A Conversation with Lee Willis


By David Yon


You may not know this, but Lee Willis is most likely the fastest member of GWTC right now. He was kind enough to provide the following information for our new series introducing you to members of GWTC. I can recall a few days many years ago when Lee had trouble keeping up with our group on weekend runs. Those days are long gone as he times have dropped remarkably as he pursues some very lofty goals. Lee teaches at Maclay High School and helps out with the running programs there. Since we did this interview Lee has dropped his PR to 3:48.78 in the 1500.

Q. How long have you lived in Tallahassee and when did you join GWTC?

A. I was born (1973) and raised here. I went to college at Sewanee in Tennessee, and then returned to Tallahassee in 1995. I joined GWTC in 1995.

Q. When did you start running?

A. When I was 10, my parents encouraged me to run with the cross country team at Maclay. Bill Jordan, who is a backdoor neighbor to my parents (and a former marathoner and GWTC member, I think) was one of the coaches. I was a little on the chubby side and my parents wanted me to be more active. I would run about three to five miles with them two days a week or so. I ran some local races that year (I think it was 1983)- Palace Saloon, Springtime, Rose City, and we even went up to Peachtree. I think I ran about 22:00 for 5K and 54:00 for 10K. I really didn’t enjoy it and stopped running the following year.

Q. Did you play other sports?

A. My main sport in middle and high school was basketball. I was honorable mention All Big-Bend my junior and senior year. As part of pre-season conditioning we had to do plyos, hills, and some three mile runs. It was always miserable, because pre-season was September to mid-October and we worked out between 3:30-4:30 in the afternoon. For a while, I associated running with mild heat exhaustion. I later played basketball for two years at Sewanee and I actually started to enjoy the running part of the preseason conditioning. A few of my friends on the track team at Sewanee tried to talk me into going out for the outdoor season, but I was burned out after basketball.

Q. What would you say got you interested in running?

A. After I graduated from Sewanee in 1995, I wanted to do something to stay in shape, so I started running regularly. My brother-in-law challenged me to run a marathon with him that year. I ended up running the Vermont City Marathon and later the Marine Corps in 1995. In both races I went out way to fast and hit the wall. I started working at Sports Beat that August and on my first day Breeda (Lee’s wife now) was assigned to teach me about selling running shoes. She talked to me about the marathons and encouraged me to train harder and focus on shorter distances- at least until I established more strength. Her interest was a major factor that kept me focused on running.

Q. What kind of coaching help do you get?

A. Breeda coached me when I first started to train seriously in late fall 1995. Later in 1997 I started working with Jon Sinclair of Colorado. He was coaching Breeda and I thought he would help me take my performances to another level. We had a long distance, email set-up in which he would send me two-week cycles and I would send him a lot of feedback. In the end it did not work out very well because it was impossible to communicate well and I ended up over training. Now I basically coach myself, but also get valuable advice from Breeda and Gary Droze.

Q. Seems to me your primary interest has been the track.

A. Yes, all of my training is geared to a spring-summer racing season of 800 and 1500 meter track races. Occasionally I will run a 5 or 10k on the road, but it is almost always during a strength phase of training designed to support the track racing.

Q. What events to you like best?

A. I really enjoy the 800 the best, but I am probably best at the 1500.

Q. Do you prefer running on the track to running on the road?

A. Yes, I like the shorter distances. There aren’t many road miles and I have never heard of a half-mile road race.

Q. What are your personal bests?

A. 3:49.09 for 1500 and 1:51.09 for 800. (Note: These times would project a 14:01 -14:08 5K.)

Q. What would you call your best and your most fun performances?

A. My best race was probably last summer at the Dublin International. The meet was pretty low-key, but the competition in the 1500 was pretty good. There were about 15 people in the race and we were all bunched up after 800 meters. There was a guy from Japan in the race just ahead of me who tripped up on the curve as the pace started to surge with about 550 meters to go. Several of us had to swerve way around him and nearly tripped as well. As I hit the bell I was out of contention to win the race, but just kicked as hard as I could on the last 400. I ran a 58 on the last lap and finished with 3:49.49.

Q. Is it hard to find meets in the US?

A. No, but most of the good middle distance races are either on the West Coast or in the Northeast. In the past couple of years USATF-New England has sponsored a Canadian-American Series that has five meets over the course of two weeks. They are exclusively middle distance and distance meets. There are meets in Boston, Brunswick, Maine, and Quebec.

Q. Are there track races available in Tallahassee?

A. There are usually four meets here a year, which is pretty good. Though beyond 800 meters the competition is not as strong. Since the meets here are mostly in March, though I usually train through them in preparation for a peak later in the summer.

Q. Would you compare running in the US to Europe?

A. I am not fast enough to run in the better meets in Europe and I have only run in a few races overseas so I don’t have a lot of insight there. The races I have run in are similar to the meets I have done in the northeast.

Q. What are you goals for this year?

A. To run under 3:45 for 1500 and under 1:50 for 800. I also want to win every race that I enter. When I race, winning or finishing as high as possible is the immediate goal. I found that when I ignore splits and just worry about passing people, I run faster.

Q. What races are you targeting?

A. I will either do the Can-Am series again or travel to Ireland with Breeda and race there in June and July. We are going to shore up our plans in a few weeks. Regardless I’ll be peaking for June and July.

Q. How does being married to a globe trotting athlete affect your running? (Breeda ran the 5,000 and 10,000 in Sydney.)

A. It helps to keep perspective on how tough the sport is. At the same time, if I know she has faith that I will accomplish my goals, it gives me a huge boost. It is nice to have someone with her credentials and insight to analyze my training and ability.

Q. You are one of the co-authors of the book At the Waters Edge, right? Can you tell me a little bit about putting that together? Do you have plans to write more?

A. Yes, I worked on the book when I was in graduate school at FSU. The project was initiated by Bill Rogers, an American history professor at FSU and the Apalachicola State Bank, who wanted to underwrite the book as part of their centennial celebration. Dr. Rogers wanted someone to help with the research and on Apalach from World War II to the present. I helped write a few chapters on the more recent history of the town and Franklin County. Joan Morris, who is the head of the photograph collection at the Florida archives, was also a big part of the project as the editor of the photographs in the book. Dr. Bawa Singh, another history professor at FSU took the color photographs for the book-, which turned out very well. I have a few ideas for other articles about Apalachicola, but haven’t made the time to start working on them.

Lee, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. We all wish you the very best in your races this year. Here’s to a sub 1:50!