Culture

How to Run to the Top, and Stay … and Stay … and Stay There

Secrets of long-term excellence as a runner, from Nick Willis, Deena Kastor, and others who might qualify for an Elite Longevity Hall of Fame.

What drives a man to smash 4 minutes for the mile every year for 19 straight years, aged 19 to 37, as Nick Willis just did? What impels a woman through 32 unbroken years of winning big races, from high school freshman to celebrity masters record breaker, as Deena Kastor (47) has done? And still eagerly doing it in both cases?

Nick Willis in January 2021 after running a sub-4:00 mile for the 19th consecutive year. Photo: Johnny Zhang / Tracksmith

It’s hard to run to the top, but it’s harder to stay there. True elite longevity (to invent a name for it) is rare, but not wholly new. Clarence DeMar placed top ten at the Boston Marathon 14 times. Bernard Lagat has run in five Olympics. Grete Waitz’s winning career extended from national 400m titles at age 14 to world and Olympic medals two decades later. Eliud Kipchoge won a world title at 18, and at twice that age is eyeing a second Olympic gold. See “Elite Longevity Hall of Fame” at the bottom of this article for more long-term notables.

As society transforms its concept of whole-life active health, running is at the cutting edge. The new philosophy is expressed in books like Jonathan Beverly’s Run Strong, Stay Hungry, Amby Burfoot’s Run Forever, the Burfoot/Gail Kislevitz website LifetimeRunning, and Burfoot’s recent Willis-inspired article: “How to Train to Run Fast for Decades.”  Such long-term excellence achieved on the sliding scale of the masters grades is remarkable, but Willis’s new sub-4 record highlights something that goes beyond, 19 years of excellence judged by the absolute uncompromising standards of the elite open sport. No adjustment for age. A sub-4 mile is as hard on the legs and lungs as when Willis ran his first at 19, or when Roger Bannister did it in 1954. (And he stayed at the top a mere four more months.)

How have Willis and Kastor excelled for 20 years and more in that unmerciful context? It’s worth looking at their origins.

Family Support

“I’m happy to believe that Nick always draws strength from his family base, both from when he was growing up, and from his own wife and sons now,” said Willis’s father, Richard Willis, a geography professor and former quarter-miler and high-level rugby player in New Zealand. With that supportive strength, Nick Willis began racing so well, so young, that his age-7 Wellington record for 200m still stands.

A young Nick Willis showing his early running prowess. Photo: Richard Willis

The family valued sport, along with education and religion, but became even more crucially important when Willis’s mother died of cancer when he had just turned 5. He started school months early because of her illness. It seems likely that early loss gave the mature athlete the extra depth of resilient will-power that he mines on occasions, like when winning his two Olympic 1500m medals.

The family steered him through the sad absence. After several years, his father remarried happily, giving Willis a new generation of siblings, including his half-sister Ruby, a rower who has joined Nick and their older brother Steve as New Zealand representatives. Steve, who preceded Nick as a sub-4:00 miler, is now New Zealand’s national lead distance coach. With Richard (72) still turning out for masters race walking, it’s a family that combines very high competitive standards with supportive and Christian values.

Kastor, in seeming contrast, was adopted at birth, which might make her situation wholly different from Willis’s, but doesn’t. She and her younger sister, the biological child of their parents, were equally “spoiled, adored, supported and praised.” Instead of ever feeling that she had been “given away,” Kastor wrote in Women’s Running, she grew up in daily assurance that she was “chosen, found and special.” She still gets a buzz from knowing that her mom went all the way from California to Boston specially to collect her.

Feeling that she had been selected freed Kastor to feel unique. Not in any aggressive or needy way, only as the fulfillment of talents that had no precedent.

“I wasn’t half my mom and half my dad. I got to define myself. There was no road map. Adoption put no cap on my ability,” Kastor wrote.

Deena Kastor (then Drossin) winning the 10,000 meter at the 2001 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships Photo: Andy Lyons/ALLSPORT

When she started to run at age 11, she started to win. Yet through high school and her time at the University of Arkansas, her parents continued to give affirmation, and she was (therefore) always a loyal team member. When she went out as a professional runner, and the pressure began to break her down psychologically, she chose consciously to develop a more positive emotional attitude and mindset, a process that is the message of her 2018 book Let Your Mind Run. A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory. In reality, she was going back to the lesson her parents instilled every night when they read to her from a book called Why Was I Adopted?

“That book was my first lesson in optimism and it propelled me down a positive path,” Kastor wrote in 2020.

A Sense of Special

Willis, too, was seen as a special child. His father Richard reveals in a yet-unpublished memoir that an older brother had died at 4 months in a case of sudden “crib death,” a devastating loss to parents, so that baby Nick was triply watched and his crib fitted with an alarm that checked breathing. The parents dispensed with the alarm when his mother became convinced that “God has made this baby safe and destined for great things.”

Because of their origins in supportive families, both Willis and Kastor have habitually surrounded themselves with a supportive team, and have remained close to a strong coach – Ron Warhurst for Willis, Joe Vigil and Terrence Mahon for Kastor. “I was fortunate to have a supportive family when I began running at age 11,” says Kastor. “They traveled and cheered every week as I ran cross country, track, and road races. It certainly showed me the value of having a strong support system, and so I looked for it in choosing college, my professional coach/team and sponsor.”

Both Kastor and Willis have also taken coaching support from within their family. Willis’s wife Sierra often assists at training, and he was guided by brother Steve at a crucial time leading to the 2008 Olympics, when Warhurst was unable to travel to Beijing. After Willis’s superb silver medal result, Steve summed up his contribution in frank brotherly terms.

“A lot of times we totally disagree but my role is to help him believe in himself. Before the race, in the calm before the storm, there’s a real connection.”

Kastor was similarly partly guided by her husband, Andrew Kastor, who has been formally her coach since 2015. He is also now Head Coach of the Mammoth Lakes Track Club, which has been part of his wife’s competitive mindset in a way parallel to Willis’s commitment to the modest New Zealand club named Valleys United, to the University of Michigan, and now to Tracksmith, as Athlete Experience Manager.

Nick Willis with legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard. Photo: Richard Willis

What Willis and Kastor have in common, therefore, is a high-level ambition to fulfill their talent that comes in part from the sense of being special, yet has always been positively sustained by a supportive family, not in conflict with it. Theirs is not the fierce destructive drive of the loner, however alone they are capable of being on the last lap of the track or in the middle miles of a marathon.

Might that therefore be the secret, or one key secret, of long-term elite success? It’s a new idea, and nothing to do with schedules or nutrition. Look deep, and Willis and Kastor both have a blazing inward sun, but one whose heat is never consumed, because it is part of something larger, so that others help protect it and feed its fire.

Sources of Support

Look also at the names on the (newly invented) PodiumRunner Elite Longevity Hall of Fame listed at the bottom of this article. All were or are supreme competitors, but almost all also received that kind of support in some form. Not from a domineering parent/coach; apart from Seb Coe, it’s hard to think of an example where that has led to any kind of elite longevity. Most often the support came from clubs or teams – college for some, or New York Pioneers for Ted Corbitt, Tipton Harriers for Jack Holden, London Olympiades for Joyce Smith. Runners are good at treating any celebrity club-mate, however famous, as an equal, and thus helping them belong.

Or the support came from training/coaching groups, like Arch Jelley’s for John Walker in Auckland, or Patrick Sang’s for Eliud Kipchoge in Kaptagat. Historically, a potent chemical energy is generated in such high-level training groups, from their fusion of competitiveness and collaboration. That happened in Gainsville and Boston in the 1960s/70s, and is happening in Kenya and Ethiopia today.

Even Grete Waitz, who seemed a reticent loner, revealed, when she so emotionally ran with Fred Lebow in his last New York City Marathon, how deeply important it was to her to belong to New York and New York Road Runners. Certainly that helped fuel her nine New York City Marathon victories. Of all the great runners in this imagined Hall of Fame, only Nurmi can confidently be said to have done it wholly alone. It’s tough at the top, and very, very rare to stay there on your own.

Podium Runner’s Elite Longevity Hall of Fame

15 who stayed and stayed at the top

Clarence DeMar (USA, b. 1888) placed top ten at the Boston Marathon 14 times up to age 44, winning seven of those. He was an Olympian in 1912 and 1924, when the bronze medal confirmed his world class.

Paavo Nurmi (Finland, b. 1897) won nine gold and three silver medals at three Olympics (1920, 1924, 1928) and was set to extend that in 1932 when he was banned for excess expenses.

Jack Holden (Great Britain, b. 1907) won the International Cross-Country Championship four times, 1933-39, and resumed after World War II to run in the 1948 Olympics and win the Commonwealth Games marathon in 1950.

John A. Kelley (USA, b. 1907) made the top five at the Boston Marathon 15 times, 1934-50, winning in 1935 and 1945, and running in Olympic marathons 12 years apart, 1936 and 1948.  He then made a superlative progress through the masters grades.

Tedd Corbitt Photo: courtesy Corbitt Family

Ted Corbitt (USA, b. 1919), limited in early opportunity through racial exclusion, ran Boston 22 times, with a best of 6th, was US marathon champion and record holder, and became world-class as an ultra runner in his 40s and 50s, setting US records for at least five distances.

Alain Mimoun (France, b. 1921) medaled in three Olympics, saving the best till last with marathon gold in 1956. He had 12 years of success in the International Cross-Country, winning the title four times.

Marcel Vandewattyne (Belgium, b. 1924), a non-stop cross-country phenom, had 21 years of success in the International Championship. Second at world cross in 1946, he won in 1952 and 1962. He also ran in two Olympics. Until age 20, he kept busy fighting for the Resistance.

Joyce Smith (Great Britain, b. 1937) won her national cross-country title in 1959, broke the 3000m world track record in 1971, won three World Cross-Country medals in the mid-1970s, and stayed on top to win the London Marathon at age 44, and place 11th in the 1984 Olympics at 46.

John Walker (New Zealand, b. 1952) was first to run 100 sub-4s for the mile, and eventually ran 135. He ranked among the world’s best from 1974 to 1990. He won Olympic 1500m gold and ran the first sub-3:50 mile.

Eamonn Coghlan (Ireland, b. 1952) began as 4-times NCAA champion and ended as the first over-40 to run a sub-4 mile. His Olympics spanned 1976 to 1988, plus a win in the World Championship 5000m, and three legendary world records indoors.

Grete Waitz wins the 1980 New York City Marathon. Waitz won the event nine times in her career.
Grete Waitz wins the 1980 New York City Marathon. Waitz won the event nine times in her career. Photo: David Madison/Getty Images

Grete Waitz (Norway, b. 1953) as a teen won national titles at 400m and 800m, and broke the European junior 1500m record. She became a track Olympian, and European Championship two-time medalist before she was 25. Then came her real career, her streak of World Cross-Country golds and New York City Marathon victories. She ended with gold in the World Championship marathon in 1983, silver in the Olympic marathon in 1984, and a second London Marathon victory in 1986.

Deena Kastor (USA, b. 1973) was a top high school runner from age 11, and eight-time All-American. Her five world championships and three Olympics were highlighted by third in the 2004 Olympic marathon. She set the American marathon record at age 33, and continued to win major races outright into her 40s.

Bernard Lagat (Kenya/USA, b. 1974) reached the top relatively late, aged 26 at his first Olympics in 2000, after three NCAA titles. He has run in five Olympic Games, the latest in 2016, with 5th place at age 41, and has 13 Olympic and World medals.

Nick Willis (New Zealand, b. 1983) set records at age 7, was New Zealand’s fastest ever high school miler, and flourished at University of Michigan. He has run in four Olympics, medaling in 2008 and 2016, and at 36 could re-qualify for Tokyo. In January 2021, he ran a sub-4:00 mile for a record 19th successive year.

Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya, b. 1984) at age 18 won the world 5000m championship, and at age 34 ran a marathon in 1:59:40. And he did a lot in between.