Harvard track and field has had a dominant three seasons this year, creating a powerhouse within its sprints and distance group. At the head of this distance dominance was sophomore Graham Blanks, a Georgia native who has taken Harvard and the Ivy League by storm.
Blanks began the season as Harvard’s No. 2 returning runner at the 8K distance and its top seed at the 10K, having posted times of 23:41 and 29:21 in the year prior.
With the regular season consisting of 8K’s and five-mile races, Blanks and junior distance runner Acer Iverson formed one of the best two-man duos across the country. The pair snared top-30 finishes at both the OSU Cowboy Jamboree and the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational against fields containing the best runners in the country before moving into postseason play, beginning with the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships in New York, N.Y.
Facing off against conference rivals for the Ivy League crown, Blanks and Iverson replicated their regular season dominance, claiming the top-two individual spots in the Ivy League against the talented Princeton and Cornell squads. Blanks finished in 24:04.1 over the 5-mile Van Cortlandt Park course.
At the front of the pack, Blanks and Iverson tactically broke away from their competition near the midpoint of the race to become the first finishers of the race.
“It was basically just to sit in the pack in the first 6K or so,” said Blanks about his coach’s advice going into the race. “There’s a really big hill called Cemetery Hill, which is kind of like a renowned hill in the cross-country world in the U.S., and that was kind of where we were gonna make our move.”
“So, [we] let our competitors do all the hard work during the race and then put a big surge up that hill, which is already hard enough,” Blanks recalled. “That’s what I did when we hit that hill, and Acer just followed right along with me, and we only had one other guy challenge us from Princeton, and then on the downhill we were able to shake him loose.”
Despite these performances and strong races from first-year Vivien Henz and senior David Melville, the Crimson came up just short of Princeton 41-38, losing the team title to the Tigers for the second-straight year.
“We were looking to win the [Ivy] League, hopefully,” Blanks said. “We had a really good program, we’d run a few good races that season. We knew it would be tight with Princeton at the top, so the goal individually was to win the race or just get the first two spots with Acer, which we were able to do which was great.”
“Definitey a sense of accomplishment crossing the line with him, and getting to turn around and watch as our guys came in,” he remarked. “But when the dust settled, we lost by two points which hurt a little bit. It put some fire underneath us. But it was definitely in retrospect probably our best race that year as a team.”
After Blanks’ performance at the Heptagonals, he then raced at the NCAA Regional Championships, and came out with a win at 29:14.00 seconds. His first-place finish earned him a spot to compete and on the national stage in the 10K at Stillwater, Okla.
“I love the NCAA cross country meets,” Blanks claimed. “[It’s] definitely ‘the best day of the year,’ [which] is what I tell all the guys on our team.”
“The year before in Tallahassee, I had a really good race by the standards of how my season went,” he remembered. “So I was looking forward to hopefully doing something pretty big and [match] that this year. I didn’t really have a season that would indicate where I would finish that day.”
For Blanks, the change in competition scenery between the Ivy League conference and the National League helped his racing.
“It's actually kind of nice being in such a competitive conference, which brings along a lot of pressure, especially with how few competitors there are,” said Blanks about the different racing environments. “There’s no hiding from any mistakes when you’re racing a small field like in the Ivy League.”
“It’s nice to get into the NCAAs, where you’ve got hundreds of people from all around the country, and you can really just kind of focus on flowing with the race, putting yourself in spots that you need to without being seen, and without having to worry about team tactics as much,” he added.
Blanks put that racing strategy to the test and ended up running 28:58:40 seconds to earn sixth place in the nation. With this time, he earned himself a personal best in the event.
“The goal for me is always to win. I wanted to put myself in a position where I’d be fighting for that win in the last half mile,” Blanks said.
“It worked out pretty well — I had to make a few decisions, there was a split in the front pretty early on, and I didn’t want to risk going with a hot pace if I didn’t know I’d be able to hold it,” he reflected. “So, three people went ahead and I was able to hang on to that chase pack and fight on for that fourth spot, and ended up getting sixth, which I was ecstatic about, and I think my coach was as well.”
Blanks’s sixth-place finish at NCAAs earned him First-Team All-American status, an honor that’s awarded to athletes who finish in the top 15 places.
“It felt good,” said Blanks about his sixth-place finish. “It was self-reassurance. I’d like to imagine that all the best runners in the country think they are the best, and I do think I’m pretty good as well, so it was nice to get a result and finish in the single digits at NCAAs.”
“It was definitely a big confidence booster,” he added. “I would credit that race to a lot of my success this track season because it brought a lot of self-belief that I might not have had up to that point.”
With Blanks’ finish, combined with the efforts of the rest of his teammates, Harvard finished 17th at NCAAs, six places higher than their ranking coming into the meet. The Crimson also finished as the top Ivy League program in the nation.
“I was lucky enough to finish on a high note,” said Blanks about the end of his season. “I had to reset going into the track season, but for me, it was a pretty smooth transition just because I had that excitement.”
“This year we had a much greater team mindset on the track team than we’d had years before, just because I think with the Ivy League Championships, we were able to show our guys back home, not necessarily on the distance team, but sprints, throws and jumps as well, that we’re here to compete this year,” he added. “I think we set the tone for the team.”
Blanks continued on through the indoor and outdoor track season, setting new records at Harvard and in the Ivy League, including in the men’s indoor mile and 3K, as well as the men’s outdoor 5K. He also earned the indoor Ivy League title in the men’s 3K and 5K, and the outdoor Ivy League title in the 5K and 10K. His times have already qualified for the NCAA Regionals, where his season will continue.
— Staff writer Jack Canavan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Staff writer Nadia A. Fairfax can be reached at email@example.com.