March 12, 2010

True enough, it was enough for True


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Staff Writer

The decision Ben True knew he eventually would have to make, the decision he had pondered since he was a senior at Greely High in Cumberland five years ago, finally became clear during the most frustrating chapter of his athletic life.

Last winter, as a result of overtraining, True found himself fatigued and unfocused, thinking he should do more but requiring rest above all else. His happiest moments came when, after lacing up his running shoes, he would plod along the pavement for a quarter of an hour, covering maybe a mile.

This from a three-sport All-American and the only Dartmouth College runner ever to break 4 minutes in the mile.

''For a long time that was the only athletic thing I could do,'' True said. ''It was the highlight of my day.''

True spoke by phone from Hanover, N.H., where he has embarked upon his final semester of college. He will ski for Dartmouth's Nordic team this winter, receive his diploma in March (he's an art history major with an emphasis on architecture) and attempt to make a living as a professional runner.

A year ago he had taken a long break from school to train exclusively for skiing. It was not wanting to decide between the two sports that led him to Dartmouth in the first place. Had he wanted to run exclusively in college, he would have enrolled at Stanford.

True has a friend who, when faced with a similar decision after high school, gave up skiing to concentrate on running.

''Now when we meet up and talk,'' True said, ''I tell him, 'All right, I'm ready to do running.' And he still has in the back of his head that he wished he could do skiing again.

''He just wasn't able to put that effort into it, to see if that's what he wanted to do. So I'm very happy I was able to make a concrete decision. I know exactly what I want to do.''

True put a lot of effort into his skiing. Too much, as it turned out.

After three consecutive school years of cross country in the fall, Nordic in the winter and outdoor track in the spring, he left New England in the early summer of 2007 and began training in Sun Valley, Idaho.

He left in high spirits, after a winter season that saw Dartmouth win the NCAA title in skiing -- True had to leave before the competition ended to attend the under-23 world championships in Italy -- and a spring track season in which he won a New England championship mile in 3 minutes, 59.99 seconds.

The ski title earned him a trip to the White House to receive personal congratulations from the president, and the New England title time earned him inclusion to an exclusive club that began with Roger Bannister.

At the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, which includes skiers from kids up through Olympic Development, True didn't have to worry about term papers, team meetings or studying. He tasted the life of the full-time athlete and found it refreshing.

''It was great,'' he said.

''I really enjoy being able to schedule my day around training rather than schedule my training around my day. It's remarkable what you can do when you do it that way.''

True remained in Idaho until September, when forest fires interrupted his reverie and sent him back to Maine. He spent a few weeks at the Olympic training center in Lake Placid, N.Y., and returned to Sun Valley in October.

As for the competitive ski season, True experienced mixed results.

He did well early but found himself easily fatigued, particularly on the second day of a meet. He still managed to finish among the top 25 in three events at the U.S. nationals (sprint, 15k classical, 10k freestyle) and once more went to Italy for the under-23 worlds, but he knew he could do better.

''Even with my overtraining, I was able to race faster than I had in the past,'' he said, ''but definitely not where I thought I should be.''

Unlike, say, mononucleosis, there is no definitive test for overtraining syndrome.

''It's extremely frustrating,'' he said. ''You don't know when it starts and you don't know when you're over it. The whole time you're going through it, you just feel like you're out of shape and need to train more.''

True rested here and there, and it would help some. He would take his daily 15-minute jogs to loosen his muscles and, he said, stimulate the body's natural production of human-growth hormone, or HGH.

In March he returned to Hanover and rejoined the Big Green track team. With a lowered immune system, he also contracted a bad case of the flu and struggled throughout the spring.

''When he came back with us,'' said Dartmouth Coach Barry Harwick, ''he could go hard one day, then he'd be absolutely exhausted. It took the better part of two months off in May and June to get himself back to normal.''

Instead of running in the U.S. Olympic trials for 1,500 meters in early summer as he had planned, True hopped aboard a boat with a high school buddy, Ben Knowles, and sailed in the Newport to Bermuda race. Having sailed competitively through the Portland Yacht Club as a kid, True had a blast.

''It was a bunch of fun, the first open-water sailing I had done,'' said True, who didn't have to worry about the temptation to train. ''The boat was only 46 feet long so that's as far as I could walk.''

The first indication True was beginning to recover came at the Beach to Beacon 10K in August. Running alongside a former college teammate, Harry Norton, True ran a precise pace of 5 minutes per mile and finished as the first Mainer (and first American) in 31 minutes, 1.8 seconds.

He carried that momentum into the fall cross country season, setting an Ivy League record at Van Cortlandt Park in New York by breaking 24 minutes for 5 miles and winning his third Heptagonals title by more than 30 seconds.

''I was able to fully recover to my old self,'' he said. ''I just felt great running. I was real excited about my season as a whole, right up until the NCAAs.''

Halfway through the 10-kilometer national championships in late November, True had positioned himself in the high teens, angling for a finish among the top 10. For reasons that remain unclear to him and to Harwick, True simply ran out of gas. He faded to 53rd at the finish.

''It wasn't that I was growing tired,'' True said. ''It's just that I started having no energy It was a little disappointing, but the whole rest of the season was an indication that I was back on the right path.''

That path leads him, today, into his first indoor track meet. He plans to run the 3,000 meters at the Dartmouth Relays, and again in two weeks at the Terrier Classic in Boston.

He'll also include the occasional weekend ski carnival to fulfill his obligation to Dartmouth ski coach Ruff Patterson and the rest of his Nordic teammates.

''We'll see how things go juggling indoor (track) and skiing,'' True said. ''As long as I make the NCAAs and race the NCAAs for (Patterson), he's happy. I definitely still want to ski fast and ski well, but I'm willing to sacrifice maybe not being as fast skiing to be a little bit faster running.''

Back in Maine for the holiday break, True celebrated his 23rd birthday, got in some skiing (and running) at Sugarloaf, and helped get the family's 1-year-old German shepherd/Siberian husky puppy out of a tight spot with a porcupine, assisting in the extraction of seven quills from the dog's face and 60 from his paw.

There are times when pain and frustration accompany exploration. That doesn't mean the adventure was a mistake. On the contrary, it often leads to a clearer future.

''If I hadn't taken last year off to do skiing,'' True said, ''I don't think I'd be here now, happy with my choice to pursue running.''

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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