Nikki Hiltz on Their American Record, Queer Joy, and Chocolate Chip Cookies
How the athlete and activist is paving the way for the next generation of track stars to live and compete as their authentic selves
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If you follow track and field news closely, it’s hard to miss all the national titles Nikki Hiltz has been collecting: Indoor 1500-Meter National Champion, Outdoor 1500-Meter National Champion, and perhaps the most unexpected title of all, American record holder in the mile (4:16.35) at the Monaco Diamond League. Nikki went into the race feeling good about their fitness, but they were shocked about breaking this decade-old record.
Women’s Running caught up with Nikki Hiltz, a professional runner, Lululemon ambassador, and LGBTQ activist, after their recent wins and several break-through performances.
Women’s Running: First, congratulations on setting a new American record in the mile! What did it feel like to break the American record in the mile by Mary Slaney, set in 1985? Was the race in Monaco your best race ever?
Nikki Hiltz: Thank you! It’s definitely a surreal feeling to be the American record holder. As for whether this is my best race ever, I would say it’s definitely one of my top performances. On the other hand, my favorite races are the ones I win! Although I set the American record, I still only got sixth place, which just shows how incredibly deep the international field in this event is.
WR: How are you feeling with a tidal wave of congratulations pouring in from around the world after you set the new American record? Have you been able to rest?
NH: The outpouring of support and congratulations from people around the world has been heartwarming. While it can be emotionally draining to some extent to sift through some ignorance and transphobia, the love and encouragement I’ve been receiving are definitely outweighing the negative. All the messages are incredibly uplifting. They give me great motivation leading into the world championships. As far as finding time to rest, I’ve been really enjoying my phone-free runs lately. I’ve been able to get away from all the noises to rest and recharge.
WR: How has living in Flagstaff been helping with your training?
NH: I moved to Flagstaff in March of 2022. It took me a while to fully adapt to altitude. Around one year in, I had one of the best strength workouts. It was then I realized that I had finally fully adapted to the altitude. A part of me feels at home here, because I spent a good amount of my childhood going to Lake Tahoe (over 6,000 feet in elevation). This feels like the right move, as if I was meant to be here.
WR: Tell us about your coach Mike Smith’s Double Threshold workout and his training group.
NH: It’s a training method made popular by Norwegian runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen. The idea is that you run two workouts in one day, get 10 to 12 miles at your threshold pace, and nothing faster. For example, six miles at threshold in the morning, and four miles in the evening.
My weakness has always been the third lap. I have good speed and a great kick. With the Double T (threshold), I can handle the faster pace for longer. Training at 7,000 ft altitude is also a tremendous boost.
I train with a small group, mostly with Northern Arizona University’s men’s and women’s team. Most of my training partners are 5K and 10K runners. They make me stronger. Outside of running, they’re also supportive friends who bring great energy to practice. I have never felt stronger.
Recently, Woody Kincaid won the 10k race at the national championship. He made me realize that our training is clicking and gave me the confidence that I might be next.
WR: Speaking of confidence: How does setting a new American record boost your confidence in racing against the best runners in the upcoming World Championship in Budapest?
NH: Breaking the long-standing American record certainly boosts my confidence heading into the World Championship in Budapest. It shows that my fitness is peaking at just the right time. I was feeling confident in my tactics and my ability to race after the U.S. Championships. After setting the record in Monaco, I’m also now confident in my ability to run a fast race.
When competing at the highest level among the best in the world, there are two things you need to get through the rounds: your ability to handle a fast pace, and your ability to race well. I’m feeling positive about both attributes and my chance at the World Championship.
WR: Heading into the World Championships, do you have a plan for how to run the heats and advance to the finals? Or do you go into the qualifying round with a specific pace in mind?
NH: I usually go into round one and the semi-final at championships more nervous than I am at the final. Getting to the final is the hard part. Racing the final is the fun part because there’s nothing to lose. This year might be one of the hardest World finals to make just because there’re so many incredible women in the 1500 meter running so well right now. I’ve also been doing this long enough to know that anything can happen in championship racing. This fact used to really scare me but now I think it’s also exciting!
WR: You’ve been a vocal advocate for greater inclusion of non-binary and trans athletes. You dedicated your championship win to the LGBTQ+ community. How does living so fully into who you are factor into your performance?
NH: When I first came out about my sexuality, the weight came off and I was able to PR (personal record). But with my gender identity, it was an opposite experience. I was vulnerable and scared. That criticism weighed me down. I wasn’t sure how people were going to react to me being non-binary.
Now that enough time has gone by, I’m very comfortable with who I am. More people know what nonbinary means and are respectful of it. I used to hate who I was. Now I can’t be more proud to be part of the trans community. I feel so loved and supported.
WR: How is your partnership with Lululemon going? How do you decide what to wear on race day?
NH: I love working with Lululemon. Our partnership just reached a year. Lululemon sponsors other track athletes including Colleen Quigley, Hunter Woodhall, and Tara Davis. It’s quite a wide range that speaks to what the company is—it is all about community and diversity, it is about giving people voices. The pressure of winning is off. My favorite part is working with the product team, to create new things and to give feedback.
Lululemon sends me both men’s and women’s clothing. The best way to explain my gender is fluidity. Depending on the day, I want to wear something that makes me feel powerful. I pick and choose based on what I feel that day and how I want to present my identity.
In running, we like to say, “look good, feel good, run good.” It’s important to have options for race day so we can feel good about whatever we wear. We should not have any rules on what clothing we can wear. I love some recent racing kits Lululemon sent me. They’re buttery soft and feel so great!
WR: How is your Pride 5K planning coming along?
NH: We’re back on schedule. It’s on October 7th this year. The fall is a great time for me to organize a race because, as a professional runner, I’m the busiest in the summer. Setting the race in October also sends a signal that pride is year-round. My partner Emma is the more organized one between us. It’s been super fun to work on this passion project with my partner.
This year, the Pride 5K will have both a virtual component and in-person group runs. We are working with Lululemon to have these runs hosted in some stores. They’ve been great partners.
WR: How do you balance so many of your pursuits?
NH: Having a purpose is how I balance everything. In 2019, I accomplished one of my biggest goals—I made it to the world team. Yet I felt a little empty afterwards, like, “this is it?” I was not clear on my purpose then. In 2021, when I was coming out with my gender identity with a lot of fear, it was my queer community that made me feel loved and accepted. I leaned on my community to find my way and my purpose. Starting the Pride 5K was the manifestation of my purpose—to give my community a stronger voice.
I have become a better athlete and a better person because of my community. I definitely have a lot on my plate, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
WR: You wrote: “There’s a lot of things I could probably attribute my recent successes to, but I think the most powerful tool I have is my joy. Queer people can thrive when we make a space for them, love them, and embrace them for who they are…Your love allowed me to run free last night and break a 38-year-old American record. That’s powerful stuff.”
Powerful indeed, when there has been so much hostility toward the trans community. How do you manage to hold onto your joy so consistently when 32 percent of transgender youth live in states that have passed bans on gender affirming care? What advice would you give to others on holding onto hope and joy?
NH: The anti-trans legislation, as well as the hostility and discrimination the trans community faces, is extremely disheartening. As an openly-out trans person, what keeps me going is my community.
When I think about historic trans trailblazers, I think of Marsha P. Johnson. She was a Black trans woman who fought for trans and gay people’s rights during the 60s and 70s. She is famously credited with throwing the first brick at the Stonewall Riots in 1969. She was an activist for her community during one of the darkest times for queer people. She was known for her infectious smile and laugh and iconic flower crowns. Her joy always shone bright.
I always think, if Marsha could do all that for her community back in the 60s, I can show up for mine now. I owe it to her and our community to not only continue to advocate for trans rights and inclusion, but also to never forget to lean into my joy while doing so.
My advice to others facing hopelessness would be to seek out and find a supportive community, whether it’s within LGBTQ+ circles or beyond. Surround yourself with the people who lift you up and make you feel valued. When I can focus on the positive support I receive from allies, friends, family, and community, that is when I can thrive.
WR: What’s your favorite snack?
NH: Chocolate chip cookies!
WR: What’s your favorite thing to do other than running?
NH: It’s a tie between playing with my dog or playing the guitar.
WR: On a perfect Sunday with no plans at all, what would you spend your time doing?
NH: Every Sunday is my perfect Sunday! Sunday is the one day in the week I take completely off of training. I usually wake up, take my dog for a walk, then head to the farmers market in Flagstaff with my partner Emma. Then we relax for the rest of the day.
WR: What’s the legacy you want to leave behind?
NH: The recent wins are so fresh in my mind. I want to prove that queer joy is powerful. Queer people can thrive when the world embraces them for who they are. I want to pave a path for us to live authentically as ourselves, so when the next person comes, it becomes so much easier.