Before Kendell Wiles came to IU, she grew up running on asphalt.
Whether it was in practice or during track meets, she grew accustomed to the old asphalt track at her alma mater of Blacksburg High School in Blacksburg, Virginia.
That all changed when she embraced the rubberized track at IU’s Robert C. Haugh Track and Field Complex as her new stomping grounds upon her arrival to Bloomington in 2014.
“My calves were very thankful when I got to a rubberized track,” Wiles said. “Literally, as soon as I left, my high school put rubberized track down.”
That was four years ago. Fast forward to today, and Wiles has changed nearly as much as the old track back home.
Much like the track’s conversion from asphalt to rubber, Wiles, as a runner, has gone through a transformation of her own.
Once a sprinter, Wiles now finds herself as a middle distance runner, as she finished second in the 800-meter race at this year’s Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
However, like the unyielding asphalt that once covered the Blacksburg track, the road to get to that point has been rough, and sometimes, rather frustrating.
In high school, Wiles was a star at Blacksburg. She still holds the school record in the 200-meter, 300-meter, 400-meter and 500-meter races, while also being a three-time Virginia state champion after titles in the 400 in 2014 and the indoor 500 in both 2013 and 2014.
Her legend was growing in Blacksburg after each record she broke. It resulted in a number of colleges recruiting her, one of them being a school she had plenty of ties to — Virginia Tech.
Wiles’ father, Charley, has spent 22 years as the defensive line coach for the Virginia Tech football team.
She was immersed in the Hokies’ culture from a young age, but when it came time for her to make her decision as to where she would take her track career next, she chose IU.
Wiles said it was time for a change of scenery and she also felt a connection with IU Coach Ron Helmer, who had spent multiple years coaching at the high school level in Virginia before moving on to the college ranks.
“I love everything about Virginia Tech, but I just had a connection with Coach Helmer and I loved the campus in Bloomington,” Wiles said. “When it comes down to it, it depends on who recruits you better and I just liked IU more.”
No matter which school it was recruiting her, one thing remained the same. Although she had excelled as more of a sprinter in high school, every coach saw her as more of a 600 or 800-meter runner in college, even though she had only ran the 800-meter two times before at Blacksburg.
Helmer said it was a 500-meter time of 1:14 during her junior year that really showed she could take the next step to become a quality middle distance runner.
“For a junior in high school to run that fast, that’s an indication that she could be this kind of 800-meter talent,” Helmer said. “There wasn’t a lot that said she was going to run this fast at this point but the ingredients were there.”
At IU, Wiles got off to a slow start. During her first two years, Helmer eased her into the 800-meter, having her participate mostly in the 400 and the 600.
However, it wasn’t until her junior year when she was able to make her presence felt for the Hoosiers.
Wiles started finding some consistency in the 600-meter during IU’s indoor season. She managed to finish third in the event at the Big Ten Indoor Championships in both 2016-17 and 2017-18, inching her way toward the middle-distance potential so many college coaches had once seen in her.
She said she enjoyed the challenge of getting back to competing with some of the country’s best runners in the process.
“You go through high school and you’re pretty good and everybody respects you,” Wiles said. “Then, you come here and everybody is just as good or better than you are. It’s just kind of cool to be able to try and get back to being as good as I was in high school.”
However, with no 600-meter during outdoor season, she had to quickly shift her focus to the 800. Even though she was the leadoff leg on a 4x800 relay team that broke the IU school record in both 2016-17 and 2017-18, Wiles struggled to find that same success individually. Her junior season ended with a 16th-place finish in the 800-meter at last year’s Big Ten Outdoor Championships.
“I won the first race of the year after I ran a 2:09 and I was excited because I finally got below 2:10,” Wiles said. “I just never really got any better. I didn’t really understand what was going on because my workouts were great but I just never raced well.”
Throughout the next year, Wiles devoted herself to improving during training to take the next step of her career.
She said she can still remember when it finally all started to come together for her at this year’s Florida Relays on March 31. Despite finishing eighth overall, she ran a time of 2:05.44, by far a personal record for her.
Helmer said he thought her sudden jump came from her embracing everything she needed to do to make it to the next level.
“Most of the time, when I have an athlete that takes that kind of a jump that late, I’ll ask them what changed,” Helmer said. “If they’re honest, typically what they say is they just decided to do what we said.”
From there, Wiles never looked back. She consistently ran in the 2:05 range and slowly started to make a name for herself in the Big Ten.
It culminated at this year’s Big Ten Championships in Bloomington. In her first outdoor final of her career, she finished second overall after a final kick on the last lap that put her just ahead of her teammate, junior Kelsey Harris, in a time of 2:05.81.
Harris said she thinks having each other for motivation, not only during the race, but in practice every day, helped them finish strong and show the kind of hard work they had displayed while training.
“Everything we do is for moments just like that,” Harris said. “We try to put ourselves in situations where we’re going to be. Running hard at the end just kind of showed that’s something we’ve been practicing every day.”
With one major step out of the way, Wiles still has another leap she hopes to take.
She was one of 31 Hoosiers to qualify for the NCAA Prelims in Tampa, Florida, from May 24-26. Along with the 4x400-meter relay, she’ll be competing in the 800 alongside Harris and sophomore Joely Pinkston and is seeded 12th overall in the 48-person field.
With only 12 runners advancing to the finals, Helmer said she doesn’t need to worry about seeding and plans to continue doing what she’s been doing this year.
“You don’t have to be seeded that high to think you have a chance,” Helmer said. “You just have to go in knowing you’re ready to take another step forward.”
Wiles said she hopes the faith and honesty of Helmer, which once drew her to IU four years ago, continues to go a long way for her as her time as a Hoosier comes to a close.
As Helmer constantly says, it’s all about taking one step at a time.
“I think he believes in me more than I do sometimes,” Wiles said. “He’ll just tell me I’m going to run 2:05 and he’s right every time. I hope he continues to be right.”
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