THE SECOND IN A SERIES of event-focus articles on the U.S. women’s 1500, an event on a hot streak and one in which we expect to see fierce-fierce racing when the competitive trek toward the Tokyo Olympics resumes.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE a year can make. That’s true by the truckload when 2019 and ’20 are the benchmarks and miler Nikki Hiltz—who is directing her energy for the moment to helping others (see box)—does not disagree.
Last spring Hiltz, the ’18 NCAA runnerup for Arkansas, was in her first pro year with coach Terrence Mahon’s adidas Mission Bay group in San Diego (rebranded in January of ’20 as the Golden Coast TC). Out of college, she says, “I really wanted to join a group ’cause if you’re like a lone wolf and that works for you that’s great, but I just know I’m someone that needs people to run fast and training partners. That’s probably why I went to Oregon [after high school in Aptos, California] and [through transfer] to Arkansas, just because they had such good programs.
”So I was looking for a group and Terrence reached out to my agent [Hawi Keflezighi] and then I got in touch with him and I think we just kind of clicked right away. You know, I’m from California and he’s from the LA area and he was just like, ‘Hey, I’m starting a group in San Diego. It would be awesome if you’d like to join,’ adidas would be the sponsor and it just kind of checked all my boxes. I was really excited to move back to California and also to be a part of something new.”
She assesses, “For a lot of my career I’ve just kind of gone with my gut feeling and I think it’s worked out so far. I love it here and it’s been really exciting.”
She also knew that Mahon—while noted for his past work with marathoners including his wife Jen Rhines, Deena Kastor and Ryan Hall—collaborated to great effect with a pair of milers a decade ago. Morgan Uceny PRed at 4:00.06 and World Ranked No. 1 in ’11. In ’09 Anna Willard raced 3:59.38 and World Ranked No. 6.
Both on the track and in road outings last year Hiltz rolled in the same direction. In her first ’19 outdoor meet she cut her 800 best by 3.79 with a 2:01.37 win at the Clay Invitational. Four days later she won the USATF road mile, her 4:29.7 finish 1.7 ahead of accomplished street miler Heather Kampf.
In June Hiltz dropped her 1500 PR to 4:05.56 in Portland. July saw her victorious over 1500 at the Sunset Tour meet and next taking that breakthrough step toward international competition. Tearing through the USATF 1500 final’s spectacular last 100 to cap a 60.83 closing lap, Hiltz raced to 3rd and on to the World Championships team with another PR, 4:03.55. “It still doesn’t feel real that I went to Worlds and represented our country and I was 3rd at that race,” she says.
“When I think back to that day, on the start line I really didn’t know. Obviously I knew I could do it, I knew that I could be top 3, but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this.‘ It was just kind of like, ‘OK, I’m going to do my very best and hopefully that will get me top 3.‘ But it wasn’t until 300 to go, like 3 laps later from that starting line, that I was like, ‘Oh, OK, I can make this team.’
“I just felt really good with 300 to go and I had just so many more gears left in me that I was like, ‘OK, I can run with anyone right now,’ you know. And then with 100 to go I think I was in the worst position I’ve ever been in with 100 to go, but it was something inside of me that, ‘I’m going to find a way to get 3rd,’ and the inside lane opened up and I took it and I just put on the gas and it was good enough to squeeze by Kate [Grace] and Sinclaire [Johnson] and snag that third spot.”
Nor did Hiltz let up thereafter. In August she traveled to Lima, Peru, and captured the Pan-Am title. “Just to be in the U.S. jersey, it felt like my childhood dream was just coming true,” she remembers. “I won gold so I’d be on the podium and it was just so bizarre that the national anthem is playing because of something that you just did. It was the fastest that it had ever gone by. It was this feeling that I feel like I’ll be chasing for a long time, to try to do that again.”
The World Championships in October must also be counted as a winning moment for the international neophyte, whose 25th birthday fell later in the month. Making the final was her goal, and she uncorked a PR 4:01.52 semi to advance as the last time qualifier. Doha was the only meet all year for which she had to regather confidence after a clinker performance going in. Her 4th-place finish in September’s 5th Avenue road mile, 9-plus seconds behind winner Jenny Simpson, shook her but coach Mahon talked her through the dip.
She says, “For some reason I was just able to shake it off. I just made this goal that I really wanted to make the final at Worlds. I think more than anything I wanted to do it just to show the rest of the world. ’Cause in my mind Jenny and Shelby [Houlihan] were making the final. There was zero doubt in my mind that they were both capable of medaling as well.
“So I was like, ‘It’s basically up to me to show the world that we can have three Americans in this final.’ I’ve always tried to find a way in running to do it for more than just yourself, and that was my way of saying, ‘OK, we need to show the world that female distance running right now in the U.S. is a force to be reckoned with.’
“I remember in the semi with 200m to go there were like 8 girls around me and 7 people make it. I was just like, ‘You’ve got to do it for your country.’ It was so crazy, and then I just kind of closed my eyes and in the last 50 I ended up passing Jess Hull and she was 8th and I was 7th.”
In the blitzing fast Worlds final where she finished 12th, Hiltz admits, “I kind of didn’t really have a goal and I think it kinda showed. That was also the first time I’ve ever run three rounds in four days.” Against the best competition in the world. “So, yeah,” she concludes, “I’m definitely now very driven to just kind of do it all over again, make the Olympic team and then make the final of the Olympics. If I’m anything better than 12th, then I’ve improved, you know?”