2017 BAA Mile: Michigan Alums Nick Willis (4:13) & Nicole Sifuentes (4:33) Prevail

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By Jonathan Gault
April 15, 2017

BOSTON — Saturday was a great day to be a Michigan Wolverine in Boston as two days before the 121st Boston Marathon, Nick Willis and Nicole Sifuentes broke the tape on Boylston Street to earn victories at the 2017 B.A.A. Mile. Both Willis (Michigan class of 2005) and Sifuentes (class of 2008) still train in Ann Arbor, Mich., under their college coaches, Ron Warhurst and Mike McGuire. But while today’s outcomes were identical, the two runners used very different strategies to earn the win. Willis left it late for his record third title, only pulling ahead at the end of the final lap as he held off Will Leer and U.S. indoor mile runner-up Cristian Soratos to win in a tactical 4:13.2. Sifuentes, meanwhile, pushed hard from the gun and went wire-to-wire to win in a meet-record 4:33.7.

Today marked the end of one of the longest dormant spells of Willis’ career; it had been seven months and 26 days since Willis’ last race, the Olympic 1500 final where Willis earned his second Olympic medal. Willis, who turns 34 in 10 days, said that break was a deliberate effort to prolong a career that has already lasted longer than that of most elite 1500 runners.

“I just really felt if I wanted to go through to Tokyo or beyond, I needed to let my mind and my body fully recharge and just not have to go through the pressures of having to diet before races and all that stuff,” Willis said. “I still trained, I just didn’t really want to be chasing the clock so much.”

Willis said that he struggled to hold his speed at the end of today’s race, which was the hardest of the three he’s claimed in this event, but believes he has plenty of time to get in top shape for August’s World Championships in London. He took 11 weeks completely off after Rio and didn’t race during the winter (either indoors or outdoors during the summer in his native New Zealand) for the first time since 2007.

“It took a long time to slowly get back but I just love running, going up on the trails overlooking lakes and then mountains and then the forest. It’s what I’ll be doing the rest of my life anyway. and once you are fit enough from doing that, it doesn’t take much to fine-tune that into track speed for me.

Men’s results
1. Nick Willis, New Zealand 4:13.2
2. Cristian Soratos, USA 4:13.5
3. Will Leer, USA 4:13.7
4. Daniel Winn, 4:15.4
5. Frezer Legesse, USA 4:18.4
6. Kemoy Campbell, Jamaica 4:19.6Women’s results
1. Nicole Sifuentes, Canada 4:33.7
2. Cory McGee, USA 4:35.8
3. Emily Lipari, USA 4:36.9
4. Shannon Osika, USA 4:37.1
5. Violah Lagat, Kenya 4:41.4
6. Megan Krumpoch, USA 4:47.3
7. Lauren Johnson, USA 4:55.3

Will Leer is hoping a change in scenery will help him return to his old form

The last two years have not been pretty for Will Leer. After a big 2014 season, which included a Wanamaker Mile title and a seventh-place finish at World Indoors, Leer bombed out of the first round at USAs in 2015 and 2016. One bright spot was Leer’s marriage to Jamaican steepler Aisha Praught last year, and the couple recently moved to Boulder (along with their puppy, Leuven) so that Praught can train under Joe Bosshard alongside Emma Coburn. Leer said Boulder has been “fantastic,” though he’s still learning the ropes of training at altitude full-time. Leer, who celebrated his 32nd birthday today, also said that he’s training more like a racehorse, in that longtime coach Ron Warhurst has removed the flexibility that existed in Leer’s training the last few years and now tells him exactly what to do every day.

“This has been an experiment but today gives me more confidence that what we’re doing is being successful,” Leer said. “Anytime that I’m that close to Nick, I’m pretty pumped.”

A 4:13.7 road mile isn’t going to turn many heads, but the fact that Leer was competitive with a two-time Olympic medallist and Soratos, who ran 3:54 and was second at USA Indoors, was a sign that he could be on the road back to his 2014 form.

“It just felt good to be back in a race where I could get competitive and throw my hand of cards in there at the end,” Leer said.

Nicole Sifuentes has drawn inspiration from her time as a volunteer assistant coach at Michigan

Sifuentes was exhausted when she crossed the finish line, but that was the goal today; since Sifuentes had flown all this way to race, she wanted to make sure she got a good hard effort in. The only way to be assured of that was to push from the very beginning, which is just what Sifuentes did. That approach was born last fall, when Sifuentes began serving as a volunteer coach on the Michigan staff.

“I just felt so inspired by those performances,” Sifuentes said. “I just realized when someone wins and makes it look easy, that’s fun but it’s not inspiring. You love to see the effort, you love to see the grit. It’s true at all levels of sport.”

Michigan, of course, came one point shy of winning the NCAA cross country title last fall, and Sifuentes had mixed emotions on that day looking back: proud of how her athletes competed but disappointed that the were not rewarded with the victory.

“I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed by that one point because I knew how close they were and they just deserved it,” Sifuentes. “So did Oregon, but so did we.”

Nick Willis interview