Each season, Fairport 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, something that Fairport junior Ben Bulkeley does not take for granted. After being pulled up to Varsity on the Raider track team in 8th Grade, Bulkeley had a solid winter season, followed by a successful spring in which he split 2:04 on the team's 3200-meter 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 popped a 4:35 in a 1600-meter race in early January. Van Laeken described it as an "eye opening" performance. After running 2:37.03 in the 1000-meters the following week, Van Laeken realized that 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 and running 2:34.12. The contributions of Mallow, now competing at Binghamton University, to Ben's success were not understated by both Van Laeken and Bulkeley, who understands more now the value of having quality older 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 him run 4:29.45 and 1:57.78 over the middle distances, the sky was the limit entering Bulkeley's sophomore campaign. That is 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 further testing, it was determined that the issue caused no threat to his health, and he was finally cleared for his sophomore Indoor Season.
With the loss of his cross country season on his mind, Bulkeley made some noise on the track. He brought down personal best for all his major events, running 1:22.89
for 600m and 2:29.38 for 1000m indoors, then followed it up with a best of 1:53.70 for the outdoor 800m. He found some similarity between both season, as he placed 5th at the State Meet, both Indoors and Out. While slightly disappointing, the three state championship races
were invaluable experience.
"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. 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 some of the bigger meets in the state, he made the five-hour drive five different times in a two month span to seek out some of the best competition that the region had to offer. Bulkeley racked up win after win consistently, using his sit and kick race strategy with great success. As the State Championship approached, and he entered as the top seed, Bulkeley went through every strategy in his head.
"He's very much a thinker and an analyzer," said Van Laeken.
Bulkeley was confident, telling himself he was going to win
because he knew he needed to have that mentality in order to make it a reality.
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
"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 of the waterfall, 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 goal "B", winning his state championship. 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 split 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 some in the track world's eyes. The 34-year old state record of 2:24.1h by Miles Irish of Burnt Hills has stood the test of time. Bulkeley said he hasn't given much thought to that record, a mentality shared by the record holder himself that January 1983 day at Yale.
"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. 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, who credited his teammates, coaches, and parents for his success, sacrificed individual glory at points this season, giving up a chance at some individual titles for the purpose of staying fresh for the 3200-meter relay that 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. We really didn't even give it another thought," Bulkeley said.
Van Laeken said the goal was to just keep it as close as possible and give Ben a chance on anchor to do what he does. Bulkeley knew he was, if not the best, close to the best 800-meter runner on anchor, but wasn't fresh coming off his 1000 victory.
"I really wasn't even thinking during the race. 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. 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, it is now time to look forward. But Bulkeley's main focus is this spring, where his eyes are set on an 800mtitle and really 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. 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", meaning think about what you are doing now. Work hard now, fix what you need to. Do not think about how hard things will be later on. Bulkeley himself is "staying in the moment", 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."