FOURTH FREIHOFER'S TITLE WILL BE BIG CHALLENGE FOR WILLIS

By David Monti
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

ALBANY (04-Jun) -- Benita Willis looked fit in her black Saucony kit asshe spoke easily to sponsors, race organizers and the media here today in advance of tomorrow's 32nd Freihofer's Run for Women 5-K.  But can the three-time Australian Olympian muster the speed to win here for a fourth time in five years, and show the talent which propelled her to a world cross country title in 2004?

"Yeah, I'm still that runner," said Willis who has not shown her best form in the last two years.  "Mentally, I've got to improve a bit.  I just need stability."

Willis, 31, who dropped her married name Johnson after a difficult divorce in 2008, is finding her legs again.  She recently relocated to Boulder, Colo., and is enjoying the comfort of old friends, Andrew and Meg Letherby, while getting her workouts from her Australian coach and manager, Nic Bideau.  She said she's taking things more slowly now and trying not to put too much pressure on herself.

"I'm just going to do my own thing now," she said.  "A steady build-up is what I need.  I can get back there."

Willis became a fan favorite here when she first won what is widely regarded as America's most competitive all-women's 5-K in 2006.  In heavy rain accompanied by gusting winds, she clocked 15:29.9 ahead of Ukraine's Natalia Berkut and the Netherlands' Lornah Kiplagat.  She would win again in 2007 in a tough duel with course record holder Asmae Leghzaoui of Morocco, clocking 15:22.0, after the two athletes made rough contact several times during the race.

"I kind of like that in racing," Willis said at the time.  "You get a little and you give it back."

Willis's victory in 2008 was her most emotional.  She handily beat Ethiopia's Amane Gobena, 15:45.3 to 15:51.7, but as she crossed the finish line she felt a strange feeling about her terminally ill father.  As she ran the race, he had died back in Australia.  Text messages to her phone delivered the bad news, and she went back to Australia immediately to be with her family.

"It brings back a lot of memories," she said of that day, recalling the warm support race director George Regan showed her.  "It was a weird feeling.  I never felt anything like that before.  It had to be the toughest day of my life."

Willis finished sixth here last year in 16:00, and was well off the pace.  However, she's optimistic that she'll run well this year, even if that doesn't mean a victory.  Her knowledge of the course, especially the sweeping 400m downhill to the finish line, will be a big advantage.

"Some of the best races I've run I've lost," she said.  She added: "I just want to be there for the last downhill."

Regan, and his elite athlete coordinator John Tope, haven't made it easy for Willis.  Defending champion and this year's Boston Marathon winner Teyba Erkesso, reigning world cross country champion Emily Chebet, and reigning Bolder Boulder champion Mamitu Daska are all in the field with their eyes on the $10,000 first prize.  Nonetheless, Willis is feeling inspired instead of intimidated.

"I just love 5-K road races," she concluded.  "I love racing against top class athletes."

 

 

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