Willis plots to achieve his goal
Former Olympic Games silver medallist Nick Willis is going to trial his new front-running tactics today in a bid to break four minutes for the mile on grass at the International Track Meet in Christchurch.
The 29-year-old has set three major goals for his "Down Under campaign" - to run the 27th sub four-minute mile of his career on Christ's College's grass track, to surpass the legendary John Walker's record for the fastest mile on New Zealand soil and to qualify for the world championships at a major meet in Sydney in March.
Willis will sit down later this month with his New Zealand agent Tim Castle to fully review his disappointing Olympic campaign in London last year and to plot his programme through to the Rio Olympics in 2016.
But he and coach Ron Warhurst have set a few goals for the southern hemisphere summer - and the ITM event in Christchurch looms large.
"It's always been a bit of a goal of mine, a bucket list item for my running career to see if I could get under that magical [four-minute] barrier those guys used to face back in the 50s and 60s when they didn't have all-weather surfaces to run on," Willis said.
"But it's no guaranteed feat by any stretch. If I were to do it, it would be the equivalent of running maybe a 3min 54sec mile [on a synthetic track], because [running on grass] is worth just over a second per lap."
Willis said Christ's College had a good track, but "nothing like the manicured surfaces they used to do where they'd get the rollers out and prepare it almost like a cricket pitch when they didn't have all-weather surfaces".
"We're going to have to have a lot of things go in our favour with the wind and the pacemaking. But I feel very strong and fit and this is a good opportunity to give that a serious crack."
ITM organiser Paul Coughlan has signed Czech Republic runner Petr Kaminsky and former Australian schoolboy champion Luke Mathews to bolster the field and Willis expects Hugo Beamish, who pushed him "right to the line in the 3000m in Wellington the other day", to again provide stiff opposition.
Beamish has returned home to Wellington from a scholarship at Villanova University in the United States and Willis said he had "obviously decided to step down from the two-mile to the mile for a reason".
Christchurch track fans will be able to see a new Willis tactic - he plans to be "aggressive up the front" of the field rather than rely on pacing himself and backing his trusty finishing kick. It's the tactic he feels he will need to meet the 3min 45sec qualifying time for the world championships when he lines up in the 1500m, in Sydney on March 9, against Australia's best middle distance men and "possibly a couple of Kenyans".
"That's why I'm taking this aggressive front-running approach in these early-season races to get my confidence up. It's not something I've got a great skill set in, or I haven't shown that in the past."
Willis has run the "3:45 flat" qualifying time "14 or 15 times before", but only in "top echelon" races, like Diamond or Golden League events or the Olympic Games, rather than "lower grand prix" meets like in Sydney.
He said it would be a definite advantage to achieve the qualifying time early in the season rather than wait till June or July when most top northern hemisphere athletes will have a tilt at the target. It would give him "an insurance policy" in case of minor injury.
But Willis wants to "have a crack at John Walker's New Zealand residents mile record" of 3min 50.6sec in a race at Auckland on February 28.
"That will be no easy feat at all, it would require a lot of things to go well again, the weather and the pacemaking. But it's a great carrot to hang out in front of me and more importantly that will be a really good rust-buster to get that out of my system before the Sydney race the week after."
Willis - who won the Cooks Classic Mile in Whanganui last month and backed up in Wellington with the fastest 3000m in New Zealand for 15 years - hasn't been in such good nick at this stage of the season for years.
"This is the first year I've come to New Zealand without starting from scratch on Christmas Day. It's always seemed I've had injuries in October, November and December.
"This time, I've got four months of a really good foundation and mileage under me. The endurance and the strength is really quite good now.
"When we've got good weather and some great meets that different centres are putting on, it would be a waste not to make the most of them.
"The fun thing about racing frequently is it takes any doubts away. You know exactly what sort of form you're in. When you space it out, after a couple of weeks you start to ask ‘am I still in that sort of form?'
"By racing every few days, I know I'm at least in 3:58 mile shape . . . everything seems to be progressing the way we hoped and the goal is to have a chance at the John Walker record in four weeks' time."
WILLIS RUNS IN THE SHADOWS OF GREATNESS
Where does modern-day middle distance marvel Nick Willis rank against Olympic gold medallists Peter Snell and John Walker?
In typically honest fashion, Beijing 2008 Olympic 1500m silver medallist Willis concedes "their careers stack up more impressively than mine" with Snell, "the greatest ever".
But there's no shame in running on the shoulder of two world greats in New Zealand track and field's post-World War II pantheon.
Willis is just one of six New Zealanders to win an Olympic 1500m medal after Jack Lovelock (gold in 1936), Snell (gold in 1960 and 1964), the late John Davies (bronze in 1964), Rod Dixon (bronze in 1972) Walker (gold in 1976).
He says Snell was "obviously one of the greatest athletes in the history of our sport in the world.
"Not just in New Zealand".
He was "gifted naturally" with amazing power and speed and his coach Arthur Lydiard ensured he was able to develop his endurance through long training runs in Auckland's Waitakere Ranges.
"His coach was the pioneer of which he was the result of the pioneering of that training which we're all greatly benefiting from," Willis says.
Walker was also one of the greatest ever in Willis' eyes.
"Not just because of the times he ran - he was the first guy ever to break 3min 50sec for the mile - but also the length of his career.
"He was only 22 when he got the Commonwealth Games' silver medal in Christchurch in 1974.
"He went through all the way through to the 1990 Commonwealth Games when he would have been 38."
Walker ran more than 100 sub-four minute miles over "many, many years".
"I've only run 26 myself," Willis, 29, said. "I don't think anyone would be able to repeat or match those feats."
Comparing athletes from different eras is an inexact science.
If judgment is based on honours alone, then Jack Lovelock - winner of the Olympic and Empire Games 1500m crowns and a former world mile and 1500m record holder - would also rank above Willis.
But Lovelock ran in an era where the sport was largely an European and American preserve - unlike his three great Kiwi successors, he didn't have to pit himself against the plethora of talented African athletes.
Walker, who had by far the longest career of the "big four", holds the most national records - four (1000m, mile, 2000m and 3000m) to one each by Snell (800m) and Willis (1500m).
Willis acknowledges Snell's and Walker's pre-eminence but believes if they were competing today, "and we went through the exact same opportunities in racing, I would have a chance, on my day, of beating them".
He says it's an honour to "be able to even go after some of their times".
"I've been blessed to be able to to run faster than those two guys over the 1500m distance."
He still hasn't beaten Walker's personal best - 3min 49.08 sec - for the mile, "but that's definitely a big goal of mine".
Snell is still New Zealand's 800m record holder - 50 years after breaking two world records (the 800m and 880 yards) on a grass track at Christchurch's Lancaster Park.
Try as they might, Walker and Willis have been unable to break the mark on synthetic surfaces.
Willis said here last year that he had all but given up his dream of toppling Snell's time. How does he feel now? "I've ebbed and flowed . . . it's probably not likely, but I'll always keep that in the back of mind as a chance if the opportunity presents itself."
He says following in Snell's and Walker's footsteps has been a privilege, "not just here but also when I'm overseas".
His predecessor's deeds means Willis garners respect, "not that you're [chasing] the name-dropping or people referencing you".
"But when you're running on the global stage, the commentators will say ‘Nick Willis, who recently broke the famous John Walker's national record'.
"Because it was John Walker's record, it always seems to get mentioned.
"That's a real privilege and an honour."
Willis hopes he will be able to "hand over the baton" to the next generation of internationally competitive middle distance athletes.
He says there are "some fantastic young middle-distance" women emerging.
They include Canterbury's Angie Smit, who ran "a phenomenal time" - around "2min flat" - for the 800m in Europe last year.
"We've got some pretty good guys who are training in Kenya at the moment in the Robertson twins [Zane and Jake].
Willis says it will up to today's "16, 17 and 18-year-olds" to carry the Kiwi torch at the 2020 Olympics Games, "which I'm unlikely to be competing at.
"That would be my fifth Olympics and my body won't let me do that any more."
He wouldn't want to change any of his career experiences, "the good and the bad", including his silver medal in Beijing and his disappointing downfield placing at London last year.
"It's been an incredible story and it hasn't finished yet."