Sports

Making His Marathon Debut, With a Lot of Help From New Friends

HANOVER, N.H. — Ben True spent years training alone. A solitary figure on the roads and trails near his home here in Hanover, he logged long miles in pursuit of distance-running glory. It was not that he wanted to be doing everything by himself, without the help of a team. But New Hampshire — far from the running meccas of Boulder, Colo., or Flagstaff, Ariz. — is home for him.

“Being here makes me happy,” he said on a recent weekend afternoon. “I’m in my comfort zone. But would I have loved to have other people come train with me? Definitely.”

In recent months, ahead of his appearance in the New York City Marathon on Sunday, True decided to mix things up. After spreading word among friends that he would be willing to go so far as to pay someone to relocate and train with him, True, 35, now has two full-time running buddies — Dan Curts and Fred Huxham, both 25 — who have used True to feed their own ambitions in the sport.

And he has organized a weekly long run: the Tour de Woodstock, just down the road in Vermont. True posts the time and location on Strava, an online exercise-tracking tool, and anyone is welcome to join. Consider it the running equivalent of Kevin Durant advertising his pickup basketball games on Twitter. True’s weekend warriors are free to break off and do shorter, slower circuits. Everyone meets for coffee and waffles afterward.

“It’s a social thing,” Huxham said. “But if you’re going a long way with Ben, you’ve got to be ready to pick up the pace.”

With a small community behind him, True is set for his marathon debut, nearly five months after he narrowly missed an Olympic berth in the 10,000 meters when he finished fourth at the United States trials. And while he has guarded against putting too much pressure on himself, he considers New York something of a test. A test, he said, to see whether he is “cut out for the marathon.” And a test to determine whether his future in the sport is financially viable.

“I’d love to keep racing,” he said. “The way that my body has felt for the marathon build has made me think I can do this for a lot longer.”

True with his training partners Dan Curts and Fred Huxham in Norwich, Vt.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

True, who grew up in Maine and graduated from Dartmouth, has history with New York. In 2015, he became the first American man to win a 5,000-meter Diamond League race, with a victory at the Adidas Grand Prix on Randalls Island. In 2018, he won the New York City Half Marathon in his debut at the distance.

He chose to make his marathon debut in New York because of his strong relationship with New York Road Runners, which organizes the marathon, and his love of pure competition. Unlike several other major marathons, New York does not employ pacesetters. And on a notoriously challenging course, elite runners chase one another rather than the clock.

On Sunday, he will face a loaded field including the likes of Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, a four-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion. True has never raced with a wristwatch, he said, but he plans to wear one for the marathon to protect himself from himself. He has some familiarity with the course, and knows how runners can surge at various points of the race, like Mile 16 off the Queensboro Bridge.

“I’m somebody who thrives on latching onto somebody and never letting go,” True said. “But if Bekele drops a 4:30 mile coming off the bridge, I probably shouldn’t try to match him.”

True would like to exercise patience, a component of success that has occasionally been in short supply for him. He thought back to 2019, when he crammed his schedule full of races and competed in the 5,000 meters at the world championships with an Achilles’ tendon injury. He should have taken time off, he said, but he was worried about losing his health insurance if his world ranking dipped.

“I was just in so much pain,” he said, “and it really made me think that I either had to step away or make some big changes. Luckily, Dan showed up.”

True had been circulating an unconventional offer in the high-end running community: He would pay someone $20,000 to run with him. He went a few years without any takers.

“I’m not sure if people thought I was serious,” he said.

Curts, who ran at Iowa State, was back home in Maine when he learned from mutual friends that True was in the market for a training companion. He moved to New Hampshire last fall, then recruited Huxham, who was a second-team all-American at the University of Washington, to join them a couple of months ago.

“I have no idea how he ran alone for so long,” Curts said. “There’s a reason nobody at his level on the planet does that.”

On weekends, the three are joined by a motley crew of men and women — medical students and engineers, former cyclists and soccer players — on the roads near Woodstock. True said the experience as a whole had been energizing.

“I don’t doubt that if I’d had a training partner through my career, I would’ve run faster,” True said.

Curts, middle, and Huxham, right, have used True, left, to feed their own ambitions in the sport.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

At the same time, he has balanced training with fatherhood — he and his wife, Sarah True, an Olympic triathlete, have a 3-month-old son, Haakon — while coping with some of the harder realities of his profession. At the end of last year, Saucony chose not to renew his sponsorship deal after he had spent nearly 10 years with the company.

“I am not a social media influencer,” said True, who has an Instagram account that mostly collects dust. “I do not like using it.”

In New York, True said he would be wearing “old” Saucony sneakers and a blank singlet as an unsponsored athlete.

True tends to frame his observations about marathon training as questions, which makes sense given his relative inexperience. He does not know what to expect. “Hopefully I’m ready?” he asked.

Yet he has found marathon training to be more forgiving than the work he did to prepare for 5,000- and 10,000-meter races on the track: He does more mileage now, but less of the high-end speed work that often led to injuries. The result is that he feels surprisingly spry, which has made him wonder whether he is doing it right.

“Everyone always complains about how exhausted they are during marathon training,” he said, “and I haven’t really experienced that?”

True understands, for example, that the course has its share of inclines, and he has done the bulk of his training on a quiet road that features hilly terrain. “So I’m hoping that helps me out?” he asked.

Because True has not had much income this year, his $20,000 payment to Curts ended up being a one-time thing, but he has been coaching Curts and Huxham pro bono, in addition to running alongside them.

The experience has been a thrill for Curts, who taped an autographed photograph of True to the front of his mileage log when he was a high school freshman.

Huxham, who placed second at the national 10-kilometer road racing championships in July, has used True to gauge his own improvement. The bar, Huxham said, is high.

He cited a recent 12-kilometer time trial that True ran on his own. Afterward, True looked as if he had gone for a brisk walk. Huxham checked True’s splits. “He had come within 10 seconds of the national record,” Huxham said.

There have been long periods, True said, when running feels like a job to him, when the injuries seem unavoidable and the pain is real, and he asks himself: “Why am I doing this?”

Now is not one of those times, he said. He heads out the door with his friends feeling healthy and free, and runs toward something beautiful, a place he had help finding.

“There’s nothing better,” he said.

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