Interview: Will Sumner On Becoming The Third-Fastest High School 800m Runner

By Kyle Merber

June 8, 2022

What the hell is going on in high school running? Sixteen young men now have their names on the high school sub-four minute list. On Thursday, Missouri junior Connor Burns ran 3:58.83 at the Festival of Miles, finishing just behind veteran sub-four man boy, Gary Martin. Then Reinhardt Harrison, who ran 4:01 two years ago, finally got it done, going 3:59.33 in Florida. The mark is now a stepping stone and not the finish line — which is a good thing when looking at the landscape of American distance running. It’s a side quest that has to be completed before you can face off against the final boss (father time!).

But it’s not just the boy’s mile. Juliette Whittaker just ran a 4:36 mile Ellie Shea just went 4:14 for 1500m, and Roisin Willis completely soloed a 2:00.03 at the Wisconsin state meet.

And then there is Georgia senior Will Sumner, who set the high school national records indoors at 500m and 600m and ran a US leading 45.78 for 400m this outdoor season. This past week he ran 1:46.53 to win his heat at the Music City Distance Carnival. I caught up with him to hear more about his stellar year:

THE LAP COUNT: Congrats on the big run! How did things play out for you? Did you know that running that fast would be possible?

WILL SUMNER: I knew I was capable of it based on what I’ve been doing in practice. And I hadn’t come close to running that fast so I knew that I needed to be the one right up behind the rabbit so that’s what I did. He pulled me through in 51.5 before stepping off and then it was just me against the clock running away from everybody. I just made sure that at every 100 I kept putting in surges to keep pace. When I came through 600 and my dad yelled my split of 1:18 I was like — I got something going here.

THE LAP COUNT: Is your dad currently coaching you?

WILL SUMNER: It’s really my mom and dad. My mom is the one who comes and works for the school. My dad helps make workouts, but he doesn’t officially coach me.

THE LAP COUNT: What’s that like having parents who speak track and field and at such a high level? (For context, Will’s parents both ran for Villanova. His mother, Tosha Woodward, was a 2-flat 800m runner and his father, Brad, ran 1:46/3:59)

WILL SUMNER: I think it’s a lot of help because they really know what it’s like. First of all, they know everything I’m going through and can give me advice. I know what they’re saying is really beneficial to me and not just some random person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I think it also helps to keep perspective because they were really great and can keep me level-headed. They’ll be like, “okay, you know, you still got a lot of work to do, even though you’re good now. And the next level, they’re going to be better than you and so you’ve got to keep working!” So that sort of stuff is really good to help me mature as an athlete.

THE LAP COUNT: Are you more similar to your mom or your dad as an athlete?

WILL SUMNER: I’m more like my mom since my dad was an 800/1500 guy. He didn’t specialize in the four like I do. But my mom was more of a pure 800 runner and did the 400 hurdles earlier in her career. But honestly, I feel like I’m not really like either of them because no one in my family ran the 400. And I feel like I’m able to run it at a high level or at least going in that direction so I think I I’m a bit of my own sort of person as a runner.

THE LAP COUNT: What does the rest of the season look like for you? Are you going to run the US Championships?

WILL SUMNER: I’ve got Brooks PR meet next week and I’ll be running the 400 there. Then a few days after that, I’ll be running the 800 at Nike. And a week after that I’m going to go to the U20 Championships and I haven’t decided what I’m going to run yet. One of my goals at the beginning of the season was just to make the team. I’ll do whatever event gives me the best chance and is best for my overall development as an athlete.

THE LAP COUNT: It sounds like we may not see a matchup between yourself and Cade Flatt. How much have his performances pushed you? Are you chasing the high school 800m record as well? I know you’ll see a lot of each other the next few years in the SEC.

WILL SUMNER: I definitely watch the things he does and it is motivation to see someone else running that fast. But I also try to stay on the path that I set out for myself at the beginning of the season, which was really focusing on the 400 and then making a U.S. juniors team. I mean, chasing a record — it would be nice to get it. And if it comes along the way then that’d be amazing. But it’s not something I’m trying to go out of my way to achieve. I think that’s the best plan for my development as an athlete, not just in high school, but for my whole career. And so I think it’s good to take a step back and realize not everything is about what I do in high school — I’m still trying to have fun as well.

THE LAP COUNT: Pundits like myself are watching what’s going on in the high school ranks and trying to figure out how everyone is running so fast. From your perspective in the weeds, what’s happening?

WILL SUMNER: I think it’s a multitude of reasons. One of them is a lot more people seem to be motivated by others. They see all these people doing crazy things and then they want to do crazy things. I think part of it is the sport just seems to be growing too — it just it feels like the whole community is more passionate and more ambitious than ever.

Another thing I hear a lot is “it’s the spikes” and that could be a factor, but I don’t think that’s a huge thing. But maybe it plays a little bit into it. I also just think that’s just how sports are. Every sport gets progressively faster like football players are always getting better. Baseball players are always getting stronger and so I think the same applies to track.

THE LAP COUNT: Are you a big track fan yourself? Do you follow the history or are you just showing up to practice and racing fast?

WILL SUMNER: I like to watch track meets and study past pros, current pros and everything like that. I’m a big fan of the sport.

THE LAP COUNT: Do you have a favorite all-time athlete?

WILL SUMNER: Probably either David Rudisha or Alberto Juantorena.

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Photo by Justin Britton/@justinbritton

Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.