San Diego, CA – With the IAAF World Championships scheduled for October this year in Doha, Qatar, everyone’s schedule has been thrown back a month and you never know who’s going to show up where on any given night in the world of track and field.
Last night at San Diego’s Mesa College, two world-class runners joined tracksters young and old at the 8th Summer Nights Track & Field Series meet as they sought to re-find the form that had previously brought them to the very heights of their sport.
Two-time Olympic 1500-meter medalist Nick Willis and three-time sprint medalist Tori Bowie feel the clock ticking and know it waits on no one.
Nick is now 36 years old, yet the University of Michigan grad and New Zealand legend is still on the hunt for that elusive fitness that produced a silver medal in Beijing ‘08 and then a bronze in Rio in 2016.
Last night we found Nick at Mesa College testing himself in the 800 meters just one night after running 1500 meters at the Sunset Series up north at Azusa Pacific. There he fashioned a 3:37.8, good for fourth place. Not a usual position for Nick, but better than what 2019 has shown so far.
“I’ve been last in my last two races,” Nick told me after his 1:49.23 win over stubborn Daniel Herrera’s 1:49.27 and Eric Avila‘s 1:50.51. “I ran here because I need to get my confidence back.”
You wouldn’t think a two-time Olympic medalist would be short on confidence, but as we all know, foot racing is a humbling game and a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately one, too.
Yes, we’re only as good as our last race, or in Nick’s case, his last two. And when they don’t go well, even a glittering past doesn’t mean too much or offer much consolation, especially as we grow older.
In his last Diamond League outing, Nick barely broke 4:00 at the Bowerman Mile at the Pre Classic at Stanford on June 30 as things just haven’t snapped into place in 2019 like they once did. He finished 14th out of 14 starters.
“When I was younger my 5 km and cross country strength would automatically transfer to track speed,“ Nick explained. “But my muscles don’t come around so easily anymore. So this is my Tiger Woods’ season to make a comeback. Thing is, I feel healthier than ever but that doesn’t mean the elasticity transfers as quickly as it once did. But tonight I came out and ran 52 seconds for the first 400 (paced by former 2x NCAA 1500m champ for Oregon and local University High School star Mac Fleet) and I think it’s starting to come around.”
Nick will head back home to Ann Arbor, Michigan today before flying back to Europe for a 1500 meters in Heusden in 10 days in the Netherlands. The very next day he will run a mile in London as he looks to find that fugitive form before the World Championships in Doha.
Several hundred people were on hand for last night’s Summer Series meet, now in its 10th season under the guidance of local running guru, Coach Paul Greer. The other world-classer the crowd was fortunate to see testing her fitness before the U.S. Nationals in Des Moines, Iowa (July 25-28) was sprinter Tori Bowie, the three-time Olympic medalist from Rio 2016 (gold in the 4 X 100, silver in the 100m, and bronze in the 200m), then two-time World Champion in 2017 (open 100m & the 4 X 100m.)
2018 ended early for Tori when she tore a quad muscle at the Pre Classic in late May (5th, 11.03). It’s been a year of battling back from injury and off-track issues, as well, including changing home bases and coaches. She hasn’t gone sub-11 since 2017. At the Pre Classic this June 30th, she finished 7th in 11.30.
Last night at Mesa, Tori ran the 100 again in 11.50, which she said “was pathetic.” But her new coach Craig Poole, former head women’s coach at BYU for 30 years and then director and head coach at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista just south of San Diego said, “she achieved all the goals she was looking for. Time was not the goal here, she was just working on some technical stuff.”
Working back into form is the kind of thing local meets like the Summer Nights Series can offer a top athlete that big-time meets can’t. At the same time, having Olympic athletes perform on the same track inspires the youngsters on hand.
Nick remarked how New Zealand had this kind of local meet all around through their summer months, but he never finds them here in the U. S.
Before taking off, Nick addressed the crowd of track enthusiasts on another ideal San Diego summer night.
“Get off the concrete and find some beautiful trails and enjoy your body to the best of your ability.”
Yes, do it while you can, kids, cause gravity is not a user-friendly force field and it will exact a toll. Just ask Nick and Tori.
The sun slowly dipped beneath the west grandstands, the light faded as the final events were contested. Then the small crowd dispersed knowing many will meet up again for the 9th Summer Nights meet on July 17th.
It had been a good evening. Pleasantly fatigued was the feeling left behind, which is how famed New Zealand distance coach Arthur Lydiard used to explain the feeling of being in full training mode.
And so it goes.
P.S. Nick Willis was named to the 2019 University of Michigan Hall of Honor the next day. Congrats, Nick. Best of luck ahead.