The Fu Manchu mustache has been around for several years now, long enough to become Will Leer’s signature look. The prodigious beard is a new addition to the Minnetonka native’s face, distinguishing him even further from his elite running brethren — and giving him a slight resemblance to Father Time, the guy he is currently outpacing.
At age 29, after seven years of steady progress, Leer has found his best stride. He enters Thursday’s Medtronic TC 1 Mile with the fastest time in the world this year at the distance: 3 minutes, 52.47 seconds, run indoors in February at New York City’s Millrose Games. A second-place finish in the 1,500 meters at the U.S. indoor national championships in February earned him a place at the world indoor championships, where he finished sixth.
Though he now lives in the Los Angeles area, where parents Chuck and Mary Leer spend winters, Leer appreciates any chance to run in his home state. He is among 22 elite men and 13 elite women — and 3,000 citizen runners — who will race down Nicollet Mall in the 10th edition of the TC 1 Mile. The field also includes three-time champion David Torrence, 2008 Olympic silver medalist Nick Willis and 2014 U.S. road mile champion Heather Kampf.
“I’m not getting any younger, but I’m still getting faster,’’ Leer said. “If you had asked me, ‘Is the best year of your running career going to happen when you’re 29 years old?’ I would have said, ‘Definitely not.’ But Father Time has been pretty kind to me. I’m not ready to get slower.’’
After a standout Division III career at Pomona College in California, Leer trained with Oregon Track Club Elite and later moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to work with coach Ron Warhurst. Though Leer now trains by himself in California, Warhurst still coaches him and is not surprised to see him blooming relatively late.
“He’s found himself,’’ Warhurst said. “He’s happy as a person. And he can run like hell.’’
Finding his niche
It’s been quite a career for a guy who started running primarily so he could get faster for soccer. When Leer joined the track team as a sophomore at Minnetonka High School, he initially thought he would be a sprinter. A soccer teammate lured him to the middle distances, setting him on course toward the mile and 1,500 meters.
Leer finished his college career in 2007 with four NCAA titles, becoming the only athlete to win Division III championships in both the 1,500 and the 5,000 at the same meet. With the encouragement of Pomona coach Patrick Mulcahy and the support of his parents, Leer packed his car after graduation and drove to Oregon to take a shot at becoming a professional runner.
“I had such a drastic improvement senior year that I thought, ‘The sky’s the limit,’ ’’ Leer said. “And my college coach thought I had much more in the tank. If I went and did something else, I’d never be able to live with myself.’’
A solid first season, including a fourth-place finish in the 1,500 at the 2008 Olympic trials, earned Leer a major shoe contract and the financial stability to go all-in. He continued to lower his times and compete well at elite meets, but he considered giving up the sport after a rough 2012. About a month after his father was diagnosed with cancer, Leer faded in the final of the 1,500 at the Olympic trials, finishing 12th.
Still, he could not shake the feeling that he had more to accomplish. As his father endured chemotherapy, Leer was inspired to dig deeper into his training, believing a breakthrough was nearly within reach. It finally came last year, when he won his first national titles by capturing both the mile and the 3,000 meters at the U.S. indoor championships.
Chuck Leer has been cancer-free for 18 months. Will has continued to drop his times in an event that has taken him years to master, and Warhurst said he thinks he can get even faster.
“He has so much natural ability,’’ the coach said. “You just have to let him be himself.’’
That includes the facial hair. Though some assume Leer is channeling track legend Steve Prefontaine with his prominent mustache, he said he grew it because it was fun and unique. In addition to giving him a distinct identity, it has taken on one of its own; someone Leer does not know set up a Twitter account for the mustache.
Leer also notes that he continues to set personal-best times while unshaven, reason enough to maintain the look as he tries to stay ahead of Father Time.
“I’ve just been able to keep getting better, keep pushing forward,’’ he said. “I always knew I belonged. And to be able to prove that to other people is really rewarding.’’