The Jessica Hull interview

"From a racing standpoint, my NCAA experience was so valuable. Coming from Australia, most of my high school races strung out pretty quickly, so I wasn’t used to running deep in a pack. In the NCAA I learnt how to race. How to position myself, how to navigate through big fields and how to read the race. I’m still learning more about this now, but I definitely think my racing skill set that I developed through the NCAA’s deep fields has helped me transition to racing with the best women in the world. " —Jessica Hull

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© Copyright – 2020 – Athletics Illustrated

Jessica Hull is an Australian middle-distance runner, who has also performed well in the 5000m event. During 2020, she broke four national records and earned six new personal bests in distances including the 1500m, 3000m and the 5000m as well as the indoors 1500m. 

She grew up in Albion Park, NSW, which is located 107 kilometres south of Sydney.

Currently, she is coached by Pete Julian. She didn’t have to go far from her college location at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Julian is a coach with Nike in Beaverton just 107 miles north. In June 2019, with one year of eligibility remaining, she turned professional and signed with Nike.

Chris Cooper | Chris Cooper Photography | @coopsrun

While competing for the University of Oregon she earned seven All-American honours and is a four-time NCAA Champion.

During her first full year as a pro in 2020, she broke four national records and earned six new personal bests in distances including the 1500m, 3000m and the 5000m as well as the indoors 1500m. 

Personal bests

800m – 2:03.78
1500m – 4:00.42 NR
3000m – 8:36.03 NR
5000m – 14:43.80 NR

The interview

Christopher Kelsall: Congratulations on your successful season. It’s been an odd year, hasn’t it?

Jessica Hull: Thank you, Chris! It has been. Luckily I have a great team around me who didn’t stop trying to make sure that we could adapt our training environments, safely keep training and prepare for the racing opportunities they believed would go ahead in the second half of the summer.

CK: At what age did you begin running?

JH: I began running at eight years of age with Albion Park Little Athletics Club. I had run our school cross country carnival in Grade 2, which was really my first running experience and I loved it!

CK: What other sports did you play growing up?

JH: I also played soccer up until I was 14.

CK: Which position?

JH: I was the centre midfield usually, mainly because I used to run wherever the ball was! 

The University of Oregon influence

CK: You had terrific success at the University of Oregon. How did running in the NCAA factor in your athletic progress?

JH: Running for the University of Oregon was the perfect bridge between my junior career in Australia and being ready to live and train as a professional athlete. I was coached by Maurica Powell for three years and Helen Lehman-Winters for my senior year.  At Oregon, there was a gradual progression of mileage, intensity and the incorporation of strength and conditioning work to my training under both coaches. Progress started to show in my Junior year (redshirt sophomore season) with Maurica and then Helen was good at reminding me that each day we should just be working to be a little bit better than the day before. Both Maurica and Helen taught our team not to put a limit on what we could be capable of.

Maurica Powell is not only an incredible person and coach but now a lifelong friend. Her influence at the University of Oregon is a big reason why I am where I am now. She created a team environment amongst our women that working hard wasn’t always glamorous, but it could always be fun and you should appreciate all the little steps along the way. I think she could see progress before I could, and then once you catch a glimpse of it yourself, it starts to build momentum. She taught me what it really means to want to run for more than yourself. I would stand on the start line and want to run well for her and my teammates because they had put so much of their energy into getting me there. I carry this to the startline still now, knowing how much Pete, my teammates and my family have given to get me there and that they believe I’m capable of anything. It’s a lot more enjoyable to share your process and your results with others and being on the team at Oregon really showed me that. 

Michelle Sammett | @michellesammet

From a racing standpoint, my NCAA experience was so valuable. Coming from Australia, most of my high school races strung out pretty quickly, so I wasn’t used to running deep in a pack. In the NCAA I learnt how to race. How to position myself, how to navigate through big fields and how to read the race. I’m still learning more about this now, but I definitely think my racing skill set that I developed through the NCAA’s deep fields has helped me transition to racing with the best women in the world. 

On running professionally

CK: Your life sounds a little complicated right now. You have a fiance — congratulations by the way — you are living in Australia, but you are working with Pete Julian who is with Nike in Portland.

Will you continue to train in Oregon or be distantly coached by Pete?

JH: Thank you! One good thing to come from the restructuring of this year was that I got to spend the majority of the year in Australia for the first time since going to college in 2015. I’ve been able to make training work well here this year, but it’s not ideal to be on the other side of the world to your coach and teammates. I’m still waiting on my US visa now that I’m no longer a student, and COVID-19 has really slowed that down.

Once it is possible for me to be in the US, I plan to be with the team in Oregon full time. Especially after my time at the University of Oregon. I am very used to having my teammates around me and I know how valuable it is for us to be working together through training blocks to help each other go to new levels. Shannon Rowbury and I got a short feel for that this summer, getting to train together for an extended period for the first time. I think we were both shocked at how much better our workouts were when we could work together. Our team are great people to be around on and off the track so I can’t wait to be back with them on a more permanent basis! 

CK: Back in January, you ran that terrific indoor 1500m in 4:04.14 in Boston at the Reggie Lewis Center. Were you expecting that sort of performance? And did that race give you some anticipation about how outdoors may go?

JH: I wasn’t expecting a 4:04 at all in January, personally. I had asked Pete what kind of shape he thought I was in because I did have one eye on the Australian indoor 1500m record, which was a 4:06 at the time, and I was getting a feel for whether that might be realistic for where we were at. He was pretty confident I was in about 4:06 shape, but just going off previous years, I knew I usually took a couple of 1500s to really round into race form, so there wasn’t too much emphasis on the time, more just competing.

Once I was out there, I was feeling better and better as the race went on and just totally dialled into competing. I was shocked afterwards that we had run 4:04 because it didn’t feel like it was that fast. Six months before that race 4:04 would have been a big PR, so to start the year off right there was really exciting! I didn’t place too much emphasis at the time on what it might mean for outdoors, but it was a big confidence booster going back to Australia to race our 5,000m Olympic Trial 10 days later.

CK: How did that go, because obviously, you ran that 14:43.80 in Monaco.

JH: It went really well. We had a couple of the Japanese women come over to compete in the Melbourne Track Classic, where our trial was held. I was really excited to have Hitomi Niiya in the field off the back of her 66-minute half marathon in Houston. I’d been hanging for a while to be in a fast 5km, and given her form, I thought maybe her intention would be to go for the Japanese national record in the 5km.

It was the deepest Australian women’s field for a few years racing on home soil so I was pretty nervous going in, but I trusted my fitness and felt so comfortable out there. Genevieve Gregson is a very tough competitor, you know going in she’s going to give everything she has on that day and Linden Hall had run a solo 15:18 before, so I was thinking in a race she wouldn’t have to do all the work in, she would be right there too. Hitomi did all the work, just clicking off 72/73-second laps and I was able to finish strong over the last 600m to win in 15:06.

My biggest takeaway here was how comfortable 15:06 felt. I thought at that point in time I was in sub-15 shape which made me even more excited to be in a 5km where the pace was hot from the gun. After a long few months waiting for the delayed season, I was able to get that experience and run a 14:43 in Monaco. A lot of work went in between the two races and I definitely have now experienced a hard 5km. It’s a whole different world! 

CK: For Tokyo Olympics, which distance are you hoping to compete in next year?

JH: At the moment I’m not entirely hoping on either the 1500m or the 5,000m in particular. I do know that to do well in either of them at a championship and considering the level both events are on at the moment globally, I need to be in incredible 1500m and 5,000m shape at the same time. The training for both events complements each other well. To be able to progress through rounds and recover enough in between no matter whether it’s the 1500m or the 5,000m, covering both bases will make sure I’m prepared for any style of race. I know that Pete will have me ready to go in whichever event it is that we’re lining up for next year. 

The national records

CK: You have set at least seven personal bests during 2020 including four national records. What specifically in your training has contributed to your improvement?

JH:
Consistency and a gradual increase in intensity. I do a lot to make sure I keep myself healthy. From when I started running, I’ve been lucky to have smart coaches who have gradually increased my training load at an age-appropriate rate. This has allowed me to grow and build the foundation for consistent training as I got older.

I had also developed good recovery and injury prevention habits at the University of Oregon that I’ve built on since graduating. I see women like Shannon Rowbury who have had long and very successful careers. It’s not by chance! Shannon does all the little things to make sure she can handle the workload asked of her in training and her attention to detail and awareness of what her body needs is incredible. This has also helped me adapt to the style of workouts Pete asks us to do.

Compared to this time last year, I’m capable of a lot more in our key sessions, but I still have a way to go too. We haven’t gotten greedy and thrown too much at me too soon, risking injury or setbacks. Even at the end of this season, we have talked about how I’m young and we still have a lot of things we can work on. It’s exciting to have a year like this but also know that we haven’t maxed out. 

CK: Having set those national records in the 1500m with your 4:00.42 and 14:43.80 In the 5,000m, which do you feel is a better performance? Will you continue to race both events?

Chris Cooper | Chris Cooper Photography | @coopsrun

JH: I think for this season the 5,000m was a better overall performance. It was totally unchartered territory for me and I’ve never experienced pain like that in a race. It shows my physical and mental progress in the last 12 months to be able to push myself through that level of discomfort. So much of my training had set me up to run this 5,000m. I’d pushed myself through longer tempos and hard long runs to get there and then to be able to put it together on race day was a great outcome. 4:00 in the 1500m was the most rewarding though! Since I ran 4:01.80 in the Doha semi-final I knew I was right there when it came to being able to break the Australian record, but it was the end of the year and I’d have to wait until 2020 to be able to try again.

To finally get the chance to put the pieces together 11 and a half months later was so exciting. On the world stage, I still have a lot of work to do to be closer to the women at the top of both the 1500m and 5,000m. Especially after Letesenbet Gidey raised the bar again with her world record. My individual progress this year is a step in the right direction. I would like to keep racing both events each season and specialise closer to the championship when we’re maybe focusing more on one of them. I love the training variety that goes into racing both distances. 

CK: Speaking of Gidey, have you ever seen better form? Her heels come up so high at her backside and there is no apparent vertical oscillation or lateral movement.

JH:
Letesenbet is an incredibly smooth mover. I remember being amazed at how effortless her form looks when she was racing the 10,000m in Doha last year. She looks so relaxed and strong. Her form barely wavered at all when she ran 14:06. Not only is her form impressive but her focus too! She was on her own after 3km and she was so in the zone, it didn’t matter. I know the wavelights were there, but when you’re running that fast, it takes an extreme amount of commitment to keep the pace rolling and she never let it up. I am sure we will see a sub-14-minute attempt next season, it definitely looks like it is the next big barrier to be broken in the women’s distance events. 

CK: Is form something you focus on?

JH: From when I was a kid, my form has always been something I’ve focussed on. When dad coached me there was not a session that went by that we didn’t work on it either outrightly or as I got fatigued.

We used to train on a grass track so I would do the last rep or two of my sessions barefoot, kind of like now where you might spike up at the end of a session, we would go barefoot. I think that taught me to have good contact with the ground and helped strengthen a lot of my lower limb muscles and tendons from a young age. It probably is the reason why I run so high up on my toes now. I used to always be the shortest kid in races back then too, so dad was good at teaching me how to ‘run tall’ and not lean too far forward.

In college, our strength and conditioning program helped my form a lot by getting me strong enough to cover the ground efficiently at fast paces. Pete and I still work on the form now. Learning to relax through the shoulders and open up my stride more as I fatigue has been our focus. My strength and conditioning coach, Dave, has incorporated a challenging core and hip strength routine into our lifting program that has also made a big difference in my stability. It’s so important to continue to assess form. If you think about it, even if your form is slightly off for a week or so, you’re putting a lot of mileage through your body with a compromised gait or foot strike. This can be a starting point for injuries and staying in front of that is always the goal. 

CK: Going after that sub-4 must be everpresent now, yes?

JH:
Oh yeah! Definitely! Going into Berlin, I was thinking more about breaking “4” than I was the Australian record. I was close but I think 4:00.42 is a great reflection of where I got to this year over 1500m. I put together my best race over 1500m for the season so missing the 4:00 barrier wasn’t deflating this time around. Plus, it’s going to be a huge motivator for my fall and winter training now! 

CK: What does a typical training week look like for you, volume and quality sessions?

JH: My overall training week has kept a similar structure to my college years, but the intensity and volume has gone up gradually. This year I’ve averaged in the low 70’s for mileage, usually my weeks add up to 72/73 miles (113-115kms +/-) or so, give or take depending on the volume of our workouts. Tuesday/Friday are workout days with one being longer reps or a tempo, the other being a more speed based day and then a Sunday long run. The rest of my week is just filled with easy running which I can split up however I like to make sure I’m recovering after workouts and not getting too tired before the next one. It can vary from week to week how I structure my easy days, it just depends on how my body is feeling.  

Oregon Track and Field | @bencrawfordphoto 

CK: What is your preferred type of session, distance or quality based workouts?

JH:
It varies a lot! Overall, I prefer the quality track workouts over the tempo work for both 1500m and 5,000m training. If I have teammates or a training partner for the day, I’ll enjoy any type of session sent my way, especially the longer interval days. If I’m solo, I’d prefer to tackle a miler-based session with shorter reps. Off the track, I love my long run! 

CK:
Have you had a chance to discuss your goals going forward from now until you have settled on which distance to run in the Olympics? What about a cross country season?

JH:
Until we decide which distance to focus on, I can keep working towards the process goals that’ll set me up to be ready for either the 1500m or the 5,000m. I want to improve my finishing speed, which will be important for both distances. And I want to keep progressing my workouts and get stronger aerobically and in my lifting program. A cross country season isn’t on the cards this year, but the base work will still be getting done! 

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