Two Decades After Brannen, Webb, & Willis, Ron Warhurst Has Another Teen Mile Star on His Hands. His Name Is Hobbs Kessler.
The 77-year-old Warhurst, who has doled out running advice to everyone from Matthew Centrowitz to Tom Brady, has taken on a role coaching Kessler, who ran 3:57.66 on Sunday to break the US indoor high school mile record.
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By Jonathan Gault
February 9, 2021
Nick Willis began the 2021 season — his 16th full year as a professional — with a couple of mile races, the first steps of what he hopes will be a journey culminating with his fifth Olympics in Tokyo this summer. And even though the 37-year-old Willis, a two-time Olympic medalist, is now the graybeard among the world’s elite milers, he still yearns to improve. In his season opener at the Orange Winter Classic in Clermont, Fla., on January 19, Willis’ first lap of 61.64 had been his slowest of the race. Twelve days later, at the Magic City Elite #2 in Birmingham, Ala., Willis came through 400 in seventh place, over two seconds behind the leader. In order to race well in his next competition, the American Track League #3 last Sunday in Fayetteville, Ark., Willis felt he needed to work on getting out harder.
So Willis asked his coach, Ron Warhurst, whether they could change the first rep of Wednesday’s workout, held on a chilly, 28-degree day at the University of Michigan’s Ferry Field, from a 600- to a 400-meter rep. Warhurst was on board. The only problem? They had forgotten to tell Willis’ training partner.
“When I hit the 400-meter mark and stopped my watch and slowed down, he ran into the back of me and goes, ‘Oh, sorry, I thought we were doing a 600,'” Willis says. “So he was happily going along at 55 pace, thinking it was 600. Who does that?”
Willis’ incredulity stems from the fact that his training partner, Hobbs Kessler of Ann Arbor’s Skyline High School, is all of 17 years old.
Kessler’s was an innocent mistake, but it is hard to escape the symbolism: an incredible young talent, following in the footsteps of greatness, running so freely and easily and having too much fun to fully appreciate his speed — and how quickly he is gaining on (or slamming into) the luminaries of the sport.
Warhurst, who splits coaching duties with Hobbs’ father, Mike, is no stranger to phenoms. Nineteen years ago, he was tasked with overseeing the careers of a pair of sub-4:00 high schoolers: Canadian Nate Brannen and US high school mile record holder Alan Webb (Brannen would become an NCAA champion and later an Olympic finalist; Webb, who left Warhurst and Michigan to turn pro following his freshman year, eventually broke the American record in the mile). One year later, Warhurst began coaching Willis, who ran 4:01 as a 17-year-old in New Zealand and enrolled at UM fresh off a fourth-place finish in the 1500m at the World Junior Championships. Now, after Kessler’s US high school indoor mile record of 3:57.66 at the American Track League #3, it’s clear the 77-year-old Warhurst has another special runner on his hands, and he only had to look a few blocks beyond Ferry Field to find it.
Warhurst knows that when you run the third-fastest time ever by a US high schooler — only Webb (3:53.43) and Jim Ryun (3:55.3) have gone faster than Kessler, indoors or out — expectations tend to skyrocket. Ryun was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 17 and a world record holder by 19. Webb came of age in the internet era and was the subject of more daily speculation and scrutiny than any American distance runner before or since, with the possible exception of Galen Rupp. And though Webb produced moments of unquestionable greatness (including three US outdoor titles), the pressure, both internal and external, to live up to his previous self contributed to his retirement at the age of 31, without an Olympic final appearance.
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So Warhurst is careful with what he says about his latest superstar. Yes, if Kessler continues on his trajectory, there could be Olympic teams in his future. But for now, Warhurst is keeping it simple.
“It looks like he might be the next really good one,” Warhurst says.
From rock climber to runner
Hobbs Kessler’s workout four days before running 3:57
Here is the full workout Kessler ran four days before his historic
2-mile tempo (10:00)
Rest: 200 or 400 jog
Within his circle, predictions for Kessler’s time in Fayetteville varied. Willis predicted 4:01; he knew, from Kessler’s workout, that he possessed the speed to break 4:00, but wasn’t sure if he had the endurance yet. Mike thought 4:03 sounded right. After all, this was all pretty new for Kessler. His first race on a banked track. His first race against a professional field. When he went to check in for the race, Kessler forgot his singlet.
Warhurst felt Kessler was capable of anywhere from 3:57 to 4:04, depending on how the race played out. And as gun time drew closer, Warhurst felt the faster end was realistic. The field, initially slated for 10 to 12 athletes, was down to seven and a rabbit.
“I’m going, this is really good,” Warhurst says. “Because if the rabbit does his job and they all get out after the first lap, they’ll be pretty much single-file. He’ll be out of traffic — he’s never run in traffic like this.”
Warhurst told Kessler he believed he could break 4:00 — just stay with the pace, keep an eye on Willis, and move when he moves. He predicted 3:58.
Kessler, meanwhile, was not focused on time. He had an eye on Grant Fisher‘s state indoor record of 4:03.54, but his primary goal was simple: beat Willis.
He couldn’t quite manage that — Willis ran 3:56.82, one place and .84 of a second ahead of Kessler — but, all things considered, Kessler will take the outcome.
“I’ll get him next time,” Kessler says. “I’m super psyched. That worked out very well.”
As Warhurst predicted, the race quickly strung out single-file, with Kessler bringing up the rear after two laps. From there, Kessler ran a race belying his inexperience. Utilizing what Mike calls his “secret power” to lock into a pace, Kessler floated around the track with metronomic consistency — for laps 2 through 7, he never ran faster than 29.71 or slower than 30.18. At times, Kessler allowed a gap to form as the pace yo-yoed up front, but he used a 29.80 penultimate lap to rejoin the leaders at the bell, which he hit in 3:30.42.
At this point in Kessler’s previous fastest “mile”, a 4:08 1600-meter time trial on July 14, he had felt awful — understandably so, considering his task on that day was only to pace Willis and fellow pro Mason Ferlic through 1200 meters (Kessler came through in 3:02 and struggled home after Warhurst told him 1000 meters into it to stay in and finish). This time was different. He had never been this far into a race running this fast and feeling this good.
“I was waiting for booty lock and to feel really bad, but with two laps to go, I was like, okay, might as well give it a go [after] looking at the clock, because I’m feeling pretty fresh,” Kessler says.
Kessler ran his last lap in a stellar 27.24 to shave .15 off Drew Hunter‘s national HS record, and came away feeling capable of even more; Kessler’s form didn’t visibly change until 75 meters to go, his arms pumping harder and his legs swinging more powerfully as he passed Saucony pro James Randon and Oklahoma State’s Juan Diego Castro to vault from fifth to third.
“He came up to me right afterwards and he said, ‘Ronnie, I’ve got more juice, I can run faster right now!'” Warhurst says. “I said, ‘Yeah, just calm down. Your adrenaline’s flowing. You always can do a lot of things after a great performance like that.’
“I think he’s got another 1.5-2 seconds in him, but who knows? It was an ideal situation and an ideal race.”
(LRC note: Kessler took one step inside the rail on the turn with 250m to go. The ATL meet was a World Athletics Indoor Tour Silver event, and under World Athletics rules, that is supposed to trigger an immediate disqualification. But under National Federation of High School rules — which require three consecutive steps on the infield — Kessler was fine. As of this writing, Kessler has not been disqualified; more on the discrepancies between the rulebooks here.)
While Kessler’s inner circle knew he was fit, no one outside of his circle could have predicted this. On an evening during which America’s attention was focused on a 43-year-old Michigan alum trying to win his seventh Super Bowl, no one expected to be hearing about a high school runner from Ann Arbor with an official personal best of 4:18 for 1600 breaking one of the most celebrated records in indoor track & field.
All of this has happened very quickly. Though Kessler has run track and cross country since his freshman year (he competes for Skyline but actually attends Community High School, a magnet school), there were no hints to suggest the talent lying underneath. He finished his freshman year with modest personal bests of 4:54/10:33 for 1600m/3200m. Midway through his junior year, Kessler had developed into a Division I prospect, finishing sixth at the Michigan Division 1 state meet in cross country and running that 4:18 indoors. But nothing to suggest he’d be running 3:57 a year later.
That’s because, for his first two years of high school, running was not Kessler’s primary sport. While the Kesslers are a running family — Mike ran at Eastern Michigan and once ran a 4:00 road mile; Kessler’s mother, Serena, has run a 2:44 marathon and competed at the 2012 Olympic Trials — they are also a climbing family, with their own practice wall behind the house. One of the country’s top rock climbers in his age group, Kessler represented the US at the 2019 Youth World Championships in Italy, finishing 34th in his discipline.
While Mike says climbing can help Hobbs’ running by promoting overall strength and developing an ability to focus on the moment, it is nearly impossible to be world-class at both simultaneously. Kessler spent the summer of 2019 traveling around the US and Europe preparing for the World Championships, barely able to train for the upcoming cross country season. Despite the lack of prep, Kessler managed to finish sixth at the state meet that fall, a result that would change the trajectory of his running career.
“I was like, Holy crap I can win next year,” Kessler says. “After that, I was like, I’m gonna dedicate to running and really give myself the best chance possible at winning the state title next year.”
In his return to the state meet in November 2020, Kessler put on a show — his time of 14:51.79 was the fastest since two-time Foot Locker champion Dathan Ritzenhein clocked 14:10.4 in 2000. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to win — the Division 1 race was split into two sections, and heat 2 winner Riley Hough of Hartland delivered an incredible 14:49.62 — but it was validation of the changes and hard work Kessler had put into the sport in the intervening year.
One of the biggest changes? Warhurst. Mike, an assistant distance coach at Skyline in 2019, took over as the head coach in 2020. Though there are many successful examples of parents coaching children in distance running, Mike knew from his experience as Hobbs’ climbing coach — where the two occasionally butted heads — that he preferred the role of parent.
For several years before Hobbs’ emergence, Mike had been dropping by Warhurst’s practices. Initially, the aim was to shadow Warhurst, learning what he could from the old coach and applying it to the climbers (and later, runners) he coached. In the spring of 2020, Warhurst suddenly had more time on his hands. He had been working as a running form analyst at ATI Physical Therapy, but decided, given his age and risk factors (he had recently battled bronchitis and asthma), that it was no longer safe for him to work there once the pandemic hit. Seeing an opportunity, Mike invited him to become a volunteer coach at Skyline.
Now Hobbs spends a day or two per week training with Warhurst, the rest with his high school teammates. He’ll show up to watch guys like Willis and Ferlic work out, occasionally hopping in for a few reps, but more often he’s there playing with Willis’ sons, Lachlan, 7, and Darcy, 3.
“He’s like a big brother to my kids,” Willis says.
The arrangement works well for everyone. Hobbs gets a world-class coach, Warhurst gets another young talent to sculpt, and Mike can focus on the fun part — watching Hobbs race — rather than becoming over-involved in his son’s life.
“It’s collaborative,” Mike says. “But if Hobbs is gonna bitch, Ron can listen to it. I don’t need to hear it.”
Forming a miler
When Warhurst began working with Kessler more closely, the first thing he fixed was his form. Warhurst is something of an obsessive in that department. Back in 2007, Warhurst was at the Nike Outdoor Nationals meet in North Carolina when he noticed that the winner of the boys’ 2-mile, a certain Matthew Centrowitz, was carrying his arms lower than he should have been.
“Get your arms up, you can finish faster,” Warhurst told him after the race.
Warhurst had doled out the same advice a few years earlier to a Michigan athlete he met on the golf course. Warhurst had introduced himself as the cross country coach, and the athlete, an obsessive when it came to self-improvement, asked if he could meet with Warhurst to improve his speed. And that’s how Warhurst started coaching Tom Brady.
The arrangement didn’t last long, just a handful of meetings before football practice. And while Warhurst was able to succeed in getting Brady running on his toes a little more, it didn’t help much at the 2000 NFL Combine, where Brady’s 40-yard dash time of 5.28 ranked second-worst among quarterbacks.
“People say, god he’s really slow now,” Warhurst says. “I say, you should have seen him before I worked with him.”
Kessler’s flaws were easier to overcome. When he first began training under Warhurst, Kessler was an overstrider, landing back on his heels with his arms flying up high in front of his chest. Warhurst taught him to drop his arms and swing them slightly faster, allowing him to shorten his stride and land closer to his midfoot. Now, Kessler says, his aim is to never take a bad stride. On Sunday, his work paid off over the final 50 meters.
“At the top of the turn, he changed his arm swing,” Warhurst says. “He moved his arms a whole lot quicker, but he didn’t lose his form. He kept going faster as he got close to the finish line. We work on that stuff. It’s difficult to tell kids that you have to relax to run faster. They all try to go faster by trying harder, and then they start dropping their arms and they start overstriding and they get back on their heels and their neck and shoulders tie up. As soon as that happens, you slow down. To maintain your acceleration, you’ve gotta stay relaxed but swing your arms real quick, and that helps with shortening your stride so that you don’t overstride.”
Warhurst likens Kessler to Willis in that both have reached extraordinarily high levels as teens without training like professionals. While mileage isn’t the focus of their training, Hobbs typically runs somewhere between 30 and 45 miles per week and has never gone above the mid-50s. He still climbs twice a week — both Ron and Mike like that it keeps Kessler remarkably strong for his 5-foot-11, 145-pound frame.
“How many milers can do a one-handed pull-up with both right and left arm?” Warhurst says.
Kessler’s training mostly consists of hills and what Warhurst refers to as “timed” runs (tempos), with a weekly long run between 10-12 miles. His easy runs are easy — never faster than 7:00/mile, and frequently slower than 8:00/mile. Warhurst limits his speed work, in part because of his age, and in part because of Kessler’s outstanding natural speed (last summer, he clocked 24.2 for 200 from a standing start after running a 4:13 1600m time trial).
“There are a lot of kids in America over the years that have the sort of ability that he has shown in cross country,” Willis says. “But how many could I think of that can be that good in cross country but also have the ability to do what I have just seen him do on the track in terms of how effortlessly he can float at 800/mile pace? I really could only think of two guys, and that was Centro and Webb when they were in high school.”
Part of the reason Willis and Warhurst are so high on Kessler’s potential is that he has so much room to grow aerobically — a skill he will develop (assuming he doesn’t first turn professional) when he heads off to Northern Arizona University this fall and Flagstaff’s 7,000 feet of elevation. Choosing to leave Ann Arbor behind was tough. Kessler says the call he made to Wolverines coach Kevin Sullivan that he was choosing NAU was one of the hardest things he’s ever done. But Kessler fell in love with NAU’s team culture under coach Mike Smith.
And, of course, the mountains. Kessler says he’d like to continue climbing in college, and spent part of his campus visit in December scoping out potential areas. He’s already excited about the possibilities.
“I can ride my bike from the dorms and be at a climbing area,” Kessler says. “I can do it two hours, in and out, from the dorms.”
Though Kessler and Willis don’t run many workouts together, the two will always share a unique connection, a reminder that, in this sport, the past is always gaining on you — and sometimes it even runs into you from behind during a 400m rep. Three weeks ago, Willis ran a 3:58 mile in Florida, his 19th consecutive year with a sub-4:00 mile, breaking the record held by New Zealand countryman John Walker. The streak has grown so long, in fact, that there are now sub-4:00 milers born after Willis’ first sub-4:00, which he logged in February 2003.
Well, not quite milers, plural. There’s only one. He was born on March 15, 2003. His name is Hobbs Kessler.