Prior to this year’s athletics world champs, Nick Willis was in desperate need for a competitive race, so he decided to organise his own one-miler. Find out how he got 4,000 people to turn up and watch…
It has been a season of frustration for the New Zealand’s 2008 Olympic 1500m silver medallist Nick Willis. Struggling with an ankle injury picked up when hyper-extending his knee in a fall at the Shanghai Diamond League in May, he endured a tough build up to the Moscow 2013 World Championships.
His speed compromised by the injury, Willis was running out of chances to squeeze in a race before Moscow. “I had no option but to organise my own race,” he says.
Here are his five tips for have-a-go race organisers everywhere:
1. Location, location, location
"The first thing we did was to find a high school that would be okay with us using their facility,” says Willis. “The real advantage here was, we were not affiliated with a city track, a club or university, so we didn’t have to appease lots of different interests.
"It didn’t take much. We know the high school coach at Saline High School [Michigan] and it is a pretty tight knit community here. The local high school coach then said: ‘we’ll take care of the parking and all of the volunteers’.”
2. Find a fast field
"I had to co-ordinate the athletes that were coming and in the end it worked out perfectly, because seven runners ran sub-four minutes for the mile [Willis won in 3:56.57]. It was the perfect race to prepare me for championship running.
"We didn’t go off too fast, but fast enough with a bit of a kick-finish needed at the end. It was a good level of competition, which allowed my confidence to build going into Moscow."
3. Create an atmosphere
"To me, the secret ingredient to the success of this event was the timing of the competition in August.
"Most track meets in the US are in the spring, but if you want to attract high school kids to these meets most of them are too busy to come along, because they are competing three times a week.
"In the summer months of June, July and August there are very few track meets and this is a time when the high school kids are starting to train for the cross country season, which begins in September.
"We thought an evening event in August would act as a great launch pad for the high school teams to show up at a meeting with their families, and act as an inspiration.
"We did some stuff through social media and then the event grew through word of mouth. Our goal was to have between 700-1,000 come and watch, and we had 4,000. It was fantastic. We hope it will be the start of a very special event."
Medal man: Willis with 1500m bronze, later upgraded to silver, at the Beijing 2008 Olympics
4. Short and sweet
"One of the strengths of our sport is the range of events we have, but that is also a great challenge the sport faces. We have people from all different types of events, and aside from events such as the Olympic Games, it is hard to put on an event where the fans are interested in watching something they have no personal connection to.
"For us, the beauty of our event is: it’s short and sweet. Just four minutes of entertainment. Half the crowd had never been to a track meet before. They really wanted to see a sub-four minute mile. We got 4000 fans, which has to be close on one of the best ratios of fans-to-entertainment we’ve had in the sport this year."
5. Market the milers
"Of the 12 competing athletes we tried to make a connection with the crowd by giving out bios of the athletes, in an effort to develop an interest in the individuals.
"For example, Dan Clark [who finished second behind Nick] comes from Jackson, Michigan, which is 30 minutes away, but he studied at the University of Notre Dame, a rival school of the area.
"So when he was announced as coming from Jackson he was given a loud cheer but then it was announced he attended Notre Dame, he received a friendly boo.
"Besides announcing the times of the different athletes we also said what the athletes’ favourite food was, and where they were likely to holiday.
"Ultimately, though, the crowd wanted to see a sub-four minute mile and we were able to deliver that.”
So what’s next?
Willis was so taken by the success of the event, he plans to put the mile race on again next year on August 10th. In fact, organising athletics events is something which interests the 30-year-old Kiwi in the future.
“Helping organise the ITM track meet in Wellington [alongside the New Zealand Olympic Committee] for the people of Christchurch [devastated by an earthquake in 2011] and then this event [the mile], has got me really excited.
"There are also a lot of nerves because you are never sure who is going to show up, but when they do it is such an awesome feeling. It’s definitely something that excites for the future."