Ann Arbor's Nick Willis falls just short of record for state's fastest mile
All that was missing from Saline High School’s athletic fields Sunday night was the pep band as an estimated 3,000 people showed up to watch for the Running Institute Mile. Fans packed the track to watch 2008 Olympic 1,500-meter silver medalist Nick Willis attempt to break the state record in the mile.
“The experience here wasn’t just from the fans perspective, it was from the runners’ experiencing them as well,” Willis said. “I came around the bend after 300 meters, I’ve never done this before in a race, and the whole home straight I looked up at the crowd and stared in awe.
“I was actually soaking up the gaze of having a full embankment of a crowd and I know at least 50 percent of those people aren’t regular track attendees and that’s something that is really special for us track people.”
Most of the 3,000 fans came out to show support for Willis who received the loudest ovation when the runners were introduced prior to the race. A former University of Michigan track star, Willis won an Olympic . silver medal in 2008 representing his native New Zealand. However, having lived in Ann Arbor for more than a decade, Willis said the experience meant more to him than typical races.
“This is the first time I’ve truly felt like a local and not just a foreigner who lives in Ann Arbor,” Willis said. “That was really special in that sense.”
Willis is recovering from an injury he suffered in May and used the event as part of his training routine as he prepares for the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in Moscow next week.
While Willis came up short of setting the state record, still held by Michigan runner Kevin Sullivan with a time of 3:55.87, Willis’ time of 3:56.57 was good enough for first place in the race which featured long-distance runners from across the country.
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One of the runners pushing Willis was Miles Batty of Utah who set the NCAA indoor mile record in 2011 as a member of the Brigham Young University track team. Batty was impressed with turnout and seeing the enthusiasm shown by fans Sunday.
“This is probably the first time I’ve participated in something like this, but it definitely exceeded expectations,” Batty said. “Just to see the whole community get behind something like this and get really excited was truly fun and really exciting and I was glad to be a part of it.”
Maybe the only other racer to get an ovation the size of Willis’ was Saline High School senior and track captain John Dolson who only ran the initially 400-meters of the race. Dolson sprinted out of the gates and ran a sub one minute leg of the mile.
“There’s not going to be another time where I can run with 10 world-class sub four milers in the same place, let alone race with them,” Dolson said. “Just to be running with them was awesome. I was just trying not to ruin it for all the runners to be honest.”
Dolson said the experience was only comparable to home football games for the Hornets.
After the race was finished, Willis thanked everyone for coming and supporting the race. He stuck around afterwards to sign autographs and pose for pictures with hundreds of supporters. The only time he signed that many autographs was in his homeland Willis said.
“That was as big, if not bigger of a line to sign autographs this was an equal experience,” said Willis.
With so much support, Willis said there is no reason why another event like Sunday’s race can’t happen in the area next year.
“The crowd behind it tonight, I guarantee sponsors will want to jump behind it and make it a bigger and better event, if it could even be such a thing in future years,” Willis said. “Let’s make this the inaugural and not a one and done.”
Matt Durr is freelance reporter for AnnArbor.com.