Ben Blankenship chose to run Thursday's TC 1 Mile largely for sentimental reasons. The Stillwater native hasn't gotten many chances to race in his home state since his days with the Gophers, and he always wanted to run the road mile in downtown Minneapolis.
Still, Blankenship's mind will be squarely on business when he toes the start line near the Mill City Museum. On the heels of a breakout season that established him as one of the country's fastest men at 1,500 meters, his mission is to win a place on the U.S. team for the Rio Olympics. The TC 1 Mile is among a handful of races he will run leading up to the Olympic trials in July.
Since missing the 2012 trials because of an injury, Blankenship, 27, joined the prestigious Oregon Track Club Elite and set a world record in the distance medley relay. Thursday, he will compete for the U.S. 1 Mile road championship against 12 other men — including defending champ Garrett Heath of Winona — then say a quick goodbye to his family before racing back to Eugene, Ore., to continue preparing for the Olympic trials.
"It's awesome to be able to find time in my schedule to do a road mile,'' said Blankenship, who finished third in the 1,500 at the U.S. indoor championships in March. "To come back and perform in Minneapolis, I'm really excited about it.
"Even though I'm home, it's still a business trip. I still want to take it as seriously as I can and look at it as a steppingstone.''
The goal is to continue the forward momentum Blankenship generated during 2015. He was second in both the 1-mile and 2-mile runs at the U.S. indoor championships, won the international mile at the Prefontaine Classic, performed well on the Diamond League pro circuit and anchored the U.S. distance medley relay team to the world record at the IAAF/BTC World Relays last May.
The season included some disappointment, as Blankenship finished fourth at the U.S. outdoor championships — missing the world championships team by .02 of a second. But it restored his faith that he could compete on the national and world stages, an ambition launched during his time at the U.
Blankenship, who completed his eligibility in 2011, became the first Gophers runner to break the 4-minute mark in the mile and won two Big Ten titles in the event. He holds school records in the mile (3 minutes, 57.87 seconds), the 1,500 (3:39.77) and the 3,000 (7:52.52) and was the 2011 NCAA runner-up in the 3,000. A series of injuries hampered him early in his professional career, including hip surgery that cost him the 2012 season and a shot at the Olympic team.
"It was really disappointing,'' said Blankenship, a two-time Class 2A champ in the 1,600 during his prep career at Stillwater. "I was coming off a really good year in 2011. I thought I had potential to maybe make the Olympic team if all the cards fell correctly. But I never got the opportunity to run, and that was tough.
"But I knew I wanted to see what I could do once I healed up and started running again. Once I found a little success, I thought, 'I have to keep going.'''
Though he just set a personal best in the 3,000 last week in Tokyo, Blankenship is focusing on the 1,500 this season. After the TC 1 Mile, he will return to Eugene, where he trains with a group that also includes former Gophers Hassan Mead and Harun Abda.
He hopes that taking care of business in his native state will set him up for a major move forward in his adopted home. Later this month, Blankenship will face a top international field in the Bowerman Mile at Eugene's Hayward Field — the same place where he will run in the Olympic trials.
"Last year was a good steppingstone for me, to really put myself back on the map as a competitive athlete here in the States and on a global level,'' he said. "This is the future I want to have in the sport, to be competitive whether it's a road mile here or a Diamond League meet in London. That's what I'm always striving for.''