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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

Hug The Rail: The Tactical Genius of Nick Willis

"Nick didn't care how fast he ran. He just had to win."

While being interviewed by Ryan Fenton and Alex Lohr on their Beneath the Grandstand podcast this weekend, runner-turned-pro cyclist Michael Woods shed some light on the mentality and race tactics of two-time 1500m Olympic medalist Nick Willis. Woods, who was a star in his own right before injuries forced him on to the bike, was college teammates with Willis for a year at the University of Michigan.

"He'd stick to the rail no matter what," Woods said of Willis, "Guys would be fighting all around him, and he'd just stay on it."

He continued.

"[Willis] would say, "It always opens up," and it would. You watch most of his videos and he sits on the rail, sits on the rail, and then finally, in the last, like, 150 meters, 100 meters, miraculously it would just always open up and he'd pull through."

In theory, the tactic has merit. A track is 400 meters when run in Lane 1. Running in Lane 2 - sometimes touted as a preferred position so as not to get boxed in - adds an additional 7.7 meters. In a race that can come down to milliseconds, that supplemental distance can add up.

For example, in order to stay with an athlete who is running 60 seconds for 400 meters in Lane 1, an athlete in Lane 2 would have to effectively run 58.87 second pace.

(Quick math: 407.7m actually run/60 sec=6.975 m/s while running in Lane 2; 400m covered/6.975 m/s = 58.87 seconds)

In a race where athletes are trying to stave off the onset of acidosis, efficiency is king. Willis understands this.

While that all sounds nice conceptually, I was curious to see if this is actually how Nick raced. Those that have been around the sport longer than I have probably don't need to go down a YouTube rabbit hole for confirmation, but I certainly did. Let's review the tape.

2006 Commonwealth Games - Gold

Let's start with Nick's gold medal at Melbourne in 2006. If the theory is to hold, it should probably be on display when Willis wins. And it is:


WATCH: Race Link

In recent years, I've heard of coaches telling their athletes that "Lane 1 is lava." For Willis, the script is flipped. Lane 2 is lava. By what the camera angles show, Willis never leaves Lane 1 during the entire race.

For the hometown crowd, this race lost a bit of luster when Aussie Craig Mottram fell in the middle of it. If you'll notice, the announcers even mention that Adrian Blincoe and Nick McCormick had agreed to pace the first and second lap for Mottram to guarantee an honest clip (How about that arrangement for a championship final?).

Nevertheless, Willis seemed to be clued in on the plan as well, and stuck behind Blincoe and McCormick on the rail. Once Mottram and Andy Baddeley get tangled up with 700m to go, Willis follows McCormick to the bell, at which point, he makes his first move to the lead.

Notice how smooth he moves down the backstretch as the rest of the field scrambles to catch up. Almost every other athlete is maxed out at this point, but Willis has another gear. Once the field begins to make up a bit of ground on the turn, Willis hits the afterburners, and cruises home for gold.


2008 Beijing Olympics - Bronze (Upgraded to Silver)

My quick search couldn't locate a full video of this race that had any hint of quality definition (plenty of blurry options though), but the final lap is another great example of patient running on the rail.


WATCH: Race Link


It's probably easiest to fast forward the video to the 1:22 mark and pause it. You'll see Willis coming up on the shoulder of Abdalaati Iguider of Morocco (red top, green shorts) and Belal Mansoor Ali of Bahrain (white top, red shorts).

With that scenario in mind, rewind to the beginning and follow those three athletes as they hit the bell. Iguider and Ali remain composed with mechanics intact until they hit 300m to go, at which point, Rashid Ramzi and Asbel Kiprop begin to move past them. Ali's mechanics begin to break down first, as his hands begin to flail horizontally. By 200 to go, Iguider's torso is falling forward as well. Willis, meanwhile, remains smooth along the rail.

Coming off the turn, Willis goes to the hands and finds a window to move up as Iguider and Ali continue leaking energy, having hit their cliff.

Sure, Ramzi and Kiprop run away from the field, but both men have since been busted for doping.


2014 Commonwealth Games - Bronze


WATCH:

What this race makes clear are the prerequisites for executing Willis' style:

  1. You have to be patient. Running a shorter distance takes priority over placement (caveat: as long as the pace is honest. More on that later) for most of the race, sometimes until the final turn. Even with 200m to go, Willis is still finding the shortest path. Notice him slide down to the rail behind Jeffrey Riseley of Australia (yellow top, green shorts) at the 4:42 mark in the video.

  2. You need to have an extra gear, and save it. Willis passes five guys in the final 120m of the race, again, maintaining the integrity of his mechanics while others who have already topped out begin to falter.


2016 World Indoors - Bronze

By 2016, the cat was well out of the bag. Patiently waiting to surge until the homestretch had become too predictable for even Willis himself. Before the World Indoor final, he and his wife agreed that his tactics would change.


WATCH:


The first 400m of the race still feels reminiscent of a typical Willis run. Nick places himself in the back, along the rail, well out of trouble. But then, he swings wide and tries to move up, though he doesn't commit to going all the way to the front. As a result, Willis is left to jockey for a spot on the rail in the middle of the pack, which his competition is intent on protecting. He is left to slide back to the rear. Ordinarily, this would be a mistake, but the pace was so pedestrian at the time that it probably didn't affect Willis all that much.

However, coming into 400m (two laps) to go, Willis makes a big move to the front. What I love about it is he leaves no doubt (see previous blog on this). This is THE move.

Yes, Willis is all out at this point, but on a 200m banked oval, it's a sound tactic. Here's what he had to say in the postrace interview:

"The beauty of the indoor track, which normally goes against my style of racing, is that it's very hard to pass people in the last lap, so you might be sacrificing a bit by going early, but then it makes it harder for everyone else when they're battling with each other."

Ultimately, Willis has to settle for Bronze, as he is passed by Matt Centrowitz of the USA and Jakub Holusa of the Czech Republic in the final few meters. It's a role reversal for him, as Willis is usually the one picking off competitors at the end, but he proved a world medal could be won with a different style.


2016 Rio Olympics - Bronze


In many ways, this is the best race to end on, as it is textbook Willis, even though it doesn't always appear that way.


WATCH: Race Link

Willis spends the first 700 meters running on the outside of the pack. While this is a departure from his usual spot on the rail, it's smart for two reasons:

  1. The pace is incredibly slow. The first two laps are a 66 and a 69, very pedestrian for guys accustomed to running all three and three-quarters laps of the track in sub-60 second pace. Consequently, there is little energy benefit to be gained by running on the rail.

  2. The slow pace bunches up the pack, and can cause athletes to trip. You'll notice the collision that occurs about 650 meters in.

The third lap is run in 55 seconds. Where is Willis for this ratcheting of the pace? Back on the rail, where he can run the shortest distance.

The bell lap shows the Nick Willis we've grown accustomed to: patiently waiting on the rail until the final stretch, where he finds that miraculously opened window and makes his move. Eight years after landing on the podium in Beijing, he claims his second Olympic medal in Rio.

In spending a few hours watching 1500m races from the past decade or so, it's clear that Michael Woods wasn't just blowing smoke. Nick Willis is one of the great tacticians in our sport. His patience and strategy reveal useful advice for coach and athlete alike. We would all be wise to take note.

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