Each season, Fairport (NY) High coach Sean Van Laeken has his athletes
set goals for the upcoming season.
He uses an ABC system, ranging from more attainable (C), to a goal that is really a challenge (B), to the "pie in the sky" goal, one that would be incredible for you to achieve (A).
A "C" goal can be something like remaining injury free and staying healthy. And it's an idea Fairport junior Ben Bulkeley doesn't take for granted.
After being pulled up to varsity on the Raider track team in the eighth grade, Bulkeley had a solid winter, followed by a successful spring in which he split 2:04 on the team's 3200m relay to end the season.
"That winter he was a top end JV-low end varsity runner," Van Laeken said. "He ran well, but nothing to indicate how good he has become."
That promise started to show the following winter when Bulkeley earned a 4:35 in a 1600m in early January. Van Laeken described it as an "eye opening" performance. After running 2:37.03 in the 1000m the following week, Van Laeken realized the freshman state record was well within reach.
Racing with the help of teammate Mike Mallow, Bulkeley was able to break the 27-year old record, winning the race in 2:34.12.
The contributions of Mallow, now competing at Binghamton University, were not understated by both Van Laeken and Bulkeley. The runner understands now, more than ever, the value of having veteran teammates.
"He was my training partner for a really long time," Bulkeley said. "It was great to be able to train and race with him for two years, and have somebody to look up to."
After a record setting winter, including his first state championship appearance, and a solid spring that saw Bulkeley run 4:29.45 and 1:57.78 over the middle distances, the sky was the limit as a sophomore. That's when uncertainty struck.
That fall, there was something clearly wrong.
"He got sick and there was a lot of testing," Van Laeken said. "He couldn't breathe, was tested for Lyme, had to run with a heart monitor. We had to keep an eye on him consistently."
Bulkeley was diagnosed with a heart block.
This was an abnormal heart rhythm where the heart beats too slowly. With this condition, the electrical signals that tell the heart to contract are partially or totally blocked between the upper chambers and the lower chambers. After testing, it was determined the issue caused no threat to his health and he was finally cleared to run that indoor season.
With the loss of his cross country season on his mind, Bulkeley made some noise on the track.
He brought down personal bests times for all his major events, running 1:22.89 for 600m and 2:29.38 for 1000m indoors, then he followed it up with a PB of 1:53.70 in the outdoor 800m.
That year, familiarity was a theme. He placed fifth at the indoor state meet, both indoors and oudoors.
While slightly disappointing, the three state championship races
were invaluable experiences.
"I like to think of it (the health scare) as something that motivates me to run because I realized that not everybody is capable to go out for a run or step on the track and do a workout," he said. "So now when I toe the line, I figure I need to give it all I've got because not everybody can," he said.
This year, Bulkeley got a good look at the route from Rochester to New York City.
Traveling to bigger meets in the state, he made the five-hour drive five different times in a two-month span, mainly to seek out better competition. Bulkeley then racked up win-after-win consistently, using his sit and kick race strategy with great success.
As the state championships approached and he entered as the top seed, he went through every strategy in his head.
"He's very much a thinker and an analyzer," said Van Laeken.
Bulkeley was confident. This was the "B" goal at the beginning of the season, to win the state championship in the 1000m. However, the thinker and analyzer was caught off guard.
"I ran through all the possible scenarios in my head,"
Bulkeley said. "Boxed in, spiked, tripping, slow pace, what am I going to do?
It never crossed my mind that somebody would go through in 1:55."
Chris Nowak of Sweet Home went out like a bullet, starting on the outside and taking the pace of the race and never looking back.
There were two races going on: Nowak and the field.
The crowd, as well as the competitors, kept waiting for Nowak to come back. He never did.
"When I saw him merge in so far ahead, I was like 'What's going on?' I figured that he would come back. With 300 to go, my coach told me he's not coming back, you've gotta go," Bulkeley said. "With 100m to go, I still wasn't sure, but once he hit the wall and I passed him with about 75m to go, there was no reaction, that's when I knew."
Bulkeley achieved his "B" goal.
What he didn't realize was that it was going to take achieving goal "A" -- running 2:27 -- to get the job done.
Bulkeley ran 2:26.78 to win by less than half a second. He split 29 point for every 200m of the race. Nowak held on to run 2:27.20.
"Without Chris Nowak, 2:26 doesn't happen," said Van Laeken.
Highlights of the final lap at 0:46
Running 2:26 as a junior has opened eyes in the track world.
The 34-year old state record of 2:24.1 by Miles Irish of Burnt Hills has stood the test of time. But Bulkeley said he hasn't given much thought to that record.
It's aa mentality shared by the record holder himself ... that January day at Yale in 1983.
"All I wanted to do was to finally win a race over Mike Stahr," Irish said. "Times were never my motivation. I ran to win. Eventually, you will encounter someone as talented and motivated as you and the fast times will follow if you 'compete' (to quote the legendary Coach Gags)."
Irish said he does not recall ever feeling any pressure in high school.
"It's only track and field, have fun and do your best," he said. "Mike Stahr and I eventually ended up as teammates at Georgetown and are great friends to this day. The funny part is that we rarely talk about track and field," Irish said. "Cherish the relationships that you have with your high school and college teammates and don't forget to thank your coaches. Without them, there would be no track and field."
Irish liked to run all events, but said that he particularly liked running the relays.
"There is something special about being able to share a victory with your teammates that make them more memorable over time than the individual glory," he said.
Bulkeley credited his teammates, coaches, and parents for his success. And he sacrificed individual glory at points, giving up a chance at individual titles for the purpose of staying fresh for the 3200m relay -- an event the team wanted to qualify for states and nationals.
The relay team was able to achieve both goals and had a season best of 8:01 heading into the Ocean Breeze Complex in March.
"The relay, it was kind of crazy. Our goal was to medal and our coach
said maybe something crazy will happen and you can win," Bulkeley said. "We really
didn't even give it another thought."
Van Laeken said the goal was to just keep it as close as possible and give Bulkeley a chance on anchor.
Bulkeley knew had a good shot at doing big things, but he wasn't fresh coming off his 1000m victory.
"I really wasn't even thinking during the race," he said. "I made up the gap on the first lap, sat for a lap, then faded about five meters. Then I kicked it in the last 100m. I couldn't believe when I crossed the line. I had to look at the clock to believe it," he said.
"Winning states was something in my mind, a dream for so long," he added. "To share that dream with your teammates is incredible. Not a lot of people experience that. And to know that you put your part in, and your teammates do as well, is very rewarding. I was helping them and they were helping me, each day all season. Everybody does their part. Nobody can have an off day or else it won't come together."
After winning two state titles, what's left?
For Bulkeley, it's time to look forward.
His main focus is the spring, where his eyes are set on an 800m title and working on dropping his time in the mile.
Next winter? Those goals will wait until next fall, when he gets to gauge where his fitness level is at.
After his experience last year, he does not want to get too far ahead of himself. He mentioned his coach's advice of "train in the moment."
Work hard now, fix what you need to. Do not think about how hard things will be later on.
Bulkeley is "staying in the moment," and focused on this spring. For now at least, next winter can wait.
"He's a great kid, good student, modest," Van Laeken said, before using the best term to describe an athlete. "He's very coachable. He trusts what we do. It's been fun and really easy to coach him."
The only thing left is to figure out some new ABC goals.