By taking a risk on each other, Josh Kerr and coach Danny Mackey formed a bond which was strengthened like never before this year
Isla was not happy. She had been in the middle of a peaceful nap when her father came into the room, scooped her out of bed and brought her in front of the TV. Danny Mackey had good reason for waking his little girl, though.
Josh Kerr, one of the athletes from the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts group he coaches, was competing in the men’s 1500m final at the World Championships and looked like he was about to do something special.
“I’m really, really, really strict with the schedule in terms of sleep so for me to wake her up from a nap means there’s a hurricane coming or an earthquake,” jokes Mackey.
“It got to 500m to go and I saw Josh starting to get ready to wind up. I’m like: ‘Oh, s***. He might do it’. And so I ran into the room and I grabbed Isla. I know she won’t get it [just now] but I just wanted to hold her and watch him win with her.”
And win he did. The story is now well known. One year on from Jake Wightman beating the seemingly immovable object of Jakob Ingebrigtsen to win gold in Oregon, having made his charge for the line with 200m to go, his Edinburgh AC team-mate Kerr did almost exactly the same thing in Budapest. Lightning had struck twice.
“When he started to really press and keep moving up, I was smiling the biggest smile,” adds Mackey. “I think most coaches would be screaming at the TV but I was just like: ‘Come on man, we’ve worked on this. We’ve worked on this so much’. I was very proud of him.”
No one could begrudge the coach that moment of happiness or his desire to share it with his daughter. It provided some much-needed light away from the personal darkness of what has been a “nightmare of a year”.
It was in early March that his fiancée died by suicide, throwing his world into turmoil as he tried to absorb the tragedy and the prospect of raising a then five-month-old on his own. He is still absorbing it now.
“I was running with an old friend three days after everything happened,” he explains. “I hadn’t slept or eaten anything for three days and we were running because that was the one thing I was trying to do to keep my sanity.
“He said to me: ‘What are you going to do about work?’. At first I said: ‘I don’t know’. And then we ran another mile. I thought about Josh at the World Championships and I thought of the level of people he was trying to beat.
“I said: ‘None of those guys [he’s racing] give a s*** about my personal life and I think I can keep it together. He can give me something to focus on that’s not this’.
“I think it was two weeks after everything happened, I had the team over and I just recommitted. I said: ‘If there’s a point where I can’t do it, I’ll let you know, but I just want to push really hard through to Budapest’.”
At these World Championships, it’s wasn’t just the athletes who were given medals. The coaches of those who won gold got one too and at the time of writing Kerr was in the process of planning a presentation ceremony for his mentor, who had remained in US rather than travelling to Budapest to witness his athlete’s moment of glory. Rarely will a handover carry quite so much poignancy.
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“His ability to compartmentalise everything that’s going on in his life and making sure that the athletes are taken care of, I have massive respect for that,” says Kerr. “After everything that he’s been through this year, he’s never wavered from that.
“His prioritising coaching in this horrible situation is the reason I’m a world champion. He knows that. How can I not go out and perform and deliver the goods if I’ve got those people continually sacrificing everything to make sure that I’m ready to go? He did that this year, and it shows what he’s like as a man. He made a promise to me that he would coach me through all of this, and he wouldn’t skip a beat. I couldn’t be more proud to be coached by him.”
The bond between the two is a strong one, but it has been since they first started working together. They took a risk on each other.
Having first seen Kerr at the University of New Mexico, where the Scot had been recruited to out of school, Mackey spotted some early potential.
“During my first encounter with Josh, we didn’t speak,” recalls Mackey. “He was a freshman at the University of New Mexico and we do our two camps there. I was friends with his coach [Joe Franklin].
“I saw that Josh had these rugby genes. His brother is a big dude [Jake is a Scottish international rugby player] and Josh was pretty over running weight, let’s put it that way. But I saw him do a 300m rep and I said to Joe: ‘Who’s that?’ He said: ‘He’s run 3:44 and we got him from Scotland’.
“I said: ‘I don’t know what he just ran but it looked like 40 [seconds]. And he is not in shape.’
“Joe said: ‘No, he’s not. But he’s really good.’ So I started watching him closely and then the next year, he had his breakout season.”
That came in 2017, when Kerr won the NCAA indoor mile and outdoor 1500m titles. At this point Mackey still hadn’t spoken to him but was monitoring his progress.
Another NCAA title followed in 2018 and, aware that other big brands would start circling, the time was right to make an approach.
“When I did speak to him for the first time, he was just down to earth but confident,” says Mackey. “We have a very tight team culture at Brooks and it’s really important to me. It’s not just how good they are, but what type of person they are. I had made a couple of mistakes so I was recruiting very discerningly and I told Brooks: ‘I really want to get this guy’.
“His parents flew out [Josh was racing in Los Angeles] and we talked about developing him and winning an Olympic medal and a World Championship. I really liked them and that’s a big sign. They were the same as him.
“That night, Josh won the race in 3:35 which at the time was an NCAA record. We just kept progressing from there. The whole process took about six months.
“At that time our team was still developing. We had started from scratch as a team in 2013 and even as a 19-year-old he was still faster than anybody on the team. He had to trust me that I could work with somebody at that level. I was very confident in terms of being able to coach him, I just wanted to get somebody that had that ability.”
Mackey had had competition for Kerr’s signature. Nike had made an offer, too, but as the 25-year-old says, he had a lot to consider.
“There are two big things when it comes to trying to make that decision,” explains Kerr. “One is the coach and if I thought they had the ability to bring me to the level I felt like I could get to. Two is the company and if their standards and morals align with what I believe is something I want to attach my name and likeness to. It’s also to be able to have an honest and open relationship with them.
“It was less about the individual athletes on the team, but it was more about what that structure provides and how I could see that relationship flourishing, and there weren’t many other companies that were able to provide what Brooks provided.”
He adds: “There was trust on both sides. They had taken a leap of faith on an athlete that was still young. I had been good in college for a couple of years but there’s a big difference between that and then being a really successful pro.
“But also I’m giving them my prime years as a professional so I’m trusting them that they have the infrastructure to get it right with the big athletes. It was just this mutual respect of: ‘Right, we’re taking a risk on each other so let’s do the work and see what the results look like’.”
When it’s put to him that taking such a considered view is perhaps unusual for a young man, particularly when one of the world’s biggest brands is also courting you, Kerr’s response further highlights how aligned he and Mackey are.
“I’m not able to be bought for a pair of shoes, you see,” he says. “Me and Danny talk about not getting distracted by the shiny objects – and those might be the big appearance fees or the fun races where you want to take on your competitors whenever those opportunities arise. But you have to walk that path of we’re trying to get ready for a specific day. And so if that doesn’t fit in the plan then we don’t do it, regardless of what comes with that.
“We’re not going to be distracted by what people think is the right way. We’re going to run it the way
that we think is right and we’ll see who’s coming out on top at the end.”
Each man has more than delivered on their part of the bargain they made five years ago. Mackey is effusive in his praise of an athlete he views like his captain, his link man, with the group. Kerr, he says, goes above and beyond.
“His expectation in himself is world class,” says Mackey. “He’s very open with that and he expects that from the team. He wants to be on the best team in the world so he gets as frustrated as I do if things don’t match that.”
Kerr agrees. “I’m rather opinionated on training and work outside of training and living that athlete lifestyle, so wherever something isn’t aligning with what I think our group values are I’ll definitely voice those views,” he says. “But I’m also a sounding board for any ideas that anyone wants to bounce off me.”
According to the head coach, though, even though there is a star athlete with global medals to his name in the group it is not always easy to tell.
“He’s also a really good team-mate,” says Mackey. “If I asked the group to shovel stuff off the track he would be one of the first ones to do it.
“I used to coach [2013 800m World silver medallist] Nick Symmonds and he had that kind of aura in terms of he was the medallist and had won a lot of titles. You knew he was the big dog. With Josh, you’d have to watch an entire practice to see it.
“And that would be because you’d see that he was the first guy here today. He was the guy asking a couple of specific questions about the session.
“He was the one that checked in with me afterwards, he was the one that was cheering on a team-mate. He was the one that was asking his team-mates how did the workout go? You’d just realise he was doing all of these things.
“From there, you’d figure out he was the big dog, but it would have to be a hard workout where you’d have to let him kind of show off a bit. But otherwise you wouldn’t see it. He’d just be one of the people on the team.”
A lot of coaches, across the sporting spectrum, will tell you one of the main qualities they will look for in an athlete is for them to be coachable. Kerr certainly fits that description but it doesn’t necessarily make for an easy life for Mackey.
“He’s scary to coach because he puts so much trust in me that, if he doesn’t do well, the finger starts to turn round to pointing at me. I have friends that are coaches that come to practice and watch us interact. They’re like: ‘This has got to be a dream because you want somebody who is so coachable’.
“But it’s like having the keys to the Ferrari. If you told him to run backwards off a mountain, he’d do it. If you gave him a scientific reason why running off a mountain would work, then Josh would do it.
“It’s definitely a humbling, scary thing with him but he does make me better, because I know that he will do everything and it’s fun for me to work with somebody that will do that.
“He’ll have full buy in and that makes me really think through things a lot very thoroughly, because
all of a sudden the variables that we use are very precise because he’ll do the little things. I love working with him.”
The feeling is mutual. “Danny’s very descriptive in the way he coaches so it’s very easy to trust him because he trusts himself in the way that he trains his athletes,” says Kerr. “I don’t personally know a coach who is able to peak his athletes as well as he does. We had a fantastic World Championships and we’ve just been developing year on year with some great athletes and we’re finding more and more success.”
Part of the recipe for that success in Budapest involved some brutal preparation at altitude in Albuquerque where Kerr was “making sure that I was doing very difficult things on a daily basis”. There’s a reason why he refers to it as fight camp.
“I just challenged myself a lot so that mentally I was ready and resilient enough to take on whatever challenges came my way when it came to the World Champs,” he says.
“Planning out that month was a lot of fun. When you get into it the first week it is really entertaining, where you’re trying everything for the first time, but then the grind of having to do it over and over and over again was definitely where we found progress.”
Kerr left no stone unturned. From the physical training to his nutrition and psychological approach, he was fully immersed in the process to such an extent that his coach felt the need to do likewise.
“I felt so bad,” says Mackey. “Josh was so dialled in and I know how hard the sport is. When I got to Albuquerque, it was like fight camp for me [too]. I ran every day and trained jujitsu. I got on a diet and didn’t drink at all, just because I wanted to give him some solidarity.
“I like that mentality. I’m big into the fighting world and I think a lot of what middle-distance runners and sprinters deal with is very similar psychologically to fighters. It’s really, really intense.”
Mackey sees the fighter in Kerr, too. “Josh watches a lot of film [of his opponents], and pays attention to a lot. There’s a fighter that I really like called Alexander Volkanovski. What he’s really good at is that when you get to the second round he’s got you figured out and he has that because he has spent a lot of time watching his opponents. I’d put Josh in that camp. He’s definitely a student of the sport.”
All of that preparation meant that, when it came time to perform in Budapest, Kerr was ready for anything.
“There are challenges that pop up in any major championships and obviously it’s a very stressful situation to be in but, getting through the rounds, I’ve never felt more relaxed and then I’ve never felt more at ease with where I was in terms of fitness and mindset coming into the final,” he says. “I’d done harder things than run for three-and-a-half minutes, so it was much easier to approach it with the right mindset.”
The final wasn’t perfect and Mackey can vividly recall seeing Kerr getting himself “into a bad spot”.
“But we had talked about what to do to work out of it and he executed that really well. And also going with 200m to go is not the smartest thing in the world but if you’re willing to risk second and third for first, that’s when you want to go after him [Ingebrigsten]. You have to be a risk taker and Josh definitely is. He’s not scared of losing.”
For a moment in that charge for the line, it looked like the Norwegian might just have enough to hold off his opponent. Kerr was not to be denied, though, and channelled everything into those closing metres.
He says: “You call on the sacrifices, you call on the hard experiences and knowing that yes, they might be painful at the time, but you’re willing to make that sacrifice for the glory that comes afterwards.”
» This article first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here
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