Nick Willis Q&A, Part II: The Importance of Moderation, Taoufik Makhloufi’s Absence & Asbel Kiprop’s 5K Potential
Willis reveals how he learned his come from behind strategy at the 2002 World Juniors in Jamaica -“conserve your energy throughout a race as much as possible and then you let rip on the last lap.”
By Jonathan Gault
September 6, 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 would have 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. I’d highly recommend that you read both as Willis was full of fascinating insights. Part I ran yesterday; click here to read it. Part II is below. Enjoy.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed for length.
Has your racing style evolved tactically from your younger days to now or do you feel like you still race kind of like you did when you were younger?
Growing up, just like most kids, you get out as fast as you can and hang on. I used to run the 800 all the time and when I was running 1:59 or 2:00, I’d still go out in 54 for the first lap and hang on and run a 65. I think where things changed for me was at the World Junior Championships in Jamaica [in 2002]. My coach told me to go with whoever was leading in the heat and I followed the Kenyan and the Brazilian and the Mexican and the other Kenyan. They were changing lead all the time and I was always on the shoulder of the leader and with 150 to go, I tied up really badly, collapsed over the finish line and got heatstroke. And I was in a very bad state for the next 10 hours.
But I had a day’s rest and just loaded my body up with electrolytes. And in the final, I had no intention of pushing myself at all because my body, I [didn’t] want to go into that state of exhaustion again. So I just jogged at the back of the field and enjoyed the occasion. There was 35,000 Jamaicans there cheering Bolt on when he was a 15-year-old. And then suddenly when the bell rang, I wasn’t tired at all and I passed most of the field and ended up finishing fourth. So that might be a curse or a blessing, the fact that it taught me, conserve your energy throughout a race as much as possible and then you let rip on the last lap. That sort of set a precedent for how I’ve always wanted to race ever since I suppose.
The sports hernia injury you talked about, you had surgery in October. You had [an injury], I think it was your adductor a month before Rio. How did it impact your preparations for the Olympics and were you worried at all, with that injury going into Rio, that you’d still be able to perform?
Ironically or coincidentally, my two Olympic medals came in years that I had injuries that held me back in my training. In 2008, I didn’t realize it, but I had a torn meniscus in my knee all about 18 months leading into it. So I was only able to run six days a week, once a day. And I couldn’t run over 80 minutes. And then in 2016, anytime I did some real all-out speed that was longer than 100 meters, I would be pretty sore the next day down in my lower abs or my adductor. And then a month out from the Games, I ripped one of my best-ever workouts and I closed in 49.9 for the last quarter up in Flagstaff, but the next day jogging 10:00 pace was excruciating pain.
So we didn’t know what we were going to do and it sort of made me manage the final month. We didn’t do anything fast, really. I did one hard workout after that, the rest was just sort of tempo runs and maintenance stuff. If anything, it taught me that you can get your speed work done earlier and then just manage your body for the final month rather than going in real hot and then you burn out through the rounds. So I think it ended up being a blessing in disguise, if anything.
It’s like the moderation thing you were saying earlier. If you’re maybe 90 percent or 95 percent, you’re going to be content with that if you’re injured whereas if you’re totally healthy, you’re going to be wanting to get as close to 100 percent as possible.
Well before the Beijing World Champs the year before in 2015, I did a workout three days before the first round. Because I had been jetlagged when I first flew to Beijing, I wanted to prove to myself that my speed was still there and I ran a 36.8 for the last 300 of a workout. It was a basic workout, 2-mile tempo, two 200’s and two 300’s, something like that. But running the 36.8 at the end of that, I think what probably happened was that turned that into a “fourth round” for me, if anything.
So by the time I got to the final, it was like I had already run three rounds before the final. If you watched the rounds, I looked like a million bucks, in the semifinal, I looked as good as Kiprop and the other Kenyans. But in the final, I was five or six meters back from those five guys who were battling for the medals. I just didn’t quite feel myself and it was really a matter of not having managed my energy resources for running three races.
That’s really the real challenge in the 1500, is you have to run close to maximum effort in three rounds in four days at a World Championship. That’s something that’s not really understood or talked about much. It’s not just who’s the best runner in the third round, it’s who can handle running three rounds at a pretty hard effort.
I remember last year, over the summer, you said you went into that adidas Boost meet in Boston, I think you had done a workout the day before.
No, I ran an 85-mile week leading into that race just to be fatigued.
Right. I’m wondering, how often do you simulate that sort of stuff? Because obviously, doing three workouts in four days or three races in four days takes a big toll out of you, but you need to do that in the major championships. How often do you simulate that in training, or how do you prepare to do that?
That’s always something I’ve battled with. Does simulating that in training help make you stronger to handle that, or is it doing other training to make you stronger so that you can handle that? Because if you do that too much, you miss out on key training which just gets you fit in the first place. That’s often the case of the rich get richer. If you’re the fastest in the field, then you only have to go 70 percent in the first round and it doesn’t even feel like you’ve run a race in the first place.
So I think that’s the real advantage. When you’re in really, really good shape, then you don’t have to put in a very hard effort in the heats, so it’s just like doing a shakeout run the day before your first round. That’s what Rio felt like for me. The heat and the semi, I didn’t feel like I’d even gotten going yet, so in the final, I wasn’t even tired. I think it has more to do with your muscular tolerance for workload rather than just your straight-up fitness. So I think work in the weight room helps just as much as running mileage or handling the muscle fatigue of running three rounds.
The Olympics, you have three races in five days. The World Champs is three races in four days, even less recovery.
One of the guys who beat you in Rio, Taoufik Makhloufi, he hasn’t raced at all in 2017. And after the last Olympics in 2012, which he won, he raced only once the next year. He’s never medalled at another global championship. When you see that, what are your thoughts? Are you thinking, Oh, that’s just bad luck that he missed these two years, or is it something different?
I mean, there’s lots of ways one could look at it. Sure, you could say that the natural speculation that people would assume is that, Oh, this guy’s going into hiding, he doesn’t want to be on the testing radar until the most important meets, which is the Olympics every four years. And sure, that’s one possibility. Another possibility, just like me, and I’m sure Matt Centrowitz felt this way — I mean, only two of us from last year’s final made the final this year. That’s like 17 percent of the field actually returned. It was me and Kiprop. There’s a hangover from the Olympic cycle. It’s a pretty exhausting process. If you’re preparing for three or four years for that championship and then afterwards you’re not really on your game for four or five months. I managed to salvage the last couple of months, but I really wasn’t in any sort of headspace earlier in the year to start thinking, All right, the World Champs is a really important goal of mine.
So that’s the other way to look at it. And he’s already won a gold and two silvers at the Olympics. Perhaps he’s even contemplating retirement. So it might be Option A, it might be Option B or Option C or it might be a combination of all three. Who knows?
But that’s the biggest shame in our sport, is he’s not being asked those questions. Perhaps the Algerian media might ask him, but in any other major sport, you’ve gotta bet that Jim Rome and Colin Cowherd are gonna be delving into this. That forces answers to come out. In our sport, no one’s asking any questions about anyone, so you can do what you want basically. It’s irrelevant.
(Editor’s note: It was reported in July that Makhloufi would miss Worlds with a calf injury)
What would you say is your proudest achievement in running?
It’s gotta be coming back for the second medal. Even though it was a bronze versus a silver, I was close to wanting to hang up my spikes after the London Olympics. That was a very disappointing experience (Editor’s note: Willis finished 9th in the final). I went back to university and didn’t even think about wanting to compete for a few months. I was looking at possibly trying to go to job interviews and all that sort of stuff. I was panicked and wanted to look at a corporate career and all that sort of stuff.
And then the next two years even, I wasn’t taking the championship mindset very seriously. [I was] thinking, I’m going to enjoy being a professional athlete, do the circuit, travel Europe, all that sort of stuff. But was I willing to say, I’m going to lay it all on the line for the championship and there’s a chance that it might fail and be disappointing? That it’s worth taking that risk? With a lot of support from my wife and other close people around me, my coach Ron Warhurst and other people, I slowly started to believe it was worth it again. And it certainly was.
So coming back after eight years to win another medal, it didn’t bring tears to my eyes like the first medal did but it just was incredibly personally satisfying to overcome those challenges, sort of like when you read a novel or watch a movie, that’s what happens. Something starts out good, then challenges, challenges, challenges happen and you overcome the challenges.
For the Commonwealth Games, you’re moving up to 5k. So is Asbel Kiprop, he said he wants to run the 5k there as well. What are your thoughts on that? That’s been a guy who you’ve battled with for a long time at 1500 and now finally you’re moving up and so is he.
When I first read that he said that, I thought, I’ll believe it when I see it. Just for the fact that I know he doesn’t enjoy doing long training. Most guys, and especially [Kiprop], they just hit the speed work all the time. It’s one thing for me to say it — he’s probably going to do better than me at the 5k anyway — but at least I enjoy running high mileage and going out for 20-mile long runs. It’s gonna require a change of approach for his training, but obviously he won the World Junior cross country, so it’s in him there if he wants to go that way. But he’s way more of an 800-meter/1500 guy than I ever could be. So it seems like it’s going to be tempting for him, when his buddies are doing six 300’s in 38, to jump in that rather than having to do 15 x 800 with the marathon guys. I know that the Robertson twins always tell me that’s the secret to all of the good 5k/10k runners is just grinding out with the marathon guys in the offseason.
Do you think, physically, he has the ability to do that, to become a potential medalist in the 5k one day? What do you think his potential is?
Well it’s all about the mentality, if you’re willing to put in the work. And just like the river, we take the path of least resistance. And for me, taking the 5k is almost the path of least resistance because it’s less stress on my body than having to handle the anaerobic work all the time. But he can still run 1:44 so I think he’s gonna struggle to overcome the temptation to just jump in the Doha 800 if it’s available in April rather than grinding through a painful 13-and-a-half minutes.
So assuming he actually does move up to the 5k, he said he might not run any more 1500s at these major championships. If that is the case, where do you rank Kiprop among the all-time best in the mile/1500?
Well just going back a second, you’ve gotta remember he said publicly quite a few times that if he doesn’t break 3:30 next season, he’s gonna move up to the 5k. This is before he started running all these really fast 1500s. And he was the best in the world then, but he was always the guy who was running 3:30, 3:31 and winning all the races. And then so I challenged him and said, ‘I thought you were moving up to the 5k now, what are you doing here in our race?’ And he said, ‘No, no, Willis. No, no Willis.’ Obviously things can change all the time.
The second part of that question, I’ll still pose it. Based on what he’s accomplished in the 1500, where do you rank him among the all-time best in the event?
It’s so hard to rank the guys. Because people will put Herb Elliott or Peter Snell up there because they never lost a race. But then it’s probably likely that Jim Ryun, on his day, could have beat all of those guys. But then Jim Ryun got smoked by Kip Keino because [the 1968 Olympics were] at 6,000 feet or 7,000 feet in Mexico City. So it’s very difficult to compare. And then Seb Coe‘s golds came when there were boycotts, so he wasn’t even racing against everybody. So it’s impossible to compare different guys. And obviously Kiprop’s run some very fast times and won a lot of World Championships, but he’s also struggled at the back of the pack, as have I, in other races. So I just can’t compare different people in different eras.
Is there a memory or an image of him, or an interaction you had with him that really stands out to you?
I mean I’ve interacted with him hundreds of times before and after races. I remember he was extremely, extremely disappointed after Monaco, I think it was when [Silas] Kiplagat ran 3:27 and outkicked him. Kiprop might have run 3:28 or something. And him and his agent were just beside themselves afterwards in the tunnel walking away as if it was the end of the world. And yet I had run 3:29 and I was on cloud nine. They really thought that they were gonna run 3:25 that day. I think the world record is what they thought was going to happen. So it stands out to me.
I saw you mention on Twitter, you might be attempting a sub-4:00 with your dog. I need to know details on that. Is this going to be streamed, when is it going to happen? What’s it going to be like?
So the plan was for that to happen this Thursday, I was just going to go down to the local track here in Michigan. My training’s actually gone pretty well the last week and so we decided that I would benefit more from doing an 800-meter time trial to prepare for the Hoka One One Long Island Mile [on September 6] and Fifth Ave [on September 10]. I want to finish the season on a high note, so we decided why even risk jeopardizing those two events by doing another mile. So we’re going to do a workout: we’re going to do an 800 time trial and a three-mile tempo. That’s my go-to pre-race preparation. So we’ve taken probably the smarter approach rather than the social media approach.
Will that ever happen down the road, do you imagine, a sub-4:00 attempt with the dog?
Maybe it will happen another time, but right now I really want to finish the season on a high and that means coming away with a couple of victories.
Yeah. That Fifth Avenue field, I’ve looked at it, it’s just spectacular. Pretty much anyone North American-based and then Ingebrigtsen. That one should be pretty good.
Yeah, that’s a favorite course of mine and I’ve had good success on it. There’s nothing worse than finishing your season on a loss and nothing better than finishing on a win so there’s a lot on the line that day.
More: Part I of the interview in case you missed it: Nick Willis Q&A, Part I: His Abbreviated Buildup For Worlds, The Key To His Longevity, And The Brilliance Of Jenny Simpson.
Talk about the interview on our fan forum: MB: Nick Willis shares his wisdom with LetsRun.com