May 1st, 2010 – Collegiate senior Cabell Willis stands in lane two of the track as he watches the 4×800 meter race unfold in front of him at the VMI High School Track Classic. Senior Wes Butler had finished the first leg, putting Collegiate a step behind Loudoun Valley; sophomore Scott Newton put Collegiate into the lead in the second leg, and now senior David Allen is pulling away from the third Loudoun runner. Grimacing as he fights the lactic acid building in his legs, David rounds the final turn of his second and final lap, and Cabell Willis steps into the first lane to receive the handoff. Crouched in preparation, he awaits the handoff before exploding forward, reaching back for the baton, and fluidly grabbing it from his teammate’s outstretched hand a second in front of Loudoun Valley. After one lap of running, Willis is still in the lead, with the Loudoun Valley anchor leg gaining ground on his right shoulder. With 200 meters left in the race, Willis’ stride lengthens, and his arms starting swinging in a system of speed and rhythm that drops the competition behind him. With his teammates looking on from the infield, he crosses the finish line in first place, capturing both the win and a 4x800m school record of seven minutes and 57.3 seconds.
The record remains on the green board hanging in Collegiate School’s athletic center, along with the 1500m, 1600m and 3200m records that Willis holds individually. Despite the records and the State Championship wins in the 3200m and 1600m that he gathered in his senior year, Willis remembers the team accomplishments most fondly. “Some of my very best friends and fondest memories are from those two brief seasons I spent as a Cross Country runner in high school,” he says, adding that “The running was cool – it was thrilling because I was good at it. But the relationships will last long after my legs can no longer churn out those times.”
Now, five years after he graduated from high school, Willis has a NCAA DI career under his belt after running for VMI. “VMI is a difficult place to go to school, much less be an athlete,” Willis reflects. Voicing concerns with the NCAA system, he says, “I certainly think it works great for those athletes that are willing to devote all of their energy in college to training hard and running fast, but, for me, my education was of greater importance than my athletic performance. I believe that the latter should enhance, not detract from, compete with, or eclipse the former.” In his senior year, Willis was juggling his duties as an officer and academic advisor in the Corps of Cadets and editor-in-chief of the Sounding Brass, VMI’s creative arts journal, writing a 70-page honors thesis, writing for his blog, researching and writing a paper for a policy fellowship in DC, and applying for postgraduate fellowships and scholarships, as well focusing on his regular academic course load and duties as a cadet.
Oh, and he was running 80 miles each week. “I was lucky to get six-seven hours [of sleep]. My performance suffered. I bounced back a bit in track my senior year, but I still didn’t run a PR (personal record) in any race at any distance between April of 2012 and this past April (2015).” Despite the challenges he faced, Willis looks back fondly on the time spent with his teammates at VMI and the challenges that he overcame, describing his time there as an “experience that hardened me and made me a serious student and a mature, thoughtful human being. I wouldn’t trade it.”
The PR came after graduating VMI, when Cabell joined the Georgetown Running Club (GRC) in January of 2015. The club, which he describes as having a “grassroots blue-collar ethos”, provides Willis a more loose structure in which he can organize his own race schedule and do much of his training on his own. Between April 11 and May 5th of 2015, Willis ran five consecutive PRs, including a 14:41 in the 5k.
Willis now hopes to help GRC to a top-10 finish at the USATF Club Cross Country Championships in December. Pleased with his recent success, Willis is unsure of what the future may hold for his running career. As he writes in “Reflections of a Runner Descending the Mountain,” however, he remains “grateful not for the ability to run fast times or even personal bests, but for the ability to run itself.”