When Henry Williams grad, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student, is not researching solar energy, he is an extremely dedicated and driven long-distance runner. On Oct. 14, Williams qualified for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials after running a marathon in just nine seconds under the 2024 qualification time for men (two hours and 18 minutes) at the McKirdy trained marathon.
The Olympic Trials — which will be held on Feb. 3 this season — determine which athletes will participate in the Olympic Games. Finishing top three in the Olympic Trials qualifies a runner for the USA Olympic Team.
When Williams researched fall marathons for 2023, he found Bakline’s McKirdy Micro Marathon & 10K — a race targeted towards runners on the cusp of qualifying for the Olympic Trials. Williams competed with the goal of performing under the 2024 qualification time.
For the entirety of the marathon, Williams aimed to stick with a group of other competitors who were pacing the race to finish slightly under 2:18 — which proved to be a successful strategy, earning him one of the nearly 200 spots in the Olympic Trials.
Growing up, Williams said he started out as a soccer player in middle school but slowly lost interest in the sport and decided running was more his speed. In high school, he started considering the possibility of running in college.
Although Williams described himself as just “okay” at running in high school, he ended up competing for the University of Tulsa’s D1 track and field and cross country teams. However, he recalled never feeling like himself in college and felt he was more suited for long-distance running.
“I kind of sucked [at competitive running] in college,” Williams said. “Coming to Cornell, I didn’t really have a solid plan for what I wanted to do with running, but I did want to try to see if I could find myself again in running and just see what I could do with a marathon.”
In preparation for the marathon, Williams said he is stressing the importance of stamina and strength. He prepared for the marathon last year by training with Giovanni Grano, a runner from Ithaca who won the Italian Marathon Championship in 2020. Williams described Grano’s help as “crucial” to his success in the qualifying race.
Williams said his primary goal for trials is to finish in the top half of the race.
“Just under 200 guys have qualified, and I’m seeded pretty low as you can imagine, just nine seconds under standard,” Williams said. “I’m not anywhere near the ability to make the Olympic Team, but, at the same time, I want to take the trial seriously, and it’s an opportunity to perform well and potentially get some exposure to sponsorships and things like that.”
Throughout his race preparation, Williams has continued to pursue his interest in solar energy. Williams said his experiences growing up in Oklahoma helped spark his interest in the field.
“The oil and gas industry is really big in Oklahoma,” Williams said. “I grew up around that, and knew that I wanted to get into renewable energy because I feel that it’s important to decarbonize our grid.”
Williams works in the Energy and the Environment Research Lab in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering under Prof. Max Zhang, engineering. Williams leads the solar energy group in his lab, where they study “agrivoltaics” — agriculture and solar photovoltaics — and ecosystem services in solar farms.
“[We are] looking at the potential to grow crops on solar farms, which has a lot of implications for land use in New York State,” Williams said. “And it’s something I feel really passionate about.”
Williams said he received support from peers and community members, which he connects to achieving his goals as both a runner and Ph.D. student. In addition to being a serious athlete and Ph.D. student at Cornell, Williams is a graduate resident fellow on West Campus in the Flora Rose House.
“[The] professors and everybody that I work with at Cornell are very supportive, and the whole culture at Cornell is that everybody has ambition, which is really good because we can feed off of each other,” Williams said.
With so much on his plate, Williams said that it is sometimes difficult to balance running and academics. Williams said that he prioritizes staying present and intentional throughout all of his pursuits.
“I think back a lot to something that a former Ph.D. student and runner told me once: you have to learn how to wear different hats at different times,” Williams said. “Whatever I’m doing, I find that I really have to be focused on that task and not think about the other things that are going on — wearing one hat and putting the others aside. And I think it’s a good analogy for how to balance everything here at Cornell.”
Carly Hermann ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].