World Relays

‘You are patriots! Trying to serve your country in a way that a lot of people won’t understand until they finally see the U-S-A on your chest! Then…they will get it.’  

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It was one of the first days of practice in October, and we were huddled inside the shed at Rutgers University during a downpour at the track trying to get warm before our workout. This was the type of day when we needed a speech—something to get us excited and serve as a reminder as to why we are doing this. Nohilly has been known to provide some timely bone-chilling words on occasion. His voice vibrates with sincerity, and the motivation is seeping into us. My goal is simple: represent this country whenever I can, as best as I can. And that is earned on practices like today.

Since the indoor season I have been healthy and clicking off the usual 3.5 workouts a week and following it up with consistently long long-runs. I opened up at the Larry Ellis Invitational at Princeton two weeks ago with a personal best 800 of 1:47.2 and Gags was fired up about it. For where I was at in training, this was an exciting sign for the future. And when Coach Lananna called up the next day and asked what I thought of running a 1200, I spoke confidently about my abilities. But I think Gags had already convinced him.

Before I knew it, there was a suitcase filled with USA gear in my living room and I was celebrating like Christmas morning in April. And just a few days later I was flying to the Bahamas for a chance to compete on the biggest stage of my career. At this point, it is no secret that I am a pretty big track fan. My eyes light up in awe when Sanya Richards-Ross walks into the room. I have flashbacks to my 13-year old self, freaking out in front of the TV as Jeremy Wariner sprints home to gold in Athens. Now we are wearing the same uniform, except they are the ones getting stopped in the hotel to take pictures with fans.

We arrive on Wednesday for the Sunday race. In my head, this meant I had two and a half days to sit on the beach, and get a nice TV tan. Instead, it was nothing but rain and clouds, so we were forced to play the waiting game from underneath the hotel’s bed sheets. Ben, my roommate and our 1600 leg more or less slept for 3 days straight. It was fascinating seeing another athlete’s routine and peeking into his mindset approaching the race. The days leading in, Ben just talked about how he hoped he would at least break 4. So I had to remind him that he had just run 3:35 for 1500m indoors, and how we’d probably need something closer to that if we were going to win. The day before on the track we did a 200 because Ben wanted to find the pace. When we crossed the line in 30.5 and he said, ‘Perfect!’ I started to get a bit nervous. What do you mean perfect? That’s 4:04 pace!

A lot of the athletes who weren’t competing until Sunday opted to stay back and have a quiet night at the hotel. But on Saturday night, I went over to cheer on the squad and to get acquainted with the stadium’s atmosphere. By watching the action live it gives me the opportunity to visualize myself on the track better, and to get comfortable. So when the doors open and we first run out on the track, the crowd’s deafening roars aren’t a shock to the system. I sat in the stands alone, watching quietly. But when the men’s 4 x 800 won in dominating fashion, my heart was jumping. If I needed any extra inspiration, those guys provided plenty of it!

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By Sunday we had been there so long that the anticipation had reached all-time highs, and we were ready to race. We finally knew who our 400 would be and I was excited to have Brycen with us because he had just split 45.xx the night before. The 400 leg is easily the most underappreciated leg in the DMR. If run well, all the other 800 legs have to go out chasing. All it takes is an 800 runner going out 1 second too fast to blow up and change the dynamic of the race.

Vin wanted to meet with me to talk strategy, and I could tell he was a bit nervous. Putting the DMR together required a few more coaching decisions than the 4 x 800. He told me to just keep it close. Run conservatively and just make sure I finished hard the last 50 so Brycen could get moving and do work. Nothing fancy, just stay patient and be there. I could do that.

They were moving us into the call room early, so we warmed up almost 90 minutes prior to the race. That’s a bit more than I was used to, but the one thing I have learned in racing internationally the last couple years is that you have to be willing to adjust your routine. The more open to change the better.

We came out of the tunnel shadowboxing, and I felt good. This was exciting. My head was right where I wanted it. I was wearing my country’s colors and I had confidence in my teammates to get the job done after I got it started. This was the fun part. We train to race.

The race went out, and I couldn’t get over how nice the track was. It just felt fast. Every step generated so much power, and I felt smooth. When I saw us come through 200 in 29, I was shocked. With Kenya in the race, I expected the normally tactical 1200 leg to be more of a time trial. When we came through 600 in 1:30 I was sitting just off the lead on the outside of lane one, and I thought: if we want the record, I’d have to go now. I was fully aware of how fast we needed to run to get the American and World Records. I told Ben the days before that if he sees it’s going to be close that he better dive across the line. And just as I was considering taking the lead, something I don’t ever do, I remembered Vin’s instructions, so I just waited. After 800 in 2:00 the pace dropped a little bit, but nothing drastic. It wasn’t until 200 to go that Gregson of Australia, made a huge move and shot out of a cannon and opened things up. I reacted a split second too late, and got caught in 3rd, but closed well the last 100 to give it just a few steps back for a 2:53 in 2nd.

Brycen took off, and did what he does best—sprint. And after a phenomenal hand off with Brandon we had the lead. Brandon is a former 400 hurdler, and he’s got some wheels. He went out hard, but after 100 meters, Rotich of Kenya absolutely blew by him at a suicidal pace. But Brandon kept his composure like a professional, and despite Rotich’s 47-second first 400, he hung in there and ran smart. He closed hard for a 1:44 split and Ben would get the lead even with Kenya.

In perhaps the most clever and race savvy move I have ever seen, he jumped into lane 2 and hand motioned for Cheruiyot to take the lead. At which point he exploded forward in what would be a 51-second lap. Ben stayed poised, and hung back. He’d have to do this the hard way. I took a quick glance at the clock, and even with the quick first lap, I deemed the record-chase over. But less than 2 minutes later, that all changed. Ben was closing the gap, and doing it quickly. With just over 200 meters to go, he made a strong bid to the lead. After the race we joked that everyone watching was thinking that same thing; he went too early. With 100 to go, Kenya was on his tail and coming back. But in heroic fashion, Ben put his head down and stormed forward and pulled away. He ran through as the fireworks launched at the finish and crossed the line in 9:15.50—The World Record!

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I didn’t know what to do. I jumped. I yelled. I cried. I hugged. We did it. I have never had an influx of emotion in such a dramatic fashion. We huddled together. An unlikely team of four guys, strangers a week before, embraced and tried to make sense of what we had just accomplished. We were draped in flags and sent on a victory lap. If only the track had been a bit longer around so I could have held onto that feeling for another couple minutes.

We climbed onto the podium, and had gold medals placed around our necks as we turned to the right and watched our flag slowly rise as the National Anthem played in the background. I put my head back, with tear-filled eyes and a smile from cheek to cheek. The ups and downs. The workouts in the rain. The time in the weight room. Miles on empty trails. It was all worth it. And while up there, I paused for a moment to remind myself to never forget this feeling–This is why we do it.

(Photo 1&3-Getty Sport, Photo 2-Kirby Lee of Image of Sport via Letsrun)
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Author: kylemerber

Kyle Merber is a professional runner for HOKA One One and the New Jersey*New York Track Club. He has personal bests of 3:34/3:52 but would prefer that not be included in his bio because he believes his writing should be judged independently. He tweets a lot @TheRealMerb.

6 thoughts on “World Relays”

  1. That was an amazing blog. I love it when T&F athletes are mega fans of the sport! Thank You for sharing this short but amazing journey. I look forward to watching your year unfold!

  2. You have a bright future not only because you are a world elite caliber runner already with many years remaining at that level, but because you are a thoughtful and intelligent individual, who thinks and speaks about what it means.

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