Michele Tiff-Hill: From Piano Phenom to Olympic Trials Qualifier and Coach

Michele Tiff Hill posing in grassy area with hat and sunglasses

Michele Tiff-Hill, my former coach, was always a legend to me. So when she called to tell me the big news, I was excited. But I wasn’t surprised.

Tiff-Hill is more disciplined than anyone I have ever met, and incredibly accomplished. She was the first Black woman to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials in 1984. She studied piano at exclusive music schools starting as a child, and comes from a family bursting with talent in athletics and music.

As a running coach, she writes meticulously tailored (and effective) workouts for her runners. In fact, her approach altered my own running life, and led me to break every PR that I set as a collegiate athlete.

Tiff-Hill called me to share that she will be inducted into the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame and featured in a documentary about Black women who have broken three hours in the marathon. The film will be released in the spring of 2022.

Editor's note: Beginning in February 2023, watch Breaking Three Hours for free on Tubi, Amazon Prime, and other streaming platforms.

Learn more about the Breaking Three Hours Documentary here.

Photo below by GoatOGRAPHER

Coach Michele Tiff Hill and Kate Schwartz before the Tucson Run and Roll 8K
Michele Tiff-Hill smiles as she runs alone

I first met Tiff-Hill in Tucson, AZ, when I joined her running team, the Grinders, in November of 2013. Tiff-Hill and her husband, Dave, started the group in 2004 and retired from coaching at the start of 2022.

Joining the Grinders took commitment. They met in the dark at 4:30 in the morning, four times per week, to complete challenging speed workouts and long runs within pace groups. Everyone was friendly, welcoming and serious about training.

Ahead of each speed workout on a flat, marked greenway path, Dave Hill put out cones on the quarter mile markers, with lights inside to make them glow: a beacon for each pace group to chase in the darkness.

As Grinders set out for their warm ups and repeats on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and long runs on Sundays, Tiff-Hill always stayed put on the greenway path. She did the same workouts she wrote for the team, but she ran them alone … because she ran in place.

She runs in place because she now has nerve damage in one leg from a 2007 injury that still prevents her from running forward. When I learned this, I asked why she doesn’t take up another sport. “I consider myself a runner,” she says. “ I never wanted to try another sport like cycling. It didn’t interest me.” And so, she runs in place. No music, just her own focused mind, picturing herself in a race.

Razor-Sharp Focus

Tiff-Hill’s razor-sharp focus is akin to a superpower. It didn’t hurt that she grew up in a home brimming with talent, the fourth of five children. Her father, Benjamin Tiff, was a runner who competed alongside Jesse Owens on their high school sprint team. Her sister, Margot, was a tennis star who later played on the professional circuit, and her brother, Milan, held US records in the triple jump and even won the event in the World Cup in 1977. Her mother, a classical singer, performer and accomplished music teacher, drove the kids to their lessons and practices in between her own artistic pursuits.

Music over sports

As a child, Tiff-Hill’s focus wasn’t running. It was music. She started playing and studying piano before she was even five years old. “I read sheet music like kids read books,” Tiff-Hill says. She spent hours practicing and reading music, not because anyone told her to, but because she loved it. Her siblings were the same way with their own talents.

“It was just what we did,” she says. Music, art, sports, everybody had their own thing. They were putting as many hours into their discipline as I was. Our parents encouraged us and let us each choose our own path. We were always doing something, but it was just natural for us. We didn’t think it was anything special.”

By the age of 10, Tiff-Hill was awarded the Arthur Loesser Scholarship to study piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music, among other musical accomplishments. She would go on to earn her Bachelor of Music in piano from Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (1974), and later, her Master of Fine Arts in Harpsichord Studies (1989) and a PhD, Summa cum laude, in Historical Musicology (2001), both from UCLA.

To Tiff-Hill, music was everything. In fact, it would be 19 more years before she even thought about pursuing running.

Young Michele Tiff Hill smiles and pins her number on

Running in Secret

At 29, Tiff-Hill moved from Philadelphia to the warmer climes of California. “After all those years at the piano bench, I had been sitting on my butt,” she says, referring to the six hours of piano practice she focused on each day. “I’ve got athletes in the family. I’m going to start to get some exercise here!”

She decided she would start running at the UCLA track. She didn’t want any pressure from her super-athletic siblings or others, so she ran there at night when no one would see her. Her brother Milan had been a member of the UCLA track and field team. “Because everyone knew my brother Milan, I figured they knew his talent,” she says.

And, you know, all of his triple jumping records.

“I just wanted to come out and try to jog. So, that’s what I did. I came under the cover of night because I’m not Milan,” she says, laughing.

As Tiff-Hill tells it, she was winded after one lap. “I said OK, that’s my start. And I kept on, and said, I’m going to come out tomorrow, and do the same thing. I’m going to write myself a little schedule and try to make progress.” She started with the goal of completing four laps without stopping and continued to progress from there. “It was systematic like I had always approached things,” she says.

Once she could complete a couple of miles, Tiff-Hill studied running just like she studied music. She bought every book she could find on running, nutrition and shoes, and got to work. She decided if she was going to run, she would see just how fast she could be.

Early days of racing

Tiff-Hill’s first race was a 10K. “I ran it in, like, 50-something minutes,” she says. “It was a start.” She kept plugging away, writing her own running schedule, focused on the goal to break 40 minutes. Things developed further once she found her first coach. Or, rather, he found her.

Eino Rompannen approached Tiff-Hill after she won the RoseBowl 10K in Pasadena, CA, and asked if he could coach her. She didn’t know who he was, but as it turned out, he had coached high-level athletes, including Olympic qualifiers. Her goal, at the time, was to break 3 hours in the marathon. Rompannen told her to achieve that goal and then come back and find him.

“I went to the Fiesta Bowl and ran 2:57 or 2:58,” Tiff-Hill says. “I came back and asked what was next.” Rompannen told her to run 100 miles per week for nine weeks, and to keep her effort low, and her heart rate below 120 beats per minute.

“That’s what I did,” she says. “After nine weeks, and 900 miles total, I came back and showed him my diary.” It wasn’t long until they had their sights set on an Olympic Trials qualifying time in the marathon. The trials, which would take place in 1984, posed the first-ever chance for women to compete in the Olympic event.

Michele Tiff-Hill smiles and holds a trophy

Pursuing the Olympic Marathon Qualifier

For the 1984 event, women had to run a time of 2:51:00 or faster in a marathon on a certified course. To get her there, Rompannen and Tiff-Hill focused on taking her 10K time down to 35 minutes, then pursued time goals in the half and full marathon.

Tiff-Hill saw steady progress and felt confident. She not only wanted to qualify for the marathon trials, but she wanted to be the first Black woman to do it.

“I was watching who was running what, especially being African American. I thought, maybe I can be the first. Sure enough, I was.”

At the The Sri Chinmoy Marathon in Foster City, California, Tiff-Hill won the race in 2:50:19, securing her spot on the Trials starting line and in the history books.

Later years

Tiff-Hill didn’t make it to the Olympics, but she would go on to run several sub-three hour marathons. After the marathon trials, she continued to train, but turned her primary focus back to music. She received a full ride to UCLA to pursue her MFA in Harpsichord studies. With a new instrument to learn, she took on a demanding load of classwork. But she didn’t want to stop running, either. She continued to work on lowering her marathon time with the intention to qualify for the 1988 marathon trials.

She narrowly missed the qualifying window in 1987 at the Berlin Marathon while in Europe as a Fellow at the Royal College of Music, and decided not to make another attempt that year. Still, she continued to log fast times in multiple distances, hitting PRs in the half marathon at 1:15:20, 10K of 35:20, and 5K time of 16:19. Master's Track and Field News gave her a No. 1 U.S. ranking in the 35- to 39-year-old age group for the 5K.

Michelle Tiff Hill and Dave Hill

While running a 10K in Belgium in 1993, she met fellow runner, Dave Hill. They married the next year, and Tiff-Hill moved to the UK in 1994. She worked remotely on her PhD with her UCLA doctoral committee while there. The Hills ended up in Tucson, AZ in 2004. They kept running.

By that time, Tiff-Hill was writing out her own training programs and started to write them for her husband, too. They would run early in the mornings, playing a drawn out game of chase, which allowed them to work out together despite running different paces. Eventually, other early morning runners took notice and asked if they could join. By 2004, the Tucson Grinders running team was born.

Tucson Grinders early group photo on outdoor desert path

The Grinders

Despite the attention and specific training plans that Tiff-Hill provided, she never charged her athletes a coaching fee. “Eino Rompannen never charged me for the immense help he offered in helping me make good strides with my running,” she says. In the same spirit, she provided her coaching as a gift to her athletes.

Her coaching was a gift, indeed. She saw potential in her athletes and used her training plans to slowly draw it out. More than that, the team was a community. Early morning runs would end with hangouts at a coffee shop (“It’s a Grind,” originally, hence the team name), and team breakfasts. The Grinders traveled and competed at races together.

Tiff-Hill competed alongside the Grinders and dominated in her age group, until 2007, when irreversible nerve damage in her lower right leg brought her racing days to a halt. The loss was devastating. But she shifted to running in place, taking long walks, and focused on coaching others.

Michele Tiff-Hill cheers for her athlete during a race

The Grinders team developed many runners of varying ability to reach their goals, including several Boston Marathon qualifiers. By the start of 2022, the group had dwindled due to the pandemic, and Tiff-Hill was ready to retire from coaching.

When asked about the highlight of her coaching years, she says, “It was pretty exciting to see people’s potential met over the years. That was good. More importantly, it was the lasting bonds that came out of the whole group. If anything I think I’ll miss that.”

The Grinders running group circa 2014

Personally, Tiff-Hill’s coaching changed my life, and I know that she and her husband Dave were mentors and dear friends to the whole team. When I joined the Grinders, I was six years removed from a mediocre collegiate running career in which I didn’t improve on my high school times. But I missed training with teammates, and I thought I could get faster. Tiff-Hill showed me that I could. In less than two years, her training took my 5K road PR from 18:44 to 16:51. My half marathon time went from 1:29:38 to 1:17:03. Beyond the times, though, she showed me that with enough discipline and persistence, I can accomplish more than I thought possible.

To those pursuing a running goal, Tiff-Hill says there's no time like the present to go after what you want. “Find the resources that you need, find the coaches that fit the bill for you,” she says. “If you don’t do it now, time just passes and you think I could have done that and I didn’t. It’s a wonderful time for women runners, and for African American runners. Long distance running is a wonderful sport. If that’s what you want to do, get in there and start doing it.”

This article was originally published on February 2, 2022, and was updated on January 21, 2023.

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