Where One of the World’s Best Aging Runners Trains to Break Four-Minute Miles

Nick Willis, 37, just went sub-four for the 19th year in a row

nick willis
Nick Willis shakes hands with the legendary American miler Alan Webb in 2014.
Kevin Morris/Contributor

Death. Taxes. Nick Willis breaking four minutes in the mile.

The 37-year-old New Zealander accomplished the feat yet again last week, logging a 3:58.63. It’s the 19th year in a row he’s clocked in under the fabled barrier. That streak is now an all-time record, passing a mark actually set by another Kiwi runner (John Walker), who’d run a sub-four every year from 1973 to 1990.

Willis’s biggest challenge — other than, you know, going sub-four — was finding a race that could accommodate his goal. Due to COVID-19, most events are postponed or outright canceled. But eventually, the Orange Winter Classic #1 in Orlando, Florida was able to play host.

In order to prepare for the race, Willis trained at altitude, in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s probably one of the biggest open secrets in long-distance training. If you want to lower your times, train in high places. Up your VO2 max. Pros like Edward Cheserek (a 3:49 miler) post photos near-daily from workout sessions in Scottsdale or Sedona. Meanwhile, On Running just opened its first American-based training facility in the foothills of Boulder, Colorado. And the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center is famously based in Colorado Springs.

Willis spent a month in Arizona, before the New Year, doing diabolical tempo runs — four miles in under 20 minutes, for example. The work clearly paid off, but at his age, it’s not enough just to put the hay in the barn. He’s constantly battling old injuries (stress fractures, pulled muscles, strained tendons), and more pressing, now, he’s battling motivation.

Speaking to Runner’s World, he estimated that his motivation is at 70% of where it used to be when he was younger. Still: “It seems like a crime to stop at 19.” Whenever retirement does come, Willis has a job lined up at Tracksmith. The Boston brand has enlisted both Willis and former Nike runner Mary Cain as two “ambassadors” between the professional world and the millions of amateurs who make up the core of the running community.

Subscribe here for our free daily newsletter.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!