The New Zealand native is gearing up for another year of competing in middle-distance races.
Over the last two years, no middle distance runner has been more dominant in road miles than Nick Willis. The New Zealand native and 2008 Olympic silver medalist has racked up wins from Boston to Minneapolis and New York City, finding a niche away from the track’s oval. On May 8, Willis will return to Minneapolis for the 10th annual Medtronic TC Mile, aiming to defend his title and improve his own course record.
“It’s a great race that I’m really excited about,” Willis told Race Results Weekly in an exclusive telephone interview from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Monday. “It’s a great opportunity for me to do what I love, running a mile on the roads and trying to pick up some great prize money.”
In 2013, Willis left his mark on the American road mile scene, winning the B.A.A. Invitational Mile in a course record time of 4:03.3, the Medtronic TC Mile in another course mark of 3:56.1, and September’s NYRR Fifth Avenue Mile in 3:52.1 (his second Fifth Avenue Mile crown). By coming back to Minneapolis in May, Willis seeks to become the third back-to-back men’s champion in race history, joining Americans Luke Watson (2005-2006) and David Torrence (2009-2011).
While Willis has achieved a personal best of 3:30.35 for 1500m on the track, his savvy racing tactics shine bright on the roads. Unlike grand prix-style racing, where athletes often are required to go out fast in order to gain positioning and contend for a podium finish, road miles allow one to gradually wind up a race, coming on strong right when it counts. That is Willis’s bread and butter.
“I’ve never been one to have success when I run the first 200 or 300 meters very fast,” he said. “In a road mile, you don’t have turns to navigate so positioning isn’t an issue [unlike on the track]. So you can sort of choose your own pace and slowly work your way into a race if that’s how you want to go about it.”
At the Medtronic TC Mile, Willis’ eyes are on the $5,000 top prize, plus an additional $10,000 if he breaks his own course record of 3:56.1.
“It’s a challenging course,” said Willis, noting a slight uphill in the first three city blocks. “I’m certainly going to be expecting my fitness to be similar as it was last time and hopefully we have a good shot at it.”
In addition to running the Medtronic TC Mile, Willis has a full slate of races planned for his spring and summer seasons. After taking a week off following the IAAF World Indoor Championships earlier this month, Willis is just now getting back into the thick of training.
Looking ahead, Willis has broken the outdoor season into three phases. First, he’ll compete at three or four races in the early months, culminating with the 5000m at the Oxy High Performance Meet in Mid-may. There he’ll try and secure a birth on New Zealand’s Commonwealth Games 5000m team. At the Commonwealth Games, he plans to double in both the 5000m and 1500m.
After the Oxy Meet in Los Angeles, Willis will return to Michigan for six or seven weeks, focusing on mileage more than speed in an effort to prevent himself from peaking too early. Fine-tuning his speed on the European track circuit in July, Willis’ main goal is the Commonwealth Games, July 27 through Aug. 2 in Glasgow.
On August 10, he’ll be back in Michigan at the Michigan Track Classic before finishing up the racing season in September.
Willis is excited to lace up his adidas spikes, especially considering how his last race ended: a disqualification at the IAAF World Indoor Championships 1500m in Sopot, Poland. After crossing the line fourth, Willis was notified that he’d been disqualified for stepping inside the rail.
Looking back now, 16 days later, the father of one recognizes his mistake.
“I was a little aggressive too early with 550 to go, which meant when they went again with 350 to go I became a little more tentative,” he said, his tone acknowledging the lesson learned. “I wish I had been a little more patient so I could have been more aggressive when the sprint really came on. That would have prevented any of the other stuff that took place with getting boxed and trying to pass on the inside, getting disqualified and all that sort of stuff.
“There’s only so much learning you can do when you’re 30 years old,” he added with a chuckle. “It’s just one of those experiences that is just unfortunate.”
Willis did take a positive away from the world championships: a confirmation that his kick speed was still there in each round, a trait needed to contend for medals going forward. He’ll rely on that at the Medtronic TC Mile, the Commonwealth Games, and many more competitions in between.
The University of Michigan alum is entering the 2014 outdoor season with a positive mentality, one that is also evident in his fandom of college basketball. The Kiwi told Race Results Weekly that he believes his Alma matter and favorite team — the Michigan Wolverines — are destined for another Final Four birth in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
“I think we are going to make the Final Four again,” he said confidently. “I’m already planning on getting a babysitter for that night in anticipation of going to watch the Final Four game [with friends in Ann Arbor]. It was pretty special last year.”
PHOTO: Nick Willis speaking to the media in advance of winning the 2013 B.A.A. Invitational Mile in Boston (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)