October 13, 2021
Nick Willis returns to the podcast for this episode, which was recorded live in front of an audience at the Tracksmith pop-up shop during Chicago Marathon weekend. Nick was first a guest on this show back in February 2020 before the Millrose Games when we went over his entire career up until that point. So this conversation picks up with 2021. This season, he broke four minutes for the 19th consecutive year and then qualified for his 5th Olympic Games for New Zealand. It didn’t come easy though. He squeaked into the Games via his World Athletics ranking. He tells us why his wife was a major factor in motivating him to get there and in shape within six weeks. He gives us insight ito what his experience was like in Tokyo, where he made it to the semifinals and ran a season’s best of 3:35.41. Plus, what’s next for him? He’s been playing lots of basketball and skateboarding in the meantime.
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NOTABLE QUOTES AND NOTES
On the motivation provided by his Very Nice Track Club teammates’ success
– “Most runners run because of the runner’s high that you get from improvement. When you hit that PR, PB or goal, nothing in the world beats that from a sporting experience. But I had basically no hope of ever running a PR again so it was really hard to be motivated day in and day out. But to have this high school kid who is running a national record and to have a training partner who had never been to the Olympics but was now one of the favorites at the Trials, it made it so exciting to go to practice every day and be able to be someone who could potentially bridge that gap of doubt for them and show them that it can be done even from Ann Arbor. You always have these voices in your head saying, ‘Do I even belong here?’ I say, ‘Of course you do! You’re kicking my butt and I’ve been able to do it before.’ Having them be so excited every day gave me that youthful feeling again. I really felt that energy.”
How he helped Mason Ferlic and Hobbs Kessler deal with the nerves at the Olympic Trials
“For me, the most nervous I’ve been before a race was at the 2013 world championships. I had come back from surgery. I had no idea if I belonged there. I had no races for reference. I was terrified I wasn’t going to be able to complete my warmup. I was so nervous. I felt like my legs were lead. I saw Lopez Lomong get up to do his warmup. I shadowed him. I snuck up behind him so he wouldn’t see me and I just glued my eyes onto his back and had him take me through his warmup. I learned from that experience that the way to get through that challenging time is to shut your mind off and focus on the backs of someone else. So that’s what I told these guys to do. I said, “Let me be your Lopez Lomong and just follow my back.” We ran tandem. I told them when we were going to turn left or when we were going to turn right and what streets to run. Hayward Field is an awkward place to do your warmup loop in that area. It was 105 degrees as well. It was crazy hot. I just took their mind out of it and just focused on gluing their eyes on my back.”
Why he waved to his kids into the camera on the starting line of the Olympics
“Back in Athens at the 2004 Olympics, I had made a promise to my old boss at the restaurant I used to work at and I said, ‘Hey, Joe.’ on the start line. This time around, my kids couldn’t come to Tokyo. Family wasn’t allowed. That was probably the hardest part. My son has been alive for two of my Games and he’s never got to see them. I really wanted to make him feel involved in that. I said, ‘Hey Lachie! Hey Darcy!’ But the cool thing is that makes your competitors really nervous. They’re like, ‘How’s this guy so chill and calm?’ It relaxed me as well. They’re the most important things in my life. Here I was about to do something pretty cool and special but it paled in significance in how important they are to me. It put the race in perspective and put me back on the start line in this joyful state. Like what an opportunity and privilege…It was really helpful for me and really made me forget a lot of the doubts I had carried throughout the season when I was like: Do I really belong here as a 38-year-old again? It’s just the Olympics again. It’s a place I was familiar with. I had relative success in the past so I defaulted into that mindset I suppose.”
How Nick approached the rounds of the Olympics
“Normally we go in pretty rusty into the first round. You get through because your fitness and talent level are enough to get through even though you’re rusty but you’re fresh for the final. This time, I was like, ‘If I make the final, it doesn’t matter if I’m toast. That was a success.’ We treated the first round as the semifinal and the semifinal as the final. We approached the training accordingly in terms of the final taper and the preparation workouts. I was raring and ready to go emotionally on a high and hyped up for that first race. Normally, you’re feeling lethargic and you’re yawning on the start line and that sort of stuff. I was pumped and ready to go.”
“For the semifinal, the same thing. I actually think that if I made the final, I would’ve improved again but I didn’t get that opportunity but my legs felt very good. I did another workout on the day of the final just to see how I would’ve felt. It wasn’t like a full-on workout. I did a hard run and a bit of a tempo with a couple of strides and my legs did not feel any of the fatigue from the rounds. So obviously, the training in the final weeks prepared us for that.”
Why he thought the Olympic final was the greatest 1,500m race that has ever been run
“There’s only ever been one race at a world championship or Olympics that was faster than that. That had the help of a pacemaker and dare I say it – there was no test for EPO back then as well. I don’t know if that was a help as well. For this, there was no pacemaker in the race or a sacrificial lamb. Jakob Ingebrigtsen was the one to push the pace in the first lap. Timothy Cheruiyot could’ve had the choice of sitting back and tucking in behind him the whole way but nope. He wanted to go to the front himself and made it a drag race. Jakob had never beaten Cheruiyot before but in the Olympic final, he came up to his shoulder, tested him out and there was no response. He was able to drag it out. Behind them, you had Josh Kerr making a storming run from the back. You didn’t know what was going to happen. He could’ve rolled past the other two had they faltered in the slightest bit. There were a lot of different storylines. Normally it’s boring watching a time trial race, in my opinion, because there are no changes in position. This time, it was fast but actually tactical at the same time as well. It was the ultimate experience as a fan. It was just a real shame there were no fans. I was in the stadium that night but I forgot at the moment that there were no crowds because it was such an intense moment. It was only when they went to do the victory lap that they missed out on that special experience that the Olympics provides. For 20 minutes afterward, you get to wave to every single person with your nation’s flag.”
Was it weird to watch that race as a competitor?
“Honestly, I had no, ‘Man, I wish I was in there. I should’ve belonged.’ I’ve had such an incredible experience in my career. I have no sense of I deserve more. It was actually fun that I finally got to be a spectator. Back in Athens 2004, it was very hard to watch the final. I’m very content with my experiences. I’ve got so much other stuff going on in my life.”
Shutting down his season at the Olympics and his recent break
“I ended my season there. I kept training for about 10 days after that just to keep my options open. We had a family camping trip planned out west to Yellowstone with a pop-up camper. It was going to take huge appearance money from Fifth Avenue Mile to turn down the family trip. In the end, we decided that it wasn’t about the money. This is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It really was. We had an incredible time with the four of us. It was a way to close that chapter in my career and our career because my wife and I did it together and my kids were involved just as much as well. Now, it’s about running every day. Who knows what the future holds? There are no specific goals in mind.”
How’s his basketball career been going?
As a seven to 10-year-old, I wanted to be like Scottie Pippin and Tim Hardaway. They were my two favorite players. I collected basketball cards and all that sort of stuff. I rallied together some of the Very Nice Track Club guys and some of Ronnie (Warhurst)’s former 800 guys who still have some spring and we joined a rec basketball league. I’m not as good as I thought I would be. But it’s so much fun…I’m just on the court smiling the whole time. All these guys are so intense. They’re swearing and always wanting to get into fights. I’m just like, ‘Dude, this is the funnest thing ever.’ They’re probably getting annoyed by this 38-year-old Kiwi who is congratulating the other guys for hitting these incredible shots. I got hot a couple of times so that was fun.”
For more, listen to the full episode of the show.
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Chris Chavez launched CITIUS MAG in 2016 as a passion project while working full-time for Sports Illustrated. He covered the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and grew his humble blog into a multi-pronged media company. He completed all six World Marathon Majors and is an aspiring sub-five-minute miler.