Looking Back: Ben Fletcher was born to run

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Ben Fletcher crosses the finish line. (Submitted Photo)

Sprinting down the final stretch of the Foot Locker Northeast Regional Cross Country Championship race, Auburn’s Ben Fletcher appeared in the sight of his coach and former Edward Little cross country and track coach Dan Campbell.

In fifth place at the time, Campbell knew that Fletcher would have a chance at a top-three finish.

“He had a hellacious kick, and I knew he wasn’t going to get first, but could get second, so I took off to go to the tent to congratulate him and was just happy for him,” Campbell said.

Arriving at the finish line, Campbell arrived to find every top runner in the Northeast. Every runner except his own.

The medical tent was searched, then the finishing area again, but Fletcher was nowhere to be found. Where the Edward Little senior was finally found was 100 yards away from the finish line, clapping and cheering for each and every runner that passed him by.

“He had fallen and almost passed out with almost a hundred yards to go, but he sat there and clapped for every person and then he walked off,” Campbell said. “Even though he had fallen, he took it as far as he could take it, and that’s an amazing story.”

Though Fletcher ran out of gas, his immediate reaction to the situation is the reaction everyone that has coached him would have expected.

“The first thing I think of is Ben’s positive attitude,” former Edward Little track coach and current Leavitt Area High School athletic director Ryan Laroche said. “You would think it would be his commitment to being a great runner and his natural ability running, but he was always smiling and always finding the good in things. He was one of those people you want to have on the team. He was always moving forward and being positive.”

FOLLOWING A FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS

Edward Little High School has churned out many great runners over its history, but arguably none more accomplished than Fletcher. Participating in the Auburn Rec summer track program when he was growing up, as so many Androscoggin County athletes do, Fletcher caught the running bug early.

It also helped that his father, Ralph Fletcher, was an accomplished runner in his own right, in the 1970s and 80s. While never explicitly pushing Ben into running, Ralph had a great influence on him as a child.

“He maybe passively moved me just because I would see him out there running in races,” Ben Fletcher said. “I think it was kind of his prime in the 80s, winning a lot of races and being in that era. It wasn’t anything like, ‘You should run,’ that kind of deal.”

DISTANCING HIMSELF

Fletcher competed in many different kinds of events as a middle schooler, in an attempt to pinpoint his strengths. He was a solid sprinter and jumper, but his distance running separated him from the pack.

“In middle school, I kind of realized I was OK at it and I started doing well in races, so that’s the era where I was like, ‘OK, this is fun,'” Fletcher said. “In middle school, I totally didn’t expect it but I set the state mile record. It was like, ‘OK, this is where I am.'”

It was in high school that distance running became his focus. Fletcher played soccer his freshman and sophomore years but was coerced by Campbell to join the cross country team his junior season. Campbell, a family friend of the Fletchers and teammate of Ralph at Edward Little in the 1970s, knew Ben would be special.

At the Class A state championship meet in 1997, Fletcher knew that Cheverus was going to be a tough team of runners to take down. Stags runners Ryan Demers, Ryan Toothaker and Ryan Fenton were all on Fletcher’s radar heading into the race at the University of Maine at Augusta.

“Cheverus was the big team at the time. They were stacked,” Fletcher said. “That’s one of those races that I think back on that was pretty memorable. … It could have been any one of us. I didn’t expect to win that race.”

Fletcher was nervous, but Campbell was confident in the training they had done over the previous few months. With morning workouts — which were his paper route for the Sun Journal — and his afternoon workouts orchestrated by Campbell, Fletcher was ready.

“It wasn’t an easy run, but he had been beaten by those three people all year long,” Campbell said. “I told him that if you follow this plan you will win and he did.”

Fletcher edged out Demers by just two seconds for the win in his first state meet. His senior year featured the same result: Fletcher repeated as Class A champion, this time with a 21-second win.

Fletcher was also a standout track athlete, indoors and out. During his junior and senior years, Fletcher won the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs for Edward Little. With top times of 1:54, 4:13 and 9:16, respectively, Fletcher was one of the top runners to come out of the Southwestern Maine Activities Association conference and the state of Maine, ever.

STEADY EDDIE

Through all the state and conference titles, Fletcher’s attitude and demeanor never wavered.

“What stands out to me about Ben, is that nothing really stands out,” Art Feeley, Fletcher’s track coach at EL, said. “He was very humble and unassuming. He worked hard and got great results.”

Laroche agreed.

“He was one of the most self-motivated athletes I’ve ever seen at EL,” Laroche said. “I would put him up there with (now-professional basketball player and EL alum) Troy Barnies. He was as committed an athlete at EL as anyone, and I have seen a lot of great athletes come through here.”

In 1999, Fletcher won all three distance races to lead the Eddies to a Class A state championship victory, something his two other siblings did, as well. Afterwards, Fletcher and his friends, as well as Campbell, traveled to Fletcher’s camp to celebrate. A close family friend with the Fletchers even before Ben was born, Campbell was there for every step of Ben’s high school career.

“The best story was that his mom always used to send me nice little cards at the end of the year, just thanking me for coaching and helping their kids,” Campbell said. “She wrote me a card senior year and just wanted to thank me for being his coach and working with him. … Her letter said, ‘Just so you know, don’t think I didn’t know you guys smoked a cigar after graduation. I could smell it on his breath.'”

After Edward Little won the 1999 boys’ Class A team outdoor title, the Red Eddies brought a 4×800-meter relay team to the New England championship meet. With Fletcher as the anchor, EL came from behind to earn the win in the inaugural relay event at the New England championship.

“New Englands is so hard to even know because you don’t know what other states are doing — no internet, you just show up there and are thinking, ‘Oh, we don’t have a chance,'” Fletcher said. “We started well and then one of our guys dropped it and we went way back but then we pulled it out at the end.”

Fletcher also won the 800-meter race at New Englands.

THE NEXT STEP

Prior to the end of his senior year, Fletcher and Campbell took some trips to different colleges that were recruiting the Auburn runner. Fletcher visited the University of Oregon and also the University of Wisconsin on his trips with Campbell by his side. In the end, Fletcher chose Oregon, the school with famous alum Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, and the site of the United States Olympic track and field trials every four years.

Everything was looking up for Fletcher after high school. After being redshirted his freshman year, though, Fletcher made the decision to leave.

“I think it just boiled down to my real first experience away from home,” Fletcher said. “First off, we had a recruiting class of five people and the coach put us all in the intensive academic dorm. He wanted us to eat, sleep, run and study, basically in that order. Nothing beyond that, and it just wasn’t for me. I do have regrets. I wish I would have just done one season because the training was intense and it was the best shape of my life, but, you know, it just wasn’t for me.”

Campbell knew that the decision still somewhat weighed in the back of Fletcher’s head.

“I took him to the 2008 Olympic Trials in Oregon from where he was in San Francisco, and we sat in the front row. At the end, Ben looked at me and said, ‘You took me out here for a reason, didn’t you?’ And I said, ‘I absolutely did,’ because a lot of the people that were running were running against him in college. He redshirted his first year and Ben’s eyes got wide open in a different culture. He loved running but wasn’t racing and he left Oregon.”

GETTING OFF TRACK

For the next eight years, Fletcher traveled from the University of Maine at Farmington and Taiwan, where he got a job teaching English. Fletcher eventually obtained a business degree and got a job in San Francisco, California, buying running shoes for specialty running shops. Fletcher then worked for Mizuno, selling shoes to shops in Northern California.

But Fletcher came back to his roots a few years ago to take a job buying shoes for Lamey Wellehan.

The weather was enjoyable for Fletcher in California, but there was something about the changes of seasons in Maine that was calling him back. And, of course, his family.

The Fletchers are a family of athletes. Ralph enjoyed success at EL in the 1970s, and Ben’s brother Sam and sister Emily both won track and field state titles at EL.

In 2004, Emily died in a car crash. In her memory, Sam Fletcher started what began as a memorial run with friends and family.

“He’s the man,” Ben Fletcher said of Sam. “He started Em’s race. It started as just some friends getting together for a memorial run. I don’t even know the exact timeline or how it grew, but all the sudden it became part of the Triple Crown. I think for me the most important part is we are raising money for aspects of the community that are important to us that need help.”

Emily’s Run is now the second-of-three 5-kilometer races over the summer in Lewiston and Auburn, with hundreds of runners competing each year. Emily’s Run starts at Edward Little High School and travels through the surrounding Auburn neighborhood, by Ralph’s house, and then ends back at the track that Emily once ran. The trail is the same path Emily and her distance teammates used to traverse on long runs. When they arrived at her father’s house, they would stop to take a break before finishing with a run up Shepley Street en route to the high school.

The run raises money for the Androscoggin Land Trust, the Auburn Public Library and the Auburn Nordic Ski Association, among others. The 2018 race was the 11th run as part of the Triple Crown series of races.

Fletcher competes in the race every year, and, just as he was doing on the ground at Foot Locker Regionals, he can be found cheering runners on, showing his compassion and enthusiasm all these years later.

Ben Fletcher and his daughter, Maizy. (Submitted photo) 

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