News & Updates

27 March 2024 • Track and Field

Little makes large noise on NZ endurance scene

William Little produced a dominant display to take out the senior men’s national 5000m title in Wellington. Credit: (Alisha Lovrich)

National senior men’s 5000m champion Willam Little has enjoyed the best season of his career this year. Ahead of his appearance at the World Cross Country Championships in Belgrade, Serbia this weekend we delve into his background and rapid rise through the ranks.

No athlete perhaps better encapsulates the value of patience and consistency quite like William Little.

The 24-year-old Whippets Running Project athlete first started seriously training for running as a year 12 student and was no world beater as a schoolboy. Yet thanks to a gradual and lengthy injury-free training period, the endurance athlete has gradually improved taking his very first national medal at any level with bronze at the New Zealand Mile championships in Whanganui in January and followed this up earlier this month with a first national title, winning senior men’s 5000m gold in Wellington.

This weekend he makes his New Zealand debut in the senior men’s race in Belgrade, Serbia at the World Cross Country Championships starting at 1.30am on Sunday (NZT) – climaxing a dizzying past two to three months of huge progress for the Auckland-based athlete.

“It has been crazy,” admits William. “Sam (McLean, William’s coach) sent a text the other day saying that I’ve run a PB in every track race since 2022 apart from one 5000m and in championship races. That pays tribute to Sam’s training. I think the success has been down to consistency and nailing the basics in training, backed up by getting in good sleep and having a good diet.

Raised on a beef and sheep farm around 30 minutes outside of Wairoa in the Hawke’s Bay, William began his running journey jogging around the farm and at the nearby Te Urewera National Park with his mum.

“My mum did quite a bit of running and got into half marathons. We began running together and she would often have to wait for me, although later it got to the stage, I was waiting for her.”

Knowing he had a running talent from school cross country race as a Year 12 student at Lindisfarne College in Hastings he started training seriously for the first time under the coaching guidance of Tony Snell at Napier Harriers.

He enjoyed some success earning a spot in men’s 3000m final at the 2017 New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships, where he finished 11th but was certainly no future star during his early years in the sport.

“I progressed pretty quickly in that initial year in the sport to make a national final, although I was nowhere near the front,” explains William.

His career then stalled as he struggled with low iron levels and took time to adjust to life at the University of Canterbury, where he was balancing running with studying a double degree in Law and Commerce.

The big change happened in 2021 when William switched to a new coach, Sam McLean. With his health issues behind him and training consistently for the first time in several years he quickly saw the fruits of his labour. In 2022 he finished a breakthrough seventh in the national 3000m final – a performance which convinced switching to Sam was the right move.

“I had a really good track season that year and that was the moment I thought, hey, I’ve got to listen to what this guy (Sam) says,” adds William. “Sam has so much knowledge and can remember every session and the splits past athletes he’s coached have run. He is always open to collaboration and to discuss what he thinks might work for training. He is super involved which makes it easy to stay motivated and very enthusiastic.”

After graduating in 2022 in early 2023 he relocated to start work for a law firm in the Auckland CBD but despite the demands of the role he has continued to flourish as an athlete. Training up to 140km a week – where he trains alongside other Whippets athletes such as Darian Sorouri, Jack Paine, Ronan Lee and Jared Monk – he has continued to go from strength to strength and in the 2023 track season he finished seventh in the New Zealand 1500m and 3000m finals – the latter in a significant PB of 8:10.65 – and fifth in the national 5000m final. He was also proud of a sizeable 5000m PB at the 2023 Sir Graeme Douglas International presented by Harcourts Cooper & Co of 14:06.73 – which offered further evidence of his rising status on the domestic endurance scene.

He maintained his upwardly mobile progress when taking out the North Island Cross Country title at Spa Thermal Park in Taupo and had high hopes of banking a top three spot at the New Zealand Cross Country Championships at the same location just four weeks later.

However, he was unable to meet his expectations when placing fifth and outside of the medal podium in Taupo – a result which brought about a lot of soul-searching.

“I was frustrated with national cross,” he adds. “I was super stoked for Cam (Avery, the gold medallist) David (Lee, the silver medallist and Russ (Green, the fourth placer) who are good mates, but that fifth was quite hard to take. It sparked a big desire to get back into training. It made me hungry for more.”

Believing that he did not “nail” his pre-race week ahead of the New Zealand Cross Country Championships he also conceded he was not “mentally there” – which with the help of Sam brought about a mental re-set.

“I looked at how I felt in races and how I approach every race. I realised that sometimes I was a bit scared of the pain that would come, when I needed to take the view that everyone else is hurting, so I just need to embrace it and go for it.”

Targeting a spot on the team at the 2024 World Cross Country Championships he knew he must achieve a minimum of the performance standard of 29:30 for 10km to be considered for selection. In October at the Timaru 10 in October he claimed victory but came an agonising six seconds short of his target time.

However, five weeks or so later he made no mistake when clocking a huge 10,000m PB of 29:14.92 when 11th at the Zatopek meeting in Melbourne.

“I pulled up just short in Timaru but winning gave me a lot of confidence,” he adds. “In Zatopek I wanted to run 29:20 and although I ran a lot of the race by myself, I ended up with 29:14.”

Just two weeks later his rich vein of form continued at the Daikin Night of 5s in Auckland when he posted a PB of more than 16 seconds of 13:50.04 to place second over the 5000m distance.

Since the turn of the year, William has continued to impress. In January he earned a maiden national medal with bronze in the senior mile championships, setting a 14-second PB of 4:03.66.

“To win that first medal was special,” he says. “The aim was to go sub-four, although I knew that would be a big ask. The way the race was played out was weird. In that we kind of fell off the pace of Sam (Tanner) and Callum (Davies, the Australian) early on, and I had to do a lot of work. With around 300m to go David (Lee) and Jack (Paine) came past me and I thought, ‘oh, no, that’s the medal gone.’ But in the final straight something came over me, I needed that medal, so I kicked on hard. It was incredible to get that medal and do it alongside Dave in silver was so special.”

Just six days later he added the 3000m national bronze in Wellington. Adopting a brave race to hang on to the pace set by eventual champion Sam Tanner and Olympic triathlon medallist Hayden Wilde he was rewarded with bronze and a shiny new 11-second PB of 7:59.64.

Following his outstanding year, he went into the Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships full of confidence and targeting victory in the senior men’s 5000m. Making a huge move in the middle of the race to break the field with a sub-60 lap, he cantered to the gold medal in 14:44.72 ahead of Connor Melton, who is also coached by Sam McLean.

It was an emotional moment for the 24-year-old Auckland-based athlete who celebrated excitedly when taking gold.

“It was awesome to come across the line and take my first national title,” he says. It was really cool and makes me hungry for more.”

Regularly texting Sam, his Christchurch-based coach, the pair speak weekly with his next big goal his debut appearance for New Zealand at the World Cross Country Championships in Belgrade.

Finishing second in the Australian 3000m Championship B race in Sydney in 8:01.95 acted as a good warm up and he hopes to represent his country with pride in Serbia on Saturday.

“The course is not too crazy (difficult). It is flat and they’ve had to put in a couple of arch bridges to add a little elevation. My leg speed is there, but I know the fields are really strong. I just want to get amongst it and try to hold on. It’s exciting to compete and I want to make my training group and my family proud.”

Beyond World Cross, William hopes to compete for New Zealand at the Oceania Championships in Fiji in June and is relishing an appearance in his native Hawke’s Bay at the Mission Estate New Zealand Cross Country Championships in Napier in August.

“I just want to race and see where it goes,” he adds. “I don’t take anything for granted.”

A simple philosophy which has stood him in good stead throughout his career so far.