Moonshot: NASA Tech Aims For Olympics

Ben Heck has anything but your run-of-mill day job: He works at NASA to support the mission of putting a human on Mars. But his personal “moon goal” is qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the marathon.

To reach for that goal, he brackets his nine-hour workdays with a training regimen worthy of the aspiring astronauts whose work he supports. During peak training, Ben runs between 100 and 110 miles a week. When I caught up with him long enough for an interview, he was quick to point out that his approach isn’t exactly rocket science.

Frank Shorter

Frank Shorter

“[Modern elite runners] have personal nutritionists, a team of physical therapists, and massive facilities to work in,” he explained. “They’re all on some sort of supplement to reduce recovery time and run for organizations more concerned about making money than the sport itself.

“I can’t relate to that. I see myself in the runners from the ‘70s who would log 100 to 120 miles a week while working full time jobs and supporting a family. Frank Shorter won the ’72 Olympic Marathon while he was a law student. To me, these men and women showed more commitment and passion than the runners on the field today.”

Similar to his role models, Ben holds a full-time job as an industrial hygienist technician in NASA’s occupational health and safety department. Working alongside research scientists and other NASA employees, it’s Ben’s job to monitor chemical exposure, noise and other hazards in order to keep Mars explorers safe and healthy while they train for and ultimately conduct their mission.

That means stretching out his days on the front end and back end.

“I’ll wake up anywhere between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. to get my first longer run or workout in,” he said. “Then after work I’ll get in my easier second run of between 6 and 8 miles. Weekly workouts consist of some type of tempo or threshold, a speed workout, and a long run – between 20 and 24 miles when I’m in full form.”

moon shotAs for terrain, Ben tries to stay on soft surfaces, like dirt trails, for most of his easy runs. For workouts, he trains on an asphalt bike path or road since that’s typical of race terrain. The rest of the running week is general conditioning and easy days, depending on how his body feels. Ben usually takes just two recovery run days to bounce back from some of his long, more vigorous workouts, and sometimes all he needs is one day.

What’s even more fascinating for someone with such lofty goals is that his athletic background doesn’t scream “Olympian.”

“To this day, I don’t view myself as having any real competitive talent,” he said. “I wasn’t a great high school runner and I was an even more average college runner.”

Rather, he said that his real talent lies in his ability to wake up every morning before dawn and take those first couple steps out the door towards a 100-mile week – and then to follow up his 12-mile morning run and a nine-hour work shift by lacing up for a six to eight mile second run in the evening.

“When someone calls me talented, to me they either don’t acknowledge my work, or they think I’m slow and haven’t come close to my ability,” Ben said.

This analysis really struck me because it resonated so much with my own running narrative. I’ve seen how the perception of talent can overshadow the hard work and inexplicable dedication required of athletes to do what we do, every day, when no one is watching.

Ben runs to the beat of his own drum, planning out his training months in advance, leading up to peak races. I asked about how he shoots for his Olympic goal on a more day-to-day basis.

“I’ll get myself all pumped up looking at all the workouts, mileage, and tune-up races I’ve planned out for myself and go to sleep that night dreaming about the breaking that ribbon at the finish line,” he said. “Then I wake up and my 10-mile easy run feels like a one-way boxing match with Mike Tyson on steroids.”Ben Heck Track

He writes his training plan with a fluidity to account for how his body may respond on any given day.

“If I’m not flexible with my training, my body will eventually burn out. Some weeks I’ll switch a workout for another, or even skip it completely if I really need the recovery,” he said. “To me, everything is about progression, and as long as my workouts and mileage are still progressing, I’m on track. Progress isn’t always a straight line – sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward.”

Another unique element in Ben’s training method is that he is self-coached.

“I don’t pretend to know everything there is about training, and understand the limits of my training knowledge and lack of experience compared to a lot of seasoned coaches out there. So I think there will come a time when I’ll need to make that next step and have a coach,” he said.

Ben Strava

Ben’s two close friends, Jeff Gilky and Walfred Solorzano, look over his training plans, offering advice and sometimes pacing him or timing his workouts. “I’m lucky to have them as part of my support crew. However, where I do know more than any veteran coach is my own body, and that’s why I’ve been able to put in consistent training cycles and have success so far.”

Ben doesn’t see his personal records as accurate representations of his level of fitness. Regardless, he has run a mile in 4:18, and a 10K in 31:19.

His half-marathon PR is 68:30, from a race in San Diego about a year ago. “Although I’m in better shape at the moment,” he explained, “everything seemed to ‘click’ that day: Cloudy skies and a slightly cold morning are my ideal racing conditions and I got exactly what I asked for.” In that race, Ben had set a very ambitious goal for himself, and his finish time was what he expected.

Later on, during a full marathon, Ben had a major breakthrough when he won the Napa Valley Marathon.

“I came through 22 miles averaging 5:28 a mile, roughly a 2:23 pace,” he recalled. “But because of my own fault of poor nutrition and hydration – by poor I mean none – my body began to shut down, literally having muscle spasms that buckled my form to the point I almost fell numerous times over the last 4 miles.

“I remember the pacer on the bike asked if I was going to make it to the finish line and not having the energy to say ‘either on my feet or in the back of an ambulance,’ I was able to push through, and even though I ran 2:29, losing six minutes over the last four miles, I still won. And although not at first, I was eventually happy with the mental and physical barrier I had overcome.”

Ben is incredibly lucky considering his injury history is almost nonexistent, aside from typical runners’ aches and pains. He mentioned that foam rolling helps to prevent light swelling and pain in his knee, but “Costco-quantity Ibuprofen and a little extra love to my IT bands gets rid of that.”

The one time he did have a minor injury that temporarily slowed him down was after taking a bad step in a pothole, resulting in a small tear in his calf. It took five weeks of recovery training, including a slow process of increasing mileage at about 20 minutes every other day, up to every day, and then finally by increasing mileage by 5-10 miles a week. In that period, he remained cardiovascular by utilizing the elliptical and the bike.

I was curious to know exactly what Ben will be doing to prepare in the next few years during his countdown to the Olympic Trials.

He said that he’s dedicating the first half of 2018 to running a full track season, with the goal of shaving his 10K down to 29 minutes. This is how he hopes to improve what he considers his biggest weakness, speed work.

Then, next May, Ben will be building up to run the California International Marathon in December 2018. He expects to be in about 2:17 shape – the marathon time that will bring him well under the Olympic B qualifying standard. He added that there’s a possibility of dipping under the Half Marathon Qualifier before CIM, during a tune-up race.

It’s been remarkable to learn about Ben’s intuition-based approach to running. I can even see some ways that it parallels my own. Just the other day, I was messaging Ben about some of my own moonshot running goals: I’ve got my eyes focused on qualifying for the Olympic Marathon too, which for women means running a 2:45 for the B Standard. It’s a blast to dream big, but it’s even more spectacular when you meet others who are also striving towards defying gravity in their own special way.

Check out Ben’s Instagram: BenHeck2020

(Ph. credits 2, 3, 4: Instagram)

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