The duel in the Armory: Centrowitz and Willis, and the Wanamaker Mile
In the end, the battle that determined the winner of the men’s Wanamaker mile was not so much the final run to the finish line – as tight and thrilling as that home-stretch duel was – but the one that occurred when Matt Centrowitz and Nick Willis raced to the final turn, fighting with every last fiber of their being for the lead. In the end, Centrowitz emerged victorious in what was a race for the ages, running 3:51.35 to Willis’s 3:51.46.
The field set out at a healthy pace, with Centrowitz taking up a prominent position behind the pacemaker. They reached halfway in 1:55.92. Willis, at that stage, had made his plan clear for all to see: he would run conservatively, saving himself for a last-lap dust-up. He passed halfway a dozen or so meters behind Centrowitz in 1:57.16.
As the pacemaker dropped out with three laps remaining, Centrowitz was left at the front, having pulled Pat Casey clear of the field. It was a position he was ready to assume, and Centrowitz kept the pressure on, unwilling to let Willis back into the race easily. “I’d been mentally prepared for that,” said Centrowitz afterwards. “I knew once I got on the rabbit it was going to be me having to push the pace after he dropped. I was just maintaining, saving a little bit for the end.”
Willis, despite having a considerable gap to bridge, was always calm, knowing that the leading pair would eventually come back. “I was happy about the distance to Matt; normally the person out front doesn’t have another gear when you get to them, but when I went he was able to give it a little extra. It shows his ability.”
Willis joined Centrowitz with 400m to run, and stalked his chief rival thereafter. “My plan was to go with 300 to go,” he said, “but I wasn’t even on the position at that point. I was behind Casey.” With 200m to run, Willis moved wide and passed Casey, moving onto Centrowitz’s shoulder for the last-lap duel. The crowd in the Armory rose to their feet, saluting the moment of the meet, indeed the moment of the entire indoor season. But who would take the plaudits?
Down the back straight, Willis dug deep into his considerable range of gears, maxed out everything as he attempted to get past Centrowitz before they rounded the home turn. Centrowitz immediately responded and forced Willis to run the outside line around that final bend. It was the definitive factor in the eventual outcome, and both athletes knew it there and then.
“When willis came up on me, I knew at that point if I let him by me it was game over,” said Centrowitz. “I was pretty much all out to fight him to the corner; at that point it was whoever could hold on. I think that was the race right there.”
“Matt was just too strong for me down the back straight,” said Willis. “That was where the race was won and lost. We both gave it everything there. I thought it was over by that point, and I was just trying to save face in the home straight, but then to actually have a chance again was a weird feeling.”
Willis came again in the home straight, and looked like he might even scrape past in the run to the line, but Centrowitz was too strong, reminding himself of what his coach Alberto Salazar always tells him for the final sprint to the line: “pump those arms and look through the tape.” In the end, he broke the tape less than a meter ahead of Willis to take his second Wanamaker mile win.
Back in third, Pat Casey ran 3:54.36, a run that left him with few regrets, given the all-in approach he took to the race. “I wanted to go out there and see what I could run,” he said. “I wanted to compete for the win, and that’s what I did. It was fantastic to be a part of that race. For indoors, that was the best atmosphere I have ever experienced.”
Back in fourth, Bernard Lagat set an over-40s world record of 3:54.91, and received a congratulatory handshake from Eamonn Coghlan, whose record he broke, after the race. “Eamonn had been so supportive,” said Lagat. “He had been telling me many times I would run 3:54, and he was right. I am going home so content with what I achieved.”
Indeed, the whole crowd who filtered out of the Armory after the 2015 Wanamaker mile went home content with what they’d witnessed. More than content, in fact. They were mesmerized.