ENOUGH TALK ABOUT POTENTIAL. On a Saturday night in Portland at Lewis & Clark’s Griswold Stadium, Hobbs Kessler (Skyline, Ann Arbor, Michigan) proved to the world that he is the real thing. Just 76 days after turning 18 he ran a gobsmacking 3:34.36 to destroy the American Junior Record that Jim Ryun set 55 years ago; on the way, he demolished Alan Webb’s High School Record. Neither of those milestones were the goal.
Kessler entered the Portland Track Festival race with just one objective, the Olympic Trials Standard of 3:37.50. He crushed that and also made the Olympic standard to place 5th in a race full of pros where the top 11 all bested 3:36. Up front, Craig Engels PRed to top Britain’s Charlie Grice, 3:33.64–3:33.82, with Jake Heyward scoring a big PR 3:33.99, while Henry Wynne took 4th in 3:34.08.
Kessler and his coach, Ron Warhurst, had hoped the race would be fast enough to put him at 1200 in 2:55. They figured he could qualify from there. The morning of the race, they spent time with Kiwi mile legend Nick Willis, watching videos to study how to handle the crowded first 200.
Later on, he got a text from one of the assistants at Northern Arizona, where he is signed to run this fall: “He said, ‘Put yourself in the race.’ I really took that to heart. I didn’t want to do what I’ve done in these other races and go straight to the back. I wanted to be in it and feel the momentum of the race, like ride the wave a little bit.
“I really wanted to get off the line. I went through 100m in 13-something. I wasn’t dead last, but I was in the back. But then everyone slammed on the brakes. I worked my way up and got in a good spot in the top 5 or 6, somewhere in there. A few guys and the rabbit in front of me and that’s where I wanted to be.”
He passed the first 400 in 56.6. “I did that and I was like, ‘OK, I’m good.’ I’m on the wave, I’m in line, I’m on the rail. Then like three guys went by me and I kept letting them in. They were getting into my space and I didn’t know how to keep them away. They just put themselves there and I’m like, ‘Oh crap. There goes another guy.’”
A second lap in 58.6 brought him to 800 in 1:55.2. “I kept trying to move out and move up. I moved up a little bit going into 800 and I knew I was good. I was feeling really present. At 500 to go, [training partner Mason Ferlic] went by me and I tried to go with him.” Ferlic had won the steeple the night before in 8:18.79.
“I went into lane 3 to try to go with him. Then this Brooks Beast kid [Henry Wynne]… I tried to go wide and I got shut down. So I tucked in.”
He hit the bell in 2:38.9 — he would need a 58.6 closer to make the Trials mark. He told himself, “I’m in it. I can qualify. I’m in it, I’m in it.”
Still, the precocious teen made no sudden moves. He passed 1200 in 2:53.5, well-ahead of his hoped-for pace. “Burned into my mind was Mason passing me, and seeing Mason ahead. I’m like, ‘I cannot let Mason beat me.’
“There was a guy on the inside, a gap, Mason, and some other guy. I charged through that gap and passed Mason and thought, ‘I’m going to get as many people as I can. Let’s run them down.’ Time to go for it.”
He threw his arms up at the finish of a 55.5 final lap (and a 1:53.83 final 800), celebrating his Trials goal and not yet grasping the implications of performance.
He had taken 1.74 seconds off Ryun’s AJR of 3:36.1, and 3.9 off Webb’s HSR of 3:38.26, set en route to his mile HSR of 3:53.43. Kessler’s time converts to a 3:51.51 mile.
His initial reaction on seeing the 3:34.26 on the scoreboard: “I thought the clock was off for a second. It was cartoonish. It just didn’t seem real.”
He made eye contact with his coach. “Ronnie just looked at me and grinned. We thought I would run 3:36. It would have been 3:36 if I hadn’t seen Mason ahead of me on the homestretch.”
Ferlic finished 9th in 3:35.45; Willis 13th in 3:40.14.
Earlier In The Week…
On Tuesday, the members of Warhurst’s Very Nice Track Club met at Ferry Field for their last big workout before the trip to Oregon. It was 86 years to the day since Jesse Owens had his Day of Days at that oval, setting 6 World Records in a 45-minute span.
Kessler looks sharp during the workout, easily matching paces with veterans Willis and Ferlic. The crew had started out with a fast-paced 2M on the road before hitting the track to check their speed.
Willis is perhaps only half joking when he shouts to Warhurst, “Change of plans, Ronnie! I’m not going to Portland. I don’t want to get beat by a high school kid!”
That night, Kessler, who had privately predicted a time of 3:36.82 for Portland, bubbled with excitement for the competition. “I’m feeling good about everything.”
Warhurst too. Talking about that 2:55 goal for the 1200 split, he says, “Then it’s just 300m, ‘Let’s go, what do ya got, boys?’”
Earlier, Willis had analyzed the turn of speed that Kessler has developed over the last year. ”It’s more about what your top-end speed is. That’s the most impressive thing, he has an extra gear that nearly all distance runners do not have. He’s got all the physical tools to go as far as his health and his motivations and interests will take him. You have to have all of those things lined up.”
But for now, Kessler’s goals are a bit more mundane. “I want to win a State title.” Next weekend he will compete at Michigan’s finals in Kentwood, where he is qualified in the 4×8, the 1600, 800, and 3200. He’s considering dropping the 3200 now to focus on speed.
Says Warhurst, “He needs speed more than he needs to grind his ass into the ground.”
Kessler is nothing but joyful exhaustion as he signs off, saying, “Making the Olympic Trials is pretty cool. It’s just lots of running, lots of racing, lots of fun. And not any pressure. I just get to be there with the boys. I get to see Mason win [the steeple].”