Nov. 13, 2013
By Jerome Boettcher | Commodore Nation
Claire Benjamin stepped onto campus two years ago as an unassuming freshman — drawn to Vanderbilt because of the school’s reputable engineering program.
In fact, she turned down scholarship offers for cross country and track at other schools well aware she would have to walk on for the Commodores.
This didn’t prevent her from aiming high.
“I knew I needed to assert myself in a way that I wouldn’t be overlooked just because I was walk-on,” she said. “More just assert myself in a way that I needed to work hard and show I can compete on a similar plane as everyone else on the team. Just try to be on the same level.”
Benjamin, now a junior, is running near the front of the Vanderbilt pack. The Commodores head into the NCAA South Regional on Friday in Tuscaloosa, Ala., hoping to make waves again, just two years removed from winning the program’s first Southeastern Conference championship and placing sixth at the national meet.
Benjamin completed an individual trifecta this calendar year—qualifying for the SEC championships in indoor and outdoor track and cross country for the first time.
“Every year when I talk goals with (assistant coach Rhonda) Riley, I say I want to go to SEC this year,” she said. “This is the first year where it is actually coming together. I always think it is possible. I like to set goals high and see if they can come through.”
Benjamin embodies what coach Steve Keith hopes to build.
On two occasions this fall, the soft-spoken daughter of a Baptist minister shaved more than 60 seconds off her previous-best time. After two cross country seasons under the radar, she has gradually moved up the pecking order. She cracked the team’s top five several times, which factors into team results, and finished a personal-best second at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational in October.
“As a coach, there is nothing more exciting to see,” Keith said. “Every year you add new people, but you also want everyone to develop. The way she finished last spring was a perfect opportunity for her to make a little bit of more of a commitment during the summer and turn herself into a Division I runner.”
Benjamin was no stranger to Vanderbilt. Her cousin was a student at VU, and Benjamin had competed at the Great 8 high school track meet.
She also lived in Tullahoma, Tenn., for 10 years before her father, David, who was her first cross country coach, moved to another church in Richmond, Va. There she attended running powerhouse Midlothian; her graduating class featured three members of the boys’ team and two from the girls who run collegiately.
Her 5K times as a freshman at VU stayed around the 18:30s. In last year’s Commodore Classic she was clocked at 23:22 in the 6K.
She compiled modest times but had yet to break through. The biggest adjustment from high school to college, she discovered, was her body’s recovery to longer runs. She needed to build up to the amount of miles required to compete at this level.
“One thing I hadn’t really thought about was the workouts would go all right but recovery is so different in college just because recovery runs are faster,” she said. “They are adding mileage. I kind of stayed the same until spring last year when my track 5K started dropping some. I had a great group of girls to work with, great training partners.”
Keith began to witness Benjamin “figure it out” last winter during indoor track season. Her 3,000-meter time sank to the 10-minute mark. Then, in the spring, she started running in the low 17:00s in the 5K.
Keith had seen this progression before. Kristen Findley grew from a walk-on to an All-SEC runner by the time she graduated last year. The summer, Keith thought, would prove telling. If Benjamin put in the miles in the heat, she had a chance for a special junior season.
And that’s what happened. She finished 11th at the Commodore Classic with a personal-best time of 17:37.8. At the Roy Griak Invitational in Minnesota, she eclipsed her previous high mark in the 6K by more than a minute. Then, three weeks later, in Wisconsin, she shattered her PR again with a time of 21:07.
Two years ago she just wanted to prove she belonged. Now she can’t be ignored.
“It was exciting because I felt like what I was working toward finally started to pay off,” she said. “It was such a good feeling to run with all the girls on the team. Our team is so cohesive this year. We’re all at that same place. So it is even more meaningful to run like that and run with all of them.”