If you happen to get into a fight with Todd Williams, a jiu jitsu instructor in St. Johns, Fla., don't try to run away. Williams—who received his black belt in 2011 after eight years of rigorous training—is known in the running world as one of America's best distance runners. A four-time SEC champion at the University of Tennessee, he competed in the 10,000-meter event in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics and the 1993 and 1995 World Championships. He boasts a lifetime PR in the 10K of 27:31.34.
Williams has focused his passion for martial arts on the RunSafer Project, a partnership with ASICS in which he visits running shoe stores across the country teaching basic self-defense skills to runners to help them ward off an assault.
Williams also offers suggestions to runners at all levels on how to achieve their running goals. One of his core messages is similar to advice another great American distance runner used to offer. The late Ron Daws qualified for the 1968 Olympic marathon team with patience, dedication and strategic thinking. Daws liked to share a favorite motivational quote with younger runners: "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."
Growing up in Monroe, Mich., Williams got into sports at age 5 as a competitive swimmer. "I was a pretty hyper kid," he says. When a coach noticed his ability to dominate conditioning drills during football practice, Williams was persuaded to try cross country and track. In his first 1-mile run as a freshman, he clocked a 4:34.
Williams set ambitious goals. In high school and college, he often set stretch goals—like winning a state championship—but finished just short of his target. "One goal I set was to win the Footlocker championship in 1986," Williams remembers. The prestigious cross country invitational has a long history of uncovering the nation's top running talent. Williams finished second.
Another goal was to run a sub-4-minute mile. His best time? 4:00.9. "I used to get really down on myself," he recalls. "I'd come so close to a goal and not make it. I'd think, 'I really suck.'"
But looking back, Williams knows that the setting of lofty goals and the work he put in to achieve them always paid off. Although his near misses drove him nuts, his efforts kept him on an upward trajectory, and his achievements started to come. His mile time dropped to 4:12 during high school, and his first 5,000-meter time (16:07) melted to 14:49 by the time he was a senior. As a runner at the University of Tennessee, he set records in the 3,000-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs, and he was a three-time All-American.
After college, Williams's relentless pursuit of aggressive goals landed him in the stars: he qualified for two Olympic teams and two world championship teams. In the 1992 Olympics, he finished 10th in the men's 10K.
It was quite a journey for a kid who started out as a high school football player and had a special talent for stamina drills.
Williams's advice for runners wanting to achieve their potential? He mentions five key principles:
- Set challenging goals that fire you up. Even if you fall short, you will have pushed yourself in such a way that the next level of performance will soon be within your grasp. Repeat this cycle and you might just blow yourself away with what you accomplish.
- Honor your goals with the appropriate amount of work. "When I would say to my coach that I wanted to achieve a certain goal, he would tell me that I had to start earning it in my summer training," Williams says. Whether logging 500 miles, 750 miles or 1,000 miles in the summer, Williams was always tasked with doing the preparation essential to earn a shot at his goal.
- Go the extra mile. During his professional career, Williams treated his running with a 24/7 mentality, running twice a day, logging upwards of 130 miles per week, lifting weights and getting his rest. A Sports Illustrated journalist once reported that every time Williams took a break to watch TV, he dropped down into the push-up position.
- Surround yourself with positive people. Williams thinks this is essential to success. "They make sure that whatever you do you keep kicking [butt]," he says.
- Stay humble. Williams thanks his mentors for keeping his ego in check. He recalls how longtime coach George Watts kept him grounded. "Whenever my head started to swell, he'd remind me that the world included Daniel Komen," Williams says. In 1996 through 1998, Komen went on a world-record tear that included a blistering 7:20.67 in the 3,000 meters, which still stands today, and a 7:58.61 2-mile on the track. He is the only runner in history to record back-to-back sub-4 minute miles.
- The Definition of a Champion
- Reach Your Potential With Goal-Setting Techniques
- Michael Jordan: Mind of a Champion
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock