Legendary track coach’s unwavering support has Canada’s Flanagan on path to 2024 Olympics
Ben Flanagan remembers legendary track coach Ron Warhurst being a keen observer at his college training sessions, offering encouragement and support during the early years of his retirement from the University of Michigan.
“I watched him run at a cross-country meet. He was five-foot-six, 125 [pounds] soaking wet,” Warhurst recalled in a phone interview with CBC Sports. “I saw how tough he was. Cross-country’s grueling and he handled it well.
“Then he went to the track and I watched him run the last three laps at the 2018 NCAA championships in the 10,000 [metres] and he stayed with the leader. The [other] guy got away but [Flanagan] never broke or fell off the back end. Benny had the presence to sprint the last 100 and beat that kid. I said, ‘that kid’s got a lot of balls.’”
The “kid” from Kitchener, Ont., who hadn’t stood out much until then, has accomplished plenty since. On Saturday, the 28-year-old set his second Canadian record in six months, reaching the finish of the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) 5k in 13 minutes 26 seconds for second place — nine seconds ahead of Charles Philibert-Thiboutot’s winning time and national mark from last year’s road race.
The 79-year-old Warhurst, who was unable to watch the race following knee replacement surgery last week, is “tremendously encouraged” by the performance as Flanagan pursues a spot with the Canadian Olympic team for Paris next summer after an unsuccessful attempt in 2021.
“You see the people that have run [the B.A.A. 5K] and the career success they had. Some impressive people that didn’t run 13:26,” said Warhurst, referring to U.S. 50K record holder Josh Cox and 2016 Olympic 5,000-metre bronze medallist Hagos Gebrhiwet of Ethiopia.
In late January, Flanagan ran a personal-best 13:11.12 in the indoor 5,000 in Boston, and Warhurst was quick to point out the measurable difference between an indoor track setup and road race.
“[The B.A.A. 5K] course is up-and-down, has some hills in it and there’s no rhythm to it,” he said. “The record is 13:20 and [American] Ben True set it [in 2017]. Three weeks after that, Ben ran 13:02 [on the track in the 5,000]. We can make some correlations, maybe. We’ll find out in three weeks.”
On May 6, Flanagan is scheduled to race the 5,000 at Track Fest, a World Athletics Continental Tour Silver meet in Walnut, Calif., where he’ll attempt to run under the 13:07 automatic qualifying standard for the Aug. 19-27 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
The 13:11 effort at Boston University “is validation I’m making progress,” Flanagan said.
It’s a good personality fit. He listens to my thoughts, feelings and is unconditionally supportive.— Canadian runner Ben Flanagan on his coach, Ron Warhurst
He added the process of reaching a new level began Jan. 1, 2022 after signing with Swiss shoe company On, one day after the expiration of his contract with Charlottesville, Va.-based Reebok Boston Track Club.
“It’s just a good personality fit,” Flanagan told CBC Sports last week of being a member of Warhurst’s Very Nice Track Club in Ann Arbor, Mich., since early last year. “Ronnie’s really big on communication and I’m a big talker, so we can hash it out.
“He listens to my thoughts, feelings and is unconditionally supportive. The way things are going now I want to be working with Ronnie for my whole career.”
After he completed the 2022 Houston Half Marathon in 1:01:38 while recovering from broken toe, Flanagan got to work with his new coach in mid-March. Warhurst shortened the runner’s stride, got him on his toes and moving his arms differently to improve his quickness.
They also focused on much-needed speed training. Warhurst’s appreciation for its importance would bode well for Flanagan, given his skill set.
“Being a strength-based athlete,” began Flanagan, “I’ve had a lot of coaches that have tried to maximize that side of my training and I’ve neglected the speed side, which I think is an area where I [see] improvement once I focus on it.”
Flanagan realized the gains he had made when he went 13:38 in Moncton, N.B., on Sept. 11, the fastest-ever 5k run on Canadian soil, and 2:21.46 over 1,000 metres in Ann Arbor to open his 2023 indoor season in early January.
“That’s the type of leg speed I’ve never dreamt of having. I was hoping to run 2:27,” said Flanagan, who lowered the Canadian mark in the half marathon to 1:01 last October in Valencia, only to watch Cam Levins go 1:00:18 two months ago. “I couldn’t wait to dabble in the 5k and 10k where we combined the speed and strength. And [the 13:11 at BU] was the race for that.
“After Valencia, we knew the goal coming into this year was qualifying for world championships on the track. We could focus on sharpening that training. Once we started, we caught fire. With some momentum now, I’m hoping to run faster than 13:11.
“I feel very confident on the track to make the Canadian team for Budapest in the 5k,” Flanagan said. “If I do that, my plan is to try to do the same for Paris.”
Added Warhurst: “I think he’s going to make the Olympic team.”