RACING AT A HIGH LEVEL in both the 400 and 800 ranks among the sport’s balancing acts as one of the rarer high-wire feats. To be sure, among the pros Emmanuel Korir is able to make a go of it. Olympic legend Alberto Juantorena’s name usually starts any conversation around the topic, and Athing Mu at present is the premier 4/8 talent among women.
Last school year Will Sumner (Woodstock, Georgia) spread his wings as such a rara avis in his senior season, rating as our No. 1 All-America in the 400 and No. 2 at 800. Now a Georgia frosh, Sumner churned times of 45.78 and 1:46.53 (3, 4 all-time HS). At the World Junior (U20) Champs in Colombia in July he anchored the gold medal Team USA 4×4 squad.
While Sumner’s ’22 season was mainly one of shooting for and usually hitting individual goals, he’s still got one of those in his back pocket: exceeding his father Brad’s 800 best of 1:46.33. It’s just 0.2 away.
“I can definitely take that time down at some point next year,” Sumner says. “We’ll just see when it happens.”
But what’s really at the forefront of Sumner’s thinking is his opportunity in Bulldog coach Caryl Smith Gilbert’s program to leverage the expertise and dream group of training partners on campus as he, for now, concentrates on development at both ends of his range.
On the 1-lap end, Sumner has ’22 NCAA 3rd-placer Elija Godwin to train with as well as NCAA 200 runner-up Matthew Boling, who smoked a sub-45 relay carry as a prep way back in ’19. For 2-lap training senior Clay Pender (1:46.71) is a terrific match.
Smith Gilbert likes the dynamic. “If he does 800 work, he can go with the cross country guys and Clay,” she says. “But a lot of times he comes down and he’s better for us. If we’re running 500s or whatever we’re doing, he’s better for us because he can do the ending reps stronger. Which forces Elija and Matt to do it stronger.
“The three of those guys are very competitive. By nature he’s 800. When we get to like three or four 300s at a pretty good pace, he’s gonna push everybody because that doesn’t make him tired, whereas they may be more fatigued. But they’re gonna compete against each other, so they have to rise to the level no matter how they’re feeling.”
Sumner’s preparation is a team effort among the coaches. Distance coach Patrick Henner — who worked as an assistant to Smith Gilbert in her previous post at USC but is new to the Georgia staff — describes an autumn protocol geared toward augmenting capacities across the spectrum.
“Will’s doing bits and pieces of aerobic workouts and runs and things like that,” Henner says. “But then he’s also doing more of the sprint warmups and doing more of the jumping that’s a big part of Coach Caryl’s training plan. So I think he’s getting a really holistic and well-balanced approach to his speed development and to his aerobic development, as well.”
Sumner, for his part, is enjoying the strong team component at Georgia. “The main thing here is just to get faster and win races,” he says. “Obviously I want to run fast and the main thing that my coach has been telling me is, the times will come if you just focus on racing.
“Plus, I think our team here has a really good shot at winning the national championship. [Georgia placed 5th at the outdoor NCAA last summer, its 32 points just 22 away from title school Florida] So you know, I just gotta do my part as a part of this team and I think if I do my part, then all of my personal goals will come with it.”
Citing also the input of sprint assistant Devin West and Dawgs strength & conditioning coach Matt Garlitz, Henner compliments the coaching that came before for Sumner, from his mother, Tosha Woodward, with input from dad Brad Sumner. Both found middle distance success at Villanova in the ’90s, with mom scoring an NCAA 2nd at 800 in ’95.
Says Henner, “He still was on both ends of the spectrum — speed & power and aerobic development — very undertrained, and I’m not saying that in a bad way.”
Henner concludes, “My top goal is to create race models for him in the 400, 4×4 and 800 that are gonna be pretty ironclad in any situation.”