COLE HOCKER NEVER RAN at Historic Hayward Field. Never a race or a workout. Never witnessed a meet there.
“It shocks people sometimes,” he says.
No more shocking than what he has done since his arrival at Oregon for the fall of ’19. He is in actuality, if not formally, the fastest American teenager ever at a mile and 3000m. He has achieved things Oregon icons Pre, Rupp, Centro and King Ches never did.
The Duck soph ran himself onto a list of legends with his NCAA Indoor mile/3000 double of 3:53.71 and 7:46.15. The mile was a meet record, the 3K nearly so. At 19 he became the youngest American ever to win the mile and youngest of any nation to win such a double. He turns 20 in June. Jim Ryun turned 20 the month after his ’67 indoor mile victory.
Others to have won the double are Ryun in ’68, Marty Liquori in ’71, Suleiman Nyambui in ’79, ’80 & ’82, Bernard Lagat in ’99 and Lawi Lalang in ’13. Ryun, Nyambui and Lagat all own Olympic medals.
Oregon’s only other Indoor mile winner was 17-time NCAA champ Edward Cheserek in ’15.
“I haven’t really thought about historical context or anything like that,” Hocker says. “The group of guys makes it easy to get fast.”
Hocker did not come out of nowhere — he was a Foot Locker XC national champion — but the flock of Ducks who became training partners have allowed him to take flight. As with others, he might have benefited from the pandemic because it created months of uninterrupted training.
In March of ’20, the NCAA Indoor and entire outdoor season were canceled. Hocker was coming off a breakthrough 3:58.20 mile but left Albuquerque before he could run his first track nationals.
From the Eugene campus, he returned home to Indianapolis, where he covered routes near Geist Reservoir and around Ft. Benjamin Harrison State Park. In the summer, he traveled to Boulder for altitude training. Back on campus, wildfires polluted the Oregon air, so next it was off to Montana.
Training was consistent, he says, even if nothing else was. Hocker says he “clicked” with the program designed by coach Ben Thomas.
“If you come to Oregon for distance, like Thomas knows what he’s doing and chances are you’ll have the best training partners in the nation,” he says. “That’s really easy to get fast when you’re surrounded by that.”
In a November time trial at renovated Hayward Field, Cooper Teare edged Hocker in a 3000. Setup was done as if it were an actual meet — and Hocker clocked 7:45.03. He cannot be credited with an American Junior Record but was under the 7:49.16 set by Galen Rupp in ’05.
In a December outdoor race in San Juan Capistrano, California, Hocker ran a 5000 in 13:32.95, finishing 0.03 behind Matthew Centrowitz. Hocker climbed to No. 5 on the all-time U.S. U20 list, past Rupp (13:37.91 in ’04) and Steve Prefontaine (13:39.6 in ’70). If Hocker had been in the fast section, he might have broken German Fernandez’s American Junior Record of 13:25.46.
He ran PRs in 5 successive races from December 05 to February 13, the last 4 on the same Arkansas track where he won the NCAA double. That included a 2:49.89 leadoff 1200 in a DMR in which Oregon set a WIR of 9:19.42, and a 3:50.55 mile in which he was second to Teare’s CR of 3:50.39.
That mile was faster than the outdoor 3:51.3 WR set by a 19-year-old Ryun in ’66. It can reasonably be asked whether Hocker, in a paced effort at NCAAs, could have taken down Lagat’s indoor AR of 3:49.89.
“I definitely feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. Better than 3 weeks ago when we ran 3:50,” Hocker said after the race.
It was as if Teare, edged by Hocker in the NCAA 3K, knew what was coming. “Cole Hocker is my favorite person to talk about, ever,” Teare says. “I think he’s severely underrated. He’s finally starting to get some recognition, but he’s the future of American running. He’s insane.”
Hocker’s closing 200s at NCAAs were 25.87 in the mile and 25.49 in the 3000. He has developed so fast, and is, well, so fast, that he has joined the mix to make it to Tokyo. Not since a 19-year-old Liquori made the final at the ’68 Games has an American that young made the team in the 1500.
It is not as if Hocker came to running late. He was redirected early because a friend had an older brother who was a runner.
Hocker was encouraged by his father, Kyle, an avid runner who completed a 50-mile race on his 50th birthday. The father has been a volunteer coach for Cole’s teams and never missed any of his son’s workouts from third grade through high school.
In a ’10 cross-country nationals in Kentucky Cole won the 9-year-old division by 32 seconds. The aftermath is recorded in a YouTube video in which he is asked 6 questions, and replies with 6 one-word answers. Then, as now, he let his running speak for itself.
“At that age, you don’t really put things like that into perspective,” Hocker says.
In the eighth grade he ran a 4:36 mile. It was a race that “was definitely a turning point,” he says. He was 4th in the State 1600 as a soph, 2nd as a junior, 1st as a senior. His prep PR was equivalent to a 4:08.44 mile — a long way from 3:50.
Longtime Cathedral coach Jim Nohl confined Hocker’s training to fewer than 40M/week. Before anyone else, Nohl sensed what Hocker’s capability was. “He’s a breed apart,” the coach says.
As a junior, Hocker ran a 4:05.01 DMR anchor at New Balance Nationals, capturing Thomas’s attention. As a senior, he won his first State XC title and headed to the Nike Nationals in Portland. He coughed all the way through the flight. Still, he finished 2nd by 3 seconds in his only defeat of a 24-1 senior year. At Foot Locker a week later in San Diego a fast finish made him a national champion.
When it came to colleges, Hocker considered Indiana, Colorado, Northern Arizona and others before committing to Oregon. It should have been no surprise, considering he has a black-and-white photo of Pre hanging outside his bedroom back home.
There were reasons to choose Eugene, and not because Hocker’s long locks make him resemble an Oregon hippie from the ’70s. There is an emphasis on track over cross-country, campus trails, tradition, and TrackTown USA, where “the biggest races are going to be,” Hocker says.
Mostly, it came down to the runners already there. The Men Of Oregon.
“Hopefully, the spirit of Pre is alive and well with the kids we have here now,” Thomas says. “And I certainly think Cole Hocker is going to help grow that.”