British middle-distance runner endured boxing fight-style training camp before inflicting memorable defeat on Jakob Ingebrigtsen in Budapest
Twelve months after Jake Wightman out-kicked Jakob Ingebrigtsen to win in Eugene, fellow flying Scotsman Josh Kerr repeated this remarkable feat by storming past the Norwegian to claim global gold in Budapest. When it comes to world 1500m titles, lightning strikes twice.
Not just any old flash of lightning either, but a bolt out of the blue originating from Edinburgh Athletics Club, where the Scottish duo started life as young middle-distance runners.
Kerr even used similar tactics to Wightman from last year – surging past the Norwegian with 200m to go to get a jump on him. The strategy was so obvious that it was, conversely, somehow gloriously unexpected. Yet all that mattered was that it worked as Kerr charged home in 3:29.38 with Ingebrigtsen clocking 3:29.65 and Norwegian team-mate Narve Nordås finishing strongly to take third in 3:29.68.
Abel Kipsang of Kenya (3:29.89) followed in fourth, then Yared Nuguse of the United States (3:30.25), Mario Garcia of Spain (3:30.26), Cole Hocker of the United States (3:30.70), Reynold Cheruiyot of Kenya (3:30.78), Neil Gourley of Britain (3:31.10) and Niels Laros of the Netherlands (3:31.25).
“I was just trying to fly under the radar, not waste any energy and just throw everything at the final I could,” said Kerr. “I knew I could put a performance together that I’d be proud of and today it was a World Championship.”
Ingebrigtsen was magnanimous in defeat but said he was not at his best due to a sore throat. “All credits to Kerr,” he said. “He had a good race but I feel a little bit unlucky not being able to do what I have been doing the whole season, especially as it is the World Championships final.”
The Norwegian added: “I felt around 88%. If I was 92%, maybe I would have won. But I wasn’t myself today.”
Kipsang had led through 400m in 56.01 with Ingebrigtsen third and Kerr seventh. At 800m, Kipsang was still in pole position in 1:54.19 from Ingebrigtsen with Kerr sixth. Ingebrigtsen soon took over, though, and passed through the bell with Kerr on his shoulder, Nuguse third and teenager Laros running the race of his life in fourth.
With 200m to go, the 25-year-old Kerr moved into the lead but Ingebrigtsen fought back – making Kerr run wide around the bend – and had his nose in front coming into the home straight. Kerr had momentum, though, and the bit between his teeth as he drew away to win convincingly.
“I told my coach that I was going to make smart moves,” he said. “We had a race plan that I executed pretty well. I’ve been in four major championship finals and I’ve come away with only a bronze so I knew it was my turn.
“When you’re the underdog, you go out and take what’s yours – you’re not handed anything. For me, it was just go in there, take what’s mine, and I felt like there was a slight weakness with 200m to go.”
Kerr’s last lap was 52.77 and the only runner to finish faster was Nordås, who came from seventh to third in the last 200m before, amazingly, going off to do a post-race threshold workout. Such was his momentum, Nordås, who is coached by Gjert Ingebrigtsen, also felt he would have taken gold if the race had been 50m longer.
What was going through Kerr’s head in the final furlong? “I can remember all of it,” added Kerr. “It will be engraved on my mind for a very long time. I had flashbacks of all the early, early mornings, all the late nights and all the sacrifices. I don’t live in the same country as my family, I don’t live in the same state as my fiancée. I threw everything I had at that last 50m and I don’t think there was anyone in the world that was going to want that more than me today.”
This race was won earlier than the final 200m, though. Kerr’s athletics adventure began as a prodigious teenage runner. In the UK all-time top 30 rankings for the under-13 boys’ 1500m, for example, not only is Kerr the only runner to make the Olympics but he won a bronze medal in 2021 and now the world title. His story has been a middle-distance masterclass in smart and steady careful progression.
Before the Tokyo Olympics, Kerr became known for confident and borderline cocksure comments where he predicted he would win a global title. After making the podium in Tokyo behind winner Ingebrigtsen and Tim Cheruiyot, he proclaimed his frustration. “I want more,” he vowed.
Despite best intentions he did not have a great winter in 2021-22, however. “An Olympic hangover is difficult to avoid,” he said.
The 2022 season consequently did not go to plan as he finished fifth in the world final in Eugene and 12th and last in the Commonwealth Games final after struggling with illness. What’s more, as a measure of how much work he still had to do, he finished half a minute behind Ingebrigtsen during a rare venture into the 5000m.
Things had to change, but he kept faith with his long-time coaching set up under Danny Mackey and the Brooks Beasts team in the United States, where he has been based for a number of years since joining the University of New Mexico. Kerr may have been born in Britain, but there is an argument to say he has been made in the United States. Certainly, living there has been key to his success story.
Last winter went much better for him. Among other things he grinded through a low-key half-marathon race in 63:45 and won the Millrose Games 3000m in style in 7:33.47. Into the summer he enjoyed a good month of training in St Moritz in Switzerland before dropping down to race in Lausanne, where he finished third over 1500m in 3:29.64 and ninth in Oslo in 3:30.07 – with Ingebrigtsen winning each time – in addition to the UK Champs, where he was fifth in the 800m in 1:46.35.
After this he went to Albuquerque in New Mexico to finish his preparations and had what he describes as some of the best training of his life. “It was like a fight camp,” he says, “with no stone unturned.”
One session he did there was 8x400m (90sec recovery) in 54.8 average with four minutes recovery between the fourth and fifth reps. But he plays down the importance of it, saying: “Everyone can do good workouts but it’s the stuff you do in between that makes the difference. The sleep, the nutrition, those extra one per cents. I knew if I had the right stuff, the right spikes, the right brand, the right mindset then I was going to come out with a result that I would be proud of.”
His fiancé recommended he brought in a nutritionist. “He wrote every single thing that I put in my mouth,” Kerr says. “It’s been a diligent camp and like a fight camp. But it also sucked. I feel I eat healthy but my portion sizes have been a little too big in the past.
“The last couple of months has been some of the best training I’ve ever had. I’ve been on an insane diet which has been unforgiving. I’ve had a chef, mental coaches, early mornings and late nights and this is such an accumulation of hard work and there were no corners cut in that preparation. Here, I just had to be proud of what that came up with because that’s the best that I’ve got.”
His confidence never wavered throughout. “Jakob is a very fast runner but there’s a lot of pressure on him and there’s a big target on his back,” Kerr continued. “I had to believe and I kept thinking ‘it’s my turn, it’s my turn’. I knew I had the basic fundamentals to be a world champion.”
Ingebrigtsen, who had been undefeated all year and who had broke the European 1500m record twice and set a world best for two miles, added: “I tried to give 100 per cent but it is not easy when you are not feeling 100 per cent. I had been on training camp for three, almost four months, with a minimum of social life and contact with the rest of the world but in the warm-up today and in the semi-final I was a little bit dry in my throat.
“It got worse the last two days and then a little bit better when I woke up this morning. Today I was not feeling 100 per cent. It feels very unlucky. I will definitely run 5000m but I do not know how will it go. You need to race to see how will it go.”
There were tongue-in-cheek comments afterwards that Gourley, who is also, remarkably, another Scottish miler, is destined to become the next Brit to win global gold. On a more serious note, though, Gourley is good friends with Kerr and they are sharing a room in the GB hotel in Budapest.
Wightman is also on good terms with them and Kerr revealed: “I don’t have my phone for about two weeks beforehand a race like this. So I was texting Jake a little bit a couple of weeks ago and he obviously said it looks like I’m in great shape and that he’d give advice to me whenever. We’ve known each other for a very long time and I told him it’s our title, it’s Great Britain’s title and I’m looking to keep that in our country.”
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