REALLY, NO ONE SAW IT COMING. Not Hobbs Kessler, not his coaches, not his parents; certainly none of those track geeks who style themselves as experts.
The last time we picked a High School Athlete AOY — or even in ’20, when because of the Pandemic non-season we used the term “MVP” — only a handful of people outside of Michigan had even heard of Kessler, and most of those were relatives.
Yet the ’21 senior, who turned 18 on March 15, led the yearly lists in 1500, mile, 3000 and 2M, went undefeated by high schoolers, qualified for the Olympic Trials and obliterated the national record for the 1500 with his stunning 3:34.36. (Continued below)
It’s fair to do the math on that performance; we certainly did. Using the standard conversion of 1500 time x 1.08, that equates to a 3:51.51 mile. An historic performance by any measure. Lest anyone opine that it was all due to the “super-spikes” — yes, he was wearing a pair, as were virtually all of the other top preps and collegians — one has to wonder where were all the other prep middle-distance breakthroughs? In all, 8 preps broke 4:05 for the mile (or its 1500/1600 equivalents) in ’21. Nothing exceptional there. In the decade previous, there were three seasons with more.
So when it came time to vote for this year’s AOY, the decision was a unanimous one (see chart).
Kessler, who attended Ann Arbor’s Community High (a magnet school with no sports) and represented for Skyline High in track, still shakes his head in amazement at his campaign. “It has been a crazy escalation. I got absolutely dropped by one of my teammates winter of my junior year. I still had workouts where some of my teammates would drop me in long runs and stuff.”
He pauses to clarify his thought: “The escalation… I think a lot of the high school sub-4:00 milers ran 4:10 or 4:20 as freshmen. I wasn’t even one of the best freshmen on my team.”
For the record, he ran 4:54.29 for 1600 that 9th-grade year, his first on the track. And while he improved quite nicely to a 4:18.96 indoors in his junior year, his real progress was obscured from fans during the pandemic. His outdoor season was canceled and all he had to point for were time trials. The results were impressive: 8:53.1 for 3200, 4:08.4 for the mile, and 1:53.6 over two laps.
Tweets of the efforts caught the eyes of recruiters, starved for data in the season that wasn’t. By last fall, Kessler had signed with Mike Smith’s powerhouse Northern Arizona program. However, he came up short after dedicating the first solid year of training in his life to winning a State title in cross country. In an odd 2-section split at the Michigan state finals, he won the first race in 14:51.8, but rival Riley Hough won the second in 14:49.7.
So Kessler jumped back into his training. Guided by former Michigan coach Ron Warhurst — after his father Mike, the Skyline distance coach, handed him off — Kessler followed a training routine that was so gentle it has surprised many armchair critics. In January he averaged 50mpw. Every 4–5 days he did a harder workout that usually incorporated hillwork with some reps on the track —all of it outdoors in Michigan’s winter. (“It keeps you tough.”)
For most of his runs, he stayed with his high school teammates. For the track work he paired up with Mitchell Black, a local PhD candidate and one of Warhurst’s charges who would later run 1:47.43 to qualify for the OT 800. Their last big workout before everything changed came on February 03: a 2M tempo in 10:00, followed by a 400-300-200-600, all under 4:00 pace.
Four days later at the Razorback Invitational, Kessler stunned with his 3:57.66 High School Indoor Record.
“After that,” he says, “I felt a lot more secure about myself as a runner. I had felt that I was a good runner, but no one really knew about me. I always felt like I had something to prove. I wasn’t any better of a runner after I ran 3:57, you know? But after that I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove to anyone.”
The secret was out: suddenly everyone was watching the “out-of-nowhere” Michigander. At the end of February, he tried to hit a Trials qualifier in Austin but got tripped up and fell hard. He finished in 3:52.80, then the next day won the 1600 in 4:08.53.
On March 27, he ran his first outdoor race, a 2M at the NSAF Meet Of Champions in Myrtle Beach where he simply followed the leader until the bell lap and sprinted a 54.99 closer. He crossed the line in 8:39.04 to become the No. 4 prep ever.
Competing with his teammates throughout the regular high school season, he didn’t test himself seriously again until April 23, when he appeared at Hayward Field for the USATF Grand Prix. He finished 6th in the 1500 against world-class talent, closing his 3:40.46 with a 56.06. Only Alan Webb and Jim Ryun had ever run faster among preps.
On May 08 came the New Balance Invite at Michigan’s Farmington High. There he cruised a 1:49.67 for a 2-lap PR, went out for tacos, and returned with a sit-and-kick 3200 win in 8:54.42. Most notably, when he finally went he unleashed a 25.6 for the final 200.
Fans marveled at his range. None of the other sub-8:40 prep 2-milers in U.S. history came close to breaking 1:50 for the 800.
At the end of May, after qualifying for the State finals in the 800, 1600 and 4×8, Kessler flew to Oregon again to compete in the Portland Track Festival. Running a well-paced race from the middle of the pack, he hit splits of 55.6, 1:55.2 and 2:53.5. Then he kicked past 5 competitors on the final stretch, crossing the line arms outstretched in 3:34.36.
That bettered Webb’s old national record by a massive 3.9 seconds, and also topped Ryun’s American Junior Record by 1.74 seconds. Says Kessler, “I thought the clock was off for a second. It was cartoonish. It just didn’t seem real.”
The race knocked off one of his two big goals for the season: qualifying for the Trials. The other remained for the next weekend, winning his first State title. He missed in the 4×8, having too much ground to make up, his 1:47.91 anchor falling 0.03 short.
But he won the 1600 (4:16.68) and 800 (1:54.13), relying on his kick on a hot, extremely windy day. Those would be his last races until the Trials — and, though he didn’t realize it at the time, his last races as an amateur. On the eve of his first heat in Eugene, he signed a pro contract with adidas, ending his prep career.
The next day, he won his heat in masterful fashion in 3:45.63. That had some peg him as a real possibility for the Olympic team. But when Kessler awoke the morning of the semi, he realized he had hit the end of his rope. “Everything had flipped in like 3 days and that totally zapped me,” he says of the process of turning pro before the Trials. In the semi, he placed a non-advancing 8th in 3:45.50.
Looking back, he describes himself as “pretty happy with how everything went” in his senior year, adding, “I don’t want to sound cocky, but I think I could have gotten HSRs in the 800 and the 2M if I was in the right situation. But those are just times. I could have run a lot faster than I did, but I’m not super worried about that. Who really cares about high school PRs? I would rather not have them represent me.”
Of regrets, he has few: “I wish I was a little more poised going into the Olympic Trials. I was just so exhausted from everything.”
So what does an 18-year-old pro do to recharge his batteries at the end of his breakout season? He takes a break. He ran with his high school buddies. He helped pace some of Warhurst’s workouts for his older Very Nice Track Club teammates. He returned to his first love and went rock climbing in Yosemite. And — in yet another example of his unique path, Kessler packed up and moved to Flagstaff to start school at Northern Arizona.
“They encouraged me to turn pro, because they thought that was the best thing for me as a person,” explains Kessler. “And they’re doing all this stuff to look out for me, even though I won’t score points for them. I feel very good about my decision and the way it all worked out because they’re just the kind of people who care about me as a person.”
After the fall semester, Kessler plans to return home to Ann Arbor, where he and Warhurst will craft the next season, one eagerly awaited by fans.
Going from obscurity to fame has been life-changing for Kessler, but he says, “I know in the grand scheme of things, I’m not famous at all… I don’t have the swagger for it anyways.”