The Australian Olympian is getting one final tuneup under her belt this weekend.
Most of the marathon focus at this year’s upcoming Olympic Games in London will be on the top-notch Kenyans and Ethiopians. The press will undoubtedly center on the likes of Mary Keitany or Tiki Gelana for the gold medal. But the podium showdown in England isn’t going to necessarily be between the runners who have the fastest qualifying times; there’s experience to account for, and at the Olympics, experience is invaluable.
That’s where four-time Olympian, Benita Willis of Australia, comes in. The 2:22 marathoner is about as experienced as they come.
Willis, who hails from Queensland in the “land down under”, will be racing the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in Seattle on Saturday.
Her goal is to focus on race-pace preparation for London.
“I’ve always enjoyed running the Rock ‘n’ Roll races,” she says. “I feel that they are low key, but really organized races.”
Saying that these races are “low key” is a testament to Willis’ humility. At last year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon, she fended off American Amy Hastings to win the race in 1:10:40.
Wills admits that she’s especially drawn to the Rock ‘n’ Roll series races. “The competition is good, but I like running in participation races,” she says. “I just really enjoy the whole event as well.”
She enjoys the enthusiastic crowds as well. “It’s those kind of things that bring event to become really good,” she says.
Willis, who has been based out of Boulder, Colorado for the past few years, is coached by Brad Hudson. Hudson insists that his 33-year-old athlete is in fine form for this weekend’s race and the Games six weeks from now. “She’s been doing very good at specific training,” he says. Hudson touts a recent clocking of 69:58 for 20K that Willis completed in the middle of a 20-miler as evidence of her staying power. He also says she has been doing “good long runs” to prepare for London.
To get to know Willis is to understand that she likes to get past the divide that often separates the elites from everyday runners. When she’s not out trying to prepare to take on the likes of Keitany or Gelana, Willis is dedicating her time to coaching runners of all ability levels.
“I really enjoy helping people achieve their goals,” Willis says. “Everyone has different goals with their running. Some people it’s about losing weight, while others it’s about running a marathon PR. But it could be about doing your first 5K. No matter what, I just like watching people improve and enhancing their life through exercise.”
A runner’s times and accomplishments don’t mean much to Willis; it’s all about group cohesion and coming together to celebrate the sport of running. “I really like the camaraderie we experience,” she says of the times when runners of varying abilities mix. “I like that genuine team training environment; that’s something that we’ve always had.”
Breaking down barriers between athletes of different ability levels is a priority for Willis. “People who aren’t as fast as elites, they tend to do the same thing all the time; they just jog all the time,” she says. In other words, Willis believes they aren’t doing the proper training required to improve as a runner.
That’s where the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine comes in. Willis works there along with Hudson and says it’s a place where everyday athletes are able to get the same kind of world-class physiological testing as elites. “What great about these people that come to get tested,” she contends, “is that once we find out more about them, we, as coaches, can help set the right paces for them. We also learn what we can do for them fuel-wise before and during the marathon.”
This weekend, however, Willis will be rocking the streets of Seattle with the purpose of making final adjustments before the Olympic Marathon on August 5. Willis used to live and train in London and even though she hasn’t run the actual Olympic marathon course, she knows what to expect. “
The course isn’t going to be easy,” she says of the Olympic course in London. “It’s full of cobblestones and tight, 180-degree turns, but I’ll be ready.”
In other words, Willis will be capitalizing on her experience, and an undying belief in herself.
“To stay at the top level is really hard to keep that focus going after all these years,” she admits. “It’s hard to keep making that Olympic team and keep doing well there, but I think it’s all about not losing faith that you can do it, because a lot of people do give up. To me, it’s about continuing to believe in yourself.”