When Hobbs Kessler set the US High School indoor record for the mile in Fayetteville, Arkansas in February, little was known about the 17-year-old from Ann Arbor, Michigan. The press, clamoring for details, were surprised to learn that for the majority of his young life he has been totally dedicated to another sport that appeared to have little connection to running.
In fact, Hobbs had only begun running less than four years before. “Going into my freshman year in high school my parents told me I had to join cross country. I only had to do it for a season, but they wanted me to find a community with the guys on the team and that kind of stuff,” said Hobbs.
“They gave me a little nudge and it kind of escalated and escalated as time went on and I got a little better at running,” noted Kessler. That’s a huge understatement, as he went from barely breaking five minutes in the mile as a freshman to being the fastest ever 17-year-old US high-school miler with his record-setting 3 minute 57.66 second time in Arkansas.
To be an elite athlete in one sport is an amazing accomplishment. To excel in another sport as well is extraordinary. So when Hobbs told the reporters at his record-setting meet that he had represented the USA at the IFSC Climbing Youth World Championships in Arco, Italy in 2019, the scribes knew this kid was something special. And then he told them he wanted to be the first person to run a sub-four-minute mile and climb 5.15 and V15. Wait, what?
“I started doing the kids program at the climbing gyms when I was 3 years old so I don’t even remember starting. It is just something I was always around. It’s been my identity from when I was young and it has just gotten more and more serious as time went on,” noted Hobbs.
Both Hobbs’ parents are climbers and runners. His dad built a small climbing wall at their house in Michigan. As Hobbs’ dedication to the sport grew so did the wall and it is now in its third iteration. “We built it out the best we could and it ended up 27-feet wide and 12-feet high and 45 degrees overhanging. It’s been up for about a year and we have about 400 problems on it. It’s pretty dense; probably over 2000 holds. It took months just to get them on and get them the right way so they could all be used.”
But having a world-class spray wall in your backyard has its pros and cons. “I don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it. I want to do it because I love doing it. If I am not excited about it and not having fun, I am not going to force myself to do it. I want to stay true to that because climbing is something I want to do for my whole life and I don’t want to turn it into a chore,” said Hobbs.
He seems to be getting the right balance. In March 2019, he had his best week ever: At his favorite climbing area, the Red River Gorge, he logged ascents of Transworld Depravity (5.14a), Thanatopsis (5.14b) and Southern Smoke (5.14c)—his hardest redpoint to date.
“With Southern Smoke what I am most proud of is that when I actually sent it everything went super wrong.I am really proud of the way I carried myself mentally. The whole bottom half was just like crazy desperate and then I was able to recenter and finish it,” said Hobbs.
At the 2016 US Nationals, Hobbs met another up-and-coming climber,Connor Herson. Like Hobbs, Connor just 13 years old at the time. Unfortunately, Connor lived on the west coast in the San Francisco Bay Area, 2,500 miles from Michigan. But, after a climbing trip together to Maple Canyon the following year, their friendship was cemented.
“He’s just a cool dude and we feed off of each other well,” Hobbs said of Connor. And he’s really fun to climb with. In my opinion he has one of the best relationships with climbing of anyone I know. He wants to be good but if he only climbs V5 he would still like it as much,” said Hobbs. “I have learned a lot about climbing from climbing with him, like the mental side and techniques. He’s one of those people who I know we are going to be friends for a long time. For life.”
Also in 2016, Hobbs and his father, Mike, joined Connor and his father, Jim, for a one-day ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome. “I had a pretty unique experience there during my freshman year in high school. My dad and I flew in and met up with Connor and his dad, Jim. All four of us climbed Half Dome in a day then we drove back to Reno and flew home. With four hours of sleep I was in school the next day,” said Hobbs.
“Climbing with him, especially in Yosemite has been quite interesting because he was brought up in the gym and he’s more of a comp climber and sport climber. Going onto the Valley granite was a big step,” remembers Connor.
The next year Hobbs came to Yosemite to help Connor work on freeing the Nose on El Capitan. The two 15-year-olds rapped in from the top so Connor could work the Changing Corners pitch. “I had been talking to him about it [rapping from the top] because I had heard stories of people who are very experienced multi-pitch climbers who got freaked out rappelling off the top of El Cap. He was so nonchalant about it. It didn’t affect him at all,” said Connor, who later that year became the sixth and youngest person to free the Nose.
Is there an El Cap route in Hobbs’ future? “I would like to free climb El Cap, but the Nose is its own beast. I would prefer to do the Salathé or one of the other ones like Golden Gate. The Nose is just a beast. You have to know your granite for that one. No faking that.”
Hobbs is quick to point out that there are pros and cons of trying to be world class in two different sports. “The thing you can take away from both is the mental side. It doesn’t change from sport to sport … . The nerves and the performance is the same from racing to redpointing so it was almost a complete transfer there in learning on how to deal with your nerves and be poised and stuff like that.
“Physically, I think climbing helps with the running. I am a lot stronger than a lot of my peers that are running. I think running is detrimental in that it’s hard to climb when all my energy is being soaked up by the running,” said Hobbs.
Hobbs has committed to running powerhouse Northern Arizona University in the fall to continue his running progression.
So what about his climbing? “It’s going to be cool! There is so much climbing down there. I think it is the perfect place for me. It’s the running capital of the US and it’s also, I think, one of the more underrated mountain towns in the US for climbing. There is really good climbing close to town. And it’s close to Las Vegas. So it worked out well,” said Hobbs.
But for now, with a 3:57 mile record on his resume, he is focused on running. Wise beyond his years, Hobbs reflects on what that means. “The transition from climbing to running for me was really weird. Learning to let go of seeing my peers do really well climbing and not trying to compare myself to them. Acknowledging that I am focusing on something else and letting go and being happy for them instead of feeling like, ‘Aw man, I gotta do this now.’ I think it has been really key for me to learn to let go of my climbing performance.”
As mentioned, Hobbs’s goals are to be the first person to run a sub-four-minute mile, climb 5.15 and V15. OK, he’s a bit more focused on running at the moment, but as successful as he has been in his young life, you just know that he’ll be focusing on achieving his climbing goals sooner rather than later. This kid is going places.