By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2020 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(11-Mar) — Twenty-five years ago today, Todd Williams stepped to the starting line of the Gate River Run 15-K in Jacksonville, Fla., on a chilly morning with a singular focus: ignore the competition and run as fast possible. True, the event was the USA Track & Field 15-K Championships with generous prize money, but making a payday or a winning national title for the then 26 year-old were only secondary goals. He wanted to do something special, something to really test himself.
“When I hit Gate that year I had great training, I had a good base,” Williams, 51, told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview from Jacksonville yesterday. “I was hungry because I missed the previous summer track season, and I wanted to put a stamp on that time period. Things fell together, that I was in the best shape of my life.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Williams scorched the certified course in 42:22, smashing the American record and getting within spitting distance of Paul Tergat’s then world record of 42:13. Twenty-five years later, Williams’s record still stands, the second-oldest American road running record for men below the 50-kilometer distance.
“It was one of those days when the weather was perfect,” Williams said. “There was no humidity, there was no wind, and I just kept driving.”
Immediately blasting away from his top rivals Mark Coogan, Chris Fox and Rod DeHaven, Williams ran the first two miles in 4:23 each. He quickly got into a rhythm and did not let up.
“Coach (George) Watts was like, ‘you need to go from the gun,'” Williams recalled. “Don’t worry about anybody else in the race. The time wasn’t really a mark; it was like, go for it.” He added: “I really wanted to attack it.”
Williams did a 15-K tempo run every Monday, and had developed a special feel for the distance. He said that he would never eased into his goal pace for those runs, but rather hit it right from the start. Coach Watts timed all of his workouts, and that was their routine.
“When coach said, ‘go!’ I just went as hard as I could on that run,” Williams explained. “When my foot was on the starting line at the Gate River Run that year I was like, as soon as the gun goes off I’m just going to see how hard I can run. If I crash and burn, I crash and burn.”
The race slowly became painful for Williams, who had finished 10th in the 10,000m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and had a 10,000m personal best of 27:40.37 at the time (he would later lower that to 27:31.34). He hit 5-K in 13:47 feeling good, but knew he had a big challenge ahead. The course had a different configuration then, and the Hart Bridge –called the “Green Monster” by local residents with its roadway 141 feet above the Jacksonville River– came at the 6-mile mark.
“It started to hurt pretty bad there,” said Williams with a laugh, recalling that his 10-K split at the top of the bridge was 28:07 and that his sixth mile was 4:45, the slowest of the race. “I just kept driving as hard as I could. There was nobody behind me. I took a couple of glimpses behind, and could see no one. So, I was like, I just have to keep driving forward.”
Running mostly on feel, Williams knew he was going fast, but wasn’t really sure how fast. He tried to keep his eyes forward and not lose a single second.
“When I took the turn (before the finish) and I saw the clock, 42:10, I was like, this is an amazing, amazing day. I just ran as hard as I could through the line.”
Mark Coogan, who became a 1996 Olympian in the marathon, finished second in 43:47, 85 seconds behind. Fox and DeHaven sprinted for the final podium position, with Fox getting third and DeHaven fourth, both timed in 43:38. Williams won a total of $16,500 in prize money and bonuses that day, worth $28,000 in today’s dollars.
Williams’s elite career lasted through 2002, and included another trip to the Olympics in 1996 –where he dropped out of the first round of the 10,000m– and a 2:11:17 marathon in Chicago in 1997. He would win the Gate River Run a total of five times between 1994 and 1999, but it was that magic day in 1995 which would come to define his career.
“When people say, how does that record last so long I’m like, that was a great day and I was in top fitness of my life at that point,” Williams said. “But, honestly, there are a lot of great runners that don’t focus on the distance and I think if some of these runners that have come through there focused like I did, I think the record would be under 42 minutes.”
Indeed, Williams nearly lost his record in 2007 when Ryan Hall ran his American half-marathon record of 59:43 in Houston. Hall’s unofficial 15-K split was 42:21, one second faster than Williams’s record, but the organizers didn’t have that split certified, nor did they have official timing at that point (they do now).
Williams was sponsored by adidas throughout his career, and the shoes he raced in that day were vastly different than the recently-introduced “super shoes” with carbon plates, thick midsoles, and special foams which provide exceptional energy return and improve running economy. Back then, what defined a great racing shoe was simply light weight. The soles on Williams’s racing flats were only about as thick as an iPhone.
“If adidas asked me what do I want to wear, I just said send me the lightest possible shoe you have,” Williams said. “That’s what I want. That’s what I put on my foot, and ran hard.”
Williams autographed those shoes and donated them to race director Doug Alred and the Gate River Run Hall of Fame.
Jacksonville eventually became Williams’s home. He lived there between 2003 and 2016 before moving back to Monroe, Mich., where he grew up. Last Saturday, Williams returned to Jacksonville to celebrate his record by jogging the race with his wife, Lindsey, and two daughters, Brooke (23) and Bailee (20). Williams –who is a jiu jitsu instructor who owns his own martial arts school in Michigan– said he loved being at the back of the pack and was able to take in the atmosphere of the race which he completely ignored in 1995.
“I came down Friday from Detroit to run the race with my kids,” Williams said. “And, I’m staying down to hang out with them and spend some quality time with the girls, and my wife.”