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By Rich Sands, @sands
(c) 2023 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

HONOLULU (07-Dec) -- When five-time U.S. 800-meter champion Bryce Hoppel heard that many of his new training partners were heading to the Aloha State for this week’s Kalakaua Merrie Mile, he wanted in. Sure, he hadn’t raced at 1500 meters or the mile in more than two years, but the chance to take a break from the grind of fall training to hit the beach was appealing.

“I was like, man, it’s pretty cool here in Flagstaff, but Hawaii sounds amazing,” he told Race Results Weekly on Thursday. “I was ready to just tag along for vacation and to train with them.” He made his interest in racing known, and event organizers invited him as a late addition to the field for Saturday’s race.

Hoppel, who won his second straight USATF Outdoor title in July (and has taken three of the last four indoor national titles as well), has spent the fall in Flagstaff, Arizona, roughly 7000 feet (2100 meters) above sea level, running among other professionals for the first time in his career.

After winning NCAA indoor and outdoor titles as a University of Kansas junior in 2019, Hoppel turned pro and has since spent most of his career training in Lawrence, Kansas, under the guidance of his college coach, Jayhawks assistant Michael Whittlesey, among collegians during the school year and solo in the summers.

That set-up put Hoppel on a promising trajectory. He sports a personal best of 1:43.23 in the 800 (making him the seventh fastest American of all time), was a 2021 Olympian in Tokyo and took the bronze medal at the 2022 World Athletics Indoor Championships. He also made the final at the outdoor worlds in 2019 (finishing fourth) and this past summer in Budapest (seventh).

But ahead of the Olympic season, and frustrated by his performance at worlds, Hoppel decided to mix things up this fall, putting in his first altitude training block, and running alongside other pros. “Whitt and I have done incredible things together and I never want to diminish that,” Hoppel says. “But I think I’m just ready to have motivation from other places, and I know these guys hold me accountable.”

Whittlesey is still writing his workouts, but now Hoppel has company, primarily Hobbs Kessler of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Very Nice Track Club. He’s sharing a house with Kessler and 5000-meter specialist Morgan Beadlescomb in Flagstaff. Also on the VNTC roster are Mason Ferlic, a U.S. Olympian in the steeplechase, and Canadian distance runner Ben Flanagan.

“I wouldn’t say I’m fully a member,” Hoppel says of his Very Nice collaboration. “I’m still being coached by my coach at University of Kansas. Right now, I’m just integrating with them at altitude, and I’d like to see how it can move forward with it. It’s nothing official yet, but I’ve been enjoying it.”

The relationship has been beneficial all around. “It’s been working out great,” says VNTC coach Ron Warhurst. “It’s a perfect situation. Bryce is in the 800, Hobbs is in the 1500, Mason’s a steeplechaser and Morgan and Ben Flanagan are in the 5K. So they aren’t competing against each other. I think they’re all gonna benefit.”

Hoppel enjoys the camaraderie of living and training with other pros, as well as the symbiotic relationship with Kessler, who won the inaugural World Athletics road mile title in Riga, Latvia, in October. “It has been a fun dynamic, because I think Hobbs has been playing to my weaknesses,” Hoppel says. “He’s helping me out in the endurance stuff, and I’ve been dragging him in the quicker stuff. Just having that change and that dynamic, I think we’ll make each other better.”

Even with his unofficial status, he’s been welcomed into the Very Nice fold. “The main guideline to get into VNTC is to be a good dude,” says Beadlescomb. “We’re a tight-knit group, but we’re pretty open as it pertains to who runs with us. We’re pretty loosely structured. We’d always gotten along with Bryce and we said, ‘if you want to hang out with some pros at altitude or even in Michigan, just come.’”

It's been a promising fall for the team. In addition to Kessler’s win in Latvia, Beadlescomb took the USATF 5K road title in New York City in early November, then won the 4.74-mile Manchester Road Race in Connecticut on Thanksgiving Day. Those wins have helped the Michigan State grad rebound from a disappointing 13th-place finish in the 5000 at the USATF Outdoor Championships in July. Now he has an optimistic outlook ahead of next summer’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials. “I think if I’m smart about it, it’s going to be a really good year,” he says.

In the meantime, the Merrie Mile will be a nice diversion from the grind of fall training. The race features a unique mixed-sex pursuit format for the elite runners, with the women’s field getting a head-start over the men. Prize money is awarded on the overall order of finish of men and women combined. “It’s an interesting way to eliminate the need for a pacer,” Beadlescomb says of the expected quick tempo both the men and the women are likely to set in their cat-and-mouse game. “So it is all up to us. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The men’s field includes defending champion Neil Gourley of Great Britain, 2016 Olympic gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz, reigning U.S. 1500-meter champion Yared Nuguse, Spain’s Mario Romo Garcia and New Zealand’s Geordie Beamish. Among those they’ll be chasing down are Elle St. Pierre, a 2021 Olympian in just her second race since giving birth to her first child in March, and Nikki Hiltz, the 2023 U.S. champion indoors, outdoors and on the road.

“Being an 800 guy, my mindset going in is to just hang on for dear life,” Hoppel says with a laugh. “But how I’ve been training, and being at altitude and doing the things that Hobbs has been doing, I think my strength is going to be there to get me through a mile. I haven’t run one in forever, so I’m going in the dark.”

He has no immediate plans to move up to the 1500/mile. “I think I’ve still got the 800 in me for a few more years,” he says, pointing to unfinished business in global competition. “It’s been getting a little frustrating. I’ve been to that stage and made it to the finals before and when I fall short of the medals it’s always very disappointing. I’m always grateful for what I’ve been able to achieve throughout the season, but when you don’t get that end goal, it’s pretty crushing. We’re trying to do everything we can to achieve something special for the Olympic year.”