Race Hard, Run Hard: How Rocky Hansen Found National Stardom

* Rocky Hansen (Christ School, NC) clocks 14:45.00 to win the adidas XC Challenge on Sept. 17, currently the fourth-fastest time in the nation for 5k this season.

Photo Credit: Dan Loughlin/MileSplit North Carolina

"I'm someone that really likes to see progression. Running is always an activity that has just grounded me. It can be sort of meditative." 

By Ashley Tysiac -- MileSplit

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Christ School (NC) distance coach Randy Ashley sat at his desk on the first of August with a blank notecard staring back at him.

He had a gut feeling that he wanted to put down on paper.

Ashley took the index card and jotted down a simple phrase in ink before slipping the note into his desk drawer.

"14:55 -- 14:57 at Eye Opener," it read. 

He hardly ever likes to focus on finishing times, but Ashley felt more than certain that the recently-minted North Carolina high school one-mile record holder Rocky Hansen would clock somewhere in that range for 5K in the athlete's long-anticipated senior season debut.

Hansen had never broken 15 minutes for 5K on the grass, let alone go below 15:20. But following a junior track season that saw Hansen race around the oval faster than anyone in the state before -- even the beloved Craig Engels -- what couldn't Hansen do?

Sure enough, a month later -- with the index note still tucked away in Ashley's desk drawer -- Hansen barreled down the final 100 meter grass homestretch at the Roger Milliken Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina to a meet win, a course record and a 24-second personal best for 5K. The time read 14:57.60.

Ashley's prediction proved scarily accurate -- a coach's intuition as he calls it.

Hansen met his coach's expectations, down to the T. But post-race, Hansen didn't think the record-breaking performance called for an emphatic celebration.

In fact, it was much the contrary.

Even with a new personal, and all the other accomplishments in hand, Hansen said he didn't think he had raced up to his potential. Hansen returned home across the Carolina border to Arden, just south of Asheville and tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with some lingering disappointment.

A few days later, Ashley asked his athlete why he didn't seem pleased with the best cross country race of his career up to that point.

"He goes, 'Well, I was going to talk to you about it, but what I decided to do was some self-reflection and deal with it myself,'" Ashley said of the conversation. 

To understand just who Rocky Hansen is, that kind of rare maturity only represents the tip of the iceberg.

A part of Hansen always wants more, even on his fastest days. That sentiment perfectly encapsulates the runner he has become, a kid who took North Carolina by storm with his record-breaking speed around the track. His 2022 outdoor personal bests of 3:59.26 for 1,600m, 4:00.72 for the mile and 8:46.97 in the two mile stand in a class of their own.

"I've sort of looked at my running career as stages of evolution, and I feel like every year I've done something better or added something to my routine," Hansen said.

But that's also coming from a runner who only less than a year ago struggled to find his place in this sport, let alone nearly break the 4-minute mile barrier and run a sub-9:00 two mile and a sub-15-minute time in cross country. That came after an anemia scare left him doubting his hunger and desire in the sport.

"I was questioning whether I even had a place in running," Hansen said, "Like, 'Well, what am I doing here?'"

It's all part of what the teenager terms the 'evolutionary trajectory' of his running stardom, from being the private school talent in the mountains of Western North Carolina to becoming a national force to reckon with. 

Now in his final year of action in high school, not even Hansen truly knows what lies ahead.

Some of his future is already decided -- he'll join a young, talented Demon Deacon distance squad at Wake Forest University in fall 2023. But now, Hansen says he would rather focus on the present moments rather than the speculative what-ifs.

But he will allow himself one thing: He wants to keep shocking the high school running community, and himself.

"I'm someone that really likes to see progression," Hansen said. "Running is always an activity that has just grounded me. It can be sort of meditative." 


Climbing Out Of The Valleys

If you asked Ashley a few years ago if he thought Hansen would one day become one of the fastest high school distance runners in state history, he would've raised an eyebrow.

Quite honestly, Ashley said, Hansen didn't look like a star as an underclassman, or even when the coach began working with him as a middle-schooler.

But Ashley vividly remembers watching a sophomore Hansen clock a time fo 16:03.84 in the 5K to win the Carolinas Athletic Association conference meet at a historically-challenging Asheville Christian Academy course and seeing a glimmer of potential.

"I was like, "Okie dokie, this was a little special,'" Ashley said.

Hansen may not have produced any flashy times early on that would point to state records, but that's just part of his progression story.

What Hansen did have was that fire underneath him. He was always ready to push his limits.

"I've always noticed a hunger in him that he really wants to succeed," Ashley said.

Hansen's junior year saw him drop his 5K best from 16:03 to 15:21.80 and he claimed a win at the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association 4A state championship. That came while buying into the training process, building mileage and learning to embrace the sport.

"The last season was definitely one of my more trying seasons in terms of my growth," Hansen said. "It's where I learned a lot."

 * Hansen wins the NCISAA 4A State Cross Country Championship in 2021.

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Months after the cross country season, Hansen would go on to do the unthinkable by going sub-9 for the two-mile and 4:00.76 in the mile to break the state record. It was perhaps more incredible coming from someone who didn't even lead the state for 5K during the fall.

That jump may have shocked some people. But it didn't necessarily surprise Hansen. In fact, he probably thought he had the talent to tap into that performance for quite some time.

But if not for a simple ferritin test last winter, Hansen may have never fully realized that potential he would later show.

While Hansen was ranked at N.C. No. 7 during the cross country season in 2021 and he won a state title,  he still said something felt slightly off. Perhaps that explains why he actually never ran faster than he did on the grass.

Fatigue. Dead legs. Quickened breathing and heart rate.

Hansen experienced those physical hindrances beginning in cross country, although he didn't let them stop him from the usual training and racing grinds.

Then came a telling workout in the thick of January, when impediments became debilitating. 

The workout wasn't anything Hansen hadn't done before -- a short tempo run right around 5:30 mile pace. Hansen usually attacked tempo miles like clockwork.

But immediately, the typical tempo turned treacherous. Not even a mile and a half in, he suddenly dropped off from teammates Dawson Reeves and Jackson Burch.

His body screamed at him -- skyrocketing heart rate, anxious breathing, heavy legs, aching stomach. Simply put, Hansen said, he felt like "crud." 

"It just doesn't feel like oxygen is getting to your legs at all," he said.

Watching on was Ashley, who quickly put two-and-two together.

To him, the hindered performance and sluggish feelings could only make for one unfortunate recipe -- one for iron deficiency.

Iron is responsible for carrying oxygen to the muscles in the body and proves critical for runners as they take on such physically-demanding training and performance. Ashley promptly called Hansen's mother as he left practice that day, urging her to take action on what he saw to be an issue of seriously-low iron levels.

"(I said), 'He's got a little bit of the dark circle under his eyes, which is a tell sign, and he's never been dropped by these boys and that workout shouldn't have been that hard,'" Ashley said.

Hansen immediately went to a doctor for a blood panel the next day.

The bloodwork results came back with startling numbers: 6 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) for his ferritin level -- a blood protein containing iron -- and 10 grams per deciliter (g/dL) for his hemoglobin volume, which is an oxygen-carrying and iron-containing protein.

Optimal ferritin levels for runners vary from person-to-person based on a variety of factors, but generally, studies point to a ferritin range of 10-20 ng/mL as the range for iron deficiency and a reading as high as 36 ng/mL can classify a runner in an iron-depleted state.

Registering a level below 10 ng/mL, combined with low hemoglobin, typically makes for the iron deficiency anemia label, and those who are anemic will usually see significant physical symptoms, like impeded endurance or running performance.

With such low ferritin and hemoglobin levels, Hansen said that he likely had been running on fumes for months, if not years, without full awareness.

But as a self-proclaimed student of his craft, Hansen wouldn't let his anemic state define him as a runner.

"That's one of my main mantras, just everything is going to be fine," he said. "You just got to work hard and give 110-percent and everything will work out in the end."

Hansen began studying up. He started a daily supplementation regimen: an iron pill, a Vitamin C supplement to boost iron absorption and a beef spleen pill for an added source of easily-absorbable heme iron found solely in animals. 

Then came the game of patience. Raising iron levels doesn't happen overnight. It can take weeks to start seeing the results of consistent supplementation.

"That's one of my main mantras, just everything is going to be fine. You just got to work hard and give 110-percent and everything will work out in the end."

About six weeks later in mid-February, Hansen took to the track for his first all-out since the diagnosis at the UK High School Invitational. 

That's when the junior earned his first win of the season -- 4:17.45 for the full mile.

From there, it was a ripple effect as Hansen ended his comeback campaign indoors with two national titles at adidas Indoor Nationals, running a 4:14.27 PR in the mile and 9:07.36 for two miles.

Finally, everything began to feel right.

"Once the (ferritin) numbers started creeping up, I had a feeling he was going to burst out at some point," Ashley said.

But treating the iron anemia didn't make for the lone piece of the puzzle. Instead, it began a rejuvenation for Hansen that saw him pay more attention to his craft.

Sure, the physical running abilities began to take full form again, but Ashley still saw other aspects of Hansen's arsenal to critique. Hansen had to learn to race again and not just chase after a time, according to Ashley.

Race strategy became a regular topic of conversation between the two as Ashley passed down knowledge and Hansen craved more.

Then came the transformation of Hansen's entire approach to racing. He began ignoring the clock at the finish line. There was no need anymore for anyone to yell out lap splits. Hansen's sole mission transformed from one of time-measurable improvement to one defined by ruthlessly competing against others and himself.

"I started doing all the little things, and then it culminated into things much better than I thought they would be," he said.

It became the Hansen main mantra -- race hard, run hard. Do those two things, Hansen said, and the PRs will come along with it.

With the transformation of Hansen -- physically and mentally -- on his comeback trail, Ashley knew something special sat in front of Hansen for the taking. 

Frankly, it wasn't a matter of if Hansen would develop into a distance threat, but a matter of when.

"Essentially, something clicked in his brain and he started getting it," Ashley said.


Race Hard, Run Hard

When Hansen shaved a mind-boggling 10 seconds off of his month-old 1,600m best to run 4:02.88 at the Carolina Distance Carnival in late April, Hansen shocked not only himself but the always enthusiastic track and field community in the Tar Heel state.

That slew of surprised followers included none other than the state's running icon, Craig Engels.

Engels, a distinguished professional for Nike, watched on the infield as Hansen became the newest face to race his way into state distance running fame. He later smiled with Hansen as he presented the teenager with a signed shoe and plaque for his efforts.

According to Ashley, the veteran didn't hesitate to give Hansen his kudos. 

"(Engels) goes, 'Dude, you're a junior? You might break my record next year,'" Ashley said.

Ashley quickly turned to Engels and chuckled.

Next year? We'll see about that.

* Craig Engels presents Hansen with a shoe and award after winning the 1,600m at the Carolina Distance Carnival in April.

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A month later in Huntsville, Hansen clocked 4:00.76 for a full mile at the RunningLane Track Championships to take the state record from Engels.

"I was like, he's not going to wait until next year," Ashley said.

The Carolina Distance Carnival performance may have come with the bold headlines, but perhaps the 2-mile at the Arcadia Invitational was the race that started the domino effect for Hansen's success.

On the other side of the country and under the lights, Hansen casually dropped a 8:51.60 for 3,200m to win the seeded section. He had never gone under 9:00 before. His time would've placed 10th in the elite rated field.

That kickstarted the next stage of Hansen's development. Seeing he could hang with some of the bigger names from the powerhouse schools gave him all the confidence he needed. 

"I had built up the confidence to say, 'I can hang with these guys that are up at the top,'" he said.

Race hard. Run hard.

Hansen began to embrace that motto every time he took to a track.

It became the Hansen main mantra -- race hard, run hard. Do those two things, Hansen said, and the PRs will come along with it.

When a reporter asked Hansen if he felt upset that he just missed out on breaking the elusive 4-minute miler barrier at the RunningLane Track Championships in May, he couldn't find a single upset bone in his body.

"I was like, 'Well, I can't be mad,'" he said. "I came out here to race and win, and that's what I did.'" 

Not only did Hansen win on the national stage at the RunningLane championships, but he beat out Newbury Park (CA) star Lex Young, among other national elites. Forget the 4:00.76 -- to him, simply coming out on top constituted the biggest win possible.

Hansen would later follow up RunningLane with one final shot at a two-mile national field at New Balance Outdoor Nationals in June. At historic Franklin Field, the high school junior came out on top yet again -- 8:46.97 made for a new US No. 1 time and beat out a field that included notables like current NAU athlete Aidan Puffer and Union Catholic (NJ) front-runner Jimmy Wischusen.

Hansen ended his outdoor campaign with nation-leading times, huge personal bests and a spot among the greatest to ever do it in the distance events in North Carolina.

"I don't know if I necessarily say I knew I could go as low as I did my junior year," he said.

But Ashley, who saw him evolve from a solid front runner for Christ School to a national-caliber athlete with a strong-rooted passion for racing, didn't doubt Hansen's potential once the physical and strategic pieces began falling into place.

"It's no secret, but I guess it's kind of our secret," Ashley said.


Hungry At His Core

On a rather routine practice day at the Christ School track recently, Ashley and his assistant coaches watched on as their distance athletes bounded up and down the track, completing fundamental drills like on any given workout day.

All of a sudden, one of the assistants turned to Ashley with a poignant observation, perhaps one that had always been noticed but went unspoken.

"One of my assistant coaches remarked, 'Rocky does every single one of his drills exactly right,'" Ashley said. "He's not going to go in a light skip or bound. He's not out of form at any point."

Sure enough, there was Hansen, precise and purposeful with every "A" and "B" skip, every fundamental motion from the arm swing to the cadence of his steps.

Ashley coached and ran with pros for many years.

He's never seen anyone come close to performing simple drills as intently as the 17-year-old high school kid. Most kids aren't that locked in during practice. But Hansen says he finds purpose in tackling the "little things."

"Just grinding and working hard, it resonates with who I desire to be at my core," Hansen said.

That may only scratch the surface of understanding the unorthodox yet admirable psyche of Rocky. 

* Hansen celebrates winning the 1,600m at the Carolina Distance Carnival in April.

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Ashley isn't sure if Hansen has ever gotten a "B" or lower in school.

Just a few weeks ago, Hansen half-jokingly told his coach that he wished he had done better on his most recent AP Calculus exam. 

His grade on that test? It was a 94.

Often, the teacher finds himself becoming the student as Ashley listens to Hansen casually quote thought-provoking lessons on mental toughness and fortitude from inspirational figures like U.S.-Navy-SEAL-turned-ultra-runner David Goggins.

"All high school kids are goofy. They've got things going on in their brain, and they're talking about Marvel or some stupid video game," Ashley said. "That's not this kid. He's on a mission."

That's not to say that Hansen doesn't log online from time to time or play the latest video game. But he's also a kid that sets time limits on nightly phone usage and Instagram scrolling. 

"All high school kids are goofy. They've got things going on in their brain, and they're talking about Marvel or some stupid video game. That's not this kid. He's on a mission."

In the little spare time he has outside of what he calls his 'two main life spheres' -- school and running -- he seeks new challenges.

Right now, Hansen says he's trying his hand at piano.

Expect nothing less each day from the high school star mature beyond his years, Ashley said. 

"I've never seen a high school kid do this stuff that he does," he said.


Next Phase Of The Evolution? TBD...

Following the mixed emotions that came with the Eye Opener win, it should come as no surprise that Hansen traveled to the adidas XC Challenge in Cary recently, hungry for more.

A winning time of 14:45.00 from Hansen made for the seventh-fastest performance all-time at WakeMed Sports Complex and fell just short of Ben Huffman's state cross country record of 14:44.00, which was set back in 2013.

But what does a fairytale senior cross country season look like for Hansen?

It all boils down to following his rigid formula -- race hard, run hard.

He may be a well-known face in the distance running community -- both state-wide and nationally -- but Hansen won't let that go to his head. He'll continue to meditate on his performances, play around with race strategy and execute on the little things.

After all, he's still the same kid that wished he had gotten better than a 94-percent on an AP Calculus test.

With the journey he's had through iron deficiency, mental development and building psyche, Hansen doesn't want the surprising moments to stop now.

"This last season was pretty magical, just shocking myself and just showing that hard work pays off," Hansen said. "The big lesson is that progression isn't a straight line. It's a game of peaks and valleys, and that's a great reminder."

So Hansen will continue to attack consistent training blocks and race for placement. He'll continue taking his daily iron pills and supplements like it's second nature. And he'll look to continue becoming not just an elite high school distance runner, but the best racer out there on any given day.

Up next in the evolutionary novel of Rocky Hansen?

Even he isn't sure what that fully entails, but he says he's quite certain that there's more for him to develop and learn. 

He may have become one of the nation's best high school distance runners in just a few months time, but he's not going to settle with course records and personal bests this cross country season. 

It all goes back to the basics -- race hard, run hard.

"That's what I'm wondering myself. We'll have to see what happens," Hansen said. "I'm just trying constantly to be a student of the sport, learn more every day and get better. I don't know what this year's evolution will be, but we'll surely see."

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