You wouldn't know it by just looking at him, but Ben Bruce has great body language.
An experienced leader on one of the nation's strongest professional running teams, Bruce listens to his body when it is trying to tell him something about injuries, preparedness and even cravings. By knowing his body and the ins and outs of the sport, the 34-year-old has been finding ways to keep his career on pace for success.
Described by NAZ Elite head coach Ben Rosario as the team's "iron horse," Bruce laced up for his 15th straight appearance at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in late June, finishing the 10,000-meter race in 15th place in 29:43.92. In March, he set a new personal record of 28:09.29 in the 10K run while racing at the Stanford Invitational.
“They don’t come as easily these days,” Bruce said of hitting new PRs.
He manages, however, to find ways to keep clocking times that make him a force in a variety of events.
In January 2016, at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon, he PRed with a time of 1:02:28. Just a few years earlier in 2014, Bruce achieved a feat that set him apart from other athletes, garnering five Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon wins.
A runner with a focus on the steeplechase for a large part of his career, Bruce admitted that the PRs in the long-distance runs might have come simply because he didn't run many races such as the 10,000m.
“At the same time, there are a lot of laps, it’s a lot of time, and it will make you question your sanity,” he added.
During his youth and high school days, Bruce was a multi-sport athlete, "getting into whatever" sports he had time to play. The habits of his youth emerged in his running career, as Bruce works different races into his repertoire in order to stay fresh.
“I think that also helps me avoid injury because I might focus on long runs for a few months and train differently for that," Bruce said. "Then when that’s over, you train for a shorter race and do slightly different types of training. You are doing different types of training, which keeps your body guessing; you are never doing the exact same thing."
Instead of focusing on his legacy, Bruce sets his sights on learning as much as he can about his sport, even if it means competing in races that are not his strongest event.
“I think with some runners, they are maybe scared, because if they are an 800-meter runner, they don’t want to run a 10K or 5K because they’ll get beat by people they feel they should not get beat by. I never really let that bother me," Bruce said.
A STRONG START
Bruce gives credit to another part of his younger running career for his longevity and durability. In order to log as many miles as he does, Bruce doesn't ignore pain, a lesson ingrained in him by his college coach, Manny Bautista of San Diego Mesa College.
“Sometimes runners will push through that for days and turn a small injury into a big injury. It’s hard because you have to have the confidence that you can take time off and know that it hopefully won’t affect the end result,” Bruce said.
He also learned about the importance of drills and how to benefit from workouts and warmups that vary from heavy to light.
“All that stuff I think leads to prevention, and I just sort of stuck with that over the years and really managed to back off when I think that something is giving me problems," he said.
While at Mount Carmel High, soccer, golf and basketball were the focus and Bruce hardly did much varsity running. After gaining a passion for running and a lot of experience at San Diego Mesa College, the next stop was Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he was a two-time NCAA All-American in the steeplechase with a personal best of 8:33.70 and set a 13:40.9 5000m school record, which remains intact.
Steeplechasers around the nation had new competition after the California native graduated in 2005. From 2005 to 2013, Bruce made the Track and Field News United States top 10 steeplechase list eight times, only missing the recognition in 2006. According to the list, his best years in the event came in 2009, when he placed third on the list; 2010, when he got his highest ranking at second in the country; and 2011, the year he was placed in the No. 4 spot.
Not too many other athletes could stay at such a high level and so healthy for so long in the steeple. Looking to the Track and Field News U.S. rankings in the event again, between 2000 and 2013, the only other runner to have more mentions on the list with 10 was Anthony Famiglietti, with Steve Slattery tallying eight.
"Not too many who have been doing what Ben is doing as long at such a high level," Rosario said of his pro.
LEADER OF THE PACK
Rosario knows that Bruce is an essential part of his team. It's not just because of Bruce's success, but what he brings along with the accomplishments, which include runner-up finishes in the steeplechase at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 2010, in the 3K at the USA Indoor Championships in 2013 and in the 5K at the USA Road Championships in 2010.
Outside of the States, he ran at the 2016 World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff, Wales, for his fourth World Team appearance, and he took 13th at the Olympic Trials in the 10,000m that same year.
“I think the best thing you can do in any part of your life is take what you can from your experiences. Of all the races I’ve run, there is still time to doubt yourself, there is still time to question whether you can do something. But I’ve run so many races it’s foolish not to learn something from the experience, so I don’t always sit around and pick apart a run," Bruce said. "I try to take one or two things that I want to change or do differently and try to let the rest of it go. At the same time, I try to appreciate the good performances."
He's got plenty of good performances, as does his teammates.
All on the NAZ Elite roster -- Futsum Zienasellassie, Martin Hehir and Scott Fauble -- made the Track and Field News 2016 U.S. men's 10K Top 10. On the women's side of the rankings, NAZ Elite's Kellyn Taylor and Rochelle Kanuho got Top 10 spots for U.S. women in 2016 in the 10,000.
Bruce thinks of himself as a "joker," the leader who brings a light-hearted feel to a team that has a mix of ages. Despite having so much experience that he can bestow on the younger runners, ranging from how to deal with travel issues to how to perform in a big race, Bruce continues to be a student of running.
He's learned from the younger members on the team to keep communicating with the intensity that burns inside of a runner.
“That is sometimes a valuable thing to have during a race because sometimes you have to throw tradition out of the window and go with the feeling that you need to make a push and not overthink about whether that was the right decision,” Bruce said.
He also doesn't overthink his diet. Many runners say a large part of staying on the track and roads comes from what they put in their bodies. In tune with his stomach as much as he is with his legs, Bruce still allows himself to “eat some junk and crap."
"Because you are as a distance runner putting in a lot of miles, so sometimes you got to give into cravings and enjoy yourself,” Bruce said.
With such a long and decorated career still going, Bruce is surely enjoying himself.