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Junior cross country runner Graham Blanks took home the individual national title at the 2023 NCAA Division I Cross Country National Championship race last Saturday, capping off an undefeated season. In addition to being the first male runner from the Ivy League to ever win the race, he is also the first Massachusetts collegiate runner to win the race in its history.
The race began with a frantic rush for position, as the 255 athletes on the starting line all tried to navigate the downhill start to the 10 km course. The front pack began developing after over three kilometers had elapsed, with a group of 12 runners separating from the field at the halfway point in the race.
Blanks remained tucked behind the frontrunners, not making himself visible until three kilometers to go, when he marked a surge by Denis Kipngetich and Brian Masau from Oklahoma State.
“I didn’t want to leave the gap-bridging up to luck,” said Blanks in a written statement when asked about his move.
Early on in the 2022 championship race, a group of three runners broke off unmarked from the pack, not to be caught before the finish line. Blanks finished sixth.
“Losing the NAU pair and Hicks off the front last year definitely taught me this lesson, as well as the rest of the field,” Blanks reflected.
While most of the 12-man pack retained contact after a few hundred meters, the attack strung out the group and quickly whittled the championship contenders down to a four-man group through eight kilometers.
New Mexico first-year Habtom Samuel initiated another surge with 1300 meters to go, and this time only Blanks was able to follow. Locked onto Samuel’s shoulder, Blanks waited until 800 meters to go before making his decisive move, gapping Samuel and pushing for the finish line. He didn’t look back.
“I run with a lot of fear,” Blanks said. “Looking back may show weakness to my competitors so once I take my chance, it's all gas to the finish.”
“Habtom did a fantastic job of keeping the gap between him and myself small,” Blanks added. “If I hadn't run with such fear of being caught, and became complacent with my small lead, I'm sure Habtom would've been able to close that small gap.”
Blanks crossed the finish line three seconds ahead of Samuel, finishing the course in a time of 28:37.7.
Blanks was far from an underdog heading into Saturday’s race. Just over a month earlier, he broke the tape at the Nuttycombe Invitational in Wisconsin, beating the top national contenders in the process.
“The win at Nuttycombe definitely played an integral role in developing even more confidence this season,” Blanks commented. However, his confidence was already strong to begin with. “I've always had an unwavering confidence in myself and my coach's training which I believe has allowed me to perform well on these big stages.”
Blanks was quick to look ahead to future competitions and races. “I hope to win some more NCAA titles the rest of my time at Harvard, and with the Olympics this year, give my best shot at making the US team,” he said.
As the first male athlete from the Ivy League to take home the individual title, Blanks remarked on the significance of his win in the context of the broader Harvard running program. “I remember thinking at one point during my recruiting process that winning an NCAA title at a school like Harvard would be far-fetched,” he said.
However, Blanks said that his mind was changed by Kieren Tuntivate ‘20, who was an All-American cross-country runner in 2019. Tuntivate now runs professionally for the Bowerman Track Club.
“I hope that, at an advantage to our program and all other Ivy League schools, I'll have a similar impact to recruits that Kieran had on me,” said Blanks. “It's exciting to show that you can compete –– and win –– at the highest level while also attending a school that's historically academically rigorous.”
Blanks, who studies Economics and Philosophy, consciously incorporates his academics into his athletic life.
“A couple days before my race, Gary Geisler, our team-sports-masseuse (more importantly, a friend and mentor to all), shared a quote with me that I believe nails the essence of distance racing,” Blanks said. “It's an excerpt from Franz Kafka's, ‘The Trial…’ ‘From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.’”
On Saturday, underneath the midmorning Virginia sun, Blanks’ race seemed to manifest those exact words from the German existentialist. While he was marking surges, bridging gaps, or pushing for glory, Blanks never once looked back
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