Where Your Dreams Become Reality
Todd Williams Retires:
Todd Williams was the premier 10,000 meter runner in the United States for nearly a decade. For much of the 1990s, American male distance running was defined by Mark Croghan (and Marc Davis) in the steeplechase, Bob Kennedy at 5000m, and Todd Williams at 10,000m. However, Williams was definitely not the next great one coming out of college as he never won an NCAA title, but did run 28:18 and 13:41 in college.
He burst onto the professional scene by winning the US national cross country title in 1991 and used that to springboard himself to the top of the sport. His professional accolades include 4 US 10,000 meter titles (including 2 Olympic Trial victories);4 US #1 rankings at 10,000m; 10th, 7th and 9th place finishes at the 1992 Olympics, 1993 World Championships, and 1995 World Championships respectively at 10,000m; 2 US XC titles; a 2:11:17 marathon debut; a still standing US record for 15k (42:22) at the Gate River Run; and a 9th place finish at the 1995 World XC Championship when all the studs in the world raced each other in one race.
For a more complete bio on Todd click here.
LetsRun.com caught up with Todd via phone last week in Boston where he was in town helping promote the adidas Boston Indoor Games and the sport of track and field by talking to youth in Boston area schools. He had announced his retirement earlier in the week. Our interview with him is in 3 parts.
Part 1 (of 3) We ask Todd about his career as a whole: he reveals his greatest moment, his lowest moment, and a lot in between. Plus, learn about the life of poverty and the shack, the later rumored "million dollar man", lived in coming out of college
LetsRun.com (LR.com): First of all, I want to congratulate you on a good career. My brother and I have always joked that the key in running, the goal is to get good enough where you can retire and not just quit like everyone else.
Todd Williams (Twill):Yeah, I read that somewhere on the web-site one time.
That's the way I look at it too. I already told this to Runnersworld online but I don't know if they've put it up yet, but the way I look at it is that I'm humble enough to know that no one really cares when you leave the sport. But if people do care, I just hope they know that I trained hard and gave it everything I had.
LR.com: What made you decide to retire?
Twill: I just think the frustration of not (being able to improve any more got to me). I just came to the point where I couldn't do it anymore. I felt that my window of opportunity to improve had shut. And I'm so competitive that to kill myself in training day after day and not run as fast as I wanted to made me just feel that it was time to hang it up.
LR.com: Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
Twill: Ahh, I think the biggest thing is the longevity. My first (US) ranking was in 1991 in the 10,000 and I was ranked this past year, 2002, in the 10,000. More than anything, I'm most proud of my ability to stay around the sport for so long and to stay at a pretty high level.
LR.com: Does any single accomplishment or race stand out as the highlight?
Twill: There are two races that standout. The first was the 1991 cross country in Boston when I won (US) nationals. That was a huge breakthrough. Up to that point, I'd run well and made some All-American teams (in college) but to win nationals that first Fall out of college was a big jump for me.
The second one for me was the one you guys had on the web-site to finish top 10 in the world cross (in 1995 when Williams was 9th). That was a pretty big breakthrough race for me internationally.
LR.com: Speaking of cross country, what do you think of them having two cross country races now at worlds?
When that race was one race, not to say that it's not the toughest race in the world now, but back then it was definitely the toughest race in the world.
LR.com: That was one thing I wanted to talk to you about that 1991 cross country nationals win. I wanted to bring it up, because I think that since in the 1990s you just dominated the distance scene in the 10,000 and were The Man and there was Kennedy in the 5,000, and uh well not to say there was no one else, but there was no one consistently challenging you, I think as a result people don't realize that coming out of college you weren't anointed as the next "Great One" like some people are today.
Twill: Yeah, I remember coming out of college, when I had ran 28:18 and 13:41, and it was pretty much between myself and Shannon Butler to get some type of contract with Nike. At that time, Martyn Brewer told me that it looked like Shannon had a little more potential on the upside.
Looking back on it now, I think he did (have more potential). But that kind of set a fire under me to step it up even more and train even harder to show them that I should be the cream of this crop for my class. It made me hungrier to get better and adidas has been very loyal and supportive to me over the last 12 years - thanks to Adrian Leek, Dave Murphy and Todd Klein.
Things just worked out. I never stopped training hard throughout (college) it's just the steps I took to continually improve worked. As a freshman I ran 29:45, then I went 28:54, 28:41, 28:18, 28:05, 27:40, 27:31. The years of progression went exactly as I would have hoped they would have gone for as hard as I trained. That's what I think everyone should look for (progression).
A lot of times too many distance runners get into what other people are doing when it's really not about that. If you want to run 28:20, it's 68 seconds per lap. If you want to run 27:55, it's 67s. If you want to run 27:30, it's 66s. My whole life was based on splits - my whole career was: how far I could push the envelope.
LR.com: Do you ever look back and wish that once you had established yourself in America as the top 10k guy, that there was more competition for you domestically. If you look at the 10,000 now, there were 5 or 6 guys in the 27s last year. Do you ever wish you could have had someone pushing you in the US or did you enjoy having the limelight to yourself?
Twill: I think it would have been exciting to have been running my best when the guys now were running or if had been the early 80s when the Salazar type runners were running. It would have been exciting to have been able to go against Alan (Culpepper), Meb (Keflezighi) or Abdi (Abdirahman) when I was at my best and they were at their best, but when I came through, my era, it was just a time (when there wasn't a whole lot of competition).
LR.com: Moving on, you talked a little about this, but when you came out of college what was it like for you financially? Were you able to train full-time? I'm sure there are a lot of visitors to the web-site who dream of running professionally and I bet they want to know.
Twill: I had to sacrifice. I told my girlfriend at the time (now his wife) Stephanie, when we moved into a little shack off the campus at the University of Tennessee, that this is what we're going to have to do - sacrifice and live in a little shack.
I had run 28:18 and 13:40 and 7:58 coming out of college but I was running on only about a $4,000 contract for the whole year.
(Editor's note: After getting home to Tennessee, Todd actually found his original contract and realized that he is indeed an old man. Just as your grandfather didn't really walk to school barefoot in the snow every day, Todd didn't get only $4,000 coming out of school. He wanted us to know that it actually was $8,000 still a pretty paltry sum for such an accomplished athlete.)
LR.com: $4,000? Wow, not too good.
Twill: Yeah, not too good. The tough thing is when I try to give advice to (guys coming up now) about having to be willing to sacrifice, they need to realize that I also had to hit the roads that Fall. I ran the Pigeon Ford 5 mile for $150, I ran Tulsa, SportsMed, a half marathon and then I won national cross. I ran like 7 road races that year.
Once I was able to fill my bank account a little bit, then I didn't have to go out and run every single weekend. I could strictly train and that's how the Olympic Trials ended up being so successful in 1992. I could space out my racing and my training and focus on simply running a great race at the Olympic Trials.
It's tough for everybody (to make it financially). I tell guys coming out of school nowadays that I ran 28:18 and 13:40 and that I was getting $1,000 a quarter and they're like, No way.
I had a choice to make. Either I was going to get a real job and probably sacrifice the rest of my running career or I was going live in basically a shack and let the cards fall where they may through hard training, and it ended up working out .
LR.com: Later on in your career, and I know you may not want to answer this, but the talk around track circles is that you were the first $1 million dollar man. Is there any truth to that rumour? Did it get up to that level? 10 years, $1 million?
Twill: Ah, you know how it is with the confidentiality clause and all, I couldn't tell you if I made a trillion dollars a year or not. All I can say is that running paved the way for me financially. I never thought it would take me to where it has.
But the big message there is that I did start at a level that was almost impossible to make it on. $4,000 a year wasn't much.
But I ended up winning Jacksonville (Gate River 15k) 5 times, and different things worked out with the money so that I never had to extend myself financially where I had to worry about that next payment, and that helped my running. I didn't bite off more than I could chew financially. That's definitely a key when you start trying to train hard and make running your whole life.
LR.com: Earlier, I asked you about the race that stood out as the biggest accomplishment. Was there anything that stood out as the biggest disappointment of your career?
Twill: The 96 (Olympic) Games hands down.
The 1992 Olympics were so new and unexpected, but in 1996 I put so much pressure on myself to be a medalist and to breakthrough, as I had such a great year in 1995 (when Williams set lifetime bests at 5k, 10k and 15k (American record) and was 9th at world cross).
Then I had a sacrum stress fracture in the fall of 1995 getting ready for 1996. With the rehab and everything I put into coming back from the injury, I think I just went over the top. I got to those Games and just bailed out (Williams dropped out of the first round (semifinal) heat).
If I could go back, that would be the one time that I wish I could go back and do things a little different. Not do so much and train so hard and just kill yourself. By the times the Game came around I was just fried.
The worse thing about it is that instead of just going ahead and finishing up the semifinal, (I just dropped out). In my mind, if I didn't get in the top 3 in the final it was a failure to me. And I think that's a bad message (to send out to others).
I wish I could take it back, go to the Games and just finish the semis even if I finished dead last. That's definitely the one race that sticks out (as the big negative).
LR.com: It sounds like in 1996 you were really pushing yourself to get a medal but you didn't have the greatest of speed so how did you envision yourself getting one?
Twill: Well that's probably what got me in trouble. I got the (running) log out of course, and you know how we all do, we start comparing workouts. This year I'm going to be able to do this workout this fast. And I was coming off that injury a stress fracture in the back, I'll never wish that on anybody.
I was out for along period of time that Fall in 1995, when I should have been doing my base. Instead I was in the pool, on the bike. January came around and I started to run again and I started to panic thinking the Trials are coming in June. I just started pushing and pushing and pushing. That's what I did. I just went over the top way over the top compared to what I did in 1995 or 1993 with all the workouts in trying to medal.
That's where any athlete gets in trouble. When they try to do way too much and improve too much in one year. That's what I did and when I got to the Games, that gun went off and I got to first quarter and it was about 68 and I was thinking, I could swear it was going to be like a 62 (as it felt fast).
I started thinking, Ohhhh (no). Then the negative thoughts start crawling in your head, Here I am in front of all these people. They are expecting me to do something. The negatives just kept creeping up, I realized it wasn't going to happen and there it was - the worse day of my running career.
LR.com: Hey, don't feel too bad. A lot of people would have the opportunity to have an awful day in the Olympic Games.
That's what I kind of said when I was speaking to some school kids. I told them, 'The thing about distance running or anything in general is that if you are going to be successful, life is just like a roller coaster that keeps going up. You are going to have ups and downs but as long as you keep going, you are going to continue to go up and improve.'
That's the way I look at it. The (1996 Olympics) were an extreme low and the lowest part of my career but the next year I responded by being ranked second in the marathon in the US, second in the 10k in the US, second in the 5k in the US, and I won a lot of road races that year. I won 4 national titles on the road that year. Instead of quitting, I responded by saying, It's time to jump back on it and train hard again and keep going.
End of Part 1 Part 2 (of 3) Here:
Excerpts from part 2: