Tony's Take: Patrick Hilby Proves That He Is King Of 800m

It was pure satisfaction for Patrick Hilby at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals


Philadelphia, PA--In a world of instant gratification, the term "G.O.A.T." has been thrown around lightly. The Greatest Of All Time should be treated with more scrutiny. Running fast times or winning titles do not automatically rank one as the best of all time.

The state of Illinois has always been a leader in distance running, particularly in the 800m/half-mile.

My first recollection of greatness in the event was in high school. I witnessed George Kersh of Pearl, Mississippi, set the indoor high school record at Lousiana State University (LSU). I was warming up for the mile at the LSU HS Classic and paused to see this dominant figure run 1:50.62. There were not many banked tracks back then (mostly wooden ones, if any).

As I got older and more consumed in the sport, I noticed that Dave Ayoub of Peoria High School stood tall in state final annals. Ayoub was the first kid from the state to go under 1:49 at the state meet with a time of 1:48.30+ (converted from the half-mile). In 1977, Ayoub was one of three runners in the event's history to run under that threshold. There were few national meets back then to measure greatness beyond the state borders. Ayoub competed in the International Prep Invite and AAU Junior Nationals to earn stature.

Over the corresponding years, there have been great middle-distance runners pecking at the "Mount Rushmore" of Illinois. Names that come to mind are Steven Stellenberger (Forest View), Jim Spivey (Fenton), Jason Van Swol (Lincoln-Way), and someone from my era, Aaron Rogers of Chicago Vocational.

When Sean Torpy of Orland Park Sandburg ran that incredible 1:47.95 at the Midwest Distance Classic, I considered him an all-timer. He and his twin brother Chris Torpy had teamed up to win various state medals, including setting the metric 4x800 relay (7:37.36) state record in 2016.

Recent Hinsdale Central graduate Dan Watcke will forever be among the thoughts of Illinois historians and kids of his generation after the imprint he left on the all-time 800m state lists. Watcke is a two-time state champion in the 800m, and he anchored his mates to a state title in the 4x800 in 2023. But what I most remember is his incredible leg at last year's Nike Outdoor Nationals 4x800, in which he split 1:48.3 and led his team to a win as copped the second fastest time in the event (7:29.20). That time may be in the record books for another decade. Let's not forget that Watcke completed the deal at the Portland Track Classic, setting the all-time state best at 1:47.70. He also won a Pan Am U20 title.

Some of us may have seen what was to come from Patrick Hilby last year. As a junior for Aurora Central Catholic, it was his coming-out party. Hilby won his first state title in 1:50.49. That was just the beginning; he entered the post-state season with a victory at the HOKA Festival of Miles (1:48.81). The final race of that season was a fourth-place finish and the first All-American honor at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals in 1:48.47. Although Watcke ended the season as the top dog, there would be some grumbling about Hilby and his prospects for 2024. 

Hilby started his senior season strongly, first as a New Balance [NIL] (Name, Image, Likeness) athlete. He ran the mile at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix with a personal best of 4:10.10. 

In what could be claimed as one of the best indoor seasons for a kid from Illinois, Hilby took his talents to the New Balance Indoor Nationals and won the title in a national leading 1:48.47. It was also the fastest time ever for an IL kid and the first one under 1:49! It was also the fifth fastest time ever indoors.

The outdoor season was just as fruitful for Hilby, who repeated as a state champion in the 800m and won another in the 400m, running a personal and state-best 47.54.

A near-undefeated season was upset by a US#1 effort by freshman sensation Cooper Lutkenhaus of Texas, who ran 1:47.58 (No #7 all-time in US annals).

Hilby indicated afterward on Wednesday, from Seattle, that he had one more race, but it would be across the country in Philadelphia at the end of the week. 

How would he fare? 

It was a comfortable opening pace that he could handle, hitting the first circuit in 54.15. He could handle it with his strong distance strength and leg speed to possibly negative split. And that was exactly what happened with 125 meters to go. Hilby dashed away from challenger Brendan Herger of Michigan for the win in a US#1 1:47.55. Hilby finished with the all-time state best and #7 time of all time in the event. He was all smiles, and his legacy will remain intact for a long time to come.