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Todd Williams — June, 2015
Todd Williams is the American Record Holder for 15k with his 42:22 victory at the 1995 Jacksonville River Run, a race he won five times. The 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympian at 10,000 meters finished 10th in 1992. Todd is the founder and President of RunSafer, combining his passion for running, black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu and public speaking experience to encourage runners to make decisions to improve their safety. T-Will won four U.S. 10,000 meter titles, including the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Trials. Twice the U.S. Cross Country Champion, he finished 9th at the World Cross Country Championships in 1995. Todd finished in 7th (1993) and 9th place (1995) in the World Championships 10,000 meters. He set PRs at longer distances with a second place at the 1993 Tokyo Half Marathon in 1:00:11 and a 10th place at the 1997 Chicago Marathon in 2:11:17. Todd was 1988 U.S. Junior Cross Country Champion. The 1991 graduate of the University of Tennessee won three Bronze Medals at the NCAA Championships at 5,000 meters (1990/91 outdoors 1991 indoors) and a Silver Medal at 10,000 meters in 1991. T-Will won four SEC Conference titles, was an eight-time All-American and his 14 points led Tennessee to the 1991 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field team title. Todd finished in the top ten twice at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. He graduated from Monroe High School (Michigan) in 1987 where highlights included six Michigan State Championships, twice each in Cross Country, the 2-mile indoors and 3,200 meters outdoors. His personal best times include: mile – 4:00.9; 2-mile – 8:14; 5,000m - 13:19.50; 10k - 27:31.34; 15k - 42:22; Half Marathon - 1:00:11 and Marathon - 2:11:17. Todd resides in St. Johns, Florida. He has two daughters, Brooke and Bailey.
GCR:When you retired from competitive running in 2003, you initially worked with athletic footwear and apparel companies for about a decade. Did you miss the training, did you miss the competition and was it good to stay involved in the running community and yet did you find yourself yearning for something more?
TWFirst, thanks for having me. I appreciate it. As far as my retirement goes, that happened at the end of 2002 and going into 2003. I just came to the point in my running career where I thought I was maxed out. I didn’t see performances matching up against all of the hard work I had to put in. So after the National Championships in Stanford in June of 2002 I kind of new it was over. I really have no regrets if I look back now. I ran four flat in the mile all the way to 2:11 in the marathon. Yes, I wanted to sneak under four minutes, but most of the goals in terms of times I hit. I also hit many of my goals for performances and placings at major championships and national championships. I look back on my career and am pretty satisfied with that. As far as my experiences in the running community – now that I’m 46 years old and I’ve been around the running community since I was twelve or thirteen years old, I’ve had big opportunities to meet some great people. I’ve been involved on the athletic side and the running specialty side as a sales rep with Puma for a short period of time and then back to the brand that I spent a lot of time with Adidas up until a couple of years ago when I started my own company with RunSafer.
GCR:About that same time when you retired from competitive running you embarked on jiujitsu training and earned your black belt after several years. How did you get interested in this sport and how did the physical and mental aspects of it mesh well with your life over the past decade or so?
TWComing from southeast rural Michigan, wrestling was a sport I started at an early age. In a lot of the small cities and towns wrestling is a core part that town and it was no different for me. My parents put me in wrestling at a young age and from there I was in all athletics. You name the sport and I pretty much participated in it - basketball, baseball, football, swimming – I was always involved in athletics. I had some good people and coaches around me that guided me into running and the next thing you know through a lot of hard work and a lot of miles I accomplished a lot of goals and ended up going to a lot of places that some people probably didn’t think I was going to make it to. So when I retired in late 2002 I initially thought at age 33 or 34 I was going to take a year off with no athletics, no anything. I was kind of burned out. I thought I was going to be the guy that sits around, watches ESPN and not do anything because I was so active for so long. But I’m just not wired that way. It lasted about a few weeks. I was in Knoxville, Tennessee and I found a facility there with Horace Gracey, and the foundation of his fighting is Brazilian jiujitsu, which is a grappling based art. I had done a little bit of research in the past and I knew it was an extremely difficult martial art that could keep me really fit and super challenged when trying to go up the belt levels. It wasn’t one of those like in some of the martial arts when you get belts for showing up. I knew I needed something in my life that was a challenging hobby as well as making my entry into the sales rep area with Puma and Adidas. Brazilian jiujitsu has been in my life now for going on fourteen years and I pretty much train every day. I’m a Brazilian jiujitsu addict just like I was as a runner. I can’t get enough of it. I try to get better. I have an extreme passion for it, and still for running, and even in my age group I can constantly go for goals that I can take to my company so in turn I can help thousands and thousands of people to be safer when they are active.
GCR:Speaking of keeping people safer while they are running, over the years there have been so many times where we’ve heard of somebody who gets attacked while running. It isn’t a large percentage, but with hundreds of thousands of people out there running, the odds are that something bad is going to happen because of unsavory characters. How did you get this idea to take your running and martial arts passions and the need for people to be more safe and come up with the RunSafer program? How has it been going as it seems to be expanding and interest appears to be growing?
TWI’m working just as hard in my RunSafer life as when I started running for the first time when I put on my training flats and my first pair of spikes to go for a race. How it all started was with my being a sales rep. Jiujitsu stated as a hobby. I knew I was going to work really hard and do my best when I showed up for classes and received instruction. The more that I got into my specialty sales, going into running stores and travelling around Georgia and Florida which was my territory, I just started to put two and two together. Jiujitsu is an art for the smaller person to take on a much bigger person in a hand-to-hand situation or to at least buy you time if you’re smaller. The more I got into it, the more I saw how Brazilian jiujitsu could help runners. I repeatedly got asked the question of how I went from being a distance runner to fighting people on the mats and doing the martial art of Brazilian jiujitsu. Then it kind of clicked. I knew that people were out there by themselves and via the internet saw how things had happened to people while they were running. Like you touched on, RunSafer isn’t about scaring people about how many attacks there are around the United States, it’s planting a seed to where you take your safety seriously and you don’t become complacent. I give basic tools to show what people are capable of so they can continue training, but the most important things are some of the safety tips I cover in the workshops. I encourage planning so you don’t find yourself out there alone and you don’t make decisions that put you in situations where you have to use Brazilian jiujitsu or self-defense tactics.
GCR:It’s interesting because over the years people have encouraged runners to be safer, but do you find that because of your Olympic background and your top-notch credentials and the fact that you have embarked on using Brazilian jiujitsu and self-defense that it sort of puts you in a unique spot compared to anyone else when you are making suggestions about running more safely? Don’t you now have a background that gives you a platform that others really don’t have?
TWI don’t know if I want to honk my own horn, but I look at the hard work I’ve done. When people ask about Runsafer, in a nutshell I can say that I kept running logs when I started back I 1983 and when I started this company 28 months ago at that point I had 55,000 miles of running and of hard work. I also keep a jiujitsu log of training, techniques and different instructors that I’ve been fortunate to learn from. I’ve had over 5,500 hours of jiujitsu training and that’s how many hours it took for me to earn a black belt. I look at the work I’ve put in. I look at my skill set and being fortunate to work with ESPN and NBC to be in front of groups for talks and presentations. So you tie those three things together with my vicious work ethic and I do have a unique skill set. I don’t think there will be many people who come along who can impact people like I do. With my Olympic background, jiujitsu credentials and presentation skills whether there are ten people or a thousand people, I can get a point across so that when I walk out of those venues those people are walking out with a new outlook of how important safety should be in their lives. I just keep working hard. I’m a blue collar guy from south Detroit and I’ve always been wired to do whatever it takes to get better and better and better. With RunSafer I have a huge responsibility. If I’m in front of a high school group and am looking into the eyes of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and eighteen year old kids who are listening to me and are making decisions for when they do summer training or head off to college, it’s important that all of them know how passionate I am about this and how important it is.
GCR:With the passion you have for the RunSafer program, how important was it to have a corporate partner as you endeavored to grow the brand?
TWAsics is one company and brand that has really been supportive of RunSafer. Since they came on board, it has allowed me to be able to take my business to the next level. They understood from the get-go how important safety should be to the active consumer. They also understood that we aren’t trying to scare people that are active, but it should be part of their running toolbox along with their footwear and apparel. They are a great brand which is moving me forward. We’re in the second year of a three year agreement and hopefully it continues for years to come.
GCR:If someone wants to get more information on RunSafer or attend an upcoming seminar, how can they get more information?
TWMy schedule is on and on the RunSafer Facebook page. I’m also more active recently on Twitter at RunSaferTodd if people want to follow me there.
GCR:Let’s switch gears now and focus on your running background. Your being an Olympian gives you a certain stature that is recognized and looked up to. At both the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta you represented the United States. I know you didn’t possibly place as high as you had hoped, but in addition to your racing, did you enjoy the Olympic experience, participate in Opening or Closing Ceremonies or watch other sports? Did you get to take in the feel of the Games or were you really focused on your participation and racing?
TWI can look back on it now that I’ve been away from it for a while, especially when I go back to my mom’s house and she has all of these photo albums with different articles. My dad has some also, but my mom really kept a lot. I really did enjoy it, especially the first Olympics in Barcelona. I was so young and there weren’t big expectations as nobody picked Todd Williams to even make the team. I went to Barcelona with that young outlook and that fresh outlook with no pressure. I finished tenth and when I think about coming in tenth place in 1992 that was my Gold medal. That’s the message I always try to get across – not everyone can get on that podium in first place, but they can push themselves to their own first place. Do I feel I maxed out there? Yes, I feel tenth place was the best possible place I could get. Did I have a blast? I got to meet Pete Sampras and watch him play tennis matches. I got to see the first bream team in basketball. Heck, yes, I just enjoyed the whole experience. Fast forward to 1996 and the preparation was there, I had improved tons in all of my times at every distance compared to 1992 and I think I put a little too much pressure on myself. I was injured in the fall of 1995 with a sacrum stress fracture so I really had to work hard to make that team. Lot of people don’t see all the stuff that top athletes have to go through. I remember using an arm bike for about six weeks because I couldn’t do anything that put pressure on my back. The whole time I was mentally thinking I would do anything to make the team. I was doing around ten hours a week on that ergometer where I would go with my arms forward and then backward. And I was just trying to get my heart rate up. I was pushing and pushing. In June I won the Olympic Trials 10,000 meters and everyone in the stands was probably thinking, ‘Todd Williams should have won that. He should be winning.’ But they don’t see me on that arm bike morning and night getting ready for that one moment to make that team. I pushed hard to get ready for the Games and didn’t enjoy that experience as much as I should have if I could take back time. But at the end of the day I think I had a great learning experience in both. The most important thing is that I met and still have lifelong friends from both experiences that I still talk to, still laugh with and still bring up the good old days. That’s what I look at the most. There were experiences, both good and bad, but I came out with some great friendships that I’ll never forget.
GCR:From 1988 to 1995, excluding when you were injured in 1994, in each year you set new personal bests at both 5,000m and 10,000m. What were the major factors in this consistent progression? And did you get to where you were possibly so close to your ultimate potential in 1995 that you set goals and pushed yourself too hard as you aimed for the 1996 Olympics?
TWI do think so. And there have been other runners if you look back - this happens with many of the great runners the United States has produced. I think there is just a window each athlete has as they progress. When I look at my progression, I put my running shoes on for the first time for consistent training in ninth grade going into tenth grade in 1984 and 1985. I had about ten years of consistent training and I really picked it up in college. If you look at my 10k times – 29:45 as a freshman, 28:58 as a sophomore, 28:41 as a junior, 28:18 as a senior, the my first year out of college in 1992 I dropped it down to 28:07. I followed that up with a 27:41 in 1993 at Oslo. I wasn’t injured, kept up those base miles, was so hungry to get better and kept pushing and pushing one hundred mile weeks, especially during that tough 1991 through 1994 period. Then I got that one injury in 1994 that took me out for about six weeks and that’s the reason I think that my 1995 was the best of the best all-around for me. I had some pretty good years after that, but ninth at World Cross Country, 27:31 for 10k, 13:19 for 5k, 7:43 for 3k, 8:14 for two miles in 1995 may have been because my body shut me down with a stress fracture in my foot in 1994 and the next year in 1995 I came out swinging. I was maxed out in 1995 and that was the top of my game. Every athlete has a top of their game. Sometimes I feel really bad for athletes that keep staying around while media and fans have expectations and are ripping them apart. That individual ran well and did great in high school, through college and afterward and now they’re hanging on. They are on the back side of their running career, and everyone has a back side, but if you let people get into your brain it can mess you up. We’ve seen athletes like that where it really bothers them. I don’t want to see athletes walk off like that into the sunset with a negative view of their career when they should be walking out with their chins high saying, ‘I busted my butt. I did everything I could possibly do and I just happened to get older and slow down because my body couldn’t do it anymore.’
GCR:Speaking of your 1995 season, one that impresses me is your performance at the Gate River Run 15k in Jacksonville, Florida. I’ve raced there quite a few times and as a 30:28 10k guy had to work to get under 47 minutes. For you to win five times and in 1995 set the still-standing American Record of 42:22 is impressive. How did you build up on the roads to that outstanding race?
TWWhen I look at my 15ks and half marathon races, when I came out of college in 1991, I didn’t run many long, long runs. I would do 12 to 14 milers – nothing like what the other guys would do – but I would hammer them really hard. In 1991 I had won the U.S. cross Country Championships and I just thought I’d go down to Orlando and run the Citrus Bowl Half Marathon. At that time I needed a little cash because I wasn’t making much money and I was living above a pizza joint. I needed to make some money so I could pay rent. So I got a hold of Jon and Betsy Hughes at Track Shack in Orlando, and I’ve known them forever, went down there and didn’t know what to expect. I ran 1:01:51 against Steve Kogo out of nowhere. That was pretty dang fast. I did it with no specific training. I just jumped in it. In 1992 I ran the Tulsa 15k Run in the middle of a wind and snowstorm against several Kenyans and Franco Mara and Rolando Vera and a really good field. I ran a 43:15 and followed it up the next year with 43:02 in bad conditions. So the 15k and half marathon were kind of my sweet spot. I trained hard and my times and speed kept getting faster. In 1994 I ran the Gasparilla 15k in 42:58 and finished fourth. Three Kenyans beat me, but I was first American.
GCR:So you were really ready for a top-notch effort. What was your preparation or key workouts like coming into the race and what was your race plan?
TWNot too many people remember those other race times going into that 1995 effort in Jacksonville, but now here I am running a 7:43 3k in February and then a four flat mile and eight flat 3k double two weeks before the Gate River Run. I was doing great workouts and my coach and I sat down in his office. My motto was always to take advantage of your fitness and put a time on the board when you have the opportunity. Don’t waste your fitness and do some tactical race where you would look back and say that I should have run this time if I had went out fast. My motto since I wasn’t a superfast guy was to hammer and to see where the cards fall. I did a couple strong workouts in the two weeks before the Gate River Run and I knew I was ready to blast. One interval session was a 4:05 for 1,600 meters, a 3:03 for 1,200 meters, 2:00 for 800 meters and a 56 second 400 meters with three minutes recovery between each. So everything was clicking. I got down there and the weather forecast was perfect – in the forties with no humidity when all I was hearing was how hot it was supposed to be. I decided that when the gun went off I was going to go as hard as I possibly could. If I blew up, so what? But if I didn’t, I was going to run fast. The American Record wasn’t on my mind. I just wanted to put a super stamp on how much better I was than anybody else in that field.
GCR:Could you take us through the race and how it stacks up when you look at all of the racing you did for so many years?
TWI started clicking those splits off – here I was at 4:23 at the mile, 8:46 at two miles, 13:47 at 5k, and then I just put my head down. I don’t remember any more splits after that. I just remember driving as hard as I could drive. I saw the clock when I was coming down the street toward the finish. When I came across the line in 42:22 I did know that was the American Record. But I didn’t realize I just missed the World Record set by Paul Tergat of 42:14 or so. So when I look back that was one of those days. I was sitting down with someone a few weeks ago when I was in Washing ton, D.C. for a RunSafer seminar and telling them that, when I think about my running career, I think about a lot of pain, how much pain the workouts were, how much pain the races were, but you get three or four efforts where you just hit it. That Gate River Run was one of maybe four out of two hundred or more races that was one of those days.
GCR:Speaking of great days, we touched on cross country a bit where your success was highlighted by U.S. championships including a big win over Pat Porter at the 1991 U.S. Championships and a ninth place at the World Championships. Could you compare and contrast the differences between cross country racing versus track and road racing?
TWWhen I was coming up as a high school runner in the 1980s, I was a student of the sport. We had Harrier magazine and Track and Field News to keep me up in cross country. The USA had Bickford, Salazar, Virgin, Porter, Eyestone – and I made the World Junior Cross Country team as a high school senior, so I got to meet all of these guys. I went to Warsaw, Poland with them, saw them scrap and they were tough. Porter and those guys were awesome in cross country. I looked at them and looked at their buildups. They ran great in cross country and they ran great in track so I felt there must be some correlation in being tough. Cross country to me does make you tough because it’s hard. So when I had the opportunity to run at Warsaw I was the number one American Junior as a high school runner. I finished 23rd. Then coming back as a freshman as the University of Tennessee I made the team as I won the U.S. Trials and went to Auckland, New Zealand where I finished 14th. I was banging with some pretty good Kenyan and Ethiopian juniors who were probably good enough to run in the senior race and finished in the top thirty. So, cross country was something I always loved. Another guy I looked up to was John Treacy. He was a strong grinder, not superfast, but he hammered. I always loved it, so when I approached that time as a professional runner it was always something I put on my calendar. I wanted to run well at the U.S. Cross Country Championships and I wanted to represent the United States when I could at the World Championships.
GCR:Could you take us through the race and competition when you placed in the top ten at the World Cross Country Championship?
TWAs soon as I ran that 42:22, and knowing my workouts I had done, I called up Bob Kennedy who was also a member of that team and I said, ‘Bob, I really think I have a chance to be World Cross Country Champion.’ He said, ‘That’s the way you have to think. I believe I can be World Cross Country Champion.’ I thought sort of humorously to myself, ‘Well, you’re not going to beat me, chump.’ I did a couple more key workouts before going to the venue. When the gun went off in the race we went through the first kilometer in 2:32, which is really fast when there is 12k of cross country. When I think about that race which is now twenty years ago it was like slow motion for a while. I remember looking to my left and seeing Khalid Skah, looking to my right and seeing Haile Gebrselassie, looking to my front right and seeing Paul Tergat and over here was Hissou from Morocco. These were the best of the best and I’m running right in the middle of them. The picture that captures it is on the front of the book, ‘Train Hard, Win Easy,’ as I’m the guy right smack in the middle of them. The best in the world of distance running were all in the race and even today you can stack them up as many of the best ever. I was just floating along and feeling that I’ve arrived as I was running with the best guys on the planet. After about 8k I just kind of went into tunnel vision of hanging on, trying to drive every meter, every yard, that’s how bad it hurts. Coming down the final straight I was battling. Once I got my senses back the coach came up and said I was in the top ten. I was thinking of how it hurt really badly and was a good race.
GCR:After great performances were you able to enjoy the moment for a bit and savor what you had accomplished?
TWWhen I was in those races like Gate River Run or World Cross Country as soon as I get back to my room I might relax and have a beer, but then I’m getting out my running log and looking at what’s next. That’s what I did. Even after the Gate River Run and that 42:22, I still ran four miles that evening – real easy, but it was a shakeout run. I did the same thing after Worlds in cross country, running four miles later that day to get ready for the Sea Ray Relays where I ran 27:31. They were great races to show I had arrived, along with previous cross country races, but I guarantee every one of those races when I finished I always thought about what I was doing next and how hard I needed to train.
GCR:Even at a sub-elite level we were like that. I remember when I ran my 2:22:34 at the 1979 Marine Corps Marathon and missed qualifying for the 1980 Olympic Trials by forty seconds I was already thinking about what I needed to do next. And so we all had that mindset. The sub-elite thought the same way the elite runners did.
TWI think the ones that want to be great at what they do have to think that way. I may be wired too much that way and be too hyper. Sometimes we need to back off or we just mentally fry ourselves. But I think the common denominator of successful people, in general, are the ones who think that way. If I woke up today and thought that RunSafer was great and floated along for a year, then RunSafer goes away. I wake up every day thinking, ‘When is my next presentation? When can I get more products behind me? When can I speak at another college?’ It’s just like I was as a runner – I keep hammering.
GCR:A couple years later at the 1997 Chicago Marathon you debuted in 2:11:17 to finish in tenth place. Despite your great success at shorter distances, and you said your sweet spot was probably 15k to the half marathon. If you focused on the marathon more, could it possibly have been your best event on the world stage or did it feel just a little too long for peak efforts?
TWI think you hit it on the head there. I joke that the marathon to me is like going to the dentist’s office and you never get out of the chair. It’s like you are waiting to get out, but you have to keep being patient. Some of these guys now are so fast it’s like they are sprinting from the gun with no patience. But, for me, I don’t think I had the patience for it or was quite strong enough. I ran 2:11 and 2:13 and a couple other sub-2:20s, but it just wasn’t for me. We’ve seen some great national and international runners at shorter distances, but when they try to race 26.2 miles it just doesn’t work out for them. Do I think I could have run a little faster? Maybe if I had run a marathon in the fall of 1995, if I’d went straight from that great year and got on the line and run. Or if in 1993 when I ran that 60:11 for the half marathon in Tokyo, if I’d just jumped on the line and run one. I think due to my youthful ignorance I may have had the Salazaresque type of run. I’m not saying I can guarantee I would have run faster than 2:11, but maybe if I’d went in blind and went out and hammered I would have.
GCR:During your peak years it was somewhat lean at the top of U.S. distance running. There were a few top guys like Bob Kennedy and Keith Brantly, but not a big group of U.S. guys pushing each other. Would that have helped you and what are your thoughts on the recent resurgence in the U.S. with more depth at the top?
TWAmerican distance running has changed with excitement and the access through social media and that is helping our runners do so well. Meb, Shalane, Desi and others benefit from all of the publicity that comes with it. There’s Galen Rupp and so many others – I don’t want to miss anybody – so there are a lot of great people out there. Rewinding back to my days when many people say the 1990s were slim, I hung out with all of those guys and ladies. Everyone trained super hard and maybe the cards didn’t fall right during that time. But I don’t want to downplay anyone’s efforts because there was some good talent, and people were trying very hard to run fast times. Bob Kennedy was the highlighted 5k runner, there was Steve Holman at 1,500 meters and Mark Croghan in the steeplechase. Brantly and Coogan were hammering, so there were a lot of good people coming through that may have been the stepping stone for Ritzenhein, Goucher and Webb and then to current guys. The evolution of American distance running goes through peaks and valleys and I was there doing the best that I could do. I was trying to show through my race efforts and training and push that next generation to push as hard as they could push.
GCR:Let’s talk about your training a bit more in depth so people can get a better idea of what propelled you to success. What was your typical mileage in your base training like when you started running in middle school and high school?
TWMy middle school coaches, Rick Klinesmith and Randy Monday, had a plan and a vision. It wasn’t super high mileage at that young of an age, but they set goals that I had to work, and set more goals so I had to work. On top of that, my dad told me the same thing every day. So that’s how I was starting out in eighth and ninth grade. As a high school guy I had a great coach, Dave Borg, out at Monroe High School. His structured training emphasized the importance of base mileage and running a little bit harder. He wasn’t a proponent of long, slow distance. He was fortunate to run at Miami of Ohio with Jack Bacheler, so he was exposed to greatness. That’s why I was really fortunate that out of all places, in Monroe, Michigan, I happened to be trained by a coach who ran with an Olympian on his team. He told me that if I wanted to accomplish things that I had to do the summer training. There weren’t particular workouts, but before my sophomore year I ran 42 miles a week – six miles a day. The next summer I stepped in up and ran 64 miles a week. Then, going into my senior year, I was running 84 miles a week during the summer. I wouldn’t recommend this much mileage growth for all runners, but my coach could see I was getting stronger and stronger and faster and faster. As soon as each year came around, my base training and its solid base of the pyramid of training would drop down to maybe half of that during the season and I would do key workouts to get ready for racing.
GCR:Why did you decide to go to the University of Tennessee and how did your mileage change in college?
TWOne of the reasons I chose to go to the University of Tennessee was that Doug Brown was a Michigan man, he was a four-time Olympian, he was a distance runner and we had the same mind set. When Coach Borg handed me off to my college coach, Doug Brown, my training was kind of in that same mold. Mileage crept to about 85 or 90 a week during the summer training and we’d drop it down for key workouts and specific training and then, boom – we’d get ready for our big races. We took tiny breaks to get ready for indoor season and so on and so forth. My career all the way through had the emphasis that summer training was the most important to get the foundation with base miles and I ran those harder than most people. Even Bob Kennedy gave me a compliment in an interview a few months ago by saying, ‘Todd Williams is the hardest worker I’ve ever been around.’ That was my downfall sometimes, but also the reason I ran some good races and times. My sweet spot as a professional during the base training was a hundred miles a week. Then I would drop it down into the seventies and eighties during specific training. When it was time to rock ‘n roll at major championships and major races I would drop it down into the forties and fifties.
GCR:What were some of your key workouts on hills or for stamina and speed that were your ‘bread and butter’ sessions that got you ready and then sharpened you up at the end?
TWWhat got me ready - and it carries over into advice I give others when I am coaching back in Jacksonville, Florida - what got me ready the fastest and got my strong and able to transition to that next phase of training was hill sessions. For example, I would jog a three mile warmup and go to a 400 meter incline. It didn’t have to be extreme where I couldn’t even walk at the end. I would do ten times 400 meter hill repeats and jog back down. Then I’d do a three mile warm down. The other thing I would do is go to a grass hill that was only 200 or 300 meters and run reps up it 18 or 20 times. After those hills I’d go to the track and do a little bit like a fast 800 or 1,600 meters. Hills and 10k to 15k tempo runs, where I was running pretty hard on those tempos, were my sweet spots in my base building. In cross country I would only go on the track for workouts a little bit. When I was getting ready for track season the next phase of sessions were three times two miles right at 5k pace. I would hammer those with one lap recovery. Another favorite was 16 times a quarter mile with a 100 meter jog at a good clip. I also did ins and outs like the old Dellinger workout at Oregon. It was stuff like alternating 40 second and 30 second 200 meters. I would change it sometimes to 36s and 30s or alternate 400 meters in 70s and 62s. I always liked that change of pace and getting my heart rate up and letting it go down. Sometimes I’d go out the first two laps of two-mile repeats and blast them, and then I’d settle in at a good pace after I hurt myself in the first quarter of each interval. Sometimes we did ‘four, three, two, ones,’ where I’d run 1,600 and 1,200 and 800 and a 400. Other workouts to really sharpen me up for the big races were two times a mile or four quarters all out. Then I would know I was ready and I couldn’t wait to get there and put on my racing flats or spikes and go for it.
GCR:Regarding those ins and outs, I used to do two miles of 100 meter ins and outs alternating 16 seconds and 20 seconds so I would get used to changing gears with 16 fast 100 meters and 16 eased off 100 meters. Did you do these shorter ins and outs?
TWThe only time I did the 100s were on my strides when I did four laps with 100 meter strides in probably 14 or 15 seconds and 100 meter floats in thirty seconds. There was something in my head as my high school coach kind of brainwashed us, and I loved this, that he wanted us to go home feeling good and fast. Believe it or not he would have us do sixteen times 100 meter accelerations both before and after each run, so we would do 32 times 100 meters every training session. Our coach would tell us, ‘You just got an extra two miles in.’
GCR:That’s interesting because a couple of guys from the early 1960s I’ve interviewed, Jim Beatty and Bob Schul, trained under that Ilgoi method with Coach Lazlo Tabori, and they tended to have 100 meters repeats during their workouts. They weren’t necessarily at the beginning or end, but could be eight 100s in between a set of eight quarter miles repeats and then a set of 200s. And then there might be another eight 100s. He tended to incorporate 100 meter repetitions before, during and at the end of workouts built into their sessions.
TWThat possibly was also pulled from the Miami of Ohio days where Bob Schul and Jack Bacheler went as that was a staple there. Under Coach Brown we did strides after longer workouts and, as I walked back to my dorm, I always felt fast and ready for my session the next day.
GCR:While at the University of Tennessee you had success at the SEC and NCAA level. What were some memorable races as far as setting personal best times or close hard-fought victories?
TWThere are two races that stick out in my mind. The first is the SEC cross country championships my junior year. I had been running strong and training hard my freshman and sophomore year. I always trained hard. I think I was making some bad choices as far as doing things on campus, like many college kids do. I almost got lapped at the SEC Championships in track my sophomore year. Coach Brown pulled me off and said, ‘I recruited you and told you that you have the talent, desire and drive to potentially be an Olympian. Now you’re wasting it. You almost got lapped and, if you don’t make some changes, we’re going to make some changes here.’ I think that meant my scholarship was going to go away. It is a long time ago, but it was a moment where Coach George watts and Coach Doug Brown saw something in me and they saw it was about to go away. Instead of me making the choice and blaming them, I took their advice and my dad’s advice and my mom’s advice and realized I had something, the time goes by fast and I’d better work because I didn’t want to look back with regret. So that’s when it happened for me. I trained and it was hard and there was discipline. There was no funny stuff – just getting ready for the SEC Cross Country race my junior year. Gerry Gordon from LSU, a South African, was a great runner. He was one of the guys that almost lapped me. Mark Elliott from LSU and Herman Beltran from Alabama, those were the top guys in the conference. Todd Williams wasn’t on their radar because they had almost lapped me the previous spring. I was running faster in the little meets and then we got to SEC in Auburn, Alabama. The gun went off and those guys hammered right from the gun. That was the year I ran even pace. I didn’t blast out and I started in about 70th place. At the two mile mark I’m in 30th, by three miles in in about tenth. Around three and a half or four miles I pulled up next to those three runners. I looked at them, they looked back at me and I said, ‘I’m here.’ And I took off. I was hurting bad but just was thinking, ‘I’m going to do this.’ And I ended up winning the SEC Championship by fifteen seconds. That showed me I was here, just like that ninth at World Cross Country showed me I made it at a high level on the world stage, that was the race that showed me I was at a high level of collegiate running and had won the SEC Championship. That was in the fall of 1989.
GCR:That was a great cross country breakthrough – how about on the track?
TWWe can fast forward to my senior year at the University of Tennessee when I help lead the team to the outdoor NCAA Track and Field title. I finished second in the 10k in Eugene, Oregon and came back and doubled after a prelim to finish third in the 5k. So I led us in points with fourteen, was captain of the team and there was no better way to finish up. I didn’t win as an individual, but for us to come together as a team from decathletes to pole vaulters to sprinters to hurdlers – you name it – and then me leading the way in the distances was a great day in June of 1991. It put the stamp on my collegiate career.
GCR:Runners I’ve talked to over the years – Olympic champions, NCAA champions - every single one who helped their team win an NCAA or high school state track or cross country title says those were their greatest memories and that winning as a team is right up there with even Olympic medals.
TWSome people may wonder if runners who say this are being genuine. I do think the athletes who say this are truthful. It was a great feeling as a twenty-one year old kid for me. It’s just hard to explain. We’re seeing team points on the scoreboard and it’s Tennessee, it’s Washington State, it’s Oregon, it’s Wisconsin and everybody’s battling. Then there was one hour in the scoring where we realized we could win as a team. Then we they finally announced it - and I’m at the University of Oregon and I’m a Prefontaine fan and I put it all on the line like I did – it was awesome. It was really good.
GCR:Going back to high school you had some great individual success as during both your junior and senior years of high school you scored a ‘triple’ by winning Michigan State titles in cross-country, the indoor 2-mile and outdoor 3,200 meters. Do any of these races stand out due to being your first state championship, close competition or particular race strategies that secured a victory?
TWI think it was just how I was improving that stands out. As a sophomore at the Michigan State Cross Country Championships I ran 16:07. Then by my senior year I was down to 15:08. My coach focused on personal improvement and set goals for every single athlete, boys and girls. So it was the improvement side that was big. I kept thinking about going to Nationals in cross country which was Kinney sponsored at the time. I wanted to keep driving forward. He gave me the mindset of, ‘Todd, you just won State, but what’s next?’ or ‘You just won the Kinney Midwest Region in Wisconsin, but what’s next?’ So, I’d run another thousand miles over the winter. I explain Coach Bork as a combination of Bobby Knight and Coach K at Duke. He was a mix of tough, but not too tough and keeping us realizing that we needed to keep working hard. My high school running career with him and my teammates and going to cross country running camps – those are the things I remember the most. I still have great friends and it may sound like a broken record, but it really is the friendships, going to battle and putting our feet on the line that matters. I played football and basketball and baseball and when athletes in those sports think about cross country they don’t look at it as a tough sport. But it’s freaking tough. When you are training every day with a good core group of runners, even in high school, you don’t forget doing those twenty hill repeats on a dirt road with dirt going into your nose. You’re ripping into those hill repeats and all you’re thinking about is trying to win a state title, but that’s what I think of.
GCR:Did your high school have a great running tradition before you started running or did you help to build it?
TWI led by example at my high school because before I got there the school records were 4:24 for 1,600 meters and 9:55 for 3,200 meters. When I left they were 4:12 and nine flat. But the group that came behind me – this wave of runners who watched how hard I trained and how hard I came to practice every day and ran – out of that group there were five scholarship kids who broke 9:20. Tim Pitchard ran an 800 meters in 1:50 and followed me to Tennessee. When I look back at my legacy in high school, it makes me get chills. They saw me and thought, ‘this guy is showing us we can do it for Monroe High, and id he can do it we can do it better.’
GCR:One thing you mentioned is going to battle against other runners. Who were some of your favorite competitors and adversaries from your career either as a pro, collegiate runner or in high school that you liked to compete against because of how you put it on the line when you raced each other?
TWI would say Bob Kennedy is the guy. I didn’t beat him much. I beat him in high school a couple of times and I beat him at World Cross Country. But when I raced Bob Kennedy at any level from the Prefontaine Classic 2-mile in 1995 to World Cross Country to a Miami of Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee tri-meet in college, he knew that I would hammer every time. If Bob was on this phone call right now he would say that he knew he had to be ready and he knew he had to run hard when we raced or he would have a tough time that day. I’m thinking about Bob and how I would go up and train with him sometimes. Some of the sessions that we would have alone with just him and I in the middle of winter, with nobody else around, were amazing. We’d be banging out a tempo run out in the snowy roads of Bloomington, Indiana and all you were hearing was breathing and footsteps. It sounds like a commercial but is what my vision is – hard breathing, smashing the salty snow and ice and ripping sub-five minute miles. Or we would do three times a mile in the fieldhouse in Bloomington. Nobody was in there. The lights were barely on. We had to sneak in there one time during a winter storm and the lights were making that strange sound when they were trying to click on – that gymnasium sound. Bob and I were banging out three repeat miles in 4:06 with minimal recovery. When I think of the one guy whom I had great battles with, great workouts with and great experiences in running with, it would be Bob Kennedy.
GCR:Another thing I want to touch on that you mentioned briefly is coming close to running a sub-four minute mile. Your personal best mile was an oh-so-close 4:00.9. Looking back years later do you wish you had focused, if even for a short time, on breaking the 4:00 minute mark?
TWI think that, but I did run for 1,500 meters 3:42 three times and I ran 3:43 a few times and then I ran some 3:45s. I don’t know if I could have run any faster because 3:42 equates to about four flat for a mile. I think the old man here ran as hard as he possibly could and maybe I didn’t have a sub-four in me unless someone pushed me across the line at the last second.
GCR:Since we are looking back a bit, with the luxury of hindsight, is there anything which could have helped you to become even more successful as a runner and racer or did you hit it and you are pretty happy that you reached where you should have been?
TWThat’s exactly it. I’ve been out of it for thirteen years since I stopped competing at a high level and I believe I did all I could do. I put my times on the board and one of them is still sticking around with that 15k of 42:22. Distance running is at a really high level right now and my times compare favorably with the runners of today. So, I’ve got no complaints. As far as, IF people think of Todd Williams and running, I want them to think and to know that I worked extremely hard and got everything out of my ability. That’s what I always tell my two daughters, that their dad may not have been the most talented, but he showed up and he trained as hard as he could possibly work and he did it the right way.
GCR:Let’s talk about coaching a bit, which is something we both do. What are your thoughts on coaching others and helped them to strive toward reaching their athletic potential versus your own personal accomplishments? How much more difficult is it to instill in others the necessary discipline, focus and mental toughness?
TWIt’s tough for me because I have to find that fine line. Whether I’m getting someone ready for their first half marathon or if I have the opportunity to coach an elite runner, I don’t think that I’m going to advise too many runners to do what I did. I can’t be that naïve to think they can hammer every day and be ready to go all of the time as they will probably get injured. So I have to find that fine line to make them excited and fresh, but also working toward their own red line. I believe that everyone has their own red line to push. A lot of people don’t want to go there. They are a little below it and I tell them that if they want to be the very best runner they can be and to find their own first place, they are going to hurt and hurt pretty damn bad. That doesn’t even guarantee they will run their best, but they are going to have to go through some discomfort. That’s my thought process. As far as setting up training programs, I can’t just throw a blanket over a whole group of people and tell them this is your workout and these are the times you are going to run. There are individual cases and I have to work with each person I coach differently.
GCR:In addition to your martial arts routine are you still running and incorporating other exercise into your current health and fitness regimen? Do you have any inclination to compete again as a Masters road runner or in age group track in the future like some of your contemporaries from the 1990s are doing?
TWAs far as running competition, that is totally off of my radar. I’m going to compete at the World Master’s Jiujitsu competition in Las Vegas this September. I compete on the mat and get my fix. Every time I’m in a different city, like last night I was in Atlanta, I’ll just go to some local jiujitsu school, talk to the owner and instructor and see if I can train there. At the end of the session I’m smacking hands with guys as I’ve done all out matches with young guys in their twenties that weigh maybe two hundred and ten pounds. So every day I’m competing against somebody who wants to rip my head off, if that makes any sense (laughing). As far as running, I’m pretty OCD, so I stick to my fifteen to twenty miles a week. As far as my fitness level, I ran 1:31 for a half marathon last Thanksgiving. I ran that with someone I’m coaching and took him to a personal record by four minutes, which felt pretty good. I paced him the entire way and felt pretty comfortable at that pace. You’re not going to see me battling on the track as a top age group runner like John Trautmann is doing right now as he is absolutely amazing. That won’t be me – I’ll let John do his thing. I’m on the internet following him as one of his biggest fans and it is awesome how he’s running in his mid-forties.
GCR:I know that you give a lot of inspirational talks and speeches, so when you sum up the Todd Williams philosophy of the major lessons you have learned during your life from the discipline of running, being a part of the running community, your martial arts training and helping others, what do you say that gives them the wisdom and nuggets of knowledge you’ve accumulated over the years and inspires them to do their best?
TWThe biggest thing is to realize how fast time goes by and to not waste time on stupid stuff. A lot of people waste time on negativity and letting that creep in when you’ve only got today. Take advantage of it and be positive. Surround yourself with good people and don’t let that negative creep in. Don’t let nay-sayers pull you away from what you want to accomplish. Everybody can’t be a Haile Gebrselassie or the best of the best, but they can be their best. If you can do that and you can look back and say, ‘I did everything I could do today,’ no matter what you’re doing, then you’re on the right track. That’s simple. It’s not rocket science, but not enough people do that. I’ve met too many people who say, ‘I’ll let someone else do that,’ or ‘I’m too tired,’ or ‘I can’t do this.’ That’s just not the way I’m wired and not the way I give advice. Some people look at how I changed from successful running to a black belt in jiujitsu and I tell them, ‘You can too.’ My next goal might be playing a guitar because I’ve never played a musical instrument and I’ll set out to play that guitar like it’s never been played before. It’s like Marty Liquori doing that with the guitar as I’m sure he’s wired like me for success. People like us pick something up and want to be the best we can be. Another thing is being excited about life. I had lost my pa-paw a while back at age 58 and in 2009 I lost my dad when he was 62. That was one of those moments in my life that reminded me that we just don’t know. But we do know that when we wake up we should make a positive impact, try to influence people in a positive way, and that’s what I tell my girls all of the time – to not be negative and to try to make a positive impact on people’s lives. I tell them to not say anything unless the person they are talking to will be able to look back and reflect on a compliment. Little things like that can go a long way. People don’t forget nice words you say as too many people like to make negative comments instead of the positive.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsRunning, jiujitsu and making RunSafer the best it can be. Then, spending time with my family and friends
Nicknames‘T-Will.’ That came about from the University of Tennessee track guys. I got on campus, they shortened up my name and it stuck
Favorite moviesI’m a comedy movie guy – I like laughing a lot. I’m a Netflix junkie. I don’t go out that much
Favorite TV showsI loved ‘Seinfeld.’ That’s one that sticks out. A few years back I pretty much eliminated the news completely because it’s just so negative. Especially when I’m travelling – it’s like that in every city. If I turn on the news for two seconds I don’t even want to go out the door. I try to watch positive shows and funny shows that put me in a good state of mind when I start my day
Favorite musicI like a little bit of everything. When I run I sometimes listen to music with an earpiece in one ear for safety reasons. I can listen too anything from ‘AC-DC’ to ‘Eminem’
Favorite booksI probably need to read more casual reading. I like to read books about leaders and what makes effective people click. It could be an athlete, an innovator, a businessman like Steve Jobs. It’s interesting to me what makes the best go forward and makes them who they are
First carA 1984 Ford Escort. I ended up ripping the door off of it which was not good, but that’s another story
Current carA Kia 4k. My dad is probably looking down on me and saying, ‘did you really get a Kia and nor a Ford?’ I say that because my dad worked in the Ford foundry for 43 years
First JobsMy first job ever was cleaning spikes at a golf country club. The golfers would put down their spiked shoes and I would clean them off. Then I would wait for a tip. That lasted a short period of time because somebody didn’t think I cleaned them well enough and they threw them back at me very elitist. I didn’t like that and I haven’t liked that since when people are treated that way. A close second job was when I was a ‘do-everything guy’ at a Honda car dealership. I would clean toilets, do mopping and car porting. My toughest job ever was when I laid blacktop one summer. I would squeegee the blacktop and lay down the lines. The year that my scholarship almost got cut, not only did I run eighty to eighty-five miles a week that summer, but I laid blacktop all day. My dad said he was going to show me how hard work was and so he got me a job on the road crew in the City of Monroe. It was hard. My dad was involved in my life coaching me in sports like basketball and baseball, but he also worked extremely hard. But he would take my brother and me to the plants at ford and tell us what it was about. So I had the wake-up calls, not to say that’s a bad thing because in blue-collar towns you get jobs like that and work your can off. He was trying to show me that I could go in one direction or the other – I could go run or I could go work at Ford. I tell people that I was an Olympic runner, but I could have went on a different path and had twenty-eight years seniority at Ford
FamilyMy daughters are Brook and Bailee. Brook is eighteen and graduates from high school this spring. She is going to head off to the next phase of her life in college and is a great young lady. My youngest, Bailee, is a freshman in high school. She plays soccer at a pretty high level. She’s been playing since about six years old and she’s fifteen. She has some talent and the work ethic so she can take that on to the next level if she focuses and does the things she needs to do. My mom is and was a huge influence in my life, along with my brother, Rodney. They have been key parts of my life and influences in helping me to do what I’ve been able to do. I go back to thinking of my family, back to my father and family friends – it’s because of them that I’ve been able to be successful. My life, in general, includes great friends
Significant OtherOne person in my life who is a bright spot is Lindsey Collins. She means a lot to me and we have been together for two years. Lindsey is multi-talented, helps me with the RunSafer workshops, is on the road with me and works extremely hard. We travel all over the place and she puts up with what I’m doing
Pets and wildlifeI have a dog named ‘Nelson’ who is a German shepherd and Lab mix. He’s five, going on six, years old. I’m an animal lover so I also have three cats. The only wildlife I don’t like here in Florida are the water moccasins, rattlesnakes and coral snakes. I also hope to stay away from and avoid alligators and wild hogs when I’m running on trails. The wild hogs south of Jacksonville toward St. Augustine and the pygmy rattlesnakes were foreign to me when I came here from Michigan. The population of those hogs is increasing like crazy
Favorite breakfastI’m easy for breakfast. I like my coffee. I like toast with honey and peanut butter. I have that, read a little and watch ESPN
Favorite mealIf I have to pick one, when I’m in the mood I definitely like seafood. Crab with baked potato. I also like steak. I like to have a good dinner – that’s for sure. I try to eat well. There was a time when I stopped being a professional runner that I didn’t, but now I’m trying to get better at that
Favorite beveragesI like to have a good cold beer with pizza. If I go to a baseball game or other sporting event I’ll have beer with a hot dog. I shouldn’t drink too much soda, but sometimes I like a good Sprite or Diet Coke. I can drink those down. As much as I sweat with the training I do, I try to stay hydrated. I probably drink more now than when I was running
First running memoryIn seventh grade we ran a mile race. This is when people started telling me that I could run all day. We had a Turkey Trot mile and I hadn’t trained at all. It was a cross country mile on the school property in Monroe, Michigan and I ran a 6:03. That was my first memory of being the Turkey Trot champ. It hurt, but I got a turkey
Running heroesPat Porter, Craig Virgin, Alberto Salazar, Mary Decker and Zola Budd - these runners were in the forefront of my eyes when I was coming through. Pat Davies, who had school records at the university of Tennessee, and who I wanted to emulate. Prefontaine was a guy I admired, and I read Tom Jordan’s book about him. It inspired me to want to break every one of his records
Greatest running momentsFirst, was in 1991 when I won the U.S. national cross country championship in Boston. Nobody thought I was supposed to win. I wasn’t picked. I wasn’t a national champion in college. That was right after my senior year in college so I was a new guy on the scene. My picture was on the front page of the Boston Globe. It was a really unexpected win. I’ll be honest – out of all the races in my whole career, at that one I was young and up against Pat Porter and all these guys I had looked up to, and here I was beating them, so it was a big one. Then the 1992 Olympic Games, making the team and winning the Olympic Trials in New Orleans was a huge one
Worst running momentThere is not even a second one. Dropping out in the semifinals of the 1996 Olympic Games was definitely the low point but it was a learning experience. The more I’m away from it I know I trained too hard and put on the pressure of the Atlanta games being in my home country. I didn’t do the things to prepare the way I should have. I was over prepared. I did too much. If I could take back time, I wasn’t going to make the final, but I would have jogged in. I would have finished it up. I was just a stubborn-headed twenty-six year old. Once I knew I wasn’t going to be in the top eight or nine that went to the final all I wanted to do was to smash my knuckles into the wall because all of that work went out the window
Childhood dreamsI was in AAU basketball leagues as a young kid. Somebody that I looked up to and was a role model is because I played basketball. I was fortunate through my family to be friends with Antoine Joubert, who was ‘Mr. Michigan’ in basketball in 1983 and was from Detroit Southwestern. My dad worked with his dad at the Ford plant. We got to be friends and even though he was four years older than me I got to see him in these big games in Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit. I got to watch him and then he would come to the house in the middle of winter and we would shoot baskets at this junky rim that we had down the street. Seeing his work ethic and Antoine in the headlines in the Detroit News showed me all of these things that could go along with working hard. I thought I could be a great basketball player, but at the end of the day, seeing that type of hard work and success, helped me in everything
Embarrassing momentWhen I look back, the most embarrassing was having my hair in a mullet, perming the mullet and putting Sun-in to lighten it. This was back in the 1980s and I thought it was cool. So my mullet was permed out and turned red. I thought it was awesome at the time
Favorite places to travelOne of my favorite places occurred last year when I went up to Anchorage, Alaska and the Skinny Raven running shop up there. It was beautiful. I was there in August so it was sunny and 75 degrees. I stayed with a friend, John Cook, and we went on trails, hiked up the mountains. I highly recommend checking out that area. Around the world my favorites are Stockholm, Sweden and running in their stadium; Oslo, Norway and Lausanne, Switzerland. Also, Auckland, New Zealand was a blast when I was in college and ran there for World Juniors in cross country. I’ve been really fortunate and got to see cool places and meet cool people