycle and I’ll probably just run a really reckless race there. I’ll go out with the front and see if I can put myself in a position to make the team and if it falls apart, it falls apart and no worries, I’ll dust it off, take a little break and I’ll still have plenty of time to get ready for the track trials. I’m in an interesting situation because not many guys are doing the steeple and the marathon. There’s some that will come back for the 10K but that’s just me.

Last question. This has been a year of changes for you on a few different levels. Aside from experimenting with a new event, you and Steph [Rothstein Bruce] joined the Northern Arizona Elite team after going solo for a little while. Then, your son Riley was born this summer. So, two-part question, really: 1. How do you and Steph, as full-time professional runners and new parents, balance those two things? and 2. What has it been like for the two of you to be a part of a team again after having done your own thing for a bit?

When Steph was pregnant, I did what I had to do to help take care of her if she didn’t feel good or needed something, but she also understood me being the only runner in the household and with racing being our primary income, that was kind of the sacrifice she made. I couldn’t have the baby, so she had the baby and now post-baby a really big part of what I’m trying do is to do what I can to help her out day to day to get back into training. There’s always give and take. It’s a matter of whose race is coming up, whose workout is more important and vice versa. Now that Steph is getting into more serious training, if she’s got a big workout, then I’m probably going to take the night shift. We switch off. That’s kind of a fun balance. I know the sacrifices she made to have the baby and the break she had to take from running, so I’m OK with taking the back seat so she can do what she needs to get done with training or rehab exercises. And with the group, Steph and I are the oldest in the group, so we’re around younger, hungry people, so that keeps you hungry yourself. I’ve been running professionally now for over a decade and it’s still exciting for me. If it weren’t exciting I don’t think I’d still be doing it, but it is good to be around young, naive people sometimes who are working toward a goal they haven’t even come close to yet but they just believe they can do it. And I saw that big time with Matt Llano this year when he ran 1:01 at the U.S. half-marathon championships and he was doing these workouts up here in Flagstaff and part of me was almost like, “Man, he’s training too hard. We’re at altitude and he’s running these crazy times.” But he just wanted it. And it kind of reminded me that you can put science into training but sometimes you also have to be young, stupid and train hard along with a good coach and sometimes that’s the best recipe for success. So I think the whole group really feeds off of each other with young and old kind of coming together you have some wisdom with naiveté and I think it really meshes well.