Jared Blank probably missed being at Levi’s Stadium Dec. 1 to watch his beloved University of Southern California Trojans win the PAC-12 Championship in a revenge victory over the Stanford Cardinals – but he had other things to do that day.
He had to go for a run.
But not just any run. A training run for a marathon.
And not just one marathon but marathons, actually.
Blank, the former football operations director for USC, is training to run seven marathons in seven continents over seven days as part of the World Marathon Challenge.
And that’s happening in just two weeks. Depending a little bit on the weather, the 55 runners participating in the challenge will kick off their first 26.2-miler Jan. 30 in Nova, Antartica, and finish Feb. 5 in Miami. In between, Blank and his crazy compadres will run marathons in Cape Town, South Africa; Perth, Australia; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Lisbon, Portugal; and Cartagena, Colombia.
So football games – even championships and bowl games – had to wait.
Although Blank is a huge Trojans football fan – having gone to USC as well as worked there for seven years – he’s also on a mission.
The seven-marathon quest is not just to push his physical limits; it’s mostly to raise awareness for something very personal to him – dyslexia.
That’s why he resigned his USC position in July and made training and advocating his full-time endeavors.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t pay attention to his Trojans – even if it was just catching some highlights while stretching after a hard run.
“So pumped for them, love to watch people win, especially ones I have seen put in work firsthand,” Blank said from his Portland, Ore. home, adding it’s hard not to keep up with the team since his two older brothers and younger sister all went to USC too. “With training I have really thrown all my energy and focus into it. I knew that to be fair to either endeavor between working with the team or training for this challenge, it was right for me to only choose one. And I am enjoying this journey.”
Though that current journey may seem a whole lot more like “pain” than “pleasure” to most of us, for Blank, the hours of running are often a welcomed rescue. And that’s fitting since it was running that helped rescue him early on when dealing with the anxiety and stress of being dyslexic.
Dyslexia – which refers to a range of challenges related to word recognition and decoding abilities that often impacts spelling and reading comprehension – affects between 15 and 20 percent of all Americans, according to the International Dyslexia Association.
Blank certainly understands that dyslexia perhaps isn’t on the same level as life-threatening illnesses when it comes to raising money and awareness, but at the same time, the psychological stress definitely hurts those who suffer from it – as he knows all too well.
“Dyslexia is not cancer, and I recognize it doesn’t have the same impact on people’s lives,” Blank says. “But it takes a toll on a person, and you have to rebuild their confidence and remind them they are not stupid.”
So it’s Blank’s goal to make sure more kids don’t suffer the way he did most of his way through school – and mostly let them know they are not stupid and they have a support network.
Blank was five when his parents realized he had dyslexia – which was pretty early and allowed Blank to be more proactive than most in working through his reading challenges. But in third grade, following the annual district and statewide testing, he was told he would probably not graduate high school and go to college.
His main challenges stemmed from having a hard time processing words quickly while reading because certain letters would be transposed. Blank says he comprehended about 10-25 percent of what was going on in the classroom because of his challenge reading words in textbook lessons or on the chalkboard. He also couldn’t read his own handwriting very well, so taking notes to study later was useless.
Blank would spend six hours in school in total frustration, then go to soccer practice before going home to agonize over his homework all over again. What might take the average student an hour to complete would take Blank three hours.
Thankfully for Blank, his parents – father a lawyer and mother a former educator – fought hard to convince schools that their son wasn’t just a poor or lazy student. They eventually convinced schools and teachers that note-takers and extra time for tests were necessary. Blank even had a few teachers along the way who were very progressive in their thinking and went the extra mile to help.
“My parents had to fight to prove that dyslexia was actually ‘a thing,’” Blank recalls.
And that was just 25 years ago in the mid-90s. Many kids growing up in the 60s, 70s and 80s didn’t learn until they were adults – if ever – that there was a reason for their difficulty learning and studying.
But since beginning this journey, Blank has discovered that it’s still a widespread problem to get schools, school boards and teachers all across the educational system to recognize dyslexia and help students learn in spite of their challenges rather than just labeling those students as “dumb” and letting them fall through the cracks.
“I feel so fortunate because I had support, but what about a student without those resources and support?” Blank said. “It’s hard enough with all of that, so how can we support the kids who don’t know there is help out there?”
Through overcoming his struggles in school with the help of tutors and learning resources, Blank learned a very valuable lesson – with enough hard work, he could overcome his dyslexia. It would take him twice as long to do the work, but he could do it and be successful at it.
“There was a point in high school where I realized that I could work three to four hours straight and get it,” Blank recalled. “Once I got to four, I could put in six hours. Once I did six, I realized I could do nine. I thought, ‘I have the ability to do this if I just work hard enough.’ And once I got a taste of that, it was game on.”
“Game on” meant earning a bachelor’s degree at USC in communication in 2005, a master’s degree at USC in communication management and then an MBA at Seattle Pacific University in 2013.
So he basically crushed it in his fight against dyslexia and all the naysayers who said he’d never be able to accomplish such feats.
And that brings us back to running.
During high school, Blank generally ran for soccer, which was his major outlet from all the extra studying. But in college, if he weren’t in class, he was in his dorm room studying.
Running became his escape.
“I could just go out the door to get rid of the frustration,” he said.
Running was mostly a casual endeavor throughout his college and early working life, doing his first marathon in 2010 with a 16-week plan he downloaded from the Internet. The race in Eugene went well as he ran it in 3:30, so he thought “it would be cool” to try and qualify for the Boston Marathon.
Blank committed to training for Boston in 2013 but turned in a “DNF” in his first qualifying attempt. He tried again in May 2015 but was three minutes off the necessary qualifying time of 3:05. So he ran another marathon later that spring in Portland and was off by almost an hour. Eventually Blank ran a 3:02 marathon in July that year and earned his spot in Boston.
But running three marathons in two months sparked Blank’s thinking – why not seven marathons in seven days in seven different continents? He had seen the 2015 World Marathon Challenge and it seemed like a good idea.
“I saw the Challenge on TV and it just called my name,” Blank said. “I started following it every year, and it got to the point where I said, ‘If I’m ever going to do this, now is it.”
So eight years after running his first marathon, Blank is two weeks away from starting the first of seven in seven days – and it will be in 15 degrees below zero. Luckily, REI sells “polar gear” for the race.
“I’ve never run in it, but supposedly it’s supposed to help you warm up quickly,” Blank says, with a slight chuckle. “I’m looking forward to running in Antarctica the most, I think.”
I ask him, “Are you CRAZY?”
“Yeah,” he says without hesitation.
He knows it’s so crazy in fact, that he wrote a letter to his parents explaining exactly why he wanted to take on this challenge.
His mom wrote him back, saying half-joking, “Your dad may kill me, but I understand and support you in this.”
But when Blank considers his past – and the somewhat obsessive-compulsive behavior to succeed in school despite the challenges of dyslexia – this marathon challenge is really no different.
He’s in the taper period of his training that began last year with base training, then track workouts to get his average speed up, then the tempo training to increase mileage. Although sometimes the details of running technique or working on flexibility make the training arduous, if having dyslexia taught him anything, it was the ability to learn to suffer.
In fact, Blank believes his “weakness” via dyslexia has become his strength. He remembers one of his specialists in high school telling him that studying was going to be like “running with a cut on your foot – it will be painful, but you can still do it.”
Not only has Blank never forgotten that advice, he has embraced it.
“When I got knocked down, I’d suffer then get back up and keep going,” Blank says. “I’m thankful for it; now it’s a blessing.”
And that blessing is exactly the message he’s taking to schools and to kids he works with through the International Dyslexia Association.
“I try to understand where they’re coming from and share elements of my life because I have a relatable story that connects with them,” Blank says, adding he also tries to encourage kids not to accept the reality that some educators “in the system” present to them – which is one of despair.
“My message to them is really figure out what you love doing and make it part of your life and build around it,” he says. “If you do that, great things will come from it. Where you are is just your starting point, not where you’ll finish.”
In addition to raising the $50,000 cost to participate in the World Marathon Challenge, Blank is also attempting to raise the same amount in donations for IDA – something he explains on his personal website is the crux of this endeavor.
“The past few months have been full of personal development, reflection and complete change,” he says. “Through running and engaging with my community, I feel like an entirely different person; I’m showing up to my life differently, and I want to help other people find this sense of purpose and connection.”
What the future holds regarding his work with IDA and more endurance challenges, Blank isn’t sure. Maybe some ultra marathons. Maybe the L.A. Marathon.
Whatever it is, he likes the trail he’s on right now.
“Dyslexia gave me the ability to learn to suffer, and there’s a little bit of passion in that when it comes to running,” he says. “I have a connection to a world I can understand from a different perspective. There’s an element of beauty there.”