Hobbs Kessler — The Making Of A Miler

At home, Kessler gets all kinds of support from many-time sub-4:00 miler Nick Willis, who finished a place ahead of him the record race. (SHAWN PRICE)

AFTER RUNNING A 3:57.66 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.

The Bloodline

Kessler’s parentage is the obvious first ingredient here, and it bears significance beyond genetics. Father Mike wis a former Eastern Michigan runner who ran a 4:00 road mile in 1994. His mother, Serena, was a 2:44:55 marathoner who competed in the ’12 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 ’20 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?”

Says Kessler: “Easy stuff with them, which is getting harder and harder now. But it was never about running. It was always about climbing. Hobbs didn’t even care to come down. I was like, ‘Come on and see these Olympians. And he’s like, ‘Eh.’

“It was fortuitous that I had developed these relationships and Nick [Willis] and the boys accepted and tolerated me.”

The Early Years

Like many a child of running families, Hobbs found himself at races regularly, and jumped in from time to time. Offhand, we can’t find that we published the results of the Saline High School Alumni 5K in ’13, but there he is in 34th place at 10 years old, sizzling a 24:02, nearly five minutes behind his dad (and 3:00 behind current Furman coach Rita Gary, another local alum).

As might be expected from one in his first-ever race on a banked track, Hobbs Kessler had a brief mishap on one of the curves, but his step inside the curb won’t affect the acceptance of his 3:57.66 as a High School Record. (SHAWN PRICE)

Hobbs ran middle school cross country and one season of track in 6th grade. “I never identified as a runner or a good runner,” he admits. “I wasn’t the fastest in middle school.” He placed 2nd in the city’s middle school cross country race, “losing by like a lot.”

He adds, “Maybe I was a good runner, but I wasn’t winning or anything.”

In high school, “I wasn’t the fastest freshman on the team.” He had doubts after he signed up. “I told my parents I kinda didn’t want to run. But my parents said, ‘You signed up for one season. We don’t care how you run. We just want you to make friends with the kids on the team because cross country kids are always the coolest kids. Then if you want to quit, you can quit.’

“I did that and I found a really good community. The coach was super supportive and really worked to foster that community.”

Here’s a good place to note for accuracy’s sake, Kessler doesn’t actually attend Skyline High, but goes to Community High, a magnet school. Like all students there, he’s allowed to represent his “home” school athletically.

His first of several high school coaches was Takashi Gould, now an assistant at Massachusetts. Remembers Gould, “He was 5-0 and 90 pounds on a good day. Long limbs, short torso, very clunky because he hadn’t hit puberty yet. Not coordinated with running mechanics, but you knew he was going to be damn good because of his rock climbing/high neuro-high coordination background.”

Yet none of Kessler’s early high school results screamed “world class.” As a frosh, he ran 17:42 in cross country and finished the track season with a 1600 best of 4:54.29. The next year, with a new coach, Tom Voorheis, he placed 36th in the state Div. I XC finals, with a best of 16:20. In track, he improved to 4:24.98 and 9:51.85.

Said Alex Moran, another of his coaches, “He just enjoyed being around the team and hanging out with the guys, which is ultimately what I think pushed him towards running his last two years. I don’t think he was really chasing success; he just wanted to be with his friends.”

By his junior year, Kessler improved to 15:23 in cross country, placing 6th in the state. That after a summer spent mostly rock climbing.

“Throughout my junior year I started getting better and better and becoming more and more involved. When I finished 6th in the state meet, I was like, ‘Holy crap!’ The fact that I finished 6th off of not running in the summer… I realized if I really invested myself, I could win. At that point, I was like, ‘Time to start doing everything I can to win that state meet.’ That was my biggest turning point. I kept escalating and escalating.”

Then came a brief indoor season in which he ran a 1600 PR of 4:18.96 before getting beat in a rough-and-tumble race at the Michigan indoor finals where he went sprawling at the finish in 2nd.

That year his third coach in three years, Moran, left to start a Ph.D. program at Florida State. That’s when dad became the boys cross country coach. Notes Hobbs, “I’ve had four or five coaches. A lot of people would see that as a bad thing. It was really hard seeing them go because I felt really connected to all of them. But as far as my development, each coach fit where I was at perfectly.”

2020 was also the year that COVID-19 hit, with the shutdowns coming within days of that state indoor meet.

The Pandemic

One effect of the C19 scourge is that Kessler’s progress was obscured. Without regular races, the world couldn’t see the rapid progress he made once he committed to the sport. In addition, it allowed him to focus on building a strong base.

Says Hobbs, “I’m not too beat up about losing opportunities to go to championships and stuff, but I was really disappointed that I missed all the time with my teammates. That was hard. But the silver lining out of it was there was nothing else to do but run. So we ran, hills and tempos. There were other guys, guys from other high schools, and we started plugging away. It ended up being the best of all possible things for me.

“Another benefit was that my dad would say to Coach Warhurst, ‘We’re doing a workout,’ and he would start showing up and becoming more and more invested. I got to form a really close connection with Ron.”

Warhurst, now 77, got more and more involved, excited by what he saw. On June 02, the day after what would have been the state finals, Kessler ran a 1600 time trial in 4:13. Warhurst points out: “On a Sunday afternoon when it was hot as hell. And 10 minutes after that he ran 24.2 [for 200] from a standing start. And I said, ‘This kid’s got the tools. He’s going to run under 4:00.’ I wasn’t sure when it was going to be but his progression was getting better and better.

“He’s got a fantastic ability. That’s all there is to it, you know? He’s got the speed. He’s got the perfect form, he’s beautiful. We changed his form. We’ve been working on his racing form for a year, getting him off his heels and not overstriding and not pumping his arms up too high.”

More time trials followed for Hobbs, who is now 5-11/145 (1.81/66). They got notice on social media but kept him off the radar of most of the sport’s statisticians, which is why it seemed that his record came out of nowhere.

The next was a 3200 trial on June 12. Running at Michigan’s Ferry Field, he was paced by Willis and steepler Mason Ferlic to an 8:53.1. The finish was notable: second half in 4:20.0, final lap 60.5.

On July 09 he ran an 800 in 1:53.6. Then 5 days later, he agreed to be a rabbit for 3 laps as Willis and Ferlic went for a 4:00 effort. At 1000m he heard Warhurst ordering him to finish it. He took them through three-quarters in 3:02.3 while struggling with the mandate to run another. “I felt so bad. And I’m like, ‘Ron’s going to call me a turd if I get off and say I’ve had enough. The whole last lap was me trying to stay in it, not like I had the option to drop out. I just concentrated on staying on the track. At the finish my legs were just toast.” He had run 4:08.4 for the mile. Willis estimated that Kessler would have run about 4:04 had the focus been on him.

“It was one of those things, the minute of discomfort was so big for me, but I was able to post that time and show schools that I can tough it out,” Hobbs says.

In last fall’s XC season the improvement showed. In a state finals where the field was split into two races as a C19 abatement measure, Kessler ran the course in 14:51.8 solo. At the time, that was the No. 2 performance ever on the loop that has been used for Michigan’s state meet for 25 years (second only to Dathan Ritzenhein’s legendary 14:10.4). However, Kessler went home with the runner-up medal because in the next section, junior Riley Hough (Hartland) was able to nip that time by 2 seconds.

The Build-Up To 4:00

After another off-season of base-building, Willis alerted the family that Hobbs would have a chance to race in the ATL meet. “He gave us 6 weeks,” says Mike. “Enough for a decent training block.”

Hobbs worked more intensively, but made sure to stay a part of the Skyline team. “He’s been running with the team 90% of the time,” notes Mike. “He’s pulled out a couple times to do some stuff with Nick, or to do this special block of training that he had before this race. But the kids come down to the track and cheer him on.

Kessler got in some extreme running during his trip to an international rock climbing championships. (MIKE KESSLER)

“I don’t want him to be the cool kid who’s doing secret workouts, but he’s in a different place, obviously, than the rest of the team.”

Reminded that his son is now in a different place than anyone in history, Mike laughs. “Oh yeah. Good point.” He adds, “As far as who’s coaching him, I would have been leery to do the workouts that Hobbs did. I’m way more conservative-minded. But Ron’s more experienced and knows what people can take and what they need to do. And Hobbs and Ron have a great rapport.

“Nick has been super awesome at including him and bringing him along. I keep thanking him and he’s like, ‘No, it’s helping me too.’”

The training was intense. Hobbs notes that people have already been looking at his Strava account and mimicking some of the runs that he’s posted there. “A neighbor gave me a GPS watch because he got a new one. And sometimes I’ll put runs on Strava. But it’s not a good indicator. I’m pretty sporadic about it.”

He explains that he doesn’t track mileage very much. “We don’t use it as a gauge. It’s an afterthought.” A typical week this past winter, he says, might see him hit around 50M. The emphasis is on the workouts themselves. Lots of hills. Lots of paced running.

The buildup started with a 2-week vacation at altitude in Flagstaff; it was Hobbs’ first chance to see the school he had signed with. It also allowed him, of course, to check out local climbing possibilities.

“Once I got back, we started whipping into shape. We’ve done a variation of the same workout a lot, which is hills, followed by some sort of ladder at 60-second pace up to 600. We’ve just been building it, building it, building it, more volume, more volume, and I just got more and more comfortable with that magical 60-second pace as time has gone on.”

One recent workout had him finish off one of those legs-tired 600s with a 26-second final 200.

“My confidence has gone up and it’s amazing how fast I can get into good shape. I think I’ve handled it pretty well.”

The Race

According to Warhurst, a crowded race in Fayetteville might have backfired given Kessler’s inexperience in traffic on a banked track.

“There were only 8 people and that was perfect. They single-filed on the first lap. When someone fell off the pace he moved right around them and tucked back in. I told him, ‘All you need to do is go 3:01 or 3:02 and you can run under 4:00.’”

Warhurst notes the one step that Kessler made inside the curb in his first race ever on a banked track. “I told him afterwards to stay off the white line. That curb will just suck you down.”

[Ed: It’s important to note that while that single step would have been a DQ-able offense at the WA level, USATF rules excuse such a move if no material advantage is gained. And high school rules allow 3 consecutive steps before a disqualification. Thus, T&FN has no problem with accepting the mark as a HS Record.]

Hobbs admits he looked up the state record before the race (4:03.54 by one Grant Fisher) and decided that was his minimum objective. He confesses he wanted the sub-4:00 most of all. “I’ve been doing some workouts indicative of it. A lot of workouts in the cold and on icy tracks with a jacket on. I didn’t really know how I was going to respond to running in a race environment, fresh, with good shoes on a fast track.”

Was 3:57.66 a shocker when he saw it on the board? “No,” he swiftly says, adding after a moment, “I was pleasantly surprised, but I wasn’t like, ‘How did I do that?’ I knew I had it in me.”

Of course, it being Kessler’s first track race in a year, and racing at an entirely new level, lack of experience played a role. He says, “I would do a lot differently. I don’t think I went completely to the well. I just didn’t know how to race it, or how I was supposed to feel. I just waited till 100m to go to go for it. I think I had a few more seconds in there if I just had a little more experience.”

The first thing he said to his father after the finish: “I had more moves! I could have gone faster!”

He’s at peace, though. “Given that this was my first real mile, and now it’s shaping my life, I’m very happy with how I executed. I’m almost glad I left some on the track, because running under 4:00, that was the big thing. Now I have room to grow. I didn’t hit it completely out of the park on the first one. I’ve learned so much from our experience that now going into the next month, I’m going to be better prepared.”

What’s Next?

That’s the question everyone’s asking. Says dad, “I don’t know. We haven’t talked about that or thought about that, frankly.”

Says Hobbs, “I have a few different opportunities. I don’t know.” He mentions maybe a 1000m race somewhere. “Right now, my main priority is just recovery.”

Says Warhurst, “We’re going to talk about it tonight. We’ll see. Long-term, the former Wolverine coach says, “I’d say we’re probably at 65-70% of where he can go with his fitness. With more experience on the boards, he could probably run 3:55-3:56, whatever. That’s my guess.”

Mike Kessler is understandably happy with the course his son’s running has taken. “Ron is still super-involved and still has the magic. And the good news is that we’ll be handing him off to the new guy [Northern Arizona’s Mike Smith] who also has the secret.”

Other runners have turned pro with slower legs than the ones Hobbs uses. For now, he says, “I feel pretty committed to Northern Arizona. Even if someone did offer [a pro contact], it would have to be pretty good, because I don’t have the maturity or experience yet.”

He says he’s looking forward to racing in the NCAA. And then, “hopefully I can return to Ron… My mom almost didn’t want me to run fast because she didn’t want me to have to choose between [Northern Arizona] or staying here with Ron, because that would be just an awful decision for me to have to make. Ron knew this was going to happen, and told my parents… We’ll see what happens.”