Rai Benjamin on his way to winning the 400m hurdles at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Stanford (© Victah Sailer)
Switching focus from chasing times to making sure he is running his own best race has left Rai Benjamin excited for his 400m hurdles return at the USATF Golden Games, part of the World Athletics Continental Tour Gold series, on Sunday (9).
The 23-year-old last competed over the barriers at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, where he secured silver for the USA behind Norway’s Karsten Warholm. One month earlier Warholm and Benjamin had moved to second and joint third on the world all-time rankings with respective times of 46.92 and 46.98 at the Diamond League final in Zurich, with only Kevin Young having ever gone quicker courtesy of his 46.78 at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
While Warholm edged closer to that mark in 2020, running 46.87 in Stockholm, Benjamin instead decided to focus on his flat speed, with a 100m PB of 10.03 in Texas among his results. Two weeks ago he opened his season with a 44.97 400m at the USATF Grand Prix in Eugene.
Now he’s ready to put that speed, and lessons learned, into practice.
“I feel like in 2019 I was chasing a time too much, trying to break the world record, and inevitably I obviously failed that year,” he says. “I lost the Diamond League final and lost in Doha, so this year I am just focused on running my best race and seeing what happens. If the clock demonstrates something else, then I will be happy with that.
“I got to learn what it was like running the 100m,” Benjamin adds, reflecting on 2020. “I think it worked a lot to my advantage because now I can see how I can get out of the blocks faster, turn over faster if I need to, and turn the tempo up a little bit without really straining as much as I did before. It helped a lot to do that, that year. It’s definitely a process.”
It also gave him time to recover from a heel injury sustained a few weeks before the Doha World Championships.
“I was nursing that injury leaving the World Championships, so I had to not hurdle for a while,” he explains. “Even when we started in the fall, I still had some of that lingering around in my heel. Having that time off during the year was great and it helped me step back and really look at the race from a different perspective – spot my mistakes and learn where I can be better in certain parts of the race.
“I’m excited to race everyone, to do well this season and run fast.”
“It’s going to be a really telling spectacle”
Another athlete looking to run fast at Mt SAC in Walnut, California, on Sunday will be NFL star DK Metcalf as he swaps the American football field for the track.
There has been much talk on social media around the speeds reached by American football players and now the Seattle Seahawks wide receiver is stepping up to test himself over 100m.
“I feel like over the past couple of years or so, the track and field community has been going back and forth with the NFL community as to who is actually fast, who is not, and what does world-class speed look like,” says Benjamin. “By no means am I discounting DK, I think he is a phenomenal athlete, and it takes a lot of guts and heart to actually come out and line up against the guys that are going to be there this weekend.
“I love it. I think it’s really good for the sport right now – we should all be open-eyed towards advancing our sport and having it be more in the public light.
“I think it’s going to bring an entirely new generation to the sport, and have them see okay, this is what real speed looks like. It’s going to be a really telling spectacle this weekend as to what it’s really like to compare track speed to the NFL.”
Among those who could be lining up alongside Metcalf at Mt SAC is the USA’s world relay champion Mike Rodgers, who has a 100m PB of 9.85 run in 2011.
“I have been waiting on this day, for a football player to come and line up,” says Rodgers. “They really talk all this trash on Twitter but shout-out to DK for even coming out to experience this. I don’t know his take on what he really thinks his performance is going to be, but this is May – this is the time that sprinters really get going because the (Olympic) trials is like a month away. So I’m anxious to see how his so-called ESPN world-class speed measures up against the real world-class speed.”
On his own performance hopes, he adds: “Training is going pretty well. I have just started to incorporate some speed into my training.
“I am expecting to run some good times this weekend and put on good performances, just to see where I really am with this speed incorporated in my training.”
Jess Whittington for World Athletics