Love on the Run
Dan Gruber raises generations of Milers on the Central California Coast
By Jon Gugala, Bring Back the Mile contributing writer
EDITOR'S NOTE: On June 3, junior Nikki Hiltz won the California State Meet at 1600 meters. Jon Gugala spoke to Hiltz shortly after who commented that "it was the best feeling in the world; it’s the best feeling I’ve ever had.” He wrote a complete piece on her win and we have included it below his original article. Hiltz will next compete on June 9 in the Jim Ryun High School Dream Mile part of the adidas Grand Prix in New York, NY.
APTOS, Calif. - I told Dan Gruber, distance coach for Aptos High School, that I wanted to train for the Mile, so on May 18, after the league meet was over and most of his team’s season had ended, he invited me to run an 800 meter time trial shadowing junior Nikki Hiltz. Aptos head coach Scotty McConville, the former school record-holder in the metric Mile at UC Santa Barbara, would lead her through 1200 meters, and all I had to do, he said, was “join the pain-train.”
I was not familiar with this term. But I would find out.
Hiltz, who last year as a sophomore finished third in the 1600 meters at the California State Championship in 4 minutes, 43.43 seconds, may seem only the “latest and greatest” that Gruber has developed over his nineteen years of coaching at Aptos. McConville, who has a 3:46.77 1500 meters PR, and 2:10-marathoner Brett Gotcher (3:47.91 PR) both came out of the program, and Gruber’s athletes have been state champions and All-Americans. There are too many to name one by one.
But even as part of the Aptos legacy, Hiltz is something different. “She’s got that explosive speed, she’s got endurance, but she has the mindset,” says Gruber, who himself was an Aptos Miler with 4:02.8 best. “This is a kid who’s a runner. And that’s that difference.”
The following week Hiltz will win her second consecutive California Central Section 1600 meters championship, which won’t surprise anyone since she’d already run a nation-leading 4:44.02 two weeks earlier. But there has been only one focus for Hiltz’s 2012 track season, and that is State, held on June 1-2 in Clovis, where she is no longer the upstart but a contender.
“Last year, I was unknown. Now I feel like a lot of people know me, and everybody knows I have this finishing kick and everybody is going to try to run away from me,” Hiltz says. “It’s a lot more pressure, but it’s also... I don’t know; it’s flattering.”
Like a housecat that’s maimed too many neighborhood birds, Hiltz has a metaphorical bell jingling around her neck that all her competitors can hear, including defending champ Cami Chapus of Harvard-Westlake, her biggest rival, who has run 4:19.54 in the 1500 meters this season.
Last year, Hiltz latched on to the battle Chapus waged with second-place Alli Billmeyer, limping to the bell in 3:34 and trying to hold on. This year, Gruber’s plan is to get Hiltz through that point and still have her kick, which, with 58.11 400 meters speed, is one of the fastest in the country. In the day’s workout, McConville is supposed to take Hiltz through 1200 meters in 3:30.
And so McConville leads Hiltz out, and I latch onto the back, and we go through the first lap in 71 seconds, then 69 seconds through the second—2:20 exactly. I collapse just past the finish line on the Mariners’ blue track, the pink fingers of my lungs clenched into a fist. Hiltz and McConville move into the last 400 meters.
And it’s then, when I recover enough to follow Gruber’s eyes to the backstretch, when Hiltz’s story, what has been told and what will be, unfolds in microcosm.
McConville is on pace as he hits 1000 meters in 2:55, but Hiltz moves to his shoulder. And with 150 meters to go, she moves past.
“There’s no secrets in his physical training,” McConville says of Gruber. “He could give any coach in the country his workouts, exactly what they are, and say, ‘Here you go. Go make your kids fast.’ But that’s not what makes his kids fast.
“A kid’s a kid. There has to be balance. I got to enjoy the sport and I got to learn how to be excited about running and love it and have a passion for it.”
Gruber’s Milers end up loving running, and that, more than what they go on to accomplish, is the amazing part.
Hiltz, coming into the final 100 meters, is driving, going to her arms, and McConville, holding pace, lets her go. The next generation of Aptos Milers approaches the finish line.
“The better you get, you have to want it more, and you have to realize why you’re doing it,” Hiltz will say later. “I run because I love running, not because I want to win.”
Hiltz Hammers in the Heat
Aptos junior kicks home for first CIF State 1600-meter Championship
By Jon Gugala, June 3, 2012
CLOVIS, Calif - With temperatures in the 90s, junior Nikki Hiltz of Aptos High School in Aptos, CA, scorched her final lap to win her first state Championship in the 1600 meters.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” Hiltz said. “It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
Going into the race, Hiltz was set to battle state-leading 1600 meters specialist and defending champion senior Cami Chapus of Harvard-Westlake.
At the gun, both Hiltz and Chapus tucked in the pack of eight through an opening lap of 71 seconds and a second lap of 73 seconds, reaching 800 meters in 2:24. Chapus then moved to the front leading the third lap, dropping half of the girls while Hiltz tucked in along with seniors Rebecca Mehra of Palos Verdes and Xochitl Navarrete of Colony.
The pack of four, led by Chapus, would hit the bell in 3:36-7 after a third lap of 72 seconds. Chapus again moved, with Hiltz covering, and it came down to the pair as they matched stride for stride in the backstretch until Hiltz unleashed her coup de grace with 200 meters remaining.
Hiltz closed her final 400 meters in 66 seconds to stamp her win by a margin of nearly five seconds in a PR 4:42.45. Mehra and Navarrete would finish next in 4:47.33 and 4:48.73, respectively, and senior Erika Reddish of Vista Murrieta was fourth in 4:50.81, followed by a fading Chapus in 4:53.42.
“I didn’t realize her last lap would be that dominant,” Aptos distance coach Dan Gruber said, himself in disbelief of his newest state champ.
“It’s an out of body experience,” said head track & field coach Scott McConville. “The whole county got behind her.”
So how does one celebrate her first state title? By racing again. Hiltz will head to New York City next weekend for the Jim Ryun High School Dream Mile, part of the adidas Grand Prix, on Saturday, June 9.