On most days, record-breaking distance runner K. Graham Blanks ’25 cranks out his runs at six minutes per mile. I wanted to know his secret, and I figured what better way to learn than by joining him for a run on the banks of the Charles — on my bike, that is.
I’m buckling up my helmet when Blanks walks out of Winthrop House, wearing Harvard Cross Country gear head to toe. He tells me we’ll be “jogging” today, at a 7:21-minutes-per-mile pace. The average non-elite male runner races a 5K at 9:28 minutes per-mile pace. Blanks runs towards the river, feet pattering like a steady metronome while I pedal beside him.
Blanks can run a mile in three minutes 56 seconds, for which he holds the Harvard record. And that’s not even his best event — he’s also Harvard’s 5k record holder, for his time of 13 minutes 18 seconds. But this year, Blanks has really started to go the distance, so to speak, winning every cross-country race he’s participated in this season. This includes the highly competitive Nuttycombe Invitational, where he ran 8 kilometers in 23 minutes 23.4 seconds, making him a favorite to win NCAA Championships. He’d be the first Harvard runner ever to do so.
Blanks was first brought into running by “the magic of the Turkey Trot,” a Thanksgiving season race. He describes his elementary school self as a “short and small” kid, who loved proving himself in the Turkey Trot 5k. Even though Blanks was already smashing course records and winning state championships in high school, he says college made him take the sport more seriously.
“It’s not really that serious until college and you have a 40-year-old man whose livelihood depends on your performance — i.e. your coach,” he says. “That’s a joke.”
“But it’s also serious because we want to win stuff,” he adds.
In order to win stuff, Blanks and his teammates follow an intense training regimen. He and many men on the team run over 100 miles each week. They train mostly at six-minute-per-mile pace, which may sound grueling, until you hear that twice a week Blanks does 10-mile workouts at a five-minute-per-mile pace. On Sundays, he runs 20 miles in one go.
Cultivating excellent running performance extends beyond practice times: it’s a lifestyle. Take Blanks’ description of a typical Friday night: “Oh, man, there’s only one thing I could be doing and that’s sleeping,” he says. “Yeah, certainly, sleep is one of my favorite pastimes.”
But Blanks and his teammates still manage to have fun at their “two parties of the entire year,” during which they get to “fire up” the team slushie machine, he reports.
“Right now we have a slushie machine in the common room, which has been in the team for no one really knows, probably since the beginning of recorded history,” Blanks explains.
As captain, Blanks does a lot more for his teammates than just making slushies.
“It’s just kind of an honor that I was elected because there’s a lot of guys I look up to who used to be captains on the team,” he says.
Blanks now has the captainly responsibility of motivating his team. Most captains might throw out a line about leaving it all out on the course, because win or lose, we're in this together.
“Sometimes I’ll throw out a Nietzsche quote,” says Blanks, who studies Economics and Philosophy.
“My favorite one was from ‘The Gay Science’ and it was, ‘What does your conscience tell you? Become who you are,’” he explains, paraphrasing the quote. “And then I proceeded to blackout halfway through the race. So like I said, it’s easy to be humble in this sport when it’s always humbling you.”
Blanks doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s humble. In post-race interviews he’ll say something wacky (“I don’t really know much about training, but I can listen to my coach”) or pull a mid-interview prank (Yelling “Let’s go boys!” to his two other teammates as he dumps blue Gatorade on them).
Nearing the end of our interview, Blanks and I are about to turn back to the street-side of Memorial Drive. It’s only then that I remember just how fast he’s running, and how crazy it is that it’s so easy for him.
I ask if it’s been surreal winning all these races.
“Definitely going up that chute at the end was a surreal experience,” he says, describing the Nuttycombe finish. “But if I didn’t believe in myself, if I didn’t believe that I was able to do it in the first place, I wouldn’t have done it. So while I might seem humble on the outside, I definitely have aspirations and goals that some people would think probably aren’t justified.”
We come to a stop in front of Winthrop House and press pause on our GPS watches. Blanks tells me we just completed his favorite 5k route from Winthrop, a loop between the Western Avenue and Eliot Bridges. I ask to take a selfie to post on the fitness app Strava, and of course he’s game.
As I’m locking up my bike, I see that Strava has already logged that Blanks and I exercised together. That’s when I notice it: Blanks’ average heart rate was lower than mine. His was 127, mine was 128. Even on a bike, it’s hard to beat Blanks.
— Magazine writer Sage S. Lattman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sagelattman.