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An Anchorage runner returns home with a milestone in mind

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: September 13, 2017
  • Published September 13, 2017

A state track champion at West High, Hans Roelle graduated in 2010 and hasn't stopped running since.

Hans Roelle

In five years at Eastern Oregon University, he was a three-time NAIA national champion, winning two indoor titles in the 1,000 meters and one outdoor title in the 800 meters.

Since the fall of 2015, he has trained and competed with a track club in Eugene, Oregon, and this year he has recorded personal bests in the 800 and 1,000.

But in all of those years since high school, Roelle has never raced in Anchorage. That will change Wednesday when he returns to his alma mater for what could be a historic night of running.

Roelle, 25, is one of seven elite runners coming to town for the first of two races in the Great Alaska Miles Series. Their mission is to break the 4-minute-mile mark — something that has never happened on an outdoor track in Alaska.

Five of the runners boast sub-4:00 miles on their resumes, including Ben Blankenship of Eugene, who placed eighth in the 1,500 meters at the Rio Olympics last year, and Trevor Dunbar of Kodiak, the only Alaskan to achieve the feat and a man who has long dreamed of running a sub-4:00 on an Alaska track.

"I expect it to go fast," Roelle said. "We've got a pacer to set us up for a sub-4-minute pace and I don't think the guys will let it be a slow race, especially Trevor.

"… It will be fun for everyone in the race, but especially for Trevor and I."

Roelle is one of two runners who haven't broken the 4-minute mark in the mile. His specialty is the 800 meters, a distance he was all but destined to run.

His mom, the former Chris Jones, was a star 800 runner at Bartlett High. So was his aunt, Cheri Jones, who set a state record at that distance in 1988 by clocking 2:17.1. In 1987, Cheri ran 2:19.0 to beat the Cook Inlet Conference record of 2:19.9 set by Chris in 1981.

"A lot of people in my family are 800 runners," said Roelle, whose sister Ariel ran the 800 for UAA. "It's the main reason I got into running."

At times, Roelle was a reluctant runner.

Encouraged by his parents to run in grade school — his dad, state trooper Hans Roelle, was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2001 — Roelle stuck with running even when he lost interest during middle school.

"My mom encouraged me to stay in sports even when I wasn't enthusiastic about it," he said. "(She) was pretty knowledgeable and always gave me advice. She'd tell me what to eat before a race and encourage me to do stretching and drills.

"It was annoying to me when I was not that enthusiastic about it, but she always gave great advice."

Roelle said his attitude changed after a growth spurt his sophomore year. Once he matured physically, his running improved, and so did his perspective.

"It's hard for a lot of freshman guys coming in who are a little underdeveloped. I couldn't hang with the varsity guys," he said. "My sophomore year I went from about 5-6, 5-7, to 6 feet tall, so that helps a little bit. Being able to run with (fast) people makes it funner, and when you're having fun at practice, you're going to have faster races."

As a freshman, Roelle's best 800 time was a 2:15 in a relay race, which made him the fastest in his family. As a sophomore, he ran 2:04 in an open 800.

As a senior, he won the state 800 title in a personal-best 1:55.68, which gave him ideas about running at a Lower 48 college. Joe Alward, his coach at West High, suggested that he check out Eastern Oregon, where Wasilla graduate Ben Welch coaches track and cross country.

After a successful college career — besides the three NAIA national championships, Roelle left with degrees in math and computer science — he decided he wasn't quite done with running.

"He did what many of us wanted to do but we didn't have the courage or the encouragement to do," Alward said. "He moved to a track-and-field mecca. He moved to Eugene."

Roelle said it was an easy path to take. Two former college teammates were already living in Eugene and training with Team Eugene Run, and they persuaded Roelle to join them. One of them, Doug Benson, will be the rabbit in Wednesday's race in Anchorage and Saturday's race in Kodiak.

In Eugene, Roelle works part-time at a software development company and trains several hours a day. His job affords him the flexibility needed to travel to races.

He's been with the club for two years now, and this year he racked up PRs in the 1,000 (2:21.91 at the U.S. Indoor Championships, shaving more than three seconds off his previous best of 2:25) and the 800 (1:49.22, a small improvement on his previous best of 1:49.4).

By continuing to lower his times, "I think it shows I made the right decision," Roelle said.

"I'm focused on the 800," he said. "The big thing is going under 1:48, that's been my big goal. I haven't quite got that, but it's something I think I can do."

Roelle said he's interested in seeing what he can do in the 1,500, which he doesn't run often.

He doesn't run the mile very often either, which isn't surprising — the mile faded from the track scene when the sport went from yards to meters. Runners like Dunbar, who value the history of the mile, want to keep the distance relevant. It's a distance Americans understand, and it's one with a revered history.

Roelle ran the indoor mile in college and ran a road mile as recently as last month, but he's never run it on an outdoor track. He's looking forward to doing so in his hometown.

He's also looking forward to running on West High's state-of-the-art track, which replaced the aging track Roelle knew in high school.

He has yet to step foot on the oval, touted as one of the fastest in Alaska.

"I have looked at it through the gates," Roelle said. "It's a little different than when I was there — that track had a lot of dips in it, especially at the 200 mark."

What hasn't changed is the potential for windy conditions at West High.

"I remember that wind," Roelle said. "I don't have any secrets about running in it, unfortunately. Tuck in behind someone, I guess?"

Roelle's personal record in the 1,500 is 3:49.65, which converts to a 4:07.95 mile (a mile is 109 meters longer than the 1,500).

A sub-4:00 is unlikely for him Wednesday given it's been a couple of years since he competed in a four-lap race, but maybe the night will be right for a PR. Tucking in behind a sub-4:00-minute miler could propel Roelle to another mark to remember in his year of milestones.

Great Alaska Mile Series

Wednesday, 7 p.m., West High track

Saturday, 1:15 p.m., Kodiak's Baranof Park.

Free admission

The lineup:

Ben Blankenship, Eugene, Oregon (mile PR: 3:53.04)
Garrett Heath, Seattle (3:53.13)
Kyle Merber, New York (3:54.57)
Colby Alexander, New York (3:54.94)
Trevor Dunbar, Kodiak (3:55.54)
Nick Harris, Boulder, Colorado (4:01.50)
Hans Roelle, Anchorage (4:07.95 metric mile)
Pace-setter – Doug Benson, Eugene (4:05.78)

A question-and-answer session with the runners will be held Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Skinny Raven.

An earlier version of this story said the West High track is six years old. The track was built in 2012 and was first used in 2014, according to Joe Alward of West High.

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