Nick Willis Q&A, Part I: His Abbreviated Buildup for Worlds, The Key to His Longevity, and the Brilliance of Jenny Simpson

By Jonathan Gault
September 5, 2017

Over the past decade, only the great Asbel Kiprop has been more consistently excellent in the 1500/mile than New Zealand’s Nick Willis. Since 2007, Willis has made seven of the nine World Championship or Olympic finals outdoors, earning Olympic medals in 2008 and 2016 as well as a bronze at World Indoors last year. His personal best of 3:29.66, set in 2015 at age 32, makes Willis the third fastest non-African born man of all time at 1500 meters. Most recently, he competed at the World Championships in London, despite battling a nasty case of shin splints earlier in the season. The shin splints were so bad that Willis had to cross-train for several days in the pool following workouts; ultimately, he wound up taking 10 days completely off in May, essentially restarting his season from scratch. Yet despite 10 weeks of training, and only seven weeks of workouts, Willis made the final in London and placed eighth in the world at age 34.

I spoke with Willis on the phone on the afternoon of August 28 for 45 minutes and we discussed a variety of topics, including his abbreviated London preparation, the brilliance of Jenny Simpson, the importance of staying healthy and moderation in training, his thoughts on Taoufik Makhloufi‘s post-Olympic absences and Asbel Kiprop’s 5k potential. The interview is fairly long, so it’s being published in two parts (part II will be published tomorrow), but I’d highly recommend that you read both as Willis was full of fascinating insights. Enjoy.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed for length.

Update: Part II is up now as well: LRC Nick Willis Q&A, Part II: The Importance of Moderation, Taoufik Makhloufi’s Absence & Asbel Kiprop’s 5K Potential

You just ran the World Championships, made the final but off some pretty limited training. I’m wondering, how did you have to change your training to go from not running workouts to making the World Championship final in just seven weeks?

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I really just treated it like a shortened season, [as] if I’m getting ready for the early indoor season. I just followed my normal process. I’ve always tried to take the approach [that] you go through the proper phases of training first and then you race off of what you have, otherwise you’re gonna miss out on connecting the dots anyway. So I made sure that I slowly built up enough that my body could handle some decent work. Then I got in some long runs and then after I could to that, then I was able to do some tempo runs and then transfer to the track. The only thing [is] I probably started [racing] a couple of weeks earlier than I normally would, just because I had to get the qualifying time, that was really what forced things a little bit sooner than normal and we didn’t want to leave it to having only one chance at it. So I probably, in hindsight, would have been nice to have trained a couple more weeks if I had been guaranteed a spot in Monaco, but we thought I needed to go to Europe and give myself three shots. I needed the Monaco one in the end anyway. It wasn’t the ideal situation, but we’re pretty content with the outcome in hindsight.

Was it difficult or stressful for you mentally knowing you had less time than usual to get prepared?

I was really happy just to be not in pain anymore. I had been battling with pain for three months where I’d run two days and then I’d do a track workout and I’d be extremely sore. I’d jump in the pool again for five or six days. That was not a fun experience, running [in] pain. Happy to be healthy and I was feeling confident that I could turn things around. Where I started getting frustrated was my first qualifying attempt and then my second one, both in Brussels and then in Padova, Italy, I didn’t have my trademark finish in the last 200 meters and I was exhausted after those races. And so that was humbling and that was a reminder that I wasn’t quite there.

Up until that point, I was actually pretty confident that it was gonna start clicking pretty quickly. I normally don’t like to race until I’m ready and that was a sign I had sort of forced the issue a little bit when I wasn’t quite ready for it.

We talked a little bit in the mixed zone after Worlds about the Kenyan teamwork in the 1500 final. Do you think this is something that some of the Kenyans should have been trying to do for years or does it only work in the case of London where the two guys are actually training partners outside of the race?

I even think it’s less about being training partners. I think it was a unique case. This year, there was a distinct gap in current form between those two guys (gold medalist Elijah Manangoi and silver medalist Timothy Cheruiyot) and the rest of the 1500-meter field. If you look at last year’s 1500-meter final in Rio, there were really eight of us that were all in sub-3:30 shape, all with equal good shots at winning a medal. And if anyone were to go out and be that sacrificial rabbit, so to speak, they would have jeopardized their own chances of winning a medal. It really only works if you can create a gap on the field and then use it to your advantage. So I think this year, the strategy worked but had it been last year, it might not have because then they would have brought Makhloufi or Centrowitz or Kiprop or myself or Iguider or Kwemoi into the occasion when we were all in phenomenal shape. So I think this year they were wise not to bring anyone who wasn’t as fit as them into the game.

I know your final was on the last day of Worlds, but did you get to watch any other races at Worlds? Which ones did you think were the most interesting?

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You sort of watch on and off because you’re also trying to focus on your own event. I was fascinated before the games started for the women’s 1500-meter final and it didn’t disappoint at all. With Caster Semenya putting her hat in the mix, that threw another element into the equation and then with Genzebe Dibaba suddenly not showing the form that she has of late in the first round or the semifinal, it’s like wow, this really is an open race. And so that was a really fascinating development.

I think that was probably the highlight for me and that showed again, as someone who participates in the 1500 and you get people commenting to you, people who are close to you or maybe not as close, they say, why didn’t you cover this move? or why didn’t you cover that? But if you watch Jenny Simpson‘s race, she wasn’t able to cover the move with 250 to go because she knew her own limits. But because of that, she also made sure that she had a steady drive to the finish line, which is what got her back into the medal position. So I sort of see myself as that, someone who has a natural governor on my pace judgment and you can’t sort of go beyond that when it’s not time. So I really applauded her effort.

Whereas Sifan [Hassan], the Dutch woman, she obviously totally overcooked herself fighting for the lead with 600 to go. Really, if you look at the season she ran 1:56 for 800 and then she won a medal in the 5,000 meters. The combination of that strength and speed, she really should have won that race but she didn’t even end up winning a medal. So it shows that you have to be wise with your energy consumption during a race and how you choose to distribute the energy throughout the whole 1500 meters.

Say you put yourself in Jenny’s situation and you know that the move that was made, I think it was 300 when Kipyegon and Hassan really started to ratchet it up, 250 to go. Is it hard for you as an athlete to not respond immediately, to keep that governor on yourself even though you know, Oh man, these two, if I don’t go with them, that might be the win running away from me right there?

For me, it’s not hard at all. I actually don’t necessarily have the ability to suddenly ratchet it up another gear. As I say, that governor is an internally-built thing where it’s not necessarily a conscious decision. [My] body just isn’t able to suddenly go. Often I’ll have guys rabbit me in workouts who are fresh and they’ll say, Oh gosh, I don’t want to mess it up and so they get out really hard off of the line thinking they don’t want to go too slow. But I’m not actually able to cover that initial acceleration off the start line just because my body only allows me to slowly build into a pace as it is. And so that’s naturally built-in for me, which is a blessing and a curse because perhaps there are times that I might have missed out on covering a move and end up getting boxed in. But watching Jenny have success with that, it sort of validated a lot of the decisions I’ve made in my own career and so that was sort of personally satisfying.

In 2016, you had one of your best years ever at age 33, medals at World Indoors and the Olympics. You just got eighth in the world at age 34. How much longer do you think you can continue to run at this level?

Well after the Rio Olympics, I like to think that there’s no reason for me to consider that I’ve already started the downward slope. And I don’t know whether that’s started yet or not. I can’t really read into this season at all because after Rio, I went under the knife and had sports hernia surgery middle of October and then coming back from that, I had other injury complications come up with these shin splints nagging me forever. So perhaps it’s age, but there’s no proof of that to me yet. It’s more that it comes down to some of the injury and health issues that I’ve had. And so I’m gonna go back to what I know are the basics which will give me a chance at perhaps a really great 5,000-meter career. But secretly, I know that I have my best success training for the 1500 meters. If I prepare for 5,000-meter running, that foundation of endurance is what helped me break 3:50 for the mile for the first time. I ran my 3k pb and mile pb only 10 days after running a half marathon so in that year in 2014, I ended up running 3:29 for the first time.

So that’s what I’m looking forward to this fall. I don’t need to take a break after this season because I’ve missed most of the year as it is, so I’m looking forward to getting a really good offseason in where I put in some real serious miles and we’ll see what happens next year. Then we can decide whether I’m starting to decline or whether I’m still holding a different form of fitness to keep me having success. We’ll have to wait and see.

Is the plan for you to run the 1500 and the 5,000 at the Commonwealth Games?

At the Commonwealth Games, yeah, the schedule sets up really nicely for that. There’s a straight final for the 5,000 and then it’s five days’ rest before the heats of the 1500. I attempted that in Glasgow [in 2014] with not the greatest success. I was third in the 1500 but I struggled in the 5,000-meter race. But that was in August and I think that’s still something that I have struggled with is holding my longer distance endurance mentality as much as anything and the fitness later on into the year. But [with] the Commonwealth Games being in April this year, I’ll still be in that sort of mindset of putting in your base training, so I think that’s a really, really great opportunity for me to test out my skills in the 5k.

And I know I’ve had a couple of great races in the 5k that would be worthy of a medal performance at the Commonwealth Games. When I was second at the New York Diamond League in quite trying conditions [in 2015] — it was 85 degrees and really humid. Ben True just nipped me at the line. I know if I can replicate that type of performance then good things can happen in a championship-style 5k.

Will you still be a 1500 runner over the summer then or are you thinking of moving up to the 5k full-time if it goes well at the Commonwealths?

I haven’t thought about it a huge amount but I definitely think I’d like to get at least one more fast 1500 under my belt to prove that this year wasn’t a natural decline. So go back to Monaco next year and bust out a fast one. But I’d also like to see how close to the 13:00 mark I can get. I’ve run 7:36 for 3k in not ideal conditions. It was about 82 degrees in Ostrava when I did that and the sun was still out. So if I can get into a good 3k and run close to 7:31, 7:32, I know that that means that 13:00 shouldn’t be that far off if I get the right training and that’s gonna be the real key. So I’m keen to explore my abilities in those longer distances as well. And then we’ve got the Continental Cup at the end of the season, so maybe a 15/3k double there would be the ideal goal for a September race.

I was reading the article where you said you wanted to do 1,000 miles in 10 weeks over the winter — I guess it’s the summer if you’re in New Zealand at that point. Is there anything else different you have to do to prepare for running the 5,000 or training for the 5,000 in addition to just doing more miles?

I haven’t had a sitdown with my coach Ron Warhurst. I also want to bring Tim Broe into the occasion, pick his brain, because Ron coached him. Tim was really the premier 5,000-meter runner in America before this next lot of guys came through once these training groups emerged and he ran 13:11 and he soloed a 13:14 at the U.S. championships, all done at sea-level training. So I think he has a pretty good idea of how things go.

And my suspicion is that the main difference is I’ll probably remove my intense sprint stride days. Normally, twice a week I’ll hit the track and try to run 11.4 to 11.8 for 100 five or six times and do that throughout the year to keep my top-end speed going. But in doing so, you have to back off the speed of your training runs. So maybe I’ll put less emphasis on my stride days just so I can keep it a little more honest on my regular runs.

I know Jerry Schumacher‘s group, one thing that they used to do in the past, I don’t know if they still do, is relatively consistently, maybe once a week, once every couple of weeks, they’ll do something like 8 x 300 in 45 seconds just to keep the turnover going in more of a fluid way. So they don’t do strides per se, but they’ll do stuff just to keep the legs turning over while you’re doing the hard mileage. So those are some things that I want to pick Tim Broe’s mind with with Ron Warhurst so we can come up with what is the right balance so that you’re not just getting heavy legs from the high mileage but you’re also not burning your candle too hot at the other end doing your strides too fast as well.

That brings up something I was interested in talking about: easy days. When I told my boss, Robert Johnson, I was doing this, he was like, you need to ask Nick about his easy days because we had him up for a race one time and he was telling us how slow he runs on them. And it sounded like you were suggesting there, to train as a 5k runner you have to run a little faster on your easy days. I’m wondering, what is your current pace, how did your mindset about how fast you run your easy days, how did that come to be? And do you envision having to run faster to keep training for the 5k?

I still think the premise of you have to still listen to your body and allow it to recover is still really important. And so in the past, in order for me to really hit my strides days really fast and hit my workouts quality, it was important for me to make sure my easy days were easy. They were really just getting the blood flowing. If I ran 70 minutes at like a 7:00 pace, no problem. So that’s why my idea of maybe not putting as much emphasis on the strides days means I won’t need to go as slow as that to still feel easy. So ideally, you could run 5:50 pace but if you’re not feeling easy doing that, then that’s not recovering. You still need to be able to focus on the days that matter. You’ve got to pick and choose your battles but perhaps there’s less extreme dips in the highs with this 5,000-meter stuff.

And I’m not totally sure and that’s partly something that excites me is exploring a slightly different avenue to what I’ve just been doing for the past 12 years, just to keep things fresh and keep being a student of the sport. I feel like sometimes I’m a little bit arrogant that I think I know everything when it comes to 1500-meter running that I probably don’t listen to my coach as much as I should. Whereas I’ll be a rookie again if we put a different focus on my training and I’ll be all ears because he knows the 5k way more than I do.

London was your seventh World Championship/Olympic final at 1500 meters. To what do you credit your longevity? Why are you able to continually stay at such a high level in the sport?

I think when they announced it, or someone did, they said Kiprop and I, he had made nine and I had made seven, and if you go back to some of the other guys in the past like Kevin Sullivan, I think when everything goes perfectly right, when we get full training, full health, all of that stuff, then we’re competing for a medal. So even if we’re off by 10 or 15 percent, that’s okay, you’re still going to be in the mix to finish in the minor places in the final, you’re still gonna make a final and get ninth or 10th. Whereas guys who are battling to get their qualifying time at their very peak, if they’re off by 10 or 15 percent, they’re on the outside looking in.

So I think part of it is just the God-given abilities that we have. And then the fact that I had quite a few injuries early on in my career. When I was at Michigan especially and after, with stress fractures and I’ve had four surgeries, I’ve always felt that it was better to be on the start line than not at all. So I’ve always held back a little bit with my training and perhaps done 10 or 15 percent less than what would be considered the maximum amount that one could do. I think of Chris Solinsky and Craig Mottram, guys that could just train like animals all of the time when they’re at their peaks whereas I’ve never trained anywhere near the heights that those guys have. That’s because I’ve always been like, I’ve gotta get on the start line. There’s no point being injured. So that’s kept me in the game a little bit more, I suppose, and my body hasn’t burned out.

And Arturo Casado, the Spanish 1500-meter runner, he’s now a sports physiologist and he was hosting the Australian distance crew in Madrid before the World Championships this year. My brother, who’s a New Zealand coach, went over there and visited one of the New Zealand athletes and he was chatting with my brother, Arturo was. And he said, “I did the same amount of workouts in one year that your brother, does in four or five.” So he attributes that might be part of my longevity, the fact that I don’t really hit the track very hard very often. Whereas a lot of the guys in the past would have been hitting the track two, three, four times a week, hard, year-round. Whereas I probably only hit the track once every two and a half weeks very hard. The rest of the time is just doing hills or tempo runs or fartleks or just touching on the speed at the end of a workout on the track. That’s his theory, that I’m not taxing my body as much. The idea that speed kills, you know.

More: Part II Is now up: LRC Nick Willis Q&A, Part II: The Importance of Moderation, Taoufik Makhloufi’s Absence & Asbel Kiprop’s 5K Potential.

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