Hobbs Kessler: The Making of a Miler
“I was pleasantly surprised, but I wasn’t like, ‘How did I do that?’ I knew I had it in me.”
By Jeff Hollobaugh, Track & Field News
After running a stunning 3:57.66 Mile seemingly out of nowhere, Hobbs Kessler is suddenly one of the most talked-about names in the sport — usually appended to the words, “Who is…?” Understandable. It’s unprecedented for someone to jump to that exalted level directly from the plethora of 4:20 high school Milers.
The fastest 17-year-old in U.S. history (he turns 18 on March 15) is no fluke, and while his development might not have been visible to the world thanks to the pandemic, it reveals a fascinating combination of circumstances, the proverbial perfect storm of talent development.
Kessler’s parentage is the obvious first ingredient here, and it bears significance beyond genetics. Father Mike was an all-state cross country runner in high school who ran a 16:39 at the State finals. His mother, Serena, was a 2:44:55 marathoner who competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials at age 39.
Last fall Mike became the boys cross country coach at Skyline High in Ann Arbor. Serena, an English teacher at the school, recently was hired as the head track coach.
They have been as shocked as anyone by their son’s rapid progress. Hobbs, who was born premature at 3lb, 8oz, has been surprising them from the start. They’re determined that if he runs, he runs for the right reasons. After they returned to their Fayetteville hotel suite, Mike said, “I can hear him in the room right now screwing around with his friends on Minecraft. That’s what I want to keep it like. I don’t want it to be like a job. I want it to be fun. I want it to be positive. If he hems or haws, we’ll shut it down, but he’s like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Says Hobbs, “I’m having a blast. I feel like there’s kind of a story out there that I train with Nick [Willis] and stuff. I do a workout occasionally with him, but every day I’m with my team. And we’re just having fun with that.
“I truly love the act of running. I’m running circles around the house all day. I love the act, I love the community. It’s one of those things that I just want to do until I can’t.”
The Rock Climbing
Young Kessler’s origin story is an atypical one for our sport because of his rock-climbing background. It’s a family thing — they’ve even installed a practice climbing wall at their house. “The best in the state,” Hobbs says.
“Climbing is the thing I identified myself as being good at until pretty recently.” His biggest accomplishment, he says, is his 2019 ascent of the 5.14c slope called Southern Smoke at Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. In rock climbing, any rating over 5.13 is considered elite. Hobbs explains it for tracknuts who are afraid of cliffs: “I’m most proud of that 5.14c. I would say that’s probably like a 4:12 Mile. 5.15a is equivalent to a sub-4:00 in my brain. A life goal I have is to be the first person to crawl a 5.15 and break 4:00 in the Mile. They are similar barriers in two different sports.”
He made the national team in 2020 and competed at the Youth World Climbing Championships in the Italian Alps.
He has not given up the vertical-ascent sport. Prior to his senior season in cross country, he spent two weeks climbing in Yosemite with one of his best friends, Connor Herson, whose claim to fame is being the youngest person ever to do a free ascent of the Nose at Yosemite, a feat only five other people had accomplished at the time. Of the Yosemite trip, he says, “We did some super cool routes in the mountains and had a special time.”
Now that he has signed with distance power Northern Arizona, what will become of his climbing? “Running is detrimental to the climbing, but I’ve found ways to deal with that. I won’t be climbing seriously,” he explains. “But I’ll still be having fun with it. When we were in Flagstaff, we were finding climbing areas 3M out of town. I taught one of my teammates how to climb and he’s really excited about it. I won’t be training hard.” He says the emphasis will be on staying safe “and not breaking any ankles.”
The coaching connection with former Michigan coach Ron Warhurst happened, oddly enough, because of climbing. Mike coaches a group of local climbers. He approached Warhurst before Hobbs was even running. “Five or six years ago I bumped into him at the bank,” says Mike. “It was my second or third year of coaching climbing. We sucked at climbing and then we got Regional level, Divisional level, kids at Nationals and then they were moving on to Worlds.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t know how to coach people at that high level.’ I asked Ron, ‘Can I just follow you around and hang out at the workouts?’”
Kessler thought he could learn from the way Warhurst mentored world class runners and transfer some of those lessons to the climbing arena. He came and watched a few times a week for more than 5 years. “There was always, ‘How do I translate this into climbing?’” Eventually one of the runners said, “If you’re here, why don’t you just run with us guys?”
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