2015 Peachtree Road Race Runner-up Made Mistake, But Not the One You Think

Photo Finish - MarathonFoto

ATLANTA - June 24, 2016 - As he pointed to the sky in apparent victory at last year’s AJC Peachtree Road Race, Ben Payne was caught at the finish line by a stealthily charging Scott Overall. Payne’s premature celebration became internet fodder and the subject of commentary from USA Today to CNN to ESPN SportsCenter.

Except that he wasn’t celebrating.

“That’s me thanking the Lord for getting me to the finish line,” said Payne in a recent telephone interview. “I’ve done that every race since my college days.”

The active-duty U.S. Air Force pilot from Colorado Springs, Colorado, was beaten by 2012 Olympian Scott Overall from Great Britain, he said, strictly by letting his guard down and getting out-kicked after thinking that he had dropped his rival.

But the 34-year-old Payne, who trains with the Pikes Peak Elite Track Club, said that he wouldn’t change a thing, because in the big picture he learned a lot not just about racing but about life. Foremost among those lessons: How to remain proud of his breakthrough—Payne set a personal best and ran 1:38 faster than his next-fastest Peachtree—while handling the media onslaught.

“For whatever reason, people enjoy seeing other people fail,” Payne said. “In my mind, that race was not a failure.”

His coach, 1996 Olympian Juli Benson, agrees. First, Payne put himself in contention for the win. Just as important, she said, “A big part of my coaching philosophy is that it’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. I really believe that it left him more hungry.”

The 2015 AJC Peachtree Road Race jump-started the best year of racing in Payne’s life. He has twice lowered his 10,000-meter personal best since last July 4, first to 28:50.18 and then 28:36.43, and finished 17th at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in a personal best 2:18:37.

And Payne hopes to continue, maybe even until 2020, despite a big change coming up in his life. A 2004 graduate of the Air Force Academy whose deployments have included Djibouti and Afghanistan, his active duty will end in three months, when he will join the Colorado National Guard’s 200th Airlift Squadron at Peterson AFB as a C-21 Learjet pilot.

“I still have some relatively young legs and Meb has made it clear that age is not a factor,” he said.

“Plan A” for this July 4 was for Payne to be 2,600 miles away, in Eugene, Oregon, competing at 10,000 meters in the U.S. Olympic Trials, but after falling short of the automatic qualifying standard he is very much looking forward to executing “Plan B” in Atlanta. As someone with a career outside of running, who got married last December, and who has raced the Memorial Day Bolder Boulder 10K with the names of friends and family who were lost in combat written on the back of his bib, it didn’t take long for Payne to put last year’s finish and its aftermath in perspective.

Besides, he said, “No one ever remembers second place, but they remember this one.”