The less than 4 minute mile is one of the holy grails of long distance running. Breaking the elusive barrier, once considered humanly impossible, places your name among the greats in sport, from Roger Bannister in 1954 to Matthew Centrowitz today.
A dozen or two college and post-college runners break down the barrier every year. If the last few seasons are any indication, some high school students can also sneak in under 4 minutes. But the quest for a runner for those under 4 has different gravities.
In the opening minutes of January 1, 2022 at the Armory in New York City, New Zealander Nick Willis narrowly missed the race under 4 minutes for the mile for the 20th consecutive year, clocking 4:00, 22. Black-smith documented the race on its website. (Willis is an athlete experience manager for the brand.) Although he missed the mark on New Years Day, he will continue to chase the barrier this year. If he breaks it, it will be the longest under-4 streak in track and field history.
The streak began on February 8, 2003 in South Bend, Indiana. Willis, then just 19, clocked 3: 58.15 for fourth in a field that produced some of the best indoor times in the world. It all happened just a month before her workout partner and high school freak Hobbs Kessler was even born.
This schoolboy is now 38 years old. After two decades, a lot has happened. He won Olympic medals and set New Zealand national records. He married and had two children. But some things have remained the same – it still pursues kilometers under 4 minutes.
How was Willis able to maintain such a long and successful running career? The two-time Olympic medalist shared his wisdom with Runner’s world, so that you too can learn how to enjoy a long running career.
Allow yourself to recover
It’s tempting to keep pushing when the training is going well. But doing too much can lead to burnout, or worse, injury.
Willis won his first Olympic medal in the 1,500 meters in 2008 at the age of 25. The young athlete was full of confidence for the following seasons. However, injury after injury, culminating in knee surgery in 2010, hampered his attempts for another world medal.
Willis returned to form in 2012, setting a mainland Oceania record of 3: 30.35. But despite the success, he almost finished last in the 2012 Olympic 1,500-meter final, citing burnout.
Willis has learned to accept recovery. He takes a day off every Monday after his long Sunday 18-20 mile run. He pays close attention to his heart rate, using it as a benchmark for health. If it’s too high, he says, âIt means my body is fighting an infection or that I slept really badly. Obviously my body needs to recuperate so I think back to running that day. If I have symptoms of a cold or the flu, I will use my pulse as an indicator to know when it is appropriate for me to resume running.
At Willis’ current age, the recovery is even greater. It puts no volume expectation on recovery runs and is lax on weekly mileage. It is based on an age-old adage: “Make the hard days and the easy days easier.” “
Willis likens being sick or injured to a scab. If you keep caring for it, it will take longer to heal. Runners tend to try to massage, stretch, or test injuries, which can prolong or make them worse. But if you allow them to heal, the scab will fall off on its own.
Use free time
Willis reached his career highs between 2014 and 2016. He set his personal bests of 3: 49.83 for the mile and 3: 29.66 for the 1,500 meters in 2014. He won an Olympic bronze medal. in 2016. He now credits those difficult injury-battling years to extending his career.
Many of his injuries were so severe that he was not allowed to run at all. So he took advantage of these periods – sometimes three to four months – to take emotional breaks from competition. Once healed he realized that he enjoyed racing a lot more and was excited for racing.
âMost of us who run a lot, that’s a big part of our day, week and year,â says Willis. “Losing that is really hard.”
He encourages anyone who takes a forced leave, whether because of an injury, mental health issue or illness, to allow themselves to grieve. Take a week to 10 days to go through the stages of grieving, then try to come to terms with your situation. Later, it will be easier to focus on other parts of your life. Eventually, when you run again, you will enjoy it even more.
Be the athlete you are now
In the years since his 2016 Olympic bronze medal, Willis struggled to accept that he was no longer the same athlete he was. He was already 33 years old in Rio, older than many of his rivals in the 1,500-meter race. With each passing year, he became more and more frustrated.
âI was not prepared to let the posts move,â he says. “I thought I had to live up to these perfect standards, and if I didn’t, I was just disappointed the whole time.” It wasn’t until 2020 – when COVID-19 cancellations forced him to take a year-long hiatus from running – that he was able to reflect on his current state of fitness.
Willis encourages anyone who is going through a similar rut, no matter what level of competition, to set goals for the athlete that you are. now, not who you once were.
âAlways challenge yourself, but do it based on your abilities, not those of others,â he says. âThen we can really feel that jubilation and that joy that we first discovered when we got into the sport. “
Surround yourself with a community
Willis contributes much of his success to the people around him. He lives near his Michigan alma mater, which has no shortage of elite distance runners to train with.
âI’ve always trained with people who are between 20 and 27 years old, mostly,â he says. âThey haven’t changed because it’s still every student in town, undergraduate, graduate or postgraduate. It made things fun and energetic.
Not everyone has access to elite training partners, but most runners have access to local running clubs. Having just one training partner can make all the difference in going out.
In addition to the training partners, there is another support system that helps the community to function: the family. In addition to his training program, Willis is a husband and father of two. Instead of separating the two worlds, Willis brings them together. His wife helps him train him, so she’s there every step of the way on his training journey. His children then come to train and spend time with the training group, which serves as a role model for the seven and three year old boys.
Run for fun
Ahead of his Under-4 New Years attempt, Willis allowed himself to have fun while being athletic.
Last fall, Willis and his track club played in a recreational basketball league. He found that he activated sprint speed that it normally doesn’t hit until mid-winter.
As long as you avoid unnecessary injury, you can still be a good runner while participating in other sports or athletic activities. It might even improve some aspects, be it strength or explosiveness.
Willis likes to try out different sports activities, so he plans to be a little more loose with his run. âI’ve always done it from such a serious point of view,â he says. âEven as a freshman in college, I was so connected, like a professional athlete with my mentality.â He might even run a new distance this season for fun, like the 200 or 400-meter sprint.
So rest assured, Willis isn’t going anywhere. Don’t expect to see him at every elite level meet. âOver the years, I have learned through wisdom to realize that running is not the ultimate solution. So when you can’t do it, make the most of it. But when you can, always really enjoy it.
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