Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Will Leer Talks Track

Will Leer is a "contender." He has gradually risen through the ranks of US middle distance runners with US championship performances that brought him close to making the US team the last two years. Here he talks about his past accomplishments and plans for the future.

Down the Backstretch: It’s been a good year for US distance running with medals at the World Champs for the men and women, a new American men’s record in the 5K and two men under 13 in that event. What are your thoughts on these developments?

Will Leer: I am very excited with how well the US men and women are running. We had a couple of hiccups here and there at Worlds but also had finalists in nearly every distance event! Hopefully all of this success will lead to increased press coverage and popularity back home. That sentiment may be a bit selfish, but athletics in the US needs more than just sprints and jumps to capture the attention of the masses.

I cannot help but think that these results will lead to even better performances for US distance athletes in the next couple of years. Qualifying for the Finals in major championships and proving ourselves to be competitive at the highest level will increase everyone's confidence and it makes us set higher goals. This is a very exciting time and having just read a few of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, we could be approaching a Tipping Point!

DtB: You’re tantalizingly close to making the US team. What are your feelings about your improvements and what you need to do to take the next step?

WL: This is a difficult question to answer since I truly feel like I should have been on the team this year. I do not want to take anything away from Dorian Ulrey, Lopez Lomong or Leo Manzano, they all ran well at the US Championships, I simply ran a poor race in the final and have been rerunning that race in my head all summer.

I felt that this year I improved a lot, even though my times didn’t necessarily show it. It was just two years ago that I competed at my first US Championship meet. Last year I was fourth in the Trials. This year I felt I really blew my opportunity to make the US team. My confidence has been growing by leaps and bounds each year and that is very important.

In order to take the fabled “next step” I think all I need is to get into a major race when I am truly prepared and the time will come. I was ready to run 3:35 or better this summer but the opportunity never really presented itself. I hope with another year of uninterrupted training I will really be able to show what I am capable of.

DtB: Most championship races come down to the final lap, “sprint speed.” Are you comfortable with your ability to close out a race at any pace? Do you have any plans to move up to the 5K or try a longer event?

WL: I am pretty confident with my ability to close well in most any race. Every time that I have been in peak race shape and run in a fast race I have been able to close well. What’s more is that my finish has been getting better each year.

That being said, a move to the 5K is inevitable. I need a few more years of solid training before I will be really ready to run a competitive race at that distance.

DtB: You had the opportunity to develop in Division III competition at Pomona College where you had somewhat the best of both worlds—tough competition from guys like Nick Symmonds, but fewer foreign athletes, and a better platform for success, at least success as is defined by placing high in championship meets. How did that impact your career, your self confidence?

WL: Competing in Division III was a incredible for me. I have never thought of it as something that has held me back in any way because I graduated and left NCAA competition hungry for more, eager to discover what I was really capable of accomplishing.

Nick and I really only raced each other in one meet, the 2007 NCAA D3 Championships. He was a senior, undefeated, and 5 for 5 at his previous D3 meets. I was a junior at my first National meet just beginning to discover myself as a runner. The 1500m at that meet was definitely the most exciting race I ran as a collegiate runner.

The fact that I began to blossom as a runner in the D3 system affected my career and self-confidence most significantly by keeping me naive. I knew when I graduated that I was the best middle distance runner in D3 but I had never really competed in a race filled with guys who were the best in the country, so I was not sure exactly how I would stack up against them. The 2007 USATF Champs was my first exposure to that type of race and despite it being my 17th meet of the year I managed to PR in the prelim and placed tenth in the final. Competing there was for the experience more than anything. Racing in the 1500 final against guys like Alan Webb and Bernard Lagat was a great way for me to finish my season and propelled me into my professional career.

DtB: You keep true to your roots coming back to Minnesota for alumni meets and road races. What keeps bringing you back?

WL: To be perfectly honest, I come back to Minnesota to see my family and friends. It just so happens that the occasional road race fits nicely into my training schedule at that time since my trips home are usually in between racing stints.

Racing the Minnetonka XC Alumni Meet is something that I have done for years. I owe a lot to Jeff Renlund, the head coach at Minnetonka and my former HS coach. He played an integral part in fostering my growth as a runner and instilling in me his love of the sport. When I was in high school, Coach Renlund was himself training for the Olympic Trials marathon. I remember how amazing I thought that was and finding it really inspiring. Not to toot my own horn, but I think that my going back and racing the alumni meet provides similar inspiration for the current team.

DtB: Oregon has become almost the place to be for distance runners with the Oregon project athletes, the U of O, and the OTC. Talk a bit about the atmosphere there. Why people are coming there to train? The “atmosphere,” how it may be helping develop the talent?

WL: I know that Nike has a lot to do with the migration of talent to Oregon, but the rationale as to why they are choosing it as the place to be escapes me. However, the fact that so many of the top runners in the US are coming to Oregon has created an excitement that is undeniable. We’ve got Ritz, Rupp, Webb, Goucher, Teg, Solinsky, Symmonds and the OTC, with seemingly more on the way each week.

If you have ever been to a track meet at Hayward Field with a capacity crowd you can really understand why people would want to be close to this environment. There simply is no other track and field venue like it in all of the US. And having the best runners in the US competing at the best venue possible really makes us all push our training to the next level. There is no such thing as an easy race anymore at Hayward Field. We are constantly forced to bring our A-game every time we step on the track.

DtB: One of the reasons for the African success in distance running is the intense competition between very gifted athletes. That is how it used to be in the US, and what we seem to be returning to in the US. How important is the depth of talent in the development of world class athletes?

WL: Two of the things Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his national best-selling book Outliers are “The 10,000 Hour Rule” and how practicing with better competition leads to greater success. The 10,000 Hour Rule basically states that it takes dedicating 10,000 hours to a particular task in order to master it and become the best, be it a concert violinist, computer programmer, or professional athlete.

I think that part of the delay for success in running in the US is that most of our runners don’t reach the 10,000 hours before giving up the sport. If you look at people like Ritz and Teg, guys that have been training hard for 10 or 12 years and really are really starting to make names for themselves across the world, they have undoubtedly hit that 10,000 hours.

I would guess that I am somewhere near the 8,000 hour mark. Ha ha. Many of the African runners start “training” at a very early age; running to and from school, running to the village for food supplies, etc. In believe that their lifestyle and culture have a lot to do with achieving that critical 10,000 hour mark much earlier than the rest of the world.

On to the topic of training with groups, I also believe this to be incredibly important. Not only does training in a group allow you to occasionally complete workouts that you would have not though possible, but it also helps to get you through tough workouts when you are feeling less than spectacular. On my ‘off’ days I rely on my teammates to help get me through a workout, and I expect the same reliance on me when they are having one of those days. This is all part of maintaining consistency in training and keeping your confidence levels high.

DtB: Tell us a bit about your experiences this year—the US championships, the races in Europe. What have you learned about yourself as an athlete, your potential?

WL: As I have already been quite long-winded I will try to keep this short. The US championships this year taught me the importance of confidence. If you run scared you will never run well. Running confidently makes you more relaxed, more focused, and ultimately brings about the best performance.

My potential? I have learned that I have not come anywhere near maximizing my potential and I plan on really impressing next year.

DtB: Have there been any particularly memorable moments from this past year that you could share with us?

WL: This is good timing for this question as the most memorable moment from the past year happened just last weekend. The race was the 4 X 1500m relay at the Memorial Van Damme meeting in Brussels, Belgium. This was my first ever Golden League meeting and also the final meeting of it’s type as the IAAF is switching over to the Diamond League format next year. Running in a huge stadium in front of 50,000 screaming track fans was absolutely incredible! I had never experienced anything quite like it. The atmosphere and overall energy was addicting and it made me want nothing more than to compete in another race of that size!

The result of the race was not quite what our team was hoping for: we missed the American Record, set back in 1979, by one second! The Kenyan team, however, broke the World Record from 1972. So it was also a first for me to be in a race in which a world record was broken. Everything about the experience was exciting and rewarding. I will remember that for the rest of my life.

DtB: What are your plans for the rest of 2009 and 2010? What about goals for 2012?

WL: I am going to finish this season with the Fifth Avenue Mile on September 26th in New York City. The New York Road Runners organize the race and really make it a celebratory event for the elite runners. I had a great time there last year, and I think this year should be even better.

After that race I really have no idea what the next 12 months will bring. My coach and I have spoken briefly about trying to qualify for the World Indoor Championships, but that is really too far off for me to think about. But as a result of 2010 not having a major championship in the summer I really plan on being adventurous in my racing and try to see some parts of the world that I have previously never been.

The success I have had over the past two seasons has really fueled my fire to continue training until the 2012 Olympic Trials. That success has drastically altered my mentality towards the sport; I am no longer just trying to qualify for the US Championships and make the final. I am trying to earn a spot on US National teams. 2012 may be a long time from now, but as a professional runner I am forced to set goals in four-year cycles. In 2008 I was happy to be in the final of the Olympic Trials. In 2012 I will be disappointed if I am not on that team!

Photo courtesy of Oregon Track Club

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