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Ben Flanagan looks ahead to 2021, Tokyo Olympics

After a great debut half-marathon, the former 10,000m NCAA champ is shifting his focus back to the track ahead of Tokyo 2021

Photo by: Tracy Ann Roeser

This year has been strange and unfocused for everyone, and runners around the world have struggled to find chances to race since March. Many pros are in the same boat, but Canada’s Ben Flanagan made the most of a bad situation and viewed his empty race schedule as an opportunity to try something new. He began working toward his first half-marathon, which turned out to be a good decision, as he won the race — a small but competitive event in South Carolina — in 1:03:19. This is the 10th-fastest time ever run by a Canadian, and while Flanagan says he believes he has the ability to thrive on the roads, he’ll stick to the track for now as his main focus is to qualify for next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

Flanagan and American Matt McClintock racing the Mortgage Network Half-Marathon in Hardeeville, S.C. Photo: Franklin Keathley

A quick debut 

Flanagan, who is currently based out of Charlottesville, Va., where he trains with the Reebok Boston Track Club, says he was confident going into his first half-marathon, but he was still intimidated by the distance, which is more than double his preferred 10K. “I reached out to some teammates who have more experience in the half,” he says. “I really tried to incorporate their advice into my race plan.” In the end, his strategy was quite simple: “I wanted to do as little as possible for as long as I could. Just sit back and utilize the group energy.” 

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This plan worked out well, and even when eventual third-place finisher Athans Kioko took off and ran away from the leaders early on in the race, Flanagan didn’t panic. He says he turned to Matt McClintock, who went on to finish second on the day, and asked what they should do. “He has a lot of experience in the half, so I asked him, ‘You gonna go after him?’ He said we could get him later, and he ended up being right.” 

Ben Flanagan
Flanagan during his college days at the University of Michigan. Photo: Kyle Terwillegar/Michigan Athletics.

In the latter stages of the race, with about 7K to go, Flanagan and McClintock broke away from the chase group and started to run down Kioko on their own. Not long after, Flanagan dropped McClintock, and with around 3K left in the race, he caught and passed Kioko. “With one mile to go, I was thinking, ‘OK, I want to finish as hard as I can,'” Flanagan says. At this point, it was his race to lose, and he says the toll of the close to 20K of running had finally caught up with him. He pushed through this pain and fatigue, though, and went on to take the win. 

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Building to Tokyo 

Moving forward, Flanagan doesn’t have many plans. He’ll be in Arizona for The Marathon Project on December 20, but to pace the elite men for half of the run instead of racing. Other than that, he says he doesn’t have specific races lined up in the coming months.

“I’m eyeing certain events,” he says, “but next year is a question mark. This was a great intro to longer distances, and I love competing on the roads, but my focus now is to qualify for the Olympics in the 5,000m and 10,000m.” Flanagan has had tremendous success on the track (including a win in the 10,000m at the 2018 NCAA Championships), and making the Canadian Olympic team will only add to his already stellar resume. 

Flanagan at ACXC nationals 2018. Photo: Maxine Gravina

His side adventure into the half-marathon has him excited to move up to the full marathon, Flanagan says, but he isn’t going to rush into it. “I would love to run the marathon,” he says. “Just at the right time. Historically, it can be challenging to move up and back down. I want to take care of all the business I can on the track so when I move up I can solely focus on being the best marathoner I can be.” 

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Flanagan says he is “so attracted” to road racing, which he adds is booming in Canada right now, and he says he can’t wait to join that scene one day. “I’ve always felt comfortable on the roads,” he says. “I do think the half-marathon and marathon could become my best distances. I think I could reach my full potential as a runner in those races.” Based on Flanagan’s results from the track, where he has already excelled, if that’s accurate and his true potential lies on the roads, then the Canadian running scene better get ready for him. Because whenever Flanagan does decide to make that jump up to the marathon, he could run some all-time great results. 

Flanagan will perform pacing duties at The Marathon Project in Chandler, Ariz. on December 20.