Willis earns break after NY breakthrough

01:43, Jan 31 2009
MILE CHAMPION: New Zealand's Nick Willis and Bernard Lagat of the United States celebrate after funning the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York. Willis finished first and Lagat second.

Nick Willis has golf and a Fijian holiday on his mind after finishing his memorable season with a cracking victory in the Fifth Avenue Mile street race in New York yesterday.

In the perfect end to a staggering four and a bit weeks, the Michigan-based Wellington middle distance star pipped double world champion Bernard Lagat, of the United States, by 0.1s in a fast race.

Willis told The Dominion Post the victory was a career highlight and one he would savour over a relaxing month to follow.

First stop is a return home to Michigan for a few rounds of golf, followed by a holiday in Fiji then three weeks in New Zealand catching up with family and spreading the word about middle distance running.

"After the Olympic Games [1500m bronze medal] this result has to be right up there," Willis said.

"Getting a W [win] is special because they are few and far between, they have been so elusive for me. The 1500m is not like rugby or cricket where only a couple of teams ever win, there are eight blokes in nearly every race who can win the thing.


"Also doing it in New York city is fantastic and to have such a close race with Lagat and have a win is pretty special."

Willis is the second Kiwi to win the Fifth Avenue Mile, 24 years after John Walker.

Willis' time of 3min 50.5s was a legacy of the hot pace set by San Diego-based runner Jon Rankin for the opening 800m and then Lagat in the second half of the race.

"At the 800m mark, at the top of the hill, Bernard went toward the front and our stride really picked up as we crossed the crest.

"We hit the 1200m in 2:51 and I thought `wow, this is blazing'. I was struggling to hang on, but I thought it must be hurting them as well.

"My plan was to wait as late as possible and hopefully pace him with 50m to go. I got on to his shoulder and then I hit maximum speed, and there was nothing more for me to draw upon.

"Luckily he had hit his max as well, so we were both battling it out for the last 50m - it could have gone either way."

Willis revealed that he had initially struggled for motivation after Beijing and it had taken a "kick up the butt" from his American wife, Sierra, to get him back on the track.

"Two days after the Games finished I got a little bit sick because I was that tired and so I wanted to go home and close it off and she said "no" and I'm thankful she has.

"It gives me great momentum going into next year now and I know I am a champion. The Olympics wasn't a one-off fluke and now the expectation is to stay at the top of the world."

In the women's race, Britain's Lisa Dobriskey won in 4min 18.6s to upset the race favourite, American Shannon Rowbury, who finished second, with Kenya's Rose Kosgei taking third place.


The Dominion Post