Will Battershill chose to spend his end of season break getting a humbling from the best in Japan. Representing the Ivy League, the 2023 British 3000m Steeplechase champion took part in the annual Izumo Ekiden.
“They have unbelievable depth. In Japan I think everyone’s a 13:40 guy and they’re so good on the roads. So yeah, we got absolutely smashed because obviously October is not the right time of year for a group of Brits and Americans.”
A different kind of post-season break, but one in a way fitting for a Devonian whose running journey has never been defined by taking the textbook choice.
Steeplechase on a whim
Growing up outside Plymouth, Battershill can lay claim to be Ivybridge’s Erme Valley Harriers most successful export, a mantle he threatened to earn from a young age.
A talented cross-country runner with a top-20 placing at English Schools as a Junior Boy, Battershill gave the barriers a go on a whim:
“I have no recollection of a decision to try the steeple. It kind of just happened. I think it was a Youth Development League, really minor meet and I didn’t run a fast time. But yeah, I guess I must have thought, this kind of works.”
Within a year he was the English Schools champion. His 4:15.38 1500m Steeplechase best for that 2014 season remains the 14th fastest by any U17 ever.
He skipped a defence of his Schools title to head to the World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia. Qualifying from his heat as a fastest loser, Battershill finished 14th in the 2000m Steeplechase behind an eclectic mix.
European Indoor 800m Champion Adrian Ben was sixth. Daniel Do Nascimento, the long-time 2022 New York Marathon leader was eighth. The winner, Vincent Kipyegon Ruto of Kenya has barely run faster since.
After regaining his English Schools title in 2016, Battershill’s attention turned to further education. The first dialogue opened with Luke Gunn about joining Birmingham University. A good mix of academic reputation and sporting credentials left Battershill excited about his move to the Black Country.
Until a strange message came on Facebook. A man claiming to be the coach at Harvard University said he was recruiting people and had noticed Battershill’s times:
“I initially thought it was a scam. I was like this can’t be true. Then I told my girlfriend and my mother about it and they were like, what Harvard?”
A bit of digging confirmed the truth. Jason Saretsky was playing the numbers game, hoping some of the recipients would also be academically smart enough to make the grade. Fortunately for Battershill he was one of them.
“I kind of thought this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can’t turn this down. Actually the team was running terribly at that point. As an athletic decision, it wasn’t that good a decision. They were last in the Ivy League.
There was not much evidence of development in athletes across time. People were dropping out of the team. If I knew what I was doing and was looking at all of that, I could maybe have seen that. But I just thought, Harvard, I can’t turn that down. And so off I went.”
Finding the balance
Battershill’s choice was a far cry from the usual athletics powerhouses you see a lot of top Brits go to. No free academic ride, the economics student would also have to survive in the classroom.
“Unsurprisingly, everyone’s really smart and trying to stay afloat in classes. That’s a big challenge in itself.”
But it created a balance that in a way suited him. Battershill’s college experience became about more than just trying to run as fast as he can.
“Obviously we were really caring about results and stuff, but you know that it’s not just running that defines you. It kind of makes it a bit more free to enjoy running, which I guess is the whole point of it. And I think the coaches were good with taking a bit of pressure off at times.
Like you don’t have to do 100 miles a week. They’re very good at being individualized for me. That’s not something you see that often in the US.
A lot of people go to the US and hate it. They end up at the wrong place and the training is not for them. They miss home a lot and still struggle with the uni and stuff. I think I got lucky. I didn’t realize that I’d made exactly the right decision for me.”
Battershill’s time in Cambridge, Massachusetts also quickly coincided with a change in coach.
“Alex Gibby came in. He affected the entire team, taking us from being terrible to good. And that’s something that definitely happened for me. I was just not that good my first year. He was able to kind of turn my career around in the two and a half years we had.”
Battershill, fellow Brit Hugo Milner, and Kieran Tuntivate, the multiple Thai record holder were a core part of that progress.
Bottom of the Ivy League when Battershill arrived, in his final cross-country season Harvard finished 15th in the NCAA DI Cross Country Champs, the program’s best finish in over 50 years.
The steeplechaser was fourth scorer that day, finishing in 108th but he looks back on his own personal college performances with mixed emotions.
In his penultimate year he qualified for outdoor nationals over 3000m Steeplechase, a privilege reserved for the top 24 athletes in the college system. But he was denied the opportunity to improve on that disappointing showing in his final year.
“It’s a shame that the end of it got ruined by COVID, which means that I still achieved absolutely nothing in the NCAA. I’m a zero-time Ivy League champion in team or individual and a zero-time All-American. That’s my college credentials right there.”
Battershill’s time in the US, whilst not perhaps yielding the eye-catching times that may have got him more noticed across the pond, was a period of undeniable progress.
A Euro U20 team in Grosseto in 2017, he qualified comfortably from his heats. Though a freak accident warming up prevented his participation in that final, by the time of leaving university his personal best had lowered to 8:44. It left him with a feeling of unfinished business.
“I could never wrap my head around the idea that people fully commit to college in the US and they just retire after the final year.”
Battershill needed to decide on how not if he would set-up his post-collegiate career.
“I just needed time to develop and make that step from a good U23 to being there on the senior level. For anyone that knows the sport, that’s definitely the most difficult step. It’s just such a huge jump.”
Four years after he first intended to, Battershill headed to Birmingham, formally linking up with Luke Gunn and embarking on a part-time masters split over two years.
It’s safe to say Battershill’s time at Birmingham was an emphatic success. Surrounded by some of the best runners the UK domestic circuit had to offer, Battershill made that bridge to seniors perhaps quicker than he thought.
“Breaking four for the mile for the first time, dropping my steeple PB down to from 8:44 to 8:32 and then 8:27, making my first senior (GB) team in cross country. It definitely went as well as it could have those two years.”
Battershill also earned a link-up with Hoka and has since moved to Long Eaton in his work as a Health Economist. A couple of half-days off each week, it’s a balance that he’s confident works.
And who’s to argue? He’s repaid both backers handsomely this summer.
Five times between 8:22 and 8:26, 2023 also became the year he won his and Erme Valley Harriers’ first senior British title, outsprinting Zak Seddon after the last barrier.
Eight minutes, 15 seconds
Battershill has one more step to take. Find seven seconds and force his way to Paris. The 8:15 standard is one only three Brits have ever bettered.
“My gut reaction is if everything goes well, I can run that next season, which is kind of mental. I think the whole way the sport is now with these ridiculous qualifying times, it’s really strange how it’s just shifted everyone’s perspective. Three years ago, if you’d said 8.15, it’s a laughably fast time. It’s six seconds off the British record. 15 guys in the world run that every year.”
Succeed or fail in that immediate objective, however, I’m left with the impression that the 25-year-old will get there eventually. Every decision in his journey is framed with his long-term interests at heart.
“I guess it’s important to just have the confidence in what I’m doing. In a way, I think it’s easy to train too hard. It’s actually much more difficult to train the right amount.
I’m valuing consistency the most, you don’t need to be training in an oppressive way. It’s stacking good seasons on top of good seasons. Having that perspective across years of consistency is what I’m aiming for.”
Good on good on good, some fun thrown in between, Battershill may well find the spectacular.
Enjoy our piece with Will Battershill? Get all the athlete interviews delivered to your inbox for free below
Featured image by Mark Hookway