Hobbs Kessler on Why He Went Pro Now, Training in Flagstaff, and…Lego?

By Jonathan Gault
July 15, 2021

Not many people could keep up with Hobbs Kessler in 2021. And that includes Kessler himself. After running a 3:57 high school indoor mile record in Arkansas in February, Kessler was thrust into the national spotlight and all of the attention, expectation, and pressure that comes with it. Kessler would spend the next four months trying to balance his senior year at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., with flying around the country in an effort to qualify for the US Olympic Trials. He accomplished that feat in spectacular fashion at the Portland Track Festival on May 29 by clockinig a 3:34.36 in the 1500 meters, another high school record and a time Kessler himself described as “cartoonish.”

Kessler’s times presented opportunities he could not have dreamed of just months earlier, but all of the change — from being one of the best high school runners in Michigan to the best high school runner in the country to one of the best runners in the country, period — was as draining as any workout his coach Ron Warhurst could devise.

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“I just kept being in a different world and trying to catch up mentally,” Kessler said.

That mental fatigue caught up to Kessler at the Olympic Trials in June, when he finished eighth in his semifinal, failing to advance to the final. But few American distance runners have ever had a brighter future. Now a professional athlete with adidas, Kessler will head to Flagstaff next month for his freshman fall at Northern Arizona University before returning to Ann Arbor next spring to prepare to make the 2022 World Championships, which will be hosted in Eugene.

Hobbs Kessler flanked by his parents, Serena and Mike (Courtesy Gatorade)

Kessler will depart Michigan with some hardware, as on Wednesday he was named 2020-21 Gatorade National Male Track and Field Player of the Year. Since Alan Webb won the honor in 2001, only three male distance runners have won the prestigious award: German Fernandez in 2008, Nico Young in 2020, and now Kessler. Both Young and Kessler committed to NAU, though Kessler’s professional contract may prevent him from competing for the Lumberjacks.

LetsRun caught up with Kessler by phone on Wednesday to talk about his 2021 season, his contract with adidas, and his future plans.

Note: This interview originally aired in its entirety on the LetsRun.com Track Talk Podcast.

LRC: What have you been up to the last couple weeks since the Olympic Trials?

HK: I’ve just been hanging out. I’m taking a nice, month-long break. I’ve been trying to pace Mason [Ferlic] and Nick [Willis] through their workouts, but that’s pretty much all the running I’ve been doing. Just hanging out, laying low, trying to let everything that occurred this season soak in and get comfortable with my position now and where I’m at in running. 

Obviously one of the big things that happened to you in the last month is you signed that pro deal with adidas. What was the first thing you bought with the money?

When I was a freshman, I said whenever I get the money, I’m going to get a Lego set. So I got a Star Wars Lego set, and that scratched my itch for buying stuff — a Lego Imperial Shuttle that I built and was really excited about.

That’s awesome. The first thing that Noah Lyles did when he got his contract a few years ago was buy a Lego set, so you’re in good company there.

Noah Lyles is the man, so I’ll take it.

You told Chris Chavez after the Portland Track Festival that there was a very slim chance that you would turn pro. So I’m curious, what changed between then and you signing the deal with adidas?

I would say I realized more of the position I was in. My stock was high. I talked to a lot of people, like Nick and Ron [Warhurst] and Mason of course, but also Drew Hunter and Kevin Sullivan. I consulted about it and they were super helpful and those people I really respect in making that decision. So after talking to them, it became more clear. And also talking to Mike Smith at NAU. He came and watched my state meet and visited, so talking to him and all these people I really trust giving me advice, it kind of changed. Even now, I still kind of lack perspective on how it was. So talking to people who had better perspective on where I was at really helped. 

And the opportunity to stay with Ron was the best thing ever, because we have such a good relationship and what we’re doing is really working. Losing him as a mentor and — I don’t know if friend is the right word, but besides my folks, he’s probably the closest I am to any adult — so losing that relationship and with Nick and Mason and that situation was really scary for me, so I’m also super glad to be in that spot where I can still be with them.

Now that the Trials are behind you, do you think it was the right decision? Do you think your value might have gone down a little bit considering you didn’t make the final?

I don’t know how the shoe companies operate, but I don’t think I was any worse of a runner after I had a rough race. I’m happy with the way everything worked out and glad to have a clear path of stuff worked out. I think that race was just all the change in the season catching up to me and I just didn’t really have the poise to be able to be competitive. I was just a little flat emotionally.

Yeah, you had a lot of big races. Even getting to the Trials as an 18-year-old is pretty phenomenal.

It’s more the change throughout the season that fatigued me, getting more comfortable with where I was. I just kept being in a different world and trying to catch up mentally. But I’m really happy with the way everything worked out and really proud to have signed with adidas. Their guys have treated me really well so far.

How long is your contract?

I don’t know if I’m supposed to say. I don’t want to get in trouble. I don’t know the exact nondisclosure stuff.

Is it multiple Olympic cycles? Can you say that?

I don’t know. I’m going to avoid getting in trouble the first month of signing.

One more question on the contract. I know you said you can’t talk specifics, but some people have tossed around some pretty big numbers for it. I’m curious, the value of the contract — is it large enough that you wouldn’t have to work again once the contract is over?

I don’t know. I guess that depends on how I manage it. Luckily I’ve had my folks and a lot of adults I really trust guide me through the managing. But I’ve seen T-Pain went from $40 million to broke, so I don’t think, unless you’re super smart about it, it’s necessarily safe. But I’m glad to be in the position I’m in.

Ron Warhurst (far left) has guided Kessler to unprecedented heights in 2021 (Courtesy Gatorade)

The NCAA just passed these new Name, Image, and Likeness rules. Have you inquired about whether it would still be possible to run for NAU — even though you have this pro contract — with the loosening of these restrictions?

I haven’t really looked into it at all. I would assume your contract would have to be written around those rules and mine isn’t, but I’m really happy about the path I’m on right now and to still have Coach Smith and Coach [Jarred] Cornfield and a lot of the guys on the team in my life. I’m not super worried about it, but if by some miracle I can, then I’d love to run cross country with them. That would be amazing.

When do you head to NAU this fall?

I’ll go in mid-August. I still don’t know when yet, exactly, because it changed now that I’m not an athlete. Gotta give them a call later today. Luckily I still get to be in the dorm with some of my fellow signees [on the cross country team], which I’m super excited about.

And will you get to train with them while you’re out there?

Still trying to figure that out. We don’t want to disobey any NCAA rules. Those guys have done a lot to look out for me, so the last thing I’d want to do is get them in trouble with the NCAA. But luckily there’s a really big community in Flagstaff to run with and train with and older people to look out for me. I’m confident that no matter what, I’ll find people.

The way I understand your arrangement, you’re just planning on taking classes in the fall and then you’ll be back in Ann Arbor for the spring and summer. Is that how you plan on doing this for the next few years?

I have no idea. So much has happened, I’m just trying to get through this year and letting the dust settle and seeing what happens. But that’s the plan for this year, at least. And if that goes well, and I respond well to elevation and all that, I’ll probably do it again. And if I have a bad time or don’t respond well to elevation, I might need to find a different route.

That makes sense to me. The US isn’t sending a team to the World U20 Championships this year in Kenya (August 17-22). If they had been, is that a meet you would have been interested in running?

Maybe. It might have been a little too far out for the season. I might have been a little mentally tired. I don’t know because it’s not happening. I also don’t know how I would have done if the meet’s going to be at elevation, because I’ve never been at elevation for a long time and I’ve never run hard at elevation. So that would be something to worry about if it was happening, but right now I don’t know whether I would have. It would have been fun to go and race for a medal, but who knows?

Last question: do you have any goals in mind for 2022? Have you set them yet?

I’ve set a few. The biggest one is I would like to make the 2022 [World Championship] team in Eugene.

Well that’s a good one, good note to end on. Hobbs, congrats on winning Gatorade Athlete of the Year, and I’m sure we’ll see you at the track at some point next year. Thanks for the time.

Thank you.

Talk about Kessler and Roisin Willis on the world famous LetsRun.com messageboard/fan forum: MB: LetsRun catches up with HS stars Roisin Willis and Hobbs Kessler .

LRC Q&A: High School 800 Star Roisin Willis on Running 2:00, Learning from Athing Mu, & Her Friendship with Juliette Whittaker & Sophia Gorriaran Willis, a rising senior at Stevens Point Area Senior High School in Wisconsin (Chris Solinsky Suzy Favor Hamilton‘s alma mater), ran 2:00.78 (#4 all-time HS) this year and was named 2020-21 Gatorade National Girls’ Track and Field Player of the Year.

Previous LRC coverage of Hobbs Kessler:

LRC podcast: Bye Bye Monaco, Hello Tokyo, Guest Hobbs Kessler
LRC May 2021 Hobbs Kessler Breaks Alan Webb’s Legendary High School 1500m Record
LRC February 2021 Two Decades After Brannen, Webb, & Willis, Ron Warhurst Has Another Teen Mile Star on His Hands. His Name Is Hobbs Kessler.

Video from Wednesday’s Event.

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