Taking A Road Less Traveled For Drew Hunter

He had to petition his way into last year’s USATF Indoor 2M, but Drew Hunter won it all despite running in the B-section. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

IT WAS JUST OVER 4 years ago that Drew Hunter—a high school superstar with multiple sub-4:00s to his credit—shocked the running world by taking a pass on his Oregon commitment and instead signed with adidas.

Acknowledging at the time that it was “a different route than most people,” Hunter was the first prep distance runner to go pro on the men’s side.

Surely, there were some who expected him to fall on his face. It didn’t happen; not even close. Working with Tom Schwartz, who guided his training during his senior year at Loudoun Valley High in Purcellville, Virginia, Hunter has flourished.

In ’17, what would have been his frosh campaign, he placed 11th at USATF and later clocked a PR 3:36.77 for 1500. The next year, an improvement to 3:35.90, 6th at USATF, and a season solid enough to Rank him No. 2 among all Americans.

In ’19 came serious forays at longer distances: 29:37 at the USATF XC, then 8:25.89 to win the national indoor 2M title. Outdoors he chopped almost half a minute off his 5000 best with a 13:21.18 at the Jordan Invitational and more than 10 seconds off his 3000 best with a 7:39.85 at Bislett. But a 13:29.19 for 5th at USATF meet was his yearly finale. Likely there would have been more, but a foot injury shut the season down.

Reflecting on his decision to bypass the collegiate development system, he says, “It was definitely harder at first, but I think the path I chose is the right one for me. I’ve learned so much and grown as a person and an athlete. I don’t look at the NCAA and think I missed out on anything. I think I created my own kind of cool story with my team in Boulder, so I’m pretty happy with how things are.

“There were definitely a lot of surprises. Early on in my career, I never got injured. The biggest thing since turning pro is that I’ve had some setbacks and things that took me away from running. But as far as goals, I still have gotten better every year.

“That’s how I’m viewing the rest of my running career: just chipping away and trying to get better every day.”

Now a veteran at a tender age—he turns 23 in September—Hunter doesn’t flinch when asked if he’s a better 1500 guy or 5000 guy. “It’s how our coach prepares us—let’s be good at everything. I mean, yesterday in practice I ran a 1:50 800, just a smooth, negative split 1:50 in the middle of a workout.

“It was like, ‘Man, I could probably run 1:46-high, 1:47-low right now in a race [his PR is 1:48.57].’ I’ve never had that speed before. Earlier this winter I was doing 8M [12.8K] tempo runs and I was doing things that would make me the best 5K guy.

“The plan is to be prepared for everything I want to run. I think I can run 3:30 one day and I want to run the 5K well, I think I can run 13:00 one day. I’m going to be good at both of those events as I continue to develop in all the areas.”

Which is he planning on racing at next year’s Trials, where the longer race is scheduled first? “I’m leaning toward the 5K, but gosh, my speed,” he analyzes. “Even though we haven’t really raced this year, my speed is better than it’s ever been before. I want to focus on both. The first day is the 5000 prelims. So when I am there, I’m dialed in on making that final. And then once I get to the final, I’m dialed in on trying to make the team. If I don’t make the team, then I have a few days to get ready for the first round of the 1500.

“The U.S. is so competitive and deep right now, I’m just going to take each day presently and focus on whatever I’m racing.”

Last summer was especially disappointing. Initially Hunter was named to the U.S. team for Doha, despite finishing 5th in Des Moines, by virtue of his having made the world standard with his earlier 13:21.18. Then in early September he gave up his spot.

“My plantar and my cuboid and everything in my right foot was a mess,” he explains. “It was tough. Luckily, I had some doctors and coaches and family members and people in my life who were like, ‘Drew, you’re going to be doing this for another 10 years. Let’s not potentially throw that away by really messing up your foot.’ I was brought back to reality by the people around me, and that was definitely the best decision.”

He adds, “In a regular season meet or even the USA Championships, I got away with that a little bit. But Worlds? You can’t, you’d just get eaten alive. I think it was best to allow that spot to be represented by someone who is ready like Ben True.”

This season, now fully recovered, Hunter hasn’t been in any official races but still has produced some notable training performances. In May he ran a 2M time trial in 8:36, in the process raising nearly $10,000 for the Real Hope For Haiti Foundation “to honor my older sisters who are nurses.”

Then two weeks later he ran a 3:57 mile at 3648ft (1111m) of altitude in South Dakota to become the first man to break 4:00 in the Mt. Rushmore state.

One thing that comes across in talking with Hunter is that he projects happiness. Instead of bemoaning lost possibilities because of the pandemic, he says, “Getting to slow down a bit has been nice. It’s been a revival of what matters in my life. A lot of times it’s very easy when you’re all in on running to be hyper-focused on something that is so uniquely you, but realize that there are a million pieces in your life that allow you to do that.

“Having great support from my family and teammates and being able to spend time with them and be appreciative toward them has been really great.

“And,” he continues, “you know, I’m fit. I haven’t been crushing training. I’ve been training probably at a smarter level, but I’m probably in the best shape of my life right now. That’s because I’ve been able to stack together 80M (128K) week after 80M week and rest a little bit more than I normally would and not stress about traveling to races.

“As much as I miss getting out there and feeling the rush of adrenaline and the starting-line nerves, it’s been good to slow down a bit.”

The bond with coach Schwartz and his Tinman Elite club has been crucial to Hunter’s happiness. “At the end of the day, Tom’s one of my biggest mentors. He’s like a second father figure to me. You take for granted the relationship you have with someone when things are just going well all the time. But I think you learn best when you do have setbacks and see how you can grow together.

“With struggle comes growth and that’s kind of been the recurring theme. We’re in a great place right now and I think we’re really excited for another year to really get after it.”

Hunter thinks back to his storied high school years—which included still-standing national indoor records in the 1500, mile & 3000—and he sees a mixed bag of blessings. “Early on in my running career, I ran because I was good at it and because—I don’t want to say it was easy, but I’d show up and I’d do the training assigned and I’d win every race that weekend. And—I guess it was my immaturity—I just assumed that would happen forever.

“I’m glad that didn’t continue. I got hurt. I had setbacks, but my love for the sport of running hasn’t changed. It’s in a new light now and I don’t take it for granted.

“If I love this sport and I continue to grow and learn from my mistakes, man, I’m going to reach every single goal that I have: times on clocks, winning races, all those things. Because I love the process and I love the idea of getting out the door every day and inching towards something bigger.”