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Blankenship wins Minnesota Mile with a heavy heart, fast feet

Ben Blankenship (left) of Johnson City, Tenn., is the first to cross the Minnesota Mile finish line on Skyline Parkway on Thursday evening. Blankenship won the men's division with a time of 4 minutes, 7 seconds. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Heather Kampf of Minneapolis celebrates as she crosses the Minnesota Mile finish line on Skyline Parkway on Thursday evening. Kampf won the women's division with a time of 4 minutes, 41.6 seconds. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com 2 / 2

Just before he arrived back in the United States last week from the IAAF World Challenge in Zagreb, Croatia, Ben Blankenship's grandmother passed away.

"She was having a little bit of trouble, and I was really hoping to get home before it happened," Blankenship said.

Barbara Feyereisen died Aug. 30. She was 84.

Blankenship was a pallbearer at her funeral Tuesday in Crystal, Minn. On Thursday, the former Stillwater High School state champion, University of Minnesota All-American and 2016 Summer Olympian was back in Duluth for the Minnesota Mile. Buoyed by family, including his grandfather, Francis Feyereisen, who was married to Barbara for nearly 67 years, Blankenship surged to victory in 4 minutes and 7 seconds.

Arms raised, ponytail bouncing out from beneath a black Nike headband — and his heart heavy — he topped a field of 18 elite men to cap an emotional stretch.

"She was a really big influence throughout my life, really big supporter of mine," the 28-year-old said. "She came to almost all my high school races, any local races that I was in, so it's been a really tough week.

"It was really nice to have my grandpa up here and have his support."

Thursday's win gives Blankenship his second course record at the Grandma's Marathon-sponsored Minnesota Mile. He held the fastest time on the previous course, along Superior Street in downtown Duluth, at 3:52.7 — the fastest mile ever recorded in Minnesota. This time around, he set the record by default as the event debuted a new location by Enger Park on Skyline Parkway and Hank Jensen Drive.

It was a more demanding route than the old Superior Street straightaway, which sloped ever so invitingly downhill. Instead, runners Thursday — there were 494 registrants across several divisions — were greeted by a gradual climb, turns and a tough uphill approaching the finish line.

Blankenship said it favored "strength-based athletes," whereas the old course was all about sheer speed.

"Fortunately, I can kind of do both," he said as daylight waned from a sky full of pastels.

Trevor Dunbar of Boulder, Colo., was second in 4:07.2.

Kampf triples up

Whereas Blankenship ran the new course sight unseen, elite women's champ Heather Kampf of Minneapolis ran it three times Wednesday. A shakeout run, she called it, moments after shaking free of second-place Monicah Ngige of Lansing, Mich., to notch her third Minnesota Mile title.

Kampf broke the tape in 4:41.6, a step ahead of Ngige, who was through in 4:41.9. She charged up the closing ascent, which, just yards from the finish line, gave way to a steep descent. The abrupt grade change made for an entertaining finish as runners went from pushing hard uphill to steadying themselves against gravity.

"That last hill was like an all-out sprint," the 30-year-old Kampf said, before adding that she had to try not to fall on the subsequent downhill "because it's so fast and steep."

She was victorious here in 2014 at 4:29.9 and in 2012 at 4:37. Her time Thursday wasn't far off, even with a layout Kampf described as tactical.

"The turns and the hills make you just a little bit less aware of where you're at," she said.

The Minnesota Mile used to take place on a sleepy Sunday morning in September. Switching to a Thursday evening brought out more spectators, who took in views of Lake Superior, the St. Louis River Bay and the city's hillside amid crisp temperatures that made it abundantly clear summer is fading.

Those sights, breathtaking as they might be, didn't do much for the elites, who were too busy chasing a $2,500 first-place prize.

"I loved it (Wednesday), and even the warm-up today — it's beautiful — but we didn't really pay attention during the race itself," Kampf said. "Just going too fast."

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