Rock Climber, Skateboarder, Soccer Player — Runner
The unexpected sports expertise of elite runners and why they value their other athletic pursuits.
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In the last 50 meters of the fastest indoor high school mile ever run, all Hobbs Kessler could focus on was the singlet of Nick Willis, the legendary New Zealand miler and Olympic silver medalist who was sprinting for the line directly ahead of him.
“I felt fine the last 200 meters, and I think I could have gone two or three seconds faster. I knew coming down the backstraight that I was going to go under four minutes” said Kessler, who, like Willis, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “But all I wanted to do was run down Nick.”
But locking in on an Olympian isn’t just good strategy, it was part of a long and shared history.
“Hobbs’ dad has been a good friend of mine for the past five years,” Willis says. “He came down to the track to start learning from us so he could use some of the approach we used in elite running to his rock climbing coaching.”
Yes, rock climbing. Hobbs Kessler, who ran an American indoor record of 3:57:66 that night in February and will enroll at Northern Arizona University in the fall, is not only an elite runner. He was, just a short time ago, also an elite rock climber, representing the United States in the World Youth Championships in 2019 in sport climbing.
In fact, Willis and Kessler share more than a zip code. Both runners are avid multi-sport athletes. Willis spent much of his youth skateboarding and skiing, while Kessler was traveling the world and on-pointing 5.14c routes — and they’re not alone. Becoming an elite runner takes an absolute and total focus on the sport, but a surprising number of elite runners were elite athletes in other sports before turning to running.
Grant Fisher was an elite-level soccer player in high school before gaining Gatorade Player of the Year honors for cross-country and devoting himself to running at Stanford. Megan Roche played field hockey at Duke. Top-flight ultrarunners Devon Yanko and Keely Henninger were also top-flight basketball players. Another pair of ultrarunners, Dylan Bowman and Michael Wardian, played collegiate lacrosse, while Grayson Murphy and Julia Kohnen were collegiate soccer players.
Soccer success is a common theme among middle-distance and long-distance runners and was Kohnen’s ticket to a collegiate scholarship at the University of Southern Indiana. Growing up outside of St. Louis, she played soccer and basketball, but dreamed of playing soccer in the Olympics and idolized Mia Hamm. “I did not run,” Kohnen says. “My whole life in high school revolved around soccer and basketball.”
Her dedication paid off and she played soccer for USI for four years, at which point she figured her collegiate athletic career was over.
“I was devastated knowing that my life revolved around competitive soccer, and that was all gone now,” Kohnen says. “So I just kept running to keep in shape.”
But the lithe midfielder running a six-mile loop around the D2 campus caught the attention of Mike Hillyard, the Cross Country and Track & Field coach.
“Coach Hillyard talked to my soccer coach about my fitness tests and she told him ‘the goal of the team on the two-mile test is to still be able to see Julia when they are finishing.’ So my fitness on the soccer team was always my strength, and that’s when Coach Hillyard approached me and asked me to try out for the team.”
After running a three-mile time-trial for Hillyard, Kohnen learned that she had four years of soccer eligibility, but also one year of eligibility in another sport, and she quickly gained another scholarship — this time to run — and an MBA.
Kohnen says, “I only had one year to get my MBA and be involved with the running team, but I became a four-time All American in that one year.”
Playing the Field
Despite an increase in athletic specialization in recent decades, many runners who were former elites in other sports firmly believe that sampling different sports in your developmental years make for a better, more successful runner.
Bowman had a more arcane cross-over sports background: he played lacrosse for nine years, starting in 8th grade, and was good enough at the sport to play for four years at Colorado State University.
“I never ran competitively,” says Bowman. “But I always enjoyed and excelled at the running positions in field sports. In college, my role on the lacrosse team was to be the hustle guy. I played midfield and I always prided myself on making plays in transition, hustling for ground balls, and generally wearing people out. The transition to endurance sports was actually pretty easy as a result. I do remember contemplating walking on to the college cross country team to stay in shape for lacrosse, and sought out one of the runners to talk about their training. He said they ran 70 miles per week, which I thought was completely crazy and scared me off the idea, which is pretty funny in retrospect.”
Bowman, who regularly wins ultramarathons at distances up to 100 miles, believes that the environment of a collegiate sports program was crucial to his running career.
“I think it helped tremendously,” he noted. “Obviously the natural fitness and athleticism I gained from team sports was helpful and made the transition easier, but I think the most important thing was just a lifelong love of going to practice. It made diving into disciplined and consistent training feel really natural. I’ve always loved the daily grind.”
Kohnen, too, credits her earlier multi-sport background for giving her the mental and physical composition to allow her to not only win the 2019 Twin Cities Marathon, but also place 10th in the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon.
Kohnen says, “I think all sports can teach you a lot. Regardless if it’s soccer, golf, running, basketball or tennis, the act of playing a sport and being competitive and active can go a long way. I tell everyone to have their kids do as many sports as possible. The life lessons learned from sports is something you can’t teach. Soccer taught me all about discipline, competitiveness, teamwork, and confidence. I think soccer is also known for being more of an endurance and conditioning sport, which makes why a lot of runners transition from soccer to running.”
While the soccer-to-running pipeline is well-documented, Kessler is distinct in his transition from climbing to running. But he, too, sees the benefits conferred by gaining a mastery of another sport before becoming a runner.
“Physiologically, I can do weird climbing things like one-handed pull-ups, which I don’t think a lot of milers can do,” he says, with considerable understatement. “But I’ve thought about the cross-over between the two sports a lot. The mental and competitive aspects directly cross over, and are practically identical. Climbing gave me good fitness, made me stronger, and confers that bounciness you want for middle distances.”
Great runners all share an intense dedication, and a capacity for hard work. But as these athletes all show, great runners aren’t found just on the track; they can be found on the lacrosse field, the soccer pitch, or even in a climbing gym.