Michael Franklin’s first 10,000 meters race for the Princeton University men’s track team didn’t go very well.
“Coach [Steve] Dolan thought I could hang in there with a slow pace and maybe I could be around at the end,” said Franklin, referring to the 2010 Ivy League Outdoor Heptagonals competition that saw him place 21st of 24 runners. “They ran hard from the start and I quickly dropped off to the back of the pack.”
In the last 10,000 of his Princeton career, Franklin ended the race looking skyward in amazement after placing fifth at the NCAA championship meet in Eugene, Ore. earlier this month to earn first-team All-American honors.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” said Franklin, reflecting on his thoughts as he crossed the finish line.
“I was thinking about all the time spent training, the hard work, and the occasional setbacks, and how it all paid off.”
After a solid but unspectacular high school running career at Mendham (N.J.) High, Franklin had a tough time upon starting his Princeton career in the fall of 2009.
“I think the big adjustment for me was that I was the best guy on my high school team and now I was the 20th guy,” said Franklin. “I was anonymous, in the middle of the pack.”
Franklin did gain inspiration from the runners at the front of the Princeton pack.
“I was the small fish in the big pond but I was getting pushed to be faster by some phenomenal guys,” said Franklin, noting that he was influenced by such standouts as NCAA steeplechase champion Donn Cabral and All-American Brian Leung.
Franklin made gradual improvements as a sophomore and then experienced a major breakthrough when he qualified for the 5,000 in the NCAA outdoor regional meet last spring.
“I did a 14:35 5k as a freshman and a 14:20 5k as a sophomore; I was doing OK but far off from the 13:40s that other guys were doing,” said Franklin.
“As a junior, I did a 14:06 5k. My junior year was a bit of a jump. I had some good races and some bad races before that. I was inconsistent. Coach Dolan said it was time to get the bad races behind me. Every time I stepped to the starting line, I had to be ready for a solid race. It was big to be at the NCAA regionals. There was very tough competition.”
In getting ready for his senior year, Franklin had to show some mental toughness as he juggled a summer job with his training. “I had a 40 hour a week job down in Maryland,” said Franklin. “I did the training on my own but it was tough to run down there. I struggled to stay focused.”
Once he arrived at Princeton for his senior year, Franklin was able to focus more on his running. “I came into the fall in good shape but the summer training was a mental strain,” said Franklin.
“The biggest thing as a senior was that I had fewer distractions. I had done most of my school requirements and I was getting eight to nine hours of sleep a night as opposed to five or six. I had a job offer so that took away some stress.”
In a harbinger of things to come, Franklin made strides during the cross country season.
“I was racing a lot better in the fall,” said Franklin, who won the program’s most improved runner award for the 2012 campaign.
“I was 134th at the NCAAs, that was a great experience. We were 11th, our best finish there, I was consistently solid and the team really jelled.”
At the Indoor Heps, Franklin was better than solid as he took the title in the 5,000 meters.
“That was great, I was super happy about that,” said Franklin, who clocked a 14:18.64 time with teammate Chris Bendsten right behind at 14:18.72.
“It was a real breakthrough. I had a 3k at the Armory meet and I dropped my best by 10 seconds. I realized I could compete on this level. I did the 3k and the 5k at the Indoor Heps. I didn’t have a good run in the 3k. I came into the 5k more relaxed and had a great race. It was a little disappointing since we lost the team title by a point.”
In May, Franklin played a key role in helping the Tigers win the Outdoor Heps for the third straight year, placing first in both the 5,000 and 10,000.
“I personally had a great meet,” said Franklin, who literally dove across the finish line to win the 5k in a time of 14:10.85 and clocked a time of 29:46.77 in leading a 1-2-4-5 finish for Princeton in the 10k.
“Winning the 10k and 5k was more than I could have hoped for. We were sore about what happened at the Indoor Heps so it was great to win the team title.”
Keeping up his great form, Franklin placed fourth in the 10,000 at the NCAA East Regional to punch his ticket to Eugene.
“I had never made nationals; I was confident about making the top 12,” said Franklin.
“No one wants to take up the pace, it comes to control. There are a lot of people making moves and racheting it up when you need to. It was my first real experience with that and it went well.”
While Franklin was pulled in many directions between the regional and leaving for the national meet, he regained his sense of urgency upon arriving in Oregon.
“With reunions and graduation, it is distracting,” said Franklin. “We went out to Eugene on Monday. Getting out there and running on that famous track helped to get my head around the idea that this was it. I was looking to be in the top 8 which would be first team All-American.”
In order to achieve that goal, Franklin realized that he had to bide his time as the race unfolded.
“I knew that Lawi Lalang (of Arizona) was head and shoulders above the field and that if I ran his race, I would not do well,” said Franklin.
“I wanted to stay in the pack and isolate myself from the race and then pick up the pieces at the end.”
Franklin executed his plan brilliantly, running his fastest three laps in the final three laps, clocking a 1:08.17, 1:06.73 and closing with a 1:01.62 — the second-fastest lap of any of the competitors throughout the entire race.
“I didn’t know what the splits were; I wasn’t thinking I had to make a move at a certain point,” said Franklin, who clocked a final time of 29:42.34, just under 13 seconds behind Lalang’s winning time of 29:29.65. “I did pick up the pace a little, I moved up and just picked off guys.”
Franklin recorded Princeton’s best finish at the NCAAs in the 10k, as the program’s previous top finish in the event came from Joe LeMay, who took 8th at 30:05.19 in 1989.
“I really couldn’t be happier; I achieved more than the most ambitious goals that I set,” said Franklin, who noted that he trained 90-100 miles a week in March and was down to around 60-70 miles with increased speedwork down the stretch of the season.
“It took mental fortitude to stick to the race plan, there were a lot of good guys out there who made moves. Competing on the highest stage in college sports and representing Princeton means a lot to me.”
Over the rest of the summer, Franklin is looking to capitalize on his speed by competing in some 5,000 races and plans to keep running in some capacity for years to come.
“I see myself continuing in road races, half marathons and greater distances,” said Franklin, who will be working in software development for the Department of Defense at Fort Meade in Maryland.
“Up to this point racing has been such an important part of my life, I get a lot of enjoyment out of it.”
And Franklin certainly enjoyed running the race of his life in his final college appearance.