Coach Roy Benson: The Journey

From contract work on heart rate monitors for Polar and Nike to writing a column for both “Running Times” and “Running Journal” magazines; from serving as the Head TF/XC coach at the University of Florida to founding running camps and to writing four books; running has been a common thread in Coach Roy Benson’s story.

As a high school freshman, Roy Benson began his track career as a failed shot-putter. Luckily, his coach sent him off with some older boys to run laps around the gym and he quickly discovered his niche: the half-mile. He graduated from Wisconsin’s Stevens Point Area Senior High in 1959, a school that also produced running sensation Chris Solinsky, the first American to break 27:00 for 10k.  Coincidentally, Solinsky is now the Gator distance coach.

Benson began college at Dartmouth College, but didn’t last long. “I was struggling academically and wasn’t sure what I was doing there,” Coach Benson recalls. In December of 1960, at the urging of the Dean, he enlisted in the Coast Guard.   

Benson was stationed at a boot camp in Alameda, California as a physical fitness trainer.  He quickly began helping out with the base’s track team made up of high school and college-aged Coast Guard recruits. By the end of his first year, he took over as the head coach while still competing himself. His teams were very successful, winning 19 of their 20 competitions against Bay-area teams from the bases of the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Navy.

Their winning streak was only foiled by Olympic-development runners out of the Moffet Air Force base who were coached by Stanford’s legendary Payton Jordan. Jordan was preparing to serve as the USA’s Olympic Head Coach that year.

“We had a lot of young high school and college graduates who were pretty good, but Moffet had those ringers who helped spoil our perfect record.” Coach Benson joked. “My guys simply loved the chance to get off base during boot camp and maybe see girls during our bus rides to Alameda High school where we practiced.  I was a glorified bus driver/coach who also ran the half-mile, mile, and 2-mile on the team, but that’s what got me started with coaching.”

By the end of his time at the Coast Guard, he had gotten his times down to 1:53.4 for 880 yards and 4:20 for the mile while competing for the Santa Clara Valley Youth Village Track Club.  It was during that time he was exposed to new training philosophies, including Arthur Lydiard’s 100 mile weeks of endurance-based training.  He even ran a race against Lydiard’s star half miler, Peter Snell (full disclosure: Snell beat him by seven seconds during an All-comers meet at Stanford.) 

He eventually did finish his degree at Dartmouth, despite being on “the Dean’s 8-year plan.”

For the next 2 years, he taught and coached at Lyndon Institute in Northeastern Vermont, where he could apply what he had learned. Here, he turned out a multi-time state XC/TF champion. 

“If life is all paperwork, I’d rather be writing training plans than lesson plans.” – Coach Roy Benson

In the Fall of 1969, it was time for something new. Benson moved South to serve as a Graduate Assistant at the University of Florida while he pursued a MPE degree focusing on exercise physiology. He worked with the “880-yard guys” that year.

“Of the 9 guys who made the final at SEC that year, 5 were Gators,” Coach Benson remembers.

In 1970, UF Head Coach Jimmy Carnes promoted Coach Benson to be Florida’s first ever full-time Assistant Head Coach. He stayed for 10 years, eventually taking over both as the Head Men’s Cross Country Coach and the Head Men’s Track Coach.

Photo from: http://www.floridatrackclub.org/page-18098

“Florida was true on-the-job training. I’d had good success up until that point, but the collegiate idea took some getting used to as I tried to blend classic interval training with endurance-based workouts modeled by the Florida Track Club guys like Olympian Jack Bacheler and Frank Shorter.”  

In the 1970’s, the University of Florida had separate men’s and women’s programs. When Coach Benson started, the men’s program could give out a total of 8 full scholarships per year to their incoming student-athletes. The potential for 32 full scholarships existed, although it was rarely—if ever—realized, since any athlete on scholarship who quit before graduation could not be replaced.

“Tennessee and Florida seemed to be the first universities in the SEC to figure out that track was important.  That turned the SEC meet into basically a dual meet,” Coach Benson mused. “The other SEC schools became jealous of our success and began passing little rules about how many people you can have on scholarship and how many people you could bring to the championships.”

Problems with Track & Field

These days, programs are given only 18 scholarships for the women and 12.6 for the men. In many other ways, Coach Benson feels that the sport of track and field has lost its way.

“No casual fan knows what the hell a 2-meter high jump is or how far 1500 meters are!  When we started using metric measurements and moved away from head-to-head interscholastic competition, we lost Joe Six-Pack track fan,” Coach Benson quipped.

He mourns the loss of dual meets between rivals like Florida and FSU or Georgia and Georgia Tech. “You go to a track meet now and everyone’s just trying to qualify for something by hitting a time, but fans don’t know what time they have to make. Plus, there’s no points awarded and no team wins. It’s a shame.”

“At the NCAA Regional meet last year, I’m thinking, ‘why the hell don’t they have a team championship like at the Nationals? Every team has all the people who’ve met the regional standards, so why not score points? Why not create a competition between the Northeast and the Southeast and the Midwest?  It’s a missed opportunity.”

In some ways, Benson understands; “they’re trying to get the best out of the individual athlete and help them improve without doubling and tripling them.” Nevertheless, he misses the head-to-head, duke it out competition that made attending a track meet so much fun.

Shoe Dog

“My boss at UF, Jimmy Carnes, was an organizational, administrative, and promotional genius,” shared Benson.  While helping me develop those skills, I also learned that he had an entrepreneurial spirit.”   

Around 1970 they heard about a new shoe company started by Phil Knight called “Blue Ribbon Sports” that imported Tiger shoes as the first widespread alternative to Adidas or Puma.  They pooled some money to open up a dealership they called the “Running Gator Company.”  They operated for a year and a half on the sly out of the track equipment room.  Throughout this time, Benson had the opportunity to work with Jeff Johnson, who was in charge of the East coast distributorship of Tiger Running Shoes for Blue Ribbon Sports.

Photo from: The Olympians

“On a trip to Vermont to see friends, I stopped by Jeff’s office in Boston to introduce myself. He said, ‘oh good you’re here; let me show you something!’ and walked me into the back room,” Benson recalls. Johnson held up what looked like an Adidas soccer shoe with the three stripes stripped off. “He had taped this fat, swooshy-looking paper thing on the side. He held it up real proudly and said, ‘what do you think? We’re going to have our own brand of shoe; it’s going to be called Nike.”  Johnson, in fact, had come up with the name during Knight’s urgent effort to re-name the company.

At this point Benson laughs. “I took one look at it and said, ‘well hell, that’s never going to sell!” It looked like a football cleat: a big, clunky, heavy black leather kind of thing.

“So that was the beginning of my ill-fated first business venture,” Benson joked.

Sports Corps

Soon after, Benson read about a program called “Sports Corps” in Track and Field News.  Developing countries were asking the USA National Peace Corps office for help preparing their athletes for the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Thinking this would be a good adventure, Benson talked Carnes into giving him a one-year sabbatical to help the Philippines’ track team prepare for the Olympics. Since their shoe company wasn’t incredibly profitable, the pair sold it to some Florida Track Club guys for $1 and Benson set off to the Philippines for the Peace/Sports Corps.

By the time Benson returned after the Olympics in the Fall of 1972, the guys who had purchased The Running Gator Company had built a Sears Garden Shed storage facility and completely filled it top-to-bottom with Nike shoe boxes: swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.  “I guess I made a bad call on that one,” frowned Benson.

Carnes soon went on to found the Athletic Attic running shoe store with a new partner, Marty Liquori. “By 1976, their business was booming so much that the UF AD forced him to resign from his coaching position. ‘You have to make up your mind: be a coach or be a business man.’ By the time Jimmy sold his business, there were 360 Athletic Addict stores.”

Coaching & Beyond

In 1973, Benson took over as the Head Cross Country Coach at the University of Florida – a position he held for the rest of the decade.  He soon started his own side business directing running camps during the summers. 

His first was at Brevard College in NC that was originally named the “Florida Track Club (FTC) Distance Runners Camp”, after FTC’s Frank Shorter and Jack Bachelor, who had placed 1st and 9th in the Munich marathon. Their teammate Jeff Galloway had also made the team in the 10k.

“I really wanted to capitalize on the Gainesville connection with those guys. A lot of the other stars from Florida Track Club were there to be trail guides and staff coaches,” Benson explained. “That first year, I think we had 13 people come and I lost $50. I never did tell my wife that.”

After 17 years, the camp moved to UNC-Asheville, where it now draws 300+ runners per week for 3 weeks each summer.  Current Georgia Tech Coach Alan Drosky now directs the camp after Benson sold it to USSportscamps and retired after 40 years. “Alan has made it even better and bigger,” added Benson.

Two years after founding FTC Distance Runners Camp, he also co-founded Green Mountain Running Camp in Vermont. He co-owned and co-directed that for 40-some years until selling his interest to USSportscamps, too.

Photo from: US Sports Camp

Ten years into his collegiate coaching career, Coach Benson decided to pursue a new adventure. This was now his third business venture while coaching full time.

“My former physiology professor, Dr. Chris Zauner, and I had started a little fitness company out of a regional hospital. Doctors referred patients to us; we did all these physiological measurements and then reported back every month on the progress their patients made.”

Zauner was the scientist and Benson was the workout designer.  The pair concentrated on exercise prescriptions for each participant featuring individualized target heart rates. 

“This was cutting edge work for a hospital to support.  We described it as ‘fitness rehabilitation’, but we were just jogging people back into shape while being scientifically sound and medically safe.”

After building up the program, the hospital bought them out and hired Benson as the Director of their new Wellness Center.

The Peter Principle

In 1983, Benson heard that Atlanta Track Club was looking for an Executive Director and Peachtree Road Race Director. He was excited to move back towards a singular focus on running and moved to Atlanta.

“I quickly discovered the ‘Peter Principle’,” Benson admits. “I had mistakenly moved up to a position that was not my area of strength. They were really looking for an MBA, not a Masters in Physical Education.”  After a few years, he and the Board came to a mutual conclusion that he needed to step down.

“I soon confirmed that I’m just a serial entrepreneur,” Benson observed. He next started and successfully ran a private coaching and consulting business called “Running Limited.”  Those activities fit in nicely with his growing summer camps.   

“I finally admitted to myself that I was just a late bloomer businessman. I thought, ‘I can do this. I can have my own company. I can do it my way. I don’t need a check from someone else,” Benson remembers. “It’s like being an athlete: you keep learning and maturing and working smarter.”

During this time, he discovered joy in writing about running, beginning with his monthly magazine columns.  This was the beginning of what become 4 books about his Effort Based Training philosophy based on the heart rate response to workouts. 

Before long, however, neighboring Marist Catholic School recruited him to help coach cross country as a part-time assistant Community Coach: a position that he held from 1993 until 2009.  By his third year, Marist started a streak of 16 total (9 girls and 7 boys) Georgia State Championships. His individuals won a total of 21 state XC/TF titles.  Despite all of the impact Benson had in the running world, he called his years coaching at Marist the peak of his coaching career.

Eric Heintz, now the Atlanta Track Club High Performance Director, eventually joined the Marist coaching staff and soon became Head Coach.  Benson came to respect Heintz’ coaching style with regards to the highly motivated kids that they worked with at Marist. They both believed that it wasn’t necessary to constantly push the runners to work harder.

“Here was a guy who was more conservative in training than I am! We had to constantly say, ‘Slow the damn thing down, slow down!’ Stop trying to please the three P’s: your parents, the priests and The Pope.”

In 2009, Coach Benson retired and moved back to Florida, where he currently serves as a volunteer coach at Fernandina Beach High School. He also offers weekly “Misery Loves Company” track workouts for the community and members of the Amelia Island Runners Club.  Runners from 7 to 77 years old and of all speeds and ability attend. After the workout, they adjourn to Townies for pizza and beer. 

While cutting back at the high school, Benson still serves as a mentor to the girls’ and boys’ coaches.  Each summer, he goes up to North Carolina and New England to visit his old camps in his self-appointed position as “Chief of the Council of Wise Elders”.  But, he admits it is mostly to hang out with the staff coaches and steal some new workouts.

“My dad always said, ‘too soon we get old and too late we get smart,’ Benson shared. “Even though I’m getting and slower, I haven’t given up on getting smarter.”  

His latest effort is the 2nd edition of “Heart Rate Training” with friend and co-author Declan Connolly, PhD.  Connolly also happens to be a protégé of Dr. Zauner.  The book’s first edition was a best seller for Human Kinetics and has been translated in 2 dialects of Chinese, Czech and Italian. 

The book explores his coaching philosophy, which he called “effort-based training”: a modification heart rate response with the classic perceived exertion scales that gives coaches additional options.

One thought on “Coach Roy Benson: The Journey

  1. Steve Barth says:

    Nice article. I participated in Coach Benson’s ‘adult onset runners group’ at Marist back in the early 2000’s. Great to hear that he is at it in his new Florida home,

    Like

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