I’m turning Amateur
Words by Nick Willis
Photography by Daniel Ribar
I’m not retiring; I’m turning Amateur.
The first time I kicked my shoes off and lined up on a grass start line, I was four years old. That was a long time ago, but my memories of racing as a child are vivid.
One persistent and clear memory is the Wellington City Championships 200 meter dash. I was seven, and wanted desperately to win and set the city record - one that my older brother, Steve, had once held. All week I pored over the start list, analyzing my competitors, our lane draws and how the race might play out. Today, as a parent of a six-year-old, I realize what an odd kid I must have seemed. I was so nervous, but when we arrived at the track my nerves turned to excitement. At seven years old, few children are making conscious decisions about mental preparation. Children know no different. They simply channel nerves into pure, raw competition. Racing is the reward. It’s release. It’s freedom.
When I think back on that race now, what I remember most vividly is that feeling. That feeling has been my old friend throughout the years in the most intense moments of competition. It’s been with me in World and Olympic finals. As I get older, I find it hiding in different places. It’s rare and elusive at times. It’s a feeling I still chase and crave. It’s the spirit of competition. It’s joy, anticipation, and unleashed instinct - all bottled under pressure into one volatile piece of emotion.
I turned professional when I was 22 years old. It was a privilege and opportunity that I jumped at. At the time, I yearned for the right to have a singular focus as a runner, to put all other distractions to the side so I could pursue my Olympic goals with tunnel vision. As an adult, running has been my sole job, with each year’s work evaluated by the result of one or two key races.
Through my good races and my bad, I’ve learned that those all-important performances, those numbers - they are never enough. I know what it’s like to leave an Olympic Village with a piece of metal, and I know what it’s like to leave empty handed. Either way, you’ve still got to go home. Running is empty unless it’s about something more.
I can say with certainty that following that “more” has led me to all the positive decisions in my life. It may sound counterintuitive, but I always found that my running career thrived most when I embraced the “more.” My best years, my fastest times, all emerged from moments in my life when my running came, well, second.
Turning pro was a dream, but I never imagined this transition from professional to amateur at 37 to hold just as much excitement. Considering myself an amateur gives me the ability to run by my own choice, and for my own goals.
The freedom of amateurism opens up a plethora of options in the running sphere that I’ve always been curious about. I’d love to join my cousin on some backcountry FKTs, I’d love to do some Masters sprint races (the 200 meters has always been a favorite of mine), I’d love to do some multi-day relay races, and yes, perhaps even a marathon or three.
The life of a professional runner requires sacrifice and comes with risk. At this stage in my life, evaluation by race performance alone feels narrow and myopic. Running as my only profession is not enough. I’ve seen how the pressure of a singularly-focussed mentality can negatively impact my performance. Sure, throughout my career there have been times when tuning it all out produced good performances. Tapping into that narrow scope is necessary when I toe the start line. But when I step away from the track, my contentment and joy depends on my ability to take those blinders off and to open up my view to everything else in life that matters.
This transition isn’t easy - the best of us struggle with it. My experience these last fifteen years has shown me that a too-narrow mindset doesn’t age gracefully - time exposes its futility and emptiness.
It seems like commentators have been calling me “the old man in the field” for ages. It’s true, I’ve been doing this a long time. With every year that passes, I feel like I’m venturing deeper into rarely-charted territory. I truly don’t know what to expect each year. But as I age, I’ve come to terms with one critical realization: what motivates me to run at 37 is different than at 22. My life has changed; I’ve changed. As an unproven young kid from New Zealand, I desperately wanted to live up to my potential. Today, as a 37-year-old father who has been around the track a few times, I’ve had the opportunity to live out much of my potential. My future potential now lies in my ability to maintain my longevity and consistency.
I’m yearning to have a broader impact on our sport - beyond just participating as an athlete. I want to be able to help elevate the events that athletes take part in. I want to bring new and creative events to the running calendar. I want to help enhance the sport’s visibility. I want to be able to connect with runners and offer valuable advice and coaching. Ultimately, I want to help more and more people fall in love with the sport that has given me so much. I could try and do these things on my own, but even in an individual sport, one quickly realizes the power of teamwork. Joining forces with an emerging brand that not only shares my passion and enthusiasm, but also has the resources to make things happen—that's how you make an impact.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got big plans for myself on the track and challenging goals for the next few years. First up will be overtaking Sir John Walker’s sub-four mile streak (we are currently tied with 18 successive years of sub-four-minute miles). I am also targeting my fifth Olympics. It won’t be easy at 38, but in many ways, the extra year makes qualifying for Tokyo an even bigger and more worthwhile task. The enforced break that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to sport and our world will only reinforce and heighten the importance of the Olympic spirit, friendship, solidarity and fair play. The brutal win-at-all-costs mentality will be trumped by the world coming back together after being so isolated. Tokyo 2021 is primed to bring much needed hope and joy back to the world. We all need something to celebrate. That’s one big party I have to be a part of one final time!
Starting a new career at Tracksmith will only help me achieve these goals. Not only will I get to broaden my career skill set, but having my income tied to my work, rather than my sport, means I can go back to my roots and compete like I did in my youth - fierce and intense out of love for the sport, with no expectation or pressure (except my own) on the result. This important career transition allows me to freely choose to pursue my goals.
I ran my 200 meter race in 30.9 seconds that day when I was 7. That was enough to lower my big brother’s city record. I had set a goal, and it felt amazing to achieve it. Maybe it didn’t matter to others, but it mattered to me. Competition was fun, but intense. I was free, but controlled by instinct. I’m looking forward to running like that again.