Ben Harper, a Cal sophomore and member of Strawberry Canyon Track Club for the past 3 seasons, recently achieved a longtime dream of running for the UC Berkeley Track and Field program, joining the team officially as a walk-on in March 2018. Kyle Dunn chats with Ben about his experience transitioning from a Berry to a Golden Bear.
On a beautiful February morning at Lake Chabot Regional Park, Ben Harper unknowingly ran what would be his last Strawberry Canyon Track Club Saturday long run (for a few years at least) with a large contingent of familiar, friendly faces. The mood was bright as the sun, and we were all ecstatic to be feeling the warm rays on our backs and soft trail under our feet for the first time in what seemed like months. There was a contagious cheer, and the blend of excitement and anxiousness for what was sure to be quite a hilly run wasn’t even remotely close to putting a damper on the group.
A few wrong turns (typical business at Chabot) and couple thousand feet of somewhat unexpected elevation gain later, things might have changed, but the leader of this pack was content. Ben calmly and patiently waited when the navigation got complicated. The frustrations and complaints were close to surfacing among others in the group, but Ben had no worries, he just happily went back to work with the lead pack, falling into his mid-six minute / mile (uphill) pace, chugging along with confidence and strength.
Not less than two weeks later, Ben was called on by coaches to join the Track and Cross Country teams at Cal, something he had a clear goal of achieving the moment he stepped foot on campus. I couldn’t help but think about how that tough long run must have mirrored Ben’s experience as an aspiring walk-on in so many ways- the exciting new landscape, challenging terrain, and unexpected turns that led to an even more difficult path- though it’s no surprise that there was resulting success and additional opportunities awaiting. I had a chance to dig a little deeper with Ben about the details of that exciting news, as well as to hear a little more about his inspiration and life outside running.
Let’s start by getting the details on how you made it as a walk-on to the Cal team. Had you been actively talking to the coaching staff or did you let your running do the talking? What transpired during the days before and after the good news?
“So getting asked to walk on to the team kind of came out of the blue. I had been in contact occasionally with the coaches while running for Strawberry Canyon, basically updating them on my progress at the beginning of every season because it was still my goal to run for Cal. I didn’t get any indication that they would take me on this season. But I had gotten to know a couple guys on their team and apparently they put in a good word for me. So when I won the 1500 at the second [Cal All-Comers Meet in February], the coaches were impressed and called me into their office the following week to offer me a spot on the team. I remember feeling speechless at first, it was crazy to have achieved one of my life goals so quickly and unexpectedly.
When I got out I immediately called my parents and then Carl since they’ve all been so supportive of my running. I was so ecstatic that the next few days were kind of a blur. But it was a little bittersweet, too, knowing that I’d have to leave Strawberry Canyon.”
How has life changed now that you have an “official” designation as a student athlete? What have been the highlights and challenges?
“I think one of the biggest changes has been just the everyday intensity of the training since we meet once or twice every day for workouts, drills, stretching, or weights. It’s definitely been challenging since it takes up more time and commitment, but it also provides a lot more opportunities to improve. The workouts are hard but I have a good group of teammates to work with and I feel very extremely prepared for them from my training with Strawberry Canyon. And of course there’s the perks like the athletic training room, vans for travel, and all the cool gear.”
Tell me about your background as a runner. How did you get your start and what caused you to fall in love with the running lifestyle?
“My parents are both runners—they both ran for Cal actually—so I grew up going to races a lot. I started running in middle school, but I didn’t really get serious about it until I was about a sophomore in high school. I think, like most runners, that I began to feel the joys of competing, improving PRs and seeing the benefit of hard work. There weren’t many runners at my school, but coming from a small section gave me the thrill of competing for section championships pretty early on in my career. Also, one of the biggest things that made me fall in love with running were the mountain trails in my hometown, which are still my favorite places to run.”
As a multi-talented individual, you give the impression of being someone incredibly grounded. One would guess that if you were forced to stop running for some unforeseen reason, that Ben Harper the person would be the same, and you would have various other outlets to turn to and live a balanced healthy life. Is this the case for you, and if so, how important do you feel it is to make sure other interests occupy some of your time not spent running? What are a few non-running hobbies you enjoy most?
“I think that being well-rounded has helped me both with running and just with personal well-being. It’s been important for me not to allow running define who I am, which is helpful to bounce back after a bad race or injury. I’m a musician, and playing piano has really helped me cope with some hard times. And if you put all your energy into running all the time you will get you burnt out. You need some outlets to relax and recover from the grueling focus on running. Playing piano gives me a healthy outlet outside of races and keeps me sane when races or training gets tough. Other hobbies I like include hiking, reading, and spending time with friends and family.”
What was life like growing up in Weaverville? (you grew up there right?)
“Weaverville is a small mountain town in Northern California. It was a great place to grow up with so many awesome outdoor activities right in my backyard, including great running trails. It was a little tough doing all my training by myself on our dirt track in high school. But it definitely made me a stronger runner. And the town was a very close-knit and supportive community, so I always had that cheering me on. Moving to Berkeley was definitely a bit of a culture shock and it took me a while to get used to the sheer amount of people and things going on here. I was very fortunate to have found a peer group quickly in Strawberry Canyon which really helped ease the transition to the city.”
Whats your pre-race routine and/or superstition?
“I don’t know if I have any special pre-race routines. I like to make sure I get good sleep and visualizing in the night before and get a decent breakfast the day of. I prefer a longer warmup and thorough drills and stretching. I think the only superstition I have is wearing the right pair of socks. As long as I have my lucky socks on I’m good to go.”
If you had to pick one workout not designated as an easy distance run to do for the rest of your life, what would it be? OR What is your favorite workout?
“I think that of the workouts Strawberry Canyon does, the 5-speed tempo is definitely one of my favorites. It takes a while to figure out once you get the hang of it it’s a great simulation of surges in races and it feels really rewarding to finish it.”
What advice would you give to any incoming freshmen with hopes of making the Cal XC and track team?
“To incoming freshmen hoping to make the team I would say be patient and trust the process. Strawberry Canyon has a great training program, so just keep grinding and you’ll eventually see massive improvement. Be persistent, and your hard work won’t go unnoticed. You also have to be smart and focus on the little things: the recovery runs, sleep, stretching, strength, knowing when to back off when you feel an injury coming on. But just have faith that if you put in the work each day, and learn to enjoy the process along the way, you can achieve your goals.”
Pick a favorite for each category:
Vegetable: “Bell Peppers”
Pizza Topping: “Pepperoni”
Band: “Snarky Puppy”
Sports Movie: “Without Limits”
Place to spend the night camping: “Grizzly Lake in the Trinity Alps (or anywhere in the Trinity Alps!)”
Time of year: “Spring”
Junk food: “Oreos”
What memory stands out when you think back on your times with Strawberry Canyon?
“I have so many good memories with the Berries it’s hard to pick just one. There were the paper plate awards, the long runs, tempos at Tilden, and running in the freezing snow at Club Nationals. I think one that stands out the most is the torrential downpour at the Tamalpa XC Meet two years ago. I vividly remember huddling under the tent for hours, racing on the muddy trails and eating delicious bagels and donuts afterwards. (I didn’t get to enjoy the beer!) It was a brutal but very memorable day.”
Future plans, running or otherwise?
“I’d like to continue working hard and improving the Cal team, and hopefully qualify for NCAAs. I definitely plan to keep running after college, and if I am in the Bay Area I would definitely like to return to the Berries. And in terms of my career, I am a music major and would like to do something in that field after graduation, but I’m still figuring out what exactly I want to do.”
The final uphill push of that Saturday long run at Chabot was a beast. As the run continued past the desired limit agreed on by the group at the outset, the accumulation of miles at a quick pace were taking a toll on everyone, and the diverted route led us on a homestretch that was fairly sinister. Not only was it all uphill, but there was no telling exactly how far from the trailhead we actually were. Emotions ranged from annoyed to uneasy, but Ben had no concerns. After reaching the end of my run, I saw Ben going back down the hill in the direction we all came from. Was I hallucinating due to dehydration and extreme exertion, or was he actually ADDING ON MILES?
When I hear origin stories of success, a certain amount of embellishment is usually assumed, but this particular example of work ethic made things a little more clear to me when I think about how a high school valedictorian and extremely talented jazz pianist is also this level of good as a runner, and an even higher level of good as a person. It’s just what Ben Harper does, or more accurately, who he is. As this Strawberry Canyoner would say- he’s definitely one of the sweetest berries in the bunch!
This post was written by Kyle Dunn.