IT HAD BEEN 6 MONTHS since he had raced at all, so Bryce Hoppel had no idea what to expect in Monaco last August. It would be his first big 800 in his first full year as a pro.
“In college, I was used to a race every weekend and you just kind of slowly improve with each and every race,” he explains.
“This is the first time I’m just hopping into one of the biggest races of my life, against Donavan Brazier in the Diamond League. I was like, ‘Hell, man, I’m just going to go out there and do my best.’ And before I knew it, I was just feeling good following those guys. The atmosphere in Monaco was insane and the PR just came along with that.”
His scintillating kick brought him just 0.08 off the shoulder of the world champion. A 1:43.23 that made him the No. 7 American ever, it crushed his career best by more than a full second. “I was like, ‘Wow! I guess this works too.’”
While 2020 will forever be remembered by many as one of the worst of years thanks to the pandemic, for Hoppel it was inevitably a year of discovery.
Coming off a standout 3-year NCAA career at Kansas, the Texas native had ridden the express elevator to the sport’s top levels in the ’19 season, starting out with an undefeated streak in the college ranks and finishing up just a place shy of a medal at the World Championships.
He captured both NCAA crowns, kicking his way to the outdoor title in a PR 1:44.41. He made the Doha team at USATF and then, many months after he started his campaign, he closed it out with a stunning 1:44.25 come-from-behind 4th at the Worlds.
“Everything came so quickly,” he recounts. “It feels like yesterday that I was hoping, ‘Oh man, I hope I do good at the Big 12.’ And then I was like, ‘Maybe I have a shot to do well at the NCAAs.’
“I mean, everyone’s goal is to run professionally. But I guess it kind of snuck up on me. It never became a reality until I was there in those big races. I’m still trying to understand that I can do that.”
So yes, 2020 was always going to be a new experience for Hoppel, now 23. First, he had to answer the question of how to be a successful pro. Then it became, how to be a successful pro in a pandemic?
“One of the things that I kept consistent is training with Michael Whittlesey, my college coach. He just kept me on the same thing. With the Olympics coming up so quickly, I’m going to stay with what works and just keep rolling with that.”
His brief ’20 indoor season showed he was on the right track, with a 2:17.41 kilo in Boston (moving to No. 3 in U.S. history), followed by a 2nd behind Brazier at Millrose in 1:45.70. Then he won the USATF crown in 1:46.67.
When the shutdown came, Hoppel found that the biggest challenge was training in solitude. “That was probably the biggest difficulty of all,” he says, “but for the most part, I feel like I’ve been doing well.” A big plus, he adds, is the extra time he was able to spend with his family back home in Texas.
Fitness-wise, it all worked. “I’m used to developing slowly with races and seeing my progress through that. I was going into it a little blind, but as for training, it was phenomenal. I was expecting to do the best I ever had, but it was just weird, I didn’t know where I was.”
So now he continues to look ahead to Tokyo and points beyond. Some of the lessons he’s learned will no doubt shape his pathway.
For one, look at his breakout ’19 campaign, some 27 individual races including heats. For a world-class 800 practitioner, it’s a heavy load. Yet it reveals something fascinating about the man.
When asked whether it was tough to recover from that season, he replies, “Not necessarily. Once the season ends, I take two weeks off. I feel like I’m really good at recovery and that’s how I get the best of training. Even day-to-day I can recover. Me and Whit see that as a strength with the championship racing where we go through three rounds. I’ve already done well with that. Every day, I feel back at 100%.
“Other guys might feel beat up and stuff, but I don’t know, I feel like it wasn’t bad. That’s why I love to do as much as I can.”
Quick recovery through the rounds certainly showed in Doha, where over 4 days he churned out times of 1:46.01, 1:45.95 and his 1:44.25 PR. No sign of long-term fatigue either, as he had run races in each of the 8 previous months.
The only regret Hoppel has about the Worlds — and it’s probably too strong to call it a regret; let’s call it a second guess — has to do with his blazing finish. The Jayhawk alum had the fastest final 100 (13.18) and 200 (26.87) in the field. Midpoint on the final turn, he was far back in 7th. And by “far back” we mean, well, add “freaking” to it. Make it an 820m race and Hoppel might have copped silver.
“That was one of the things that kept me up at night after the race. It was like, ‘Man, I was feeling great coming down that last stretch. If I would have just kicked it in sooner.’
“So yeah, there’s always those little things in the race. Hindsight, like I wish I would have done a little better or just done this or that. When you start thinking about that, it can be tough on yourself.
“Probably going forward, it’s something I need to work on. At the same time, maybe I left a little in the tank, but it’s kind of an advantage that I’m trying to get on when other people aren’t. It gives me an edge at passing at the last second and they might not be ready for it.
“It’s a trade-off. I still need to find… I guess we’re all looking for the perfect tactic of how to race and use our energy to the fullest. Definitely a hard thing to balance.”
What’s on tap now? Hoppel is a racer who’s dying to race. He plans to hit the boards soon as well as point for the new Austin Qualifier meet in late February.
There are also side goals: he’d like to take down the American Indoor Record in the 1000 (David Torrence’s 2:16.76 from ’14). And then there’s the mile: “Throughout my career, coach Whit has always kind of had this hidden agenda, like, ‘You’re going to be a miler someday.’ I don’t know how I feel about that, but I definitely would like to get in a mile sometime soon and see how that goes. Like every runner, breaking the 4:00 mile is a huge dream.
“I’d like to accomplish that one day when the opportunity is right, and when there’s plenty of races. It’s weird with this virus, because you just don’t have that many racing opportunities, so whenever we do get them, I’ve got to get in my main event.”
Watch out then. Hoppel notes he has gotten in his best strength base ever. “I’m excited to start moving into the speed work and start racing. This is the strongest I have ever been.”