Q&A: Nick Willis on Signing With Tracksmith, Skateboarding, & Why the Olympic Standard Freeze Helps Him
By Jonathan Gault
May 13, 2020
On Tuesday, Tracksmith, the Boston-based apparel brand founded in 2014 by Matt Taylor, announced its foray into elite running by signing two big-name athletes: double Olympic medalist Nick Willis of New Zealand and 2014 World Junior champion Mary Cain. But the contracts Willis and Cain signed had a twist; unlike every other professional runner, they won’t be independent contractors but full-time employees at Tracksmith.
After eight years with Reebok and seven with adidas, Willis, 37, will serve as “Athlete Experience Manager,” developing events to strengthen the connection between Tracksmith and its customers and improve their overall experience in the sport of running. He’s not done running competitively, either; he plans on chasing his fifth Olympic berth in the 1500 meters in 2021.
LetsRun.com caught up with Willis over the phone on Tuesday from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he will remain for his new role with Tracksmith. We spoke about what Willis’ new life will look like, why he made the decision to join Tracksmith, how his training has changed under quarantine, and much more.
JG: How did this deal come about? Who had the idea?
NW: I’ve known Matt Taylor, the founder and CEO, for several years now. He actually took part in an online running boot camp that my wife and I were coaching (Miler Camp – Miler Method Boot Camps). So we formed a connection there, and then he invited us when we were in Boston one year during the B.A.A. Mile, if we wanted to swing by to their grand opening of their store on Newbury Street.
We’ve kept in touch over the years. When I’ve thrown out ideas for different ways to do some different type of events or ways to promote the sport, he’s always sent a quick email of support or highlighted some thoughts that I had. So when 2020 came around and I was debating whether I should renegotiate a traditional shoe contract or look outside of the box, I thought this could be a really awesome opportunity for me to start my transition into the real world now as opposed to waiting until after my running career finishes.
Their company is in the stage where they’re sort of on their way up and so it’s the perfect thing to get in with that momentum that’s already happening and be a part of it and have a seat at the table. Matt was keen to have me on and I was super excited and just really fortunate considering the pandemic and the economic shutdown that’s happened that they were still able to be excited to still bring Mary and I on. There’s no looking back and I can’t wait for each and every week that passes as I learn more and more things now that I’m in the real world, so to speak.
You were racing in adidas gear earlier this year. How did you get out of your adidas contract? Was that difficult at all?
No. I was up for renewal anyway. Normally, you keep you racing in your sponsor’s gear as you’re renegotiating. And that was always my intent, to probably stay with them right when I was racing indoors, I didn’t really think beyond that.
But then my wife and I had this idea that perhaps we could consider thinking outside of the box. I had opportunities to make the decision for myself rather than always be locked in. But the truth is, I’m so thankful for how adidas has supported me over the last seven years, and before that, Reebok for eight years. I’ve been so well taken care of. I’ve never faced reductions in my 15 years with those two companies.
This was more about having flexibility and freedom so that I can sort of pick and choose how I approach my running for the rest of my career and beyond. But I also develop important career skill sets for the real world. That’s just as important for me. When you’re racing and sacrificing and being away all the time, it’s like, man, I’m further and further away from my college degree that’s becoming less and less valuable every year that I’m removed from that world. So this is awesome to get my foot back into the real world again.
What was your major in college?
I was an econ major.
This is a slightly personal question: how much are you going to be making in this new job and how does it compare to your previous shoe deals?
I’m going to pass on that question.
What shoes will you be racing in?
I haven’t actually thought about that too much. If I choose to, I can wear whatever I want. I’ve got about 100 pairs of shoes in my basement still stored up from my career. And so I can rely on that if I don’t want to go to the store or start asking my agent to talk to some other companies. Honestly, a lot’s been happening with the pandemic and renegotiating this and saying thanks but it’s time to move on to adidas. I haven’t actually gotten beyond that, especially with the Olympics being postponed. I might have forced or rushed the issue [if the Olympics were this summer], but I’ll wait until I start racing again until making those sorts of decisions. It’s liberating to know that I have the flexibility to do whatever I want.
So you’re still using an agent? Was that ever a decision that, now you’re getting a real job, to forego an agent from this point?
Mark Wetmore from Global Athletics and I have been good friends since 2005. I’m really thankful for their amazing support of me over these years. But when I decided to go this route, I said to him that this is really important for me. If I think outside the box for my own personal development, I need to start making these connections myself because that is as important a step as anything. Because you’re establishing the relationships rather than your agent doing it for you.
So this whole Tracksmith situation was just done between myself and the company. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m still represented by Global Athletics if I’m entering races or seeking appearance fees or that sort of stuff. They said they’d take care of me as long as I need to.
Is there any expectation on Tracksmith’s part that you continue to race?
There’s nothing in my contract that says it. But as an employee, all of us at Tracksmith are super excited to grow the brand. And especially, I’m on the marketing team, to get the name out there. The clothes will sell themselves. They’re the best clothes in the business. We’ve just gotta get the name more well-known in different circles that may not have heard about it yet. By me running, it will absolutely help that.
But no, I don’t feel any expectation or pressure. One of the things, when I was being interviewed, was what are your goals? I said honestly, I don’t know. There’s a bunch of different ideas that I have, but at that stage, I wasn’t totally sure. I have a lot more clarity about that now that things have settled down a little bit and we have a better picture of what the future holds. Or at least than we did when I was negotiating. But at the time, I went in there with a very open-ended answer and they were still extremely supportive of whatever I wanted to do.
You said, “while I was being interviewed.” When was the last time you had a formal job interview, if ever?
I was 15, applying for a job as a dishwasher and salad and food prep person at a restaurant, like TGI Fridays. And I only got the job when he asked what are your other hobbies and I said I play golf. And he was learning to play golf, so he said if you can help teach me how to chip and putt, I’ll give you the job.
So what was it like going through the interview process this time?
Oh, it was great. It was very casual. The thing is — and this is what I’ve learned since then — not just the senior leadership and executive team are all passionate runners who are fully involved in the sport; everybody is. So it’s just like going to hang out with your college team after a long run when you’re going to go get brunch. Everyone loves running and they’re all passionate about their own goals. So it felt like I fit in straight away.
Your new title is “Athlete Experience Manager.” What exactly does that entail?
Well, all of our customers at Tracksmith are athletes. They’re not just people off the street who happen to wear running clothes. Everyone has their own goal to aspire to be the best runner they can be. So my goal is to help come along that journey of running with everybody — provide programming and events and different content and ideas to make that experience better by telling stories, by reinventing or enhancing the current offerings that are available in our sport. I’ve been brainstorming my whole life about this. Now I actually get to bounce these ideas off of very intelligent and smart and creative people. I think Tracksmith does the best job at storytelling and using a more intentional way of presenting the passion of the sport unto the world. And so that sort of complements my skill set as well.
How many hours a week do you envision you’ll work? Do you have a number you have to hit?
It’s not a traditional nine-to-five. It’s project-based and they’ll give myself flexibility to also focus on my training. But I want to prove myself. I want to show that I’m worthy of this. And it’s exciting for me as well. I haven’t had an opportunity to be impactful with my mind and my ideas as much as my legs. So it’s fun starting at the bottom again. I’m just like a sponge soaking it all up from everyone at the moment.
Between you and Mary, this is a new model in terms of the brand/athlete relationship. What do you view as the biggest changes between this compared to your previous deals with Reebok and adidas?
I think there are several things. Probably the first that comes to mind is just having a voice that is heard. You have a seat at the table, you’re in on the daily and weekly meetings of the big picture things. Your opinion as an elite runner is valid and you can really have an impact.
Often when you’re a professional athlete, it’s like, well, it’s you do your thing, we’ll do ours, don’t worry about what we’re doing here. And that wasn’t always the case in my career, but I think, by and large that can take place for professional athletes.
The second is just having the consistent and guaranteed income flow and not being worried when you only get paid every six months or every three months. [Not] having to navigate taxes with all of that, and then the pressures of maintaining minimum required races performed or holding rankings or all that sort of stuff. Although I never actually experienced a reduction, it was in my contract that reductions were possible. So I’m fortunate I never had to face that.
Mary said “the traditional athlete-sponsor relationship is flawed.” Do you agree with that? And if it is flawed, what are the flaws?
I think there should be more opportunities for career development within the professional athlete’s career. There’s lots of value that the athletes could bring to a company that aren’t being utilized because there’s this idea, perhaps, that athletes need to focus 100% on their training, no other distractions. But from my experience, it actually helps [to have something other than running to focus on]. To bring them in, maybe have a role [for] them in the marketing ideas and performance or product development. There’s opportunities to bring us in more than is often the case.
And to provide health insurances. That’s another great perk that I didn’t mention in the previous question. Having health insurance is a huge thing, rather than having to buy it yourself. I was paying ridiculous amounts when I was just a self-employed athlete for a family of four.
It would be great if athletes could feel like they’re part of something so that they’re not wondering, when their career is finished, what’s next? That’s a pressure in itself as you start seeing the light at the end of your professional athlete career. It’s like, well what am I going to do now? When you’re in a regular career, there’s an expectation that your career path will only grow as you get older and earning potential can increase as well. The athlete path is sort of a reverse trend. You often sign your biggest contract when there’s the hype as you come out of college or come out of high school for some people like Mary. And then it’s trying to hang on to that income stream for as long as possible. And as you watch it slowly, potentially go down or have the peaks and valleys based on your performance, there’s a much more general trajectory of your earning potential in a regular career position.
How many employees does Tracksmith have now?
Switching to running, what has your training been like under quarantine? How is it different from normal?
There’s been moments of really high motivation, other moments of blah. But every day I’ve gotten my shoes on and headed out at least for a minimum of 20 minutes, sometimes up to two hours. So I’ve sort of fluctuated between doing 50 and 80 miles each week, where I would normally average 75-85 if I was consistently training. This last week, I ran 80, so that was a really good one and I really enjoyed it.
I really haven’t wanted to commit to a proper training plan with a goal race in mind out of fear [that] if that race, which could get cancelled again, it would feel really deflating and emotionally sapping leading into the Olympic year. I would rather, since we’ve got this downtime from racing, build up as much emotional reserves as possible for a really big launch for next year. So that’s my approach. I’m training 80% of my normal load. And then hopefully, if things clear up and there’s able to be some semblance of a season in the latter part of the summer or the early fall, it will only take a couple of weeks to ramp up things to get into that mode. So that’s the way I’m approaching it.
How do you decide about which workouts to do? What motivates you and makes you decide what kind of session you want to do each week?
Up to about three days ago, I just every day made my decision [that day]. Whatever I felt like doing was the best idea. Anything to get me out the door was the most important thing. If suddenly I didn’t feel like going for a run that day [and] maybe going to do some hills would be a good way to keep me doing it, then I’ll go do a hill workout. If it means just going for a two-hour run, I’ll do that. Sometimes I did long runs on back-to-back days. Sometimes I’ll just go down and do strides. So yeah, just totally winged it. It’s been a freeing experience.
But now I’m going to get in a routine of doing one workout a week, some type of hill or tempo workout, alternating, for the next month. Now that I’m back in Ann Arbor, I’m going to start adding a little bit more structure.
The Diamond League announced a new revised schedule today.
I saw that, yeah.
How optimistic are you that there actually will be a track season this year?
I was surprised to see the ones listed for August. But I’ve seen a few emails circulating from meet directors and people in the business asking how willing would athletes be to do a two-week quarantine once they arrived in Europe if it meant they could race in the Diamond League meets. So I knew they were trying to float ways to do that. It’s hard to imagine the Diamond Leagues to be fully accessible to everybody in the world because of different travel restrictions. But I think if a meet can take place, even if only limited countries can attend, they should still do it. And that’s the way that seems to be happening. I mean, New Zealand’s almost about to fully open up in a couple of weeks. So New Zealand/Australia are going to do whatever they like, just no other country will be able to attend. So perhaps there are other countries around the world that will start doing likewise.
Would you be willing to do a two-week quarantine to go over to Europe? Would you race if there are Diamond Leagues this season?
I was asking this question last night — we were having a roundtable with the high performance athletes from New Zealand. Like, what does [training during] quarantine actually entail? And in New Zealand, from what I understand, it’s like a monitored break in a courtyard sort of thing, sort of like you’re in prison, you get allocated exercise time. So I don’t think I’d be willing to do that if you can’t actually go do proper training. But most of us who go to Europe for racing, it’s like we almost self-quarantine for the first week anyway because you’re getting over jet lag and you’re sleeping in hotels in a city you don’t recognize. So yeah, it’s not that different. It’s just a matter of whether you’re able to do your training or not. If you can’t train, you’re not going to be able to maintain your fitness for two weeks, so that would be a waste of time anyway.
World Athletics has decided that athletes cannot achieve the Olympic standard until December. And you are an athlete who does not currently have the Olympic standard. Do you agree or disagree with that policy?
Personally, that probably helps my chances of qualifying. Because right from the outset, my plan was to try and qualify via the world rankings system. And for the purposes of New Zealand’s selection policy, we had to be ranked in the top 32 of the world rankings, and I had got to 29th or 30th the week before New Zealand was about to announce their team. So the fact that they’re gonna still allow all of those past performances to count and then add from December 1 through to the Olympics means that everything I’ve done will carry through. Perhaps there might be a few spots that get pushed back as younger guys improve and I’ll be able to defend my spot using performances from the past. I think it ultimately favors me.
I can see there’s a valid argument from a lot of other people that are disappointed because they’re hoping, well I’ve been injured last year and I’d like to have an opportunity to qualify right now. My counter to them, personally at the time, was are we sure there’s even going to be any races right now, so why waste your energy arguing for allowing the races before that? So it’s almost a moot point until after the races take place. Then you might be able to argue for [the performances to count] retroactively.
Have you picked up any new habits or hobbies during quarantine?
I’ve gotten back on my skateboard. It’s not a new hobby or habit, but it’s one from my past that I’ve missed a lot. That’s been fun, cruising around with my sons on that.
Did you have a skateboarding clause in your adidas contract?
I’m not sure. I never really ever read [it]. I just assumed that one shouldn’t ever get injured doing something outside of their sport. There’s not really an argument out of why you’re missing meeting your minimum racing requirements. So I never wanted to jeopardize that at the time. Truth is, running’s the most injury-risk activity anyone can do.
Really, you think that?
You fall off your skateboard, you’re sore for a couple of days. But if you get a stress fracture running, you’re out for three months.
Talk about this interview on the LRC messgeboard/fan forum. MB: Nick Willis And Mary Cain Sign With Tracksmith
Note: This interview has been condensed for brevity and clarity.
If you enjoyed this interview, you may also enjoy our 2017 chat with Willis. In a two-part interview, Willis went deep on the key to his longevity, his appreciation for Jenny Simpson, his thoughts on his rivals Taoufik Makhloufi and Asbel Kiprop, and his proudest running accomplishment.
LRC Nick Willis Q&A, Part I: His Abbreviated Buildup for Worlds, The Key to His Longevity, and the Brilliance of Jenny Simpson
LRC Nick Willis Q&A, Part II: The Importance of Moderation, Taoufik Makhloufi’s Absence & Asbel Kiprop’s 5K Potential