Joining Willis were Hobbs Kessler, 18, and Mason Ferlic, 28. Kessler, a rock climbing prodigy, has emerged, with astonishing speed, as one of America’s next great milers—he set a high school record of 3:34 for 1500 meters before turning pro. Ferlic, a Michigan graduate known as Big Bird for his long, gangly stride, represented the U.S. in the steeplechase at the Tokyo Games. Not only has Willis served as a mentor; they’ve motivated him to keep tackling the difficult training.
After a 40-minute run through the streets of Ann Arbor, Willis, who has lived here since graduating from Michigan in 2005, clicked off some 200-meter reps at 4:00-mile pace, his back kick splashing up ribbons of water from the track. He glided along on his midfoot and toes, his efficient stride making his speed deceptive: At full flight, he looked fluid and easy, the intensity of his pace revealed only by the splits on a watch.
Warhurst, who coached the University of Michigan men’s track and cross country teams for over three decades, presided over his charges. Now 78, he has coached 11 Olympians during his career, and his outsize influence on Willis is undeniable. He turned to Sierra, Willis’s wife. “Why do you think he’s lasted this long?” he asked. “Because we didn’t kill him early?”
“And he’s stubborn.”
Warhurst, who was awarded a Purple Heart in Vietnam, isn’t one to stroke your ego. But he also has a generous spirit, a devilish streak. He recounted the origins of the club name: At the Olympic Trials in 1992, he was drinking with some fellow coaches—“crazy people”—and someone had the idea to get tattoos. Warhurst was known for yelling “very nice” at his runners, and so he had the words emblazoned on his ass.
Willis, as a 4:01 high school miler in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, had seen what Warhurst had achieved with Sullivan, a Michigan alum who had finished 5th in the 1500 meters at the 2000 Olympics. I don’t know who his coach is, Willis thought, but I need to be coached by him. When he first showed up as a new recruit in the fall of 2002, Willis didn’t make much of an impression on the famous Michigan coach. “He looks really soft,” Warhurst remembers thinking. But a few days later, after watching him run some 400-meter repeats in 55 and 56 seconds, he realized what he had: “He might look soft, but he can run like a son of a bitch.”
Warhurst could be tough—his legendary workout, the Michigan, is a daunting combination of track work and tempo running (“timed running,” as he calls it)—but he was also flexible, open to experimentation. Willis had always taken a day off each week in high school, and so that fall in cross country, they tried it as a team and finished 9th in the country, proving the concept.
Later that year, after the indoor season, Willis decided he needed a break from structured training and went off on his own, logging hard 12-mile runs over hills without any traditional workouts, meeting up with the sprinters for speed work. He was on his own schedule, which was, in effect, no schedule. His first race back, at Penn Relays, was his breakout performance, a 2:49 1200-meter leg on the distance medley that earned him athlete of the meet honors for the college relays. Mongrel March was born: A month off the grid, logging miles, recharging his mental fortitude. Racing the mile is a physical endeavor, requiring reservoirs of stamina, but it’s also a spiritual one, demanding stores of mental energy, and Willis had figured out a way to replenish his reserves. “Once I got back into regular training,” he said, “I had this amazing base on both ends from which to refine my specific workouts.”