October 28, 2020

Running Past an Olympic Dream

On an overcast morning in late March, a few days after the International Olympic Committee announced it was postponing the 2020 Tokyo Games because of the coronavirus pandemic, Kyle Merber made the short drive from his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., to the Dutchess Rail Trail, one of his favorite running routes.

Merber knew from the start, though, that this run would be different.

Since graduating from Columbia University in 2012, Merber had been chasing the singular goal of qualifying for the Olympics in the 1,500 meters. Now, as he wrestled with questions about whether he had the psychological stamina and financial resources to continue training full time for another year — perhaps, he thought, it was time to retire — he slipped on his sneakers.

His plan was to cover 20 miles, which would make it his longest training run ever. He knew it seemed strange that he was increasing his workload when he had no real reason to increase his workload.

“I think part of it’s therapy right now,” he said. “It’s what distance runners do: We run.”

Merber, 29, was accompanied by his wife, Patricia Barry, who pedaled her bicycle through a cold drizzle as she filmed him for a video that his team later posted on YouTube. After he breezed through his opening mile, his pace quickened and he began to reflect.

“For the health of the world, it’s obviously the necessary move,” he said of the postponement. “But that doesn’t mean it hurts any less.”

Still, his mood brightened over the course of the morning. The run, which he would later describe as one of the best of his life, pushed him past 100 miles for the week — an arbitrary figure, but an achievement when so much else had gone wrong.

In the three months since, Merber’s mind-set about his career as a runner has continued to evolve in ways he never could have anticipated.

For so long, Merber had tied his identity to the Olympics and to the 1,500 meters: The Olympics were his dream, and the 1,500 meters was his race. But in the wake of the Olympic postponement, Merber has learned to let go of those twin obsessions.

He now wants to focus on the 5,000 or 10,000 meters, distances better suited to his strengths, and see where that road leads. And while he would still like to give the Olympics, rescheduled for next summer, one last shot, his goal of competing in Tokyo is no longer all consuming.

ImageBefore the pandemic hit, Kyle Merber spent several weeks in Arizona to train for the Olympics. 
Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

More than anything, the lockdown, in an odd and unexpected way, has led him to rediscover the joy of running — a shift that he revealed in a series of interviews since the start of the year.

“I decided to do something really new,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is I got excited to train again. Maybe what I’d been doing for so long had gotten stale.”

Merber, who has personal bests of 3 minutes 52.22 seconds for the mile and 3:34.54 for the 1,500 meters, has the sort of shrink-wrapped 6-foot, 142-pound frame that seems engineered for elite cardiovascular performance. His hamstrings have hamstrings. He is about 92 percent limbs.

#styln-briefing-block { font-family: nyt-franklin,helvetica,arial,sans-serif; background-color: #F3F3F3; padding: 20px; margin: 37px auto; border-radius: 5px; color: #121212; box-sizing: border-box; width: calc(100% – 40px); } #styln-briefing-block a { color: #121212; } #styln-briefing-block a.briefing-block-link { color: #121212; border-bottom: 1px solid #cccccc; font-size: 0.9375rem; line-height: 1.375rem; } #styln-briefing-block a.briefing-block-link:hover { border-bottom: none; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-bullet::before { content: ‘•’; margin-right: 7px; color: #333; font-size: 12px; margin-left: -13px; top: -2px; position: relative; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-bullet:not(:last-child) { margin-bottom: 0.75em; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header-section { margin-bottom: 16px; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header { font-weight: 700; font-size: 16px; line-height: 20px; display: inline-block; margin-right: 6px; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header a { text-decoration: none; color: #333; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-footer { font-size: 14px; margin-top: 1.25em; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-briefinglinks { padding-top: 1em; margin-top: 1.75em; border-top: 1px solid #E2E2E3; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-briefinglinks a { font-weight: bold; margin-right: 6px; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-footer a { border-bottom: 1px solid #ccc; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-footer a:hover { border-bottom: 1px solid transparent; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header { border-bottom: none; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-lb-items { display: grid; grid-template-columns: auto 1fr; grid-column-gap: 20px; grid-row-gap: 15px; line-height: 1.2; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-update-time a { color: #999; font-size: 12px; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-update-time.active a { color: #D0021B; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-footer-meta { display: flex; justify-content: space-between; align-items: center; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-ts { color: #D0021B; font-size: 11px; display: inline-block; } @media only screen and (min-width: 600px) { #styln-briefing-block { padding: 30px; width: calc(100% – 40px); max-width: 600px; } #styln-briefing-block a.briefing-block-link { font-size: 1.0625rem; line-height: 1.5rem; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-bullet::before { content: ‘•’; margin-right: 10px; color: #333; font-size: 12px; margin-left: -15px; top: -2px; position: relative; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-header { font-size: 17px; } #styln-briefing-block .briefing-block-update-time a { font-size: 13px; } } @media only screen and (min-width: 1024px) { #styln-briefing-block { width: 100%; } }

Updated 2020-07-11T09:58:27.168Z

He feels fortunate that he gets to run for a living — “It’s a great way to spend your 20s,” he said — and his sponsors, namely the shoe brand Hoka One One, pay him enough to travel, race and eat. He will always run, he said, even after he retires from the sport, but his outgoing approach in recent years has made him uniquely popular among runners.

“Kyle’s been such a catalyst for creating these communities within the professional running world,” said Sam Parsons, who runs for the Colorado-based Tinman Elite club.

In nonpandemic times, Merber organizes an annual race, the Hoka One One Long Island Mile, that brings together many of his high-level runner pals. And in a sport that faces the perennial challenge of broadening its audience, Merber is one of its resident oversharers, especially on social media.

There he is on Instagram (@kylemerber), curled up in the fetal position in the trunk of his car after a brutal workout. There he is on Twitter (@TheRealMerb), celebrating his friend Johnny Gregorek’s recent world record for the fastest mile in a pair of bluejeans.

Merber is known for his charmingly self-effacing observations on training: “The fact that I hated every second of that workout must mean it’ll help me get better at running.” And, more recently, for his views on lockdown life: “Just got in trouble again for making bacon while my wife is on a work call.”

Humor might be a coping mechanism. The 1,500 meters, in particular, requires an unholy blend of strength, speed and stamina, and Merber is transparent about his setbacks, about dabbling with self-doubt, about the time he shelled out $15,000 for sports hernia surgery and thought his career was finished.

“If you take five months off and can’t run a lap without being in pain, you kind of think that might be it,” he said.

He has endured an exhaustive cycle of highs and lows. He won the boys’ high school mile at the prestigious Millrose Games as a senior at Half Hollow Hills West High School on Long Island, then set an Ivy League record for the indoor mile as a sophomore at Columbia. But after stepping on a shard of glass the following summer, he wound up missing his junior year.

He bounced back as a senior to run the 1,500 meters in 3:35.59, an American collegiate record. When he failed to advance out of his preliminary heat at the 2012 United States Olympic trials that summer, he figured he would have more opportunities.

But the hard truth is that every race ought to be savored. Two months before the 2016 Olympic trials, Merber sustained a stress reaction in his lower back. He wound up finishing ninth, missing the cut again.

Credit…Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The race was such a profound disappointment that Merber avoided watching a replay of it until earlier this year.

“It sucked because I was even further out of the race than I remembered,” he said. “It’s tough watching yourself be human.”

In 2018, after struggling with groin pain for months, he underwent bilateral core muscle surgery to repair a sports hernia, paying out of pocket for the procedure.

“I legitimately thought that was the end,” he said.

He went so long without competing that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency dropped him from the pool of athletes it was testing regularly.

“That hurts,” Merber said. “Like, ‘You’re not at all suspicious anymore?’”

The small miracle was that Merber was rounding back into shape last year, then reinjured his lower back. “Overdid it,” he said.

Before the coronavirus completely gripped the globe and forced the Olympic postponement, Merber traveled to Arizona in January for a six-week training camp. He had no margin for error.

“I desperately need to be healthy,” he said at the time.

He was pain free and building his mileage on runs with Olympic medalists like Matthew Centrowitz, Nick Willis and Emma Coburn. One morning, he compared training logs with Drew Hunter, regarded as a prodigy in running circles. Hunter, 22, mentioned his long-term goals — which included the Olympics in 2024 and 2028. In that moment, Merber felt old.

“You’re such a little kid,” Merber told him. “It’s so crazy.”

Yet even as he went about restoring his confidence, Merber tossed and turned whenever his late-night thoughts drifted to the Olympic trials. His anxiety was rooted in urgency. He knew he had to realign his priorities after Tokyo, as his sponsorships were set to expire at the end of the year. Besides, he hoped to move forward with his life: a family, a job that entailed doing something other than 600-meter repeats, a shift toward full-fledged adulthood.

Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

“I see two scenarios,” he said one morning in February. “In the first scenario, I see myself making the Olympic team and achieving my childhood dream. In the other scenario, I don’t make the team but at least I can say I gave it three good tries, and I’ll be able to walk away without any regrets, knowing I did it the right way.”

That fragile calculus came apart after Merber returned to New York. In the aftermath of the Olympic postponement, he wondered whether he had already raced for the final time as a pro. The world was in crisis — “My problems just don’t seem that bad,” Merber said — but he still felt lost. Tom Nohilly and Frank Gagliano, his longtime coaches, could sense it.

“This was his big final push to make the Olympic team and prove that he could do it,” Nohilly said. “When that gets taken away, it’s a shock.”

In April, Merber seemed to flip-flop over his future by the day. Did he want to stick with the 1,500 meters? Or was it time to ditch running altogether?

Part of the problem was that he lacked a clear vision of what he would do instead. For nearly eight years, Merber — armed with a philosophy degree from Columbia, marketing experience for his sponsors and a license to sell life insurance — had put his “real life” on hold for the sake of his Olympic quest.

“My résumé,” he said, “is weird.”

Nohilly saw an opportunity for Merber to recalibrate. Since his hernia surgery, Merber had been struggling to generate the sort of top-end speed that the 1,500 meters demands. The all-out sprints the race required were also what made him feel most prone to reinjury.

In the back of his mind, Merber had known for a while that moving to longer races would probably be a better fit at this stage of his career. (It is one of the sport’s oddities that, for some runners, longer races can actually be more physically forgiving than shorter ones.) He had just been hesitant to take the plunge.

Credit…Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for IAAF

“I never felt like I necessarily had enough time to learn a new event or really get the mileage I needed,” Merber said.

Now, because of the pandemic, he had a wide window to experiment, and Nohilly encouraged him to take advantage: more miles, less all-out speed. From the start, Merber felt liberated. He was running for the fun of it. He could focus squarely on self-improvement.

He also began to re-evaluate his preoccupation with the Olympics: He, like so many others, had fallen into the notion that track and field truly matters only once every four years. Why was he limiting himself?

“There are so many other great things in the sport that we don’t highlight,” he said.

After bumping his weekly mileage from about 75 to more than 100, Merber gauged his progress in May with a 10-mile tempo run. He set a blistering pace, finishing in about 49 minutes. “I could kick my pre-quarantine ass,” he said.

It helped solidify his belief that he was on the right path — a new path, but the right one — and his coaches think he could eventually graduate to the marathon.

“He’s just getting stronger,” Nohilly said, “and he’s enjoying the whole process.”

Over the past four months, Merber has run more than 1,500 miles — almost all of them alone on the quiet roads and trails near his home in Hastings-on-Hudson. In a rare exception, he recently retreated to rural Vermont to train with a couple of friends. It was a nice change of pace, Merber said. He had missed the camaraderie.

But even now, after having increased his mileage and reconsidered his priorities, he feels conflicted. He will be grinding through a track workout, he said, and his mind will wander to a LinkedIn message he had sent about a job opening. It is sometimes difficult to concentrate. He is torn between his past and his future.

“I’ll always be competing, but maybe it doesn’t need to be a full-time gig anymore,” he said, adding: “Now that I’m older, I just have a craving to explore more, to do things outside of running. I want to develop my full person.”

At the same time, he cannot help but daydream about his next race, most likely in the 5,000 meters, at a time and place to be determined, and the familiar feelings — anticipation, excitement, pressure — come flooding back.

A poor performance, he said, would be upsetting. But he also worries that an excellent result would steer him back to wanting more of the life that he is trying to leave behind.

So, he reminds himself of lessons learned: that he runs for the love of it, that there is room for gray — for balance — in a sport so often defined by hard-edged numbers. He only needed some time and distance to understand.