Above: Ben Ashkettle in action at Mt Sac Relays during his time at Northern Arizona University.
Ben Ashkettle climbed to second on the 2016 New Zealand half-marathon rankings with an impressive 63:32 clocking in Noosa last weekend. Steve Landells caught up with the Australian-based athlete and discovered he has set some bold future ambitions.
Distance runner Ben Ashkettle may live in Melbourne and speak with a distinctly Australian twang but there is no mistaking his loyalty to New Zealand.
Born in Wellington he moved across the other side of the Tasman with his family aged five but his deep connection to his land of birth should never be questioned.
“My whole family still pretty much live in New Zealand, so throughout my life to maintain those roots we’d visit New Zealand at least twice a year,” he explains. “I’ve always felt Kiwi at heart. My father used to talk around the dinner table about Dick Quax, Rod Dixon and John Walker, so I’d grown up inspired by tales on all these athletes.”
Such is the former Australian international junior athletes passion for New Zealand in early 2014 he switched allegiance to represent the land of his birth.
“I think running in black looks better,” he adds with a trademark laugh. “I know for my family it is something they are very proud of.”
Ben’s running genetics are strong. His father Patrick, a former 2:23 marathoner and two-time Kiwi representative at the World University Games, boasts a strong distance running pedigree and aged just nine Ben recalls pestering his dad to run in the 10km Olympic Dream road race in Melbourne and running the entire distance.
Formal athletics involvement arrived much later. A soccer and tennis player in his youth it was only after he was sidelined from tennis after breaking a wrist did his father encourage him to keep fit by joining the local Doncaster Athletic Club.
It proved an inspired choice. After just one month of training he was crowned state under-18 cross country champion.
Highly motivated if not a little shocked by his quick-fire success within just six months he was crowned national under-18 2000m steeplechase champion in Sydney – a success which provided an emotional moment for the Ashkettle family.
“I finished third in the 3000m (flat) when I rang my dad and said I think I might win the steeplechase tomorrow,” he says. “At that point my granddad had become quite sick and was rapidly losing his eyesight, so my dad made a last minute decision to fly him (from Wellington) to Sydney. I ended up winning, so it was a memorable victory.”
Less than a year after taking up the sport he was selected to compete for Australia in the steeplechase at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing. “Overwhelmed” with the experience he failed to make it out of the heats but he wanted to expand his running horizons and in 2007 took up a scholarship at Northern Arizona University alongside David McNeill, who is set to compete in the 10,000m for Australia at the Rio Olympics.
Thriving in the high altitude city of Flagstaff – which has become a training Mecca for so many of the world’s elite athletes - he describes his US collegiate experience as “awesome.”
Running on a weekly training regime of up to 140km a week he made huge progress in his time in the US and ran personal bests to running a time of 13:55.27 (he set the mark indoors) for the 5000m and 28:52.72 for the 10,000m and also team success.
“We grew into one of the best (teams) in the country, he says of North Arizona University. “In my first year we made the podium at the national cross country having not even made the finals the previous year.”
However, after graduating with a major in finance in 2011 he returned home to Melbourne to look for “a real job.” He started a job as an investment banker and running took a back seat as work became his priority.
Yet a number of factors contributed to his return to athletics. In 2012 he began a relationship with his girlfriend, Rio-bound 1500m runner Linden Hall who only last weekend in Eugene ran a stunning 1500m PB of 4:01.78.
“We hit it off instantly and on the back of that I wanted to start running more to be a bigger part of what she was doing,” he explains.
He also travelled across to the States to meet many of his former team-mates at Northern Arizona. The bug had bitten once more.
“That was the moment I thought, this is what I want to do,” he explains. “I rediscovered the passion.”
Following six months hard training he slashed his personal best to run 1:04:12 for fourth in the half-marathon in Gold Coast Half-Marathon. The performance qualified Ben for the 2014 World Half-Marathon Championships in Copenhagen – the event where he was to make his international debut in the Black Singlet.
Yet on arriving in Denmark the warm-weather loving distance runner was in for a shock.
He performed solidly in Denmark placing 87th in a time of 1:06 even though the weather conditions did not suit.
“I’m used to training in 30c and I’ve always hate running in the cold so I was disappointed to find it was 2c. To run a time of 1:06:37 (for 87th) was not too bad considering I also got sick on the day.”
In a further bid to improve his running career he quit his full-time job to take on a two-day a week role at a smaller bank and last year he sought to overhaul his training approach.
Self-coached since returning from the US he opted to be coached by the highly-regarded Dick Telford, coach to 2014 Commonwealth Marathon champion Michael Shelley and 1988 Olympic marathon silver medallist Lisa Martin.
The switch was far from easy and he stepped up his weekly training load from around 140km to 200km and it has taken time to adapt.
He suffered a setback last year after fracturing his tibia when stepping on the tree root in the park but over time the Australian-based Kiwi has become accustomed to its demands and even prefers the sessions to what he had done past
“The sessions and very different,” he says. “There are no drills or time wasted it is just a big run with intervals in the middle of the run. In some ways this type of running is more convenient. It is just a run in Westerfolds Park (in Melbourne) among kangaroos, wombats and koalas, which I love. I carry out all my sessions there rather than around the track. My number one goal is to have fun with my training and I really feel I have got that balance.”
Ambitiously targeting the New Zealand Olympic standard of 2:14:00 in January’s Houston Marathon – the race where he set his marathon PB of 2:19:16 in 2014 – he was on track to achieve the goal at halfway before he dropped off the pace and quit at 34km (where he was still on for a 2:16 marathon) before he was advised to quit to keep his powder dry for another attempt.
Keen to avoid a cool marathon such as London or Paris he instead decided to try April’s Vienna Marathon. Encouraged by previous warm conditions in the Austrian spring and in better shape than in Houston three months earlier he was confident of producing something special. Yet on the day he suffered what he describes as a “disaster” completing the 42.2km test in 2:24:40.
“It was freezing cold and blowing a gale,” he says. “The only reason I ended up finishing was I didn’t want to quit a second marathon in a row.”
Yet out of that disappointment emerged a new Ben Ashkettle.
“That raced changed something inside of me,” he admits. “As I flew home on the plane I said this is never going to happen again and since I returned back to training I’ve had an anger burning inside of me at that result.”
The pain has fuelled an even greater desire. Last weekend he ran the Noosa Half-Marathon targeting a sub 65-minute time. What he achieved was an impressive new PB by 40 seconds of 63:32 inspired in the final stages by the news his partner, Linden Hall, had just run 4:01 for the 1500m in Eugene.
“My dad and Linden’s dad travelled to my race and told me with 1km the time she had ran,” he explains with tears in his eyes. “It sounds really stupid I shed tears of joy, but I feel you turn the corner in your relationship when you see each other’s goals as your own goals.”
The ever optimistic Ben believes with his new-found belief he is capable of a 2:12 marathon and wants “eventually” to run 2:10. However, in the short-term he has not ruled out one final crack at delivering his Olympic dream as he targets next month’s Gold Coast Airport Marathon.
“It would only be seven weeks between Gold Coast and the Olympic Games but if anyone can do something stupid like that it is me,” he says. “I once remember reading Derek Clayton (former Australian marathoner) finished one marathon and then two weeks later broke the marathon world record, so anything is possible.”