On The Podium: Kenny Hill
By Denise Sechelski
If you’ve been a Gazelle for any length of time, you no doubt have crossed paths with Kenny Hill. Maybe you’ve exchanged casual words at Gazelle HQ. Perhaps he accompanied you on a run when you didn’t know the route or he imparted wise counsel afterwards. With silver hair, intense yet kind blue eyes, and a soft Texas twang, Kenny is hard to miss. “I’m a good worker bee,” he said. It’s not false modesty—Kenny couldn’t be “fake” if he tried—but his comment is an understatement nonetheless. Kenny can and often does do it all, helping the Gazelle and wider Austin running communities in countless ways.
A fixture in the Gazelle family and Gilbert’s right-hand man, Kenny has worked with Gilbert from the beginning. “Gilbert was working so hard, and the community gathered around him,” Kenny recalled. “Anything Gilbert wants, I’ll do. He says ‘jump,’ and I say ‘how high’ on the way up.”
Thus, you will likely see Kenny helping Gilbert coach, setting up the water stops for the Saturday morning long run, and monitoring the course for the Gazelle Foundation’s Run for the Water 10-mile race—among many other tasks. “I refer to myself as Gilbert’s Sherpa,” he said.
But don’t let his easy, generous manner fool you. Kenny is a premier athlete in his own right. It all began with a running routine that was meant to build fitness for soccer 22 years ago. Kenny was coaching his son’s soccer team and decided to start playing himself. “I needed to get in shape,” he explained, “so I would go to the local elementary school track. My goal was to run four laps. I would rest after each one. I didn’t realize those were my first 400 repeats!”
Kenny kept running (“I ran the same pace, just farther”). He did 5Ks and 10Ks and joined marathon relay teams: five runners each doing shorter segments of the 26.2 distance. But running the anchor leg for his team in the Austin Motorola Marathon, he was not allowed to cross the finish line. Shocked by the lack of respect granted the relay runners, Kenny vowed, "Next year I'm going to do the whole thing!" And he did. In his first attempt at the full distance in 2000, Kenny finished that same marathon in 3:18—good enough to quality for the Boston Marathon.
“Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to Boston!” and I didn’t even know what that was,” Kenny said. When asked if he made the trip to the iconic race, Kenny hooted and explained his thinking at the time, “Heck, no! Why would I have gone all the way up there to run?!”
By 2002, Kenny had found Gilbert and the newly formed Gazelles, and he arrived with a goal: a sub-3:00 marathon. Kenny put in the extra repeats and changed his attitude about the Boston Marathon, deciding it probably was worth it to go “way up there to run.” Kenny toed the famous start line in April 2003 aiming to cover the 26.2 miles in under three hours.
Kenny ran 3:07. The time stands as his marathon PR.
“My first thought when I finished was ‘I am never doing that again.’ My legs were numb,” he said. Kenny explained that he ran the race to the cadence of Gilbert’s voice in his head saying Don’t stop. “There was a day on Wilke when I stopped. Just came to a dead stop. And there was Gilbert right in front of me, right in my face, yelling, ‘Don’t stop! Don’t ever stop!’” Those words became the drumbeat for Kenny’s footsteps along the Boston course.
Kenny did run another marathon, of course (he’s run a total of “13 or 14”). He also excelled in shorter races (10K PR 38:40, 5K PR 18:52) and in longer races (age group wins in ultra races of 50K with a PR of 4:34), punctuated by spells of “retirement.” But his running buddies, his coach, and the opportunity to encourage fellow runners always pulled him back.
These days Kenny assists Gilbert with the early morning Gazelle training group on Mondays and Wednesdays. “I really don’t know when I started coaching,” Kenny mused. “I kind of just morphed into it. I have a lot of wisdom and experience, good and bad, to share with our Gazelles. I like Gilbert’s saying, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!’ Be patient with yourself, take it one day at a time, and do the work. The best thing about coaching is to see the progress our runners make and watch the dedication they put into their training. They inspire me.”
As for lacing up his favorite kicks, this self-described “car guy runner turned volunteer” now runs when he feels like it. “When you’re chasing a PR, it’s great motivation,” Kenny said. “My PRs are over. But my legs are good, my knees are good, my feet are good. I’m grateful to be able to run.”