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NYTimes
New York Times
11 Feb 2023


NextImg:A Top Runner Finds Success With Relentless Travel. And Mountain Dew.

For nearly 15 hours, Olli Hoare leaned his head against an airplane window and pondered his future. It was the summer of 2016, and Hoare was flying to the U.S. with his mother, Kate, from Sydney, Australia.

Hoare had a track and field scholarship waiting for him at the University of Wisconsin, but the fear of the unknown was beginning to overwhelm him: Was it the right move? Did he want to spend the next four years so far from home? How would he manage on his own? Did he need a credit card? It was all too much.

During their layover in Dallas, Hoare informed his mother that he had changed his mind: He wanted to bail and head home to Australia. His mother urged him to weigh his decision.

“Think about the type of person you are,” she told him. “Are you going to turn away from this opportunity? Are you going to go home and think about what could have been? I’m not going to get in your way. I’m going to get a coffee.”

Hoare, 26, who has since emerged as one of the top milers in the world, sometimes reflects on that conversation. His mother knew what she was doing.

“I knew I would’ve hated myself if I didn’t at least try,” he said.

In the years since, Hoare has embraced all the hard stuff — the hard training, the hard races, and even the hard work of growing the sport by spreading the gospel of middle-distance running.

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Olli Hoare running sprints during a practice session at the Armory Track in Manhattan on Friday.Credit...Anna Watts for The New York Times

Consider his schedule this weekend — and beyond. On Saturday, Hoare will seek to defend his title in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games, the prestigious indoor meet staged annually at the Armory in New York City. On Sunday, he will fly to Australia so he can compete in the team relay at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships on Feb. 18.

“If I can go home and inspire some kids to get excited about track and field, I feel like I should step into that responsibility,” said Hoare, who lives and trains in Boulder, Colo., with the On Athletics Club.

In fact, Hoare has already made one round trip to Australia this winter to compete in a couple of races, and he plans to return in March to defend his national title in the 1,500 meters, the mile’s metric cousin. That works out to nearly 48,000 miles of air travel in a span of about four months. His travel this summer for meets in Europe will seem easy by comparison.

“I don’t worry too much about him,” said Dathan Ritzenhein, his coach. “He could probably roll off the plane and race the next day.”

A formative moment for Hoare played out last July at the world championships, where he was among the favorites in the 1,500 meters. At the time, Hoare was just a few weeks removed from running a personal best of 3 minutes 47.48 seconds for the mile. But medaling at worlds or at the Olympics is a grind: Runners must advance through two preliminary rounds just to reach the final.

Hoare won his first-round heat. But in his semifinal, he was a part of a field that included all three medalists from the Tokyo Olympics: Jakob Ingebrigtsen, Timothy Cheruiyot and Josh Kerr. Hoare bolted to the front to shadow Cheruiyot as they circled the track for the first lap.

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Hoare pays close attention to how his energy ought to be meted out during a race.Credit...Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Ingebrigtsen, the reigning Olympic champion, said in an interview last year that he has about 10 seconds’ worth of acceleration in any given race, and he can allocate those 10 seconds however he chooses: a six-second surge here, a four-second surge there. But once he exceeds those 10 seconds, he will reach his lactic threshold — the point of no return when his muscles require more oxygen than his body can take in — and his legs will burn with fatigue. Ideally, he saves a few of those seconds for the final sprint to the finish.

Like Ingebrigtsen, Hoare is aware of how his energy ought to be meted out during a race, and savvy enough to understand the dangers of accelerating and decelerating. But at the world championships, he seemed to succumb to the gravity of the moment. Determined to stay near the front, he mounted mini-surges anytime anyone threatened his place.

“I wasn’t confident in staying behind and staying relaxed,” he said.

By the time the finish line came into view, Hoare’s tank was empty. As he put it: “I used up my 10 seconds.” He faded to a 10th-place finish, out of contention for a spot in the final.

Hoare is the type of athlete who can usually put a bad race behind him after a day or two. But the psychic damage from the world championships lingered.

“Those were the hardest two weeks,” said Ritzenhein, who recalled their conversations at the time. “‘Either you’re going to shut down, or you can actually do something about it.’ It took three or four workouts to slowly get his mind back into it.”

Hoare also learned from some of his rivals. In the 1,500-meter final, Jake Wightman of Britain — a top runner who had placed 10th at the Tokyo Olympics — held off Ingebrigtsen to claim the world championship. A few days later, Hoare watched on television as Ingebrigtsen put his own disappointment behind him by winning the 5,000 meters.

“It told me that one race does not define who you are,” Hoare said. “You can always come back and prove that you have done the training and trust in your racing ability and push forward with it.”

Hoare proved as much in August at the Commonwealth Games, where he edged Cheruiyot at the finish of the 1,500 meters for Australia’s first gold medal in the event since 1958.

Win or lose, Hoare offers a weekly window in his life via the “Coffee Club Podcast,” which he hosts with two teammates, Morgan McDonald and Geordie Beamish. In its own way, the podcast is another form of outreach for a sport in constant search of a broader audience. Ritzenhein listens on occasion.

“I didn’t initially,” Ritzenhein said. “And then they said some outlandish things.”

A semiregular topic is Hoare’s love affair with Mountain Dew. His addiction is so well known by now that young fans have taken up the practice of handing him cans and bottles of Mountain Dew to autograph after races. He refers to the soft drink as “the sweet nectar of life,” though he knows that it is not an ideal delivery mechanism for vitamins and minerals, and that he likely would be better off without it.

But he cannot quit it, not now. He sees two advantages.

Advantage No. 1: “I’m an emotional person,” he said. “So I feel like if I’m emotionally happy drinking a bad soda, it’s going to affect me positively and put me in a good mind-set leading up to a workout or a run. I’ll be happy. Whereas, if I don’t have it, I’m unhappy.”

Advantage No. 2 hinges on the idea that athletes need to put their bodies through stress — the stress of gritting through interval sessions, the stress of lifting weights, the stress of receiving limb-crunching treatment from physiotherapists. “I put my body through stress in another way by forcing it to adapt to terrible food and soft drink,” Hoare said. “At this point in time, it’s working. But I also know that, at age 50, I might be stuck to a machine.”

On Saturday, Hoare wants to put his body through the familiar stress of running fast. There are no easy miles, after all. He learned that lesson long ago.

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Credit...Anna Watts for The New York Times