Feature18 Feb 2015

Fatherhood and family life help renew Willis’s motivation


Middle-distance runner Nick Willis of New Zealand (© Getty Images)

Nick Willis thought about retiring from athletics after the 2012 Olympics.

The silver medallist at 1500m in Beijing four years earlier, he arrived in London past his peak and could do no better than ninth in his second Olympic final and third Olympic Games. Willis wondered if it was time to walk away.

“It was like, ‘Am I still going to do this or not?’” Willis recalls. “I was 29 years old, and I was very disappointed with what happened, and I wanted to make amends for that. Am I going to head into the business and corporate world, or am I going to keep sticking with this?”

One race into his 2015 campaign, it’s clear Willis’s answer was less of a surrender and more nailing his flag to the mast. After one of the best seasons of his career in 2014, where he set PBs at 1500m (3:29.91 in Monaco), the mile (3:49.83 in Oslo), 3000m (7:36.91 in Ostrava) and ventured out to 5000m, running 13:20.33, Willis opened up 2015 by breaking John Walker’s Oceania record in the indoor mile, running 3:51.61 for the win in Boston and beating multiple world indoor medallist Abdalaati Iguider in the process.

One week later, he improved the mark to 3:51.46 when finishing a close second to world silver medallist Matt Centrowitz at the Millrose Games.

“By turning my back to the options of off-the-track work, there’s no looking back,” he said. “It’s difficult to start climbing the corporate ladder at 31, 32. So I was like, I’m going for broke now.”

Stay-at-home dad

In addition to his continuing improvement on the track, Willis has found unexpected benefits off the track.

“With the birth of my son [Lachlan, born in July 2013], I’ve experienced a lot of joy basically being a stay-at-home dad for his first year and a half. I train two and a half, three hours a day at most. The rest of the time, I’m home with my boy, and it’s very, very enjoyable.

“It means my wife and I can tag-team the parenting. We’ve never got any excuse to get tired, angry, or frustrated in the parenting situation, because we’re not doing what most parents have to do, either a whole day at home or coming home after a long day at work. It’s been a real joy, and I realised that the longer I can keep doing this, and having success, the longer I can be a good dad. It’s very easy to be motivated now, probably more so than when I was just out of college.”

As his PBs continue to drop, Willis has begun to question the idea that runners slow down in their 30s. “I ran a 100m PR indoors, the other day, with a flying start. I really believe the statistics suggesting certain age curves are skewed by the old amateur era. The longer we move into the professional era, we’ll find more Bernard Lagats, more Kevin Sullivans, and others.

“I believe part of the reason people had their bests in their early 20s was that if they were facing injury, or a struggle of a season when they were 27, 28, their girlfriend or their spouse, their kids, would say, ‘come on, it’s time to start paying the bills’. But if it’s the means of supporting your family, you can keep going, and reap the benefits of year after year of consistent training. And you’re not in as much of a rush to force things in training, because you know you’ve got plenty of time to make steady improvements.

“Staying healthy is obviously the big figure in there, you don’t recover as well, but otherwise you’ve got years of training under your legs.”

Living the high life

Willis, still running under the guidance of his collegiate coach, Ron Warhurst, is still finding opportunities to improve his training. “I’ve been up in Flagstaff (Arizona) doing my first real serious go at altitude training. [Flagstaff is at 2130m elevation.] I’ve been doing fantastic stuff up there, but you never know how that translates into indoor track times.

“When you’re doing altitude training, or so I’ve been told, you do the first half or the first third of a workout more at a threshold pace, 5k or 10k stuff, and then you can finish up with the real fast stuff. And I closed a couple of workouts at 51 [seconds] for 400m and 1:21 for a 600m.”

Even though it’s still more than half a year away, Willis has his eyes squarely on 30 August and the 1500m final at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, with one of his goals in Boston being to achieve the qualifying standard. Mission accomplished. And Willis believes the competitive indoor season sets him up for a successful summer.

“Even back in 2008 I wanted to treat the indoor season very seriously to build up confidence for the Olympics,” he said. “Ever since then it seems to have worked, to take indoors very seriously and try as hard as I can to run as fast as I can.

“I know I can’t get to my very best, but it gives me a great platform of speed. Then I go back to my strength work in April and May. When I come back to the track I’m already ahead of where I was for the indoor season. It’s an approach we’re taking this year, so hopefully this [3:51 mile] sets a benchmark to grow from.”

Targets for 2015

The Boston race also let Willis make progress towards one of his competitive goals for the year. “I set my New Year’s resolution this year to beat [Asbel] Kiprop, [Silas] Kiplagat, and [Ayanleh] Souleiman. Deep down, I probably should have added Iguider and Centrowitz to it as well, because those are the five guys that are normally battling it out for the medals. So I got one.”

Making someone the object of his competitive focus is an act of respect from Willis, who said as much about breaking one of Walker’s records. “John Walker is a legend in New Zealand. They didn’t have as good tracks as this to run on, but any time you can displace his name, with respect, it’s good for the sport in New Zealand, because it will get headlines in the newspapers and all that.”

And with that, Willis turns to yet another challenge he’s set himself. “Zane Robertson just ran a sub-60-minute half marathon, so track and field and road running is at the tip of everyone’s tongue back home. Now we’ve got an interesting match-up, we’re going head to head in a 5000m in three weeks’ time.

“A half marathon in sub-60 and a 3:51 mile… I’m still petrified by the 5000m, but it will make an intriguing race.”

Parker Morse for the IAAF