The next generation of running influencers is already here. The following trendsetters under 30 are shaping the present and future of running through ingenuity, creativity, bold decisions and beyond-their-years performances.
Also, compare this year’s list with our 2015 roundup of young runners.
18, Purceville, Va.
For four years in an illustrious high school career, Drew Hunter was used to seeing the finish tape. Even though hunter is in his name, he was the one way out ahead, pulling away from the pack each lap with his upright, compact stride.
But now Hunter is venturing into uncharted territory. This high school phenom who turns 19 in September became the first American male runner to skip college and turn professional when he signed an astounding 10-year deal with adidas in July.
Blockbuster contracts, of course, are only given to big talents, and Hunter, a miler, has been called one of the best high school runners of all time.
His prep accomplishments are the stuff of legend. Winning the Foot Locker National High School Cross Country Championship by more than 7 seconds. Stealing victory at the finish line while running the mile leg in the Penn Relays distance medley relay after starting 8 seconds back. Breaking the high school national indoor 3K record and running under 8 minutes. And most coveted of all, breaking the high school indoor record for the mile at the Millrose Games, running 3:57.81, becoming one of only nine high school runners ever to go sub-4 in the mile and only the third to do it indoors.
Hunter’s got the experience of his mother and father, Joan and Marc—two elite-level runners, who later coached the great Alan Webb—behind him, along with coach Tom Schwartz, who began advising Hunter before his wildly successful senior year last year.
And talking with him you’d swear he’s not a guy fresh out of high school. Hunter comes off as the most mature 18-year-old ever. He exudes quiet confidence in himself and his way forward, and you get the sense that, even though he’s diving head-first into the elite ranks, totally bypassing the guidance and the camaraderie of the college system, he’ll be OK.
Up until July, Hunter’s road appeared to be paved. He had committed to the University of Oregon and would be the collegiate track and field powerhouse’s star recruit. Eighteen current and former Oregon track and field athletes went to this year’s Olympics, for example.
“It might be one of the hardest decisions I’ll have to make,” Hunter says. “I mean, the University of Oregon is the best program in the country. Turning that down is not easy.”
By going pro, though, Hunter isn’t turning his back on college. He’s looking into moving out of his parents’ house and enrolling somewhere in the next year, and his adidas contract is reported to include full college tuition.
“At the end of the day I’m really excited for the new chapter,” Hunter says. “I have big goals that would be hard to achieve in the college system, so I’m excited.”
But here’s the interesting part about Hunter. Ask him what his career goals are, the long-term stuff, and he’s got a savvy answer: “Just keep improving,” he says. He’s careful not to mention medals, records or Olympic rings.
So far, that one-step-at-a-time mantra is working. In his first race as a pro on Aug. 5, Hunter placed a respectable sixth at the Sir Walter Miler event in Raleigh, N.C., lowering his mile PR to 3:57.15.
“I’ve always been able to reach my goals, so I think the goal is just to keep doing that,” he says. “Keep it simple. I like to take things one race at a time and one season at a time.—Adam Elder
13, Winona, Minn.
It looks like a typo: that a 5K was run in 16:44.80 by a 12-year-old. But it’s real—achieved by Grace Ping at the New Balance High School Nationals in June. That mark shattered the old world record, which stood for 39 years, by 10 seconds. Oh, and in doing so, Ping also broke the 5K record for 13-year-olds. For the rest of us, it’s a mark that sounds incredible—and feels thoroughly discouraging. (She also lowered her own record in the 2-mile run with a 10:28.66 effort the next day.)
The diminutive Ping, who’s now 13 and in the eighth grade, actually runs for her local high school, Cotter High School, where she won individual state titles in track and cross country last year. She’s coached remotely by Tom Schwartz, who has a bit of experience with prodigies: He also coaches Drew Hunter.
Ping said she didn’t start running seriously until around age 8—after she set her first state record. Her parents are both accomplished amateur runners. Her father has run a 16:01 5K, while her mother’s marathon PR is 3:01. Even though she rarely races without a bright neon-colored headband, she likely won’t need that kind of visibility if she keeps smashing world records.—A.E.
20, Corvallis, Ore.
Six years after running his first ultra-distance race with his mom, Andrew Miller is looking like the next big thing in his sport.
In June, Miller became the youngest champion in the history of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, an event that dates to 1974. It was his third straight success, following victories in the 68-mile Georgia Death Race in March and the Bighorn Trail 100 in June of 2015. Throw in wins at the 2015 Death Race and the Orcas Island 50K a month before that and Miller has won five of his last seven starts, with a second in another.
“I feel like I’m really improving a lot the last two years,” Miller says. “I’ve figured it out, I guess.”
Miller is entering his sophomore year at Northern Arizona University, where he’s an exercise science major. He grew up backpacking and hiking with his family. He played high school soccer, but never ran track or cross country. He and his brother rode their bikes with their ultra-running mom on her training runs, and eventually Andrew gave it a try. By his second ultra, the McDonald Forest 50K in Corvallis, when he was 15, Miller says he was “hooked.”—Doug Williams
26, Brooklyn, N.Y.
The first time Kelly Roberts went on a run in cotton tights, she chafed in places she’d never dream of chafing. But that hasn’t stopped her from sharing the awkward details. She also hated running when she got started and has seemingly endless amounts of comical and horrific stories to tell about that too. The author behind the successful Run, Selfie, Repeat blog, Roberts started running on Thanksgiving Day in 2013, but she became a viral sensation a year later when she posted a series of selfies with handsome men she intentionally captured in the background during the 2014 New York City Half Marathon. Running helped Roberts lose 75 pounds, but, more importantly, it gives her a sense of purpose and identity, not to mention helping her grieve the loss of her brother.
Roberts says she created Run, Selfie, Repeat to inspire others to make changes and find solutions in their own lives. Using a self-effacing style, plenty of authentic running smarts and a bit of sassiness, she posts photos (yes, lots of selfies!) and tells stories that relate to all sorts of recreational runners who are dealing with some of the same things. With more than 12,000 followers on Facebook and 3,600 on Twitter and a new YouTube channel with funny and inspiring videos, she’s definitely developed a following in the sweet spot of the modern running boom.
“I’ll never know what went through my mind when I got home and thought, ‘That was awful … I think I’m going to do that again,’” Roberts says in a video on her blog. “Look, running sucks. It’s hard. It takes work. It’s painful. I’ve spent more time crying on random street corners than I can count. But running only sucks when you’re just getting started. That’s what no one tells you. Even if you’re not an athletic person, you can become a runner. I always assumed I wasn’t a runner because I couldn’t make it around my block without feeling like I was going to die. But here’s what I’ve learned: some people are in fact born runners. But others are made.”—Brian Metzler
19, East Northport, N.Y.
Mikey Brannigan is a remarkable kid. Diagnosed with autism when he was 18 months old and considered non-verbal until he was about 5, he was a boy in constant motion—although his parents say it was difficult for him to channel his energy. But that changed soon after he began running with the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program in the fourth grade. By the time he was 9, it was clear he had a gift for the sport.
After a standout high school running career—which included a 4:03 mile in 2015—he started training as a member of Team USA as a Paralympic athlete. He set numerous Paralympic records over the past several years, but none bigger than the 3:57.58 mile he ran at the Sir Walter Miler meet in Raleigh, N.C. That time set a new world record in the T20 Paralympic classification for intellectual disabilities.
On Sept. 13, Brannigan claimed his first gold in the T20 1,500-meter final at the Rio Paralympics. He dominated the field with a 55.89-second final lap and a winning time of 3:51.73, throwing his arms up in victory as he crossed the finish line.—B.M.
27, Manitou Springs, Colo.
Zach Miller makes pancakes every single day. And spaghetti too. And he’s been doing it for months on end. But that’s not what he eats to fuel him for the arduous trail runs he goes on every day right outside his front door. Helping make those basic meals every morning and evening is just part of his job.
Miller, a 27-year-old elite-level trail runner, is one of the six year-round caretakers at Barr Camp 6 miles up Pikes Peak. The camp is a nonprofit community- and volunteer-supported organization centered around a 94-year-old wooden cabin and bunkhouse situated at 10,200 feet above sea level, roughly halfway up Colorado’s most famous mountain.
Although it’s hardly a 9-to-5 gig, the caretaker role is perhaps the best job a committed mountain runner could ever want. Miller and his younger sister, Ashley, have been at it since early 2015, and this summer Ashley’s fiancé, Nathan Josephs, has come on board.
In addition to making meals, Miller also does dishes, splits logs, sweeps the floors, sells bottled water, snacks and souvenirs, cleans out the camp’s composting toliets and offers hikers and runners trail information and tips about wilderness ethics. He also helps man the midway aid stations in the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent races in mid-August. (There are no roads to Barr Camp, so new provisions most arrive aboard the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.)
Oh, and he runs, too. A lot. His running isn’t part of the required daily duties at Barr Camp, but it’s certainly part of his role as a Nike-sponsored trail runner and as a mountain rescue volunteer.
Being a caretaker means living a spartan lifestyle and doing a wide range of odd jobs, but that’s just fine with Miller because the running is second to none. He typically runs 2 to 4 hours a day on the network of high-altitude trails right outside his door, often up to the 14,114-foot summit of the mountain or down to the base at 6,500 feet. That was his routine last winter, too, when he battled frigid weather and trampled over the snow-packed trails.
Miller’s boyish looks and seemingly happy-go-lucky demeanor belie his fierce intensity and ability to turn himself inside out to win a race of attrition. In most races, he goes straight to the front and pushes the pace to the end—much like a young Steve Jones did in the mid-1980s in the marathon.
“As a runner, he’s pure grit,” says fellow elite trail runner Peter Maksimow, a frequent training partner in Manitou Springs. “I would use Steve Prefontaine as the best comparison of running fortitude. Full throttle until he’s hunching over and foaming at the mouth, but always pushing.”
Blending a unique job, a simple, regimented lifestyle and training are nothing new for Miller. In 2013-2014, he worked as the in-house digital print shop manager on a cruise ship and did the majority of his training on a treadmill, but also managed to do some running in exotic ports of call. Those efforts resulted in a victory and the third-fastest time at the JFK 50 Mile Run in Washington D.C.—his breakout race in the trail running world—and followed that up with a win a record-setting win at the Lake Sonoma 50 in April 2014.
“What it comes down to is his mindset. Wherever he is or whatever his situation, he believes he can accomplish the big goals he has set for himself,” Maksimow says. “What separates Zach from many others is that if he needs to train for a 50-miler on a treadmill while on a cruise ship or get up at 4 a.m. and trudge through waist deep snow at 10,000 feet during sub-zero temps, he does it. No excuses.”
Not surprisingly, Miller has upped his trail running results considerably since living at Barr Camp, having won the competitive Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix 100K in Europe last summer, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile Championship near San Francisco last December and the 115K Madeira Island Ultra Trail in April.
“It’s an amazing place to live and run, and each year I seem to get stronger,” says Miller, who ran competitively in college for the Rochester Institute of Technology—an NCAA Division III school. “Living in the cabin doesn’t get old for me. I’m kind of a simple person, and while it’s kind of the same thing every day, no two days are ever the same, especially when a call from the mountain rescue group comes over the radio. For the kind of races I run, I couldn’t be in a better place for training. It’s kind of hard to beat.”
On Aug. 26-27, Miller took on his biggest challenge to date—the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix, France. One of the most competitive trail running events in the world, it’s a 105-mile race with 32,000 feet of elevation gain that sends runners through parts of France, Italy and Switzerland as it circumnavigates the Mont Blanc massif. It’s a race no American man has ever won and his first 100-miler, yet Miller went off the front from the start with determination and led the race—by as much as 25 minutes at one point—for the first 85 miles.
To prepare, he extended his longer training days to 6 to 8 hours, running up routes that would allow him to have three impromptu aid stations—the Pikes Peak Summit House, the Barr Camp cabin and his car parked down at the base of the mountain. (He has a couple of jugs of water and dozens of GU Roctane gels stashed in his car.)
“I’ve had a lot of fun training this summer. I spent the last few months running steep climbs and steep descents and practicing my nutrition strategy knowing I had these three places I could stop for water and more GU,” he says. “I would often go out after breakfast and spend all day out there and come back in time for dinner. I was amazed at how long my body could go and still feel good at the end of the run.”
Although he ultimately finished sixth in the UTMB, he earned huge respect from other runners, spectators and race officials.
“Zach Miller runs like a bull,” said Frenchman Christophe Aubonnet, a top-level trail runner and one of the founders of Hoka One One brand. “He might have two gears—all or nothing. It didn’t work out for him this time, but he is a crazy competitor.”—B.M.
Elite runners lead an enviable but unforgiving lifestyle. They do what most of us only dream of—and deal with things most of us are glad not to.
And while only a very few in the sport truly speak out against injustices like corruption, doping or better compensation, no one does it better—or at least funnier—than 800m runner Phoebe Wright. Through Twitter, Instagram and her own blog, Stop Phe, Wright documents the life of an elite and sheds light on the world of running and racing in ways that few others do—in any sport.
“The track life is awesome, but often it’s not as glamorous as fans think it is,” Wright says. “It’s less ‘professional athlete’ and more ‘starving artist.’ It’s still the best job you can get though, if you’re lucky enough to get it and not get discouraged by doping, scandals, bribes and whatnot.”
Wright wades through weighty topics like doping by using her current pharmacology studies to explain in simple terms why it’s dangerous and immoral. Or she’ll demonstrate through role-playing the funny difficulties that arise when an elite runner tries to have a relationship with a non-runner. Or she’ll make a devastating but hilarious point by calling out telling details in the background of an innocent-looking photograph.
“It’s like professional runners are taught to only train and then sit in a vacuum, isolated from the outside world,” Wright says. “It’s changing though! I think this new wave of passionate people is good for the athletes, fans and sport in general.”
Wright also tackles issues in an actionable way. When an old teammate confessed to battling an eating disorder, Wright wrote a long, nuanced article instructing and explaining how to confront this common and insidious disease in the running world. More recently she’s shared cautionary advice for runners looking to turn pro about the murky world of agents and professional contracts.
Wright is 28, and while she says she’ll definitely be racing next year, she’s not sure what will happen after that.
“My dream job would be to live tweet events—or Snapchat them” Wright says. It’d be a running fan’s dream too.—A.E.
24, Fort Mill, S.C.
People do all sorts of little things to separate themselves from their professional peers. Adrian Jackson, however, took it to a whole new level by running 2,400 miles across the United States.
Starting in April, the 24-year-old ran from his hometown of Fort Mill, S.C., to the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles in two months and three weeks to raise money for his film production company, Black Forest Films—and, he says, to raise awareness for filmmaking in the Carolinas, whose industry is often overshadowed regionally in the Southeast by Atlanta.
“This ultimately was a stepping stone to separate myself from all the other filmmakers in the world,” Jackson says. “Because people look at running like ‘Oh, running is hard,’ but if you truly understand running you know that it’s mental, and it’s about just getting it done.”
Jackson, who ran track and cross country in high school at the state-championship level, says he averaged 25 to 30 miles a day on the trip, and ran, jogged or walked the whole way—except for times when a hotel or a friend’s house along the way was off-course.
A documentary of Jackson’s run is forthcoming at the end of this year, and updates and info about his run are at Runningforfilm.com. He also chronicled the incredible journey on his Instagram account (a_dawgg803).
Jackson says he has plans for more running film concepts in the future, as well as other topics.
“I felt relieved when it was over,” Jackson says. “But when you’re out there all alone, it’s just good quality time. You learn a lot about yourself and it changes your outlook on life.”—A.E.
26, Eugene, Ore.
Elite runner. Filmmaker. Poet. Artist.
Don’t try to put labels on Alexi Pappas. Not only is there not one that will fit this multi-dimensional visionary, but chances are she’ll continue to break the mold by doing and being more than she already is. Fresh off running in the Olympics in Rio (she placed 17th in the 10,000m while running for Greece) and the debut of the indie film “TrackTown” (co-produced by fiancé Jeremy Teicher), Pappas has a blank canvas on which to plot what’s next, and quite frankly, the sky is the limit.
Pappas has also written and performed a one-act play, done improv comedy, co-wrote another film Tall as the Baobab Tree and contributed a regular poetry column to Women’s Running magazine.
With her ambitious Millennial zest and Gen Z appeal, Pappas is poised to become one of the voices of her generation. “Pappas has an appeal that transcends her impressive race results, with her cockeyed worldview and her lack of pro-athlete pretension drawing in fans,” Sam McManis wrote about her in The New York Times.
She’s still improving as a runner and could make a run at the 2020 Olympics. But at some point her running might seem like a footnote, given other opportunities (Hollywood movies? business ventures? social causes? politics?) that she might be pursuing.
“I really don’t know what life holds in store for me, but that’s the beauty of it,” she says. “I know not everything I will do will be connected to running, but I know I will always be a runner and connected to the sport in some fashion.”—B.M.
23, Boulder, Colo.
Even before he graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in mechanical engineering in May, Connor Winter was already the founder and CEO of a startup running tech company called ShoeSense, not to mention a two-time NCAA All-American runner who helped the Buffaloes win two national titles in cross country and a guy with a 3:59.76 mile to his credit.
With ShoeSense, Winter has used his training as an elite athlete, his academic background and his industry experience to craft a sensor device that will track wear and performance of running shoes and, in the process, possibly become a tool to help reduce the rate of common running injuries. While the product is still in the test phase, he’s had discussions with several major shoe brands and filed papers for a patent on the device. Winter’s idea for his business—the proverbial light bulb—came about in an entrepreneurial business planning class. A professor helped him determine what problems exist in running and consider what solutions could be useful.
“There’s no accurate way of knowing when your shoes are worn out,” Winter says. “Most people know it’s there and accept it and accept the consequences of sometimes getting injured and sometimes having issues with their shoes and not knowing it. But there has to be a better way.
“So combining the two different knowledge bases of sensors and wearables, and doing the running and working at running stores and knowing what customers like, I was able to really combine everything and have a great product that provides a good service that solves a really big issue within running.”—Neill Woelk
17, New Brunswick, N.J.
A star was born at the U.S. Olympic Trials in July, even at a track meet that features plenty of drama and heroes in the making. On the second biggest stage in track and field only to the Olympics, now-17-year-old Sydney McLaughlin, a 400m hurdler, became the youngest athlete to compete in the Olympics for the U.S. since 1972. Her 54.15 mark in the final not only punched her ticket to Rio de Janeiro, it also earned her the junior world record—one of several she now holds.
But for all these highs, McLaughlin’s year started off poorly. She had to sit out the first month and a half of track season at Union Catholic High School in New Jersey while battling mononucleosis. Then her mother had a heart attack.
And even after the first heat of the Trials she almost didn’t make it through the week—not because of her racing, but because of nerves.
“After the first race, I had a mental breakdown,” McLaughlin said in July when she accepted the Gatorade Athlete of the Year award shortly after the trials. “I called my dad and told him, ‘I can’t do this—I’m 16 years old, racing against grown women.’ My coaches said, ‘We got you here, you’re getting on the line.’ … Three races later, I’m an Olympian.”
At the Rio Olympics McLaughlin made it as far as the semifinals in the 400m, in which she came in 5th place with a time of 56.22 seconds. It’s impossible to think, though, she won’t be back several more times.
Now that the 2016 Olympics are behind her, she’s returned to high school for her senior year.—A.E.
25, Boulder, Colo.
Emma Coburn has definitely upped her game over the past two seasons, but her best might yet to come.
Not only has she continued her progression in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, she also brought home the bronze medal from the Rio Olympics—the first American woman to earn a medal in that quirky and relatively unknown event. Plus, she lowered her own American record to 9:07.63. That means she ran 4:53-mile pace while also jumping over 35 rigid wooden barriers—seven of them in front of a daunting water pit.
Coburn has made huge strides since her first Olympics in 2012—she placed 12th in the London Games—but it’s her strong work ethic, self-deprecating style and easy-going demeanor that have earned her respect from teammates and competitors.
“I’m very motivated with or without a record, a medal, whatever the case is,” Coburn said. “It wasn’t a big motivating factor in my training. The goal, the reason for competing, is so much greater than that.”
She also gained a lot of buzz because of her inclusion in ESPN The Magazine’s The Body Issue 2016 in July. That’s where athletes in a variety of sports are photographed entirely naked—in a tasteful manner—while mimicking the movements of their sport. (Among the other athletes included in this year’s Body Issue are Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, wrestler Adeline Gray, former Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis, fencer Nzingha Prescod and New England Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork.)
Coburn lives in Boulder, Colo., but the photo shoot was done in Crested Butte, Colo., where she grew up and went to high school.
“I think that The Body Issue is tasteful, beautiful and a once in a lifetime experience for an athlete to be a part of. I’m humbled to be included on the list of athletes who have been in it,” Coburn said. “I’m happy to be able to help showcase athletes as strong athletes and positive role models.”