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March 12, 2018

Todd Williams and the unbreakable 15k American Record

Every once in a while, you’ll lace ‘em up and have a day where everything just clicks. Your stride is effortless, your concentration on point, you can easily lock into the zone and just fly. If you’re lucky, that day will be a race day. And if you’re really lucky, the stars will align and you’ll be blessed with perfect weather, a fast course, and quality competition.

Those are the days for something special — but only if you make the decision to go for it.

Todd Williams had one of those days at the Gate River Run in 1995. Looking back, 1995 was actually one of those years. By season’s end, Williams would place 9th at World Cross Country and run PRs of 27:31 for 10,000m and 13:19 for 5,000m. His crowning achievement, though, was a still-standing American Record of 42:22 for the win at Gate River.

Only one year earlier, such a season didn’t quite seem possible. He was out with a sacral stress fracture riding a stationary hand bike 10 hours a week, because any other activity would strain the injury and further extend recovery time.

But in the months before Gate River, Williams had been healthy and training consistently. In the 10 weeks before the race, he averaged 100 miles per week. He even logged 106 miles the week of the race, bringing into question the notion that a taper is necessary for top performance. When you’re on, you’re on. Might as well roll with it rather than changing things up.

What’s more shocking, though, is his long run each week — or, rather, lack thereof. During that same time frame, the longest single run was 12 miles, which he did twice. Most weeks had 10-11 miles as the “long” run, if we can even call it that. It has to make you think: how necessary is the weekly long run? Just asking the question is on the level of blasphemy here in the U.S. Everyone is an experiment of one, but if you can manage to run most of your miles fast (like Williams), then maybe you can forgo the long run — as long as you’re getting in a high level of overall mileage.

Todd Williams knew he was fit after logging a series of oft-repeated staple workouts. The first was 10 sets of a 380m hill while the second was a hard 5 mile run at 4:45 pace. The third workout was one he’d learned from the Kenyans of the day, a descending ladder of 1600-1200-800-400 with 3 minutes rest between each rep. When he split 4:05, 3:03, 2:00, and :56, Williams knew he was ready to blast.

There’s an interesting lesson to be learned from this training. If you want to race well, then you need to run fast often — sometimes really fast — while maintaining a high overall volume of mileage. But in-season, those long individual runs may not be necessary.

If you’ve ever run Gate River — or even seen the course map — you know it’s not as flat and easy as one might think the Florida coast would be. There are two bridges, one just after the first mile and one long grinder between 8 and 9. Hot, humid, and windy coastal Florida weather often increases the challenge.

But in 1995, the stars aligned. The morning was cool and clear, the wind calm. Williams entered the race fit as f– well, suffice it to say he was feeling fast.

“My motto,” Williams said in an interview with Gary Cohen, “was to hammer and see where the cards fall.” That’s an old school approach that honors the legacy of a classic race like Gate River.

Hammer he did, blazing a 4:23 first mile. The bridge early on may cost runners up to 30 seconds over the course of the second mile, so getting out hard was a necessity.

By 5k he was at 13:47; he later came through 10k at 28:07. This split — in a non-paced, solo road effort — was less than 30 second slower than his fastest track 10,000m at the time. And that was with another 5k and a monster hill to go.

At the finish, first place in an American Record 42:22, Williams was only about 8 seconds off of Paul Tergat’s world record at the time. That’s lofty company to be in.

To be able to average 4:30 pace on a course like Gate’s is an absolutely absurd accomplishment. In the history of the iconic event, only three other men have even broken 43:00 — one of them was an EPO cheat and another was named Meb.

In fact, 42:22 remains one of the more untouchable American distance records, made all the more astounding since it was set during the distance doldrums of the 1990s. But that’s what happens when you mix consistent, hard training with a day where everything clicks.

And when one of those days grabs you, you have to have the courage to go for it.

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