As he eyed the sizeable gap between himself and the leaders and realized that he was running out of time and real estate to do anything about it, New Zealand Nick Willis’ competitive side kicked into gear.
“With 1:30 to go, I thought, ‘I couldn’t just race David [Torrence] anymore,” Willis said of the American he was running next to. ‘I have to go after these guys because he’s not covering the gap.’ That’s when my momentum started building.”
Willis began winding up that momentum with about a quarter-mile to go, and erased a nearly a 50-meter deficit on Kenya’s Sam Chelanga and American Aaron Braun for a seemingly improbable victory in the men’s race at the NYRR Dash to the Finish Line 5K.
Willis, who in September won the NYRR Fifth Avenue Mile Presented by Nissan here, crossed first in 13:46. Chelanga was second, about a stride back in the same time. Braun finished third in 13:49, five seconds ahead of fourth-place Torrence. The victory was also a triumphant start to Willis’s double-duty weekend. On Sunday, he will jump into the ING New York City Marathon to pace Piergiorgio Conti, with whom he struck up a friendship while visiting Spoleto, Italy.
“It means a lot to come back after the Fifth Avenue Mile,” Willis said. “That was a really great experience after a bit of a frustrating, injury-plagued track season. My wife wasn’t able to come on that trip so she was here with our child, so I wanted to try and win so she can experience some of the euphoria. I have friends coming over from Italy to run the marathon tomorrow as well. There's about 30 of them. We spend most of the summer with them in Spoleto. It was great to have them there at the finish line to experience with them as well.”
Until the very late stages of the race, the chance of Willis treating his entourage to a victory did not seem to be in the cards.
A fast early pace was set by Chelanga, Braun, and particularly Ireland’s Alistair Cragg, who did much of the heavy lifting out front, bringing the lead pack through the opening mile in 4:27 and the second mile in 8:52: impressive splits considering he is in training for the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan next month. Cragg finished fifth in 13:56.
“I knew that it would be a group of guys who are fit and ready to go,” Braun said. “I knew that Sam and I and Alistair would probably be the ones to really push the pace. Alistair did most of the hard work the first couple of miles, which I thought was great.”
A pack of six runners–Cragg, Chelanga, Braun, Willis, Torrence and American Lopez Lomong (who finished sixth in 13:58)—made the right turn together onto Central Park South, and then the left into the park at Grand Army Plaza. Chelanga began to push the pace immediately at the uphill but wasn’t able to break up the pack. When they made their way to the 120-degree left turn at the top of the hill, Chelanga stepped on the accelerator and used the downhill to gain separation. Of the six men, only Braun was able to cover the surge.
“Well, I just knew that there was one thing, when you get to the park, it's going to be hilly,” Chelanga, who was the final professional runner to receive an entry invitation to the race, said. “I train where it's hilly, and I knew that. I don't have a kick, so I have to like make these guys tired going up those hills, and it worked until the last maybe two minutes.”
At that moment, Willis said he was just hoping Chelanga wouldn’t have anything left at the finish. Willis began his decisive move just as Chelanga began to tie up.
“When we toured the course [Friday], we noticed that the flags start around 350 meters to go and at the end of the flags is where the top of the hill is, so you have to basically start winding it up at the flags and then you kick at the top,” Willis said. “We do a lot of strength training on hills. Probably nine months out of the year, our spring training is on the hills and not on the track so it is something I am familiar with. It wasn’t foreign territory.”
Willis gradually reeled in Braun and ran up on Chelanga’s outside shoulder with about 30 meters to go. He finally passed him into the lead over the final 10 meters.
Afterward, both Chelanga and Braun had high praise for Willis’s closing speed.
“The last quarter mile or so, I just was worn out,” Braun said. “His plan worked effectively on me, but Nick Willis, I mean, he's a miler. So that's another story, I guess.”
Added Chelanga: “Nick Willis is a respectable guy. He has a kick. So to lose to him, still, it's impressive.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg